Succeeding vs. Failing; Winning vs. Losing

I have had a strong interest in the question of who succeeds and who fails. As an educator, the subject interests me to no end. As a martial artist and a master of the art, I have wondered the same thing.

I’ll pose my question like this: if you have a group of, say, fifty people who aim to become students in graduate programs while in their late 20s, 30s, and 40s and they all have demonstrated high levels of intelligence, why is it that a few succeed and many fail? Statistics on graduation rates in doctorate programs suggest 50% do not finish. That’s after they spend thousands of dollars and years of work.

The question intrigues me. Likewise, I am intrigued by authors who spend years working on writing projects and either leave them or hide their work in a drawer.

I found in one of my management classes in graduate school that the fifty students in my example often have the same goals. The people who don’t finish often stop when they face the most trivial of barriers. Those who finish often stay with insurmountable barriers.

Over the years, I have watched academic students and martial arts students come and go. I always see a large number of students in the fall, then the numbers dwindle in the ensuing months. No one ever starts a year of college or signs up for martial arts with a strategy of throwing away their time and money. So, what gives?

Likewise, among writers, I see those who struggle to get started, work on the same book for years with sketchy progress. They remind me of Sysyphus, the Greek King of Ephyra who was punished for deceitfulness by being compelled to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever. They work and organize, struggle and fight, and lose sight of the top, then tumble back to the beginning.

What about the ones who succeed. I think they are different in several ways. First, their inspiration comes from within. They have decided for themselves what they want to learn to succeed, and teachers, administrators, parents, and other authority figures have minimal impact on them in their focus on goals.

Let me share an example. I had a student I will call Sim. He began school with little purpose. He had no academic plans, no direction, and perhaps more importantly, no degree major. One day as he was attending class, he woke up for a few moments and listened to a professor and another student in dialogue. He had never thought about succeeding as a student as a personal goal, he just drifted along. As he listened, he decided that if he didn’t set some direction for himself, he was going to flunk out or drop out of college. He decided then to pursue a degree in business leadership.

Sim, father, by the way, was a Mexican farmer, as were his grandparents. No one in his family had ever had a degree in anything. I followed him after he finished his degree. Within months, he had been promoted, and months later, he was placed on a management track.

The difference between Sim and other students was that his direction was guided, not by external influences, but from within.

I think the same pertains with writers. If you are writing for yourself, you will succeed, in a sense because you can’t fail. If you are writing to please someone else, you can never succeed.