Social Process

Chapter 9: The Theory of Success

Charles Horton Cooley

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THE question of success is a sociological question, in one phase at least, because it concerns the relation of the individual to the group, of the personal process to that of society at large. It should be somewhat illuminating to regard it from this point of view.

What is success? To answer this rightly we must unite the idea of personal self-realization with a just conception of the relation of this to the larger human life. Perhaps we shall not be far wrong if we say that success is self-development in social service. It must be the former, certainly, and if it is true that the higher forms of the personal life are found only in social function, it must be the latter also.

This view well stands the test of ordinary experience. It is self-development in social service that most surely gives the feeling of success, the fullest consciousness of personal existence and efficacy. No matter what a man's external fortunes may be, how slender his purse or how humble his position, if he feels that he is living his real life, playing his full part in the general movement of the human spirit, he will be conscious of success. The martyrs who died rejoicing at the stake had this consciousness, and so, at the present time, may soldiers have it who perish in battle, and thousands of others, whose work, if not so perilous, offers no prospect of material reward

(89) —missionaries, social agitators, investigators, and artists. It is not confined to any exceptional class but is found throughout humanity. If a man is working zealously at a task worthy in itself and not unsuited to his capacity, he has commonly the feeling of success.

Success of this sort meets another common-sense test in that it usually gives the maximum influence over others of which one is capable. People do not influence us in proportion to their external power, but in proportion to what we feel to be their intrinsic significance for life; their ideals, their fidelity to them, their love, courage, and hope. And one who gives himself heartily to the highest service he feels competent to, will attain his maximum significance.

Success, then, is a matter of effective participation in the social process; and to get a clearer idea of it we may well consider further what the latter calls for. The organization of society has two main aspects, that of unity and that of differentiation, the aspect of specialized functions and the aspect of a total life for which these functions, co-operate. The life of the individual, if it is to be one with that of society, must share in these aspects, must have a specialized development and at the same time a unifying wholeness. He must he able, by endowment and training, to do well some one kind of service, as carpentry, let us say, or farming, or banking; and must also have a breadth of personality which participates largely in the general life and makes him a good citizen. The social process is like a play in that no actor can do his own part well except as he enters into the spirit of the whole: he must be a true member, the organization needs to be alive in every part. A nation is a poor thing unless the

( 90) citizen is a patriot, entering intelligently into its spirit and aims, and the principle applies in various manners and degrees to a community, a shop, a school-any whole in which one may share.

If one thinks of the human process at large, with its onward striving, its experimentation, its conflicts and cooperations, its need for foresight and for unity of spirit; and then asks what kind of an individual it takes to do his full part in such a process, he will be on the track of the secret of personal success. It calls for energy and initiative, because these are the springs of the process; self-reliance and tenacity, because these are required to discover and develop one's special function; sympathy and adaptability, because they enable one to work his function in with the movement as a whole. And intelligence is needed everywhere, in order that his mind may reflect and anticipate the process, and so share effectively in it.

Whatever we are trying to do, we need a sound imagination and judgment, and lack of these enters into nearly all cases of inefficacy and failure. If a machinist, let us understands as a whole the piece of work upon which he is engaged, he can do his part intelligently, adaptively, and with a sense of power; and in so far is a successful man. He serves well and develops himself. If, beyond this, he has the mind to grasp as a whole the work of some department of the shop, so as to see how it ought to go, if he has also the understanding of men, based on imagination, which enables him to select and guide them; he is fit to become a foreman. Similar powers of a larger range make a competent superintendent. And so with social functions in general, large or small. A good Presi-

( 91) -dent of the United States is, first of all, one who has the constructive social imagination to grasp, in its main features, the real situation of the country, the vital problems, the significant ideas and men, the deep currents of sentiment. Without this there can he no real leader of the people. Likewise each of us has an ever-changing social situation to deal with, and will succeed as he can understand and co-operate with it.

A good administrative mind is a place where the organization of the world goes on. It is the centre of the social process, where choices are made and men and things assigned to their functions.

I have found it a main difference among men, and one not easy to discern until you have observed them for some time, that some have a constructive mind and some have not. One whom I think of has a remarkably keen and independent intellect, and is not at all lacking in ambition and self-assertion. Those who know him well have expected that he would do remarkable things, and the only reason why he has not, that I can see, is that his ideas do not seem to undergo the unconscious gestation and organization required to make them work. There is something obscurely sterile about him. On the other hand, I have known a good many young men, not particularly promising, who have gradually forged ahead just because their conceptions, though not brilliant, seemed to have a certain native power of growth, like that of a sound grain of corn. All life is an inscrutable and mainly unconscious growth, and it is thus with that share of it that belongs to each of us.

Among the more aggressive traits that enter into success 1 might specify courage, initiative, resolution, faith,

( 92) and composure. These are required in undertaking and carrying through the hazardous enterprises of which every significant life must consist.

Success will always depend much upon that explorative energy which brings one into practical knowledge and into contact with opportunity. The man of courage and initiative is ever learning things about life that the passive man never finds out. He learns, for example, that it is almost as easy to do things on a great scale as on a small one, that there are usually fewer competitors for big positions than little ones, that few tasks are very difficult after you have broken your way into them, that bold and resolute spirits rule the world without unusual intellect, and that the ablest men commonly depend upon the quality rather than the quantity of their exertions. Practical wisdom of this sort is gained mainly by audacious experimentation.

