‘Success is the easiest thing…’

Success is the easiest thing, also unaccountably boring, while failure is the hardest one, seeing as it is filled with struggle and doubt and a sense of what is dire. With earnestness, actually. Since moving to New York, I have met many successful people and yawned. They are ‘stressed out’ or not, ‘totally overwhelmed,’ ‘slammed at work,’ and soon yawning comes over me. Have they ever taken a risk? No, they have played it safe: married well, worked too long in finance, these days preoccupied with getting more house or more child for less… They are like children who have grown up without the good fortune of becoming adults.

This morning I mused some on those I admire, which is to say on their predilection for risk, and wondered whether taking a risk would have to be a necessary condition for a life to count as possibly mattering. This seems right, though I would like to put it more beautifully someday. Still. What is it about playing it safe that fails to move? (Is playing it safe the same as not living earnestly?) That fails to evoke my compassion or quicken my imagination? That fobs off the project of character education?

Too much success is anathema to thought. That is to say, to philosophical thinking about one’s life. I have been toying or flirting or sticking with the expression–“having skin in the game”–rolling it around on my tongue without much luck, not having gotten much further than to think that most who play it safe do not know what it means to have skin in the game and, not having skin in the game, are not awakened to living. Hence are passive nihilists. If I were Rochefoucauld or Wilde, I might quip that being successful is the gravest, most grievous sin, for it fails to incite our tears or praise. But making fun–a child’s game–won’t do anyone any good. Thankfully, I am not either man anymore.

The latest version of my short public bio

It’s not a bad time to think amid the unsettled restlessness. After a plane from New York deposited me somewhere in the South. As the grass lies yellow and the moors I don’t see but imagine settle in. Might not be a bad time, then, to return to where we’ve begun, to add a few more daubs of paint.

“What now? Where to?”

Allow me to clarify. For a couple of years, I’ve been working through a life-puzzle: how to write a short public biography that “unhands” me from earlier forms of legitimacy and that “transvalues” my conception of a successful life. Last summer, I put the puzzle this way:

Are all public bios, those one to two paragraph haikus, true but misleading?

Before offering my latest version, I want to give some reasons for thinking that rewriting our public bios may be vital today.

A Short List of Criteria for What Counts as a Good Public Bio

1. The virtues should receive top billing. Spotlight on accuracy, honesty, truth-telling; on courage, resilience, and judgment, and the rest.

2. Modern forms of legitimacy should be ‘unhanded.’ No appeal, then, to institutional affiliation, social distinction, number and kind of degrees, prestige, ‘expertise,’ who’s who, etc.

3. We should laud a dignified person. Not, therefore, someone who confesses in public, not the person who is caught in a tabloid, not the individual who presents an overly professionalized brief.

4. We must transvalue our conception of success. From public reputation, social recognition, public accolades, happiness as feeling good just now to a radiant vision of a well-led life.

The Latest Version of my Public Bio

I’m a philosopher at home in New York. I wasn’t always at home. I was raised in a family of gentle virtues but modest concerns, I almost married a woman who was beautiful and strong but sad, and I abandoned an academic career just before it began. When I ask myself whether I’ve learned to love what’s gone without wishing for its return, I can now say yes: yes without reservation. In my present life, I seek to lead, and to help others lead, a virtuous, radiant existence. We set out together to make life work. For us, life is sweet.


On Dec. 21, NYT Philosophers’ Stone included a link to one of my short essays, “Public Philosophy and Our Spiritual Predicament.” If you’d like, have a look.