In general, life is an exploring expedition, a struggle through the wilderness, in which each of us, if he is to get anywhere, needs the qualities of Columbus or Henry M. Stanley. He must make bold and shrewd plans, he must throw himself confidently into the execution of them, he must hang on doggedly in times of discouragement, and yet he must learn by failure. We need all the opportunity that society can give us, but it will do us little good without our own personal force, intelligence, and persistence.

In our Anglo-Saxon tradition doggedness is a kind of institution. There is a tacit understanding that the right thing to do is to undertake something difficult and venturesome, and then to hang on to it, with or without encouragement, until the last breath of power is spent. "So long as I live," said Stanley, about to start on one of

( 93) his journeys across Africa, "something will be done; and if I live long enough all will be done."

Traits like courage and initiative begin in a certain overflow of energy, but they easily become habitual, like everything else. If in one or two instances you overcome the inertia and apprehension that keeps men stuck in their tracks, and discover that God helps those who help themselves, you soon learn to continue on the same principle. Boldness is as easy as timidity, indeed much easier, as it is easier for an army to attack, than successfully to retreat. The militant attitude gives a habitual advantage.

The higher kind of self-reliance is the same as faith; faith in one's intuitions, in life and the general trend of things, in God. I am impressed by observation with the fact that success depends much upon a living belief that the world does move, with or without our help, and that the one thing for us to do is to move with it and, if possible, help it on. If one has this belief it is easy and exhilarating to go ahead with the procession, while dull and timid spirits think that life is stationary and that there is no use trying to make it budge.

In 1856 Lincoln, who was endeavoring to arouse sentiment against the extension of slavery, called a mass meeting at Springfield, Illinois, to further his views; but only three persons attended, himself, his partner Herndon, and one John Pain. When it was evident that no more were coming, Lincoln arose and after some jocose remarks on the size of his audience, went on to say: "While all seems dead, the age itself is not. It liveth as sure as our Maker liveth. Under all this seeming want of life the world does move, nevertheless. Be hopeful, and now let us adjourn and appeal to the people."[1]

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Life is constantly developing and carrying us on in its growth. We do not need to impel it so much as we sometimes think. A main thing for us is to hang on to our higher hopes and standards and have faith that the larger life will supply our deficiencies. God is a builder; to be something we must build with him; understanding the plan if we can, but building in any case.

Composure is partly a natural gift, but partly also an acquired habit, enabling a man to exert himself to his full capacity without worry and waste; to sleep soundly by night after doing his utmost by day, like the Duke of Wellington, who declared, "I don't like lying awake; it does no good, I make it a point never to lie awake," and who, if I remember correctly, took a nap while waiting for the battle of Waterloo to begin. The commanding positions of life are held by men of fighting capacity, and this demands the ability to bear hard knocks, reverses and uncertainty without too much disturbance. Richelieu said that if a man had not more lead than quicksilver in his composition he was of no use to the state.

There is a certain antagonism between composure and imagination, both of which are prime factors in success. The latter tends to make one sensitive and apprehensive, while the former requires that he take things easily and cast out worry. The ideal would be to have a sensitive imagination which could be turned off or on at will; but this is hardly possible, though discipline and habit will do wonders in toughening the spirit.

"For well the soul if stout within
Can arm impregnably the skin,"

we are assured by Emerson; but in fact there are many who cannot learn to endure with equanimity the rough-

(95) -and-tumble of ordinary competition, and need, if possible, to seclude themselves from it. This was apparently the case with Darwin-who fell far short of Wellington's standard as to lying awake-and with a large part of the men who have done creative work of a finer sort. Indeed such work, if pursued incontinently, involves a mental and nervous strain and a morbid sensibility which has brought many choice spirits to ruin.

The self-reliant and pathmaking traits are more and more necessary as society increases in freedom and complexity, because this increase means an enlargement of the field of choice and exploration within which the individual has to find his way. Instead of restricting individuality, as many imagine, civilization, so far as it is a free civilization, works quite the other way. We may apply to the modern citizen a good part of what Bernhardi says of the individual soldier in modern war: " Almost all the time he is in action he is left to himself. He himself must estimate the distances, he himself must judge the ground and use it, select his target and adjust his sights; he must know whither to advance; what point in the enemy's position he is to reach; with unswerving determination he himself must strive to get there."[2]

The sympathetic traits supplement the more aggressive by enabling one to move easily among his fellows and gain their co-operation. Modern conditions are more and more requiring that every man be a man of the world; because they demand that be make himself at home in an ever-enlarging social organism,

I suppose that if one were coaching a young man for success, no counsel would be more useful than this: "Ap-

(96) -proach every man in a friendly and cheerful spirit, trying to understand his point of view. Such a spirit is contagious, and if you have it people will commonly meet you in the same vein. Do not forget your own aims, but cultivate a belief that others are disposed to do them justice." We are too apt to waste energy in apprehensive and resentful imaginations, which tend to create what they depict. It is notable that the principle of Christian conduct, namely, that of imagining yourself in the other person's place, is also a principle of practical success.

The spirit of a man is the most practical thing in the world. You cannot touch or define it; it is an intimate mystery; yet it makes careers, builds up enterprises, and draws salaries.

Retiring people who work conscientiously at their task but lack social enterprise and facility, often feel a certain sense of injustice, I think, at the more rapid advancement of those who have these traits but are, perhaps, not so conscientious and well-grounded. A man of decidedly good address and not wholly deficient in other respects can secure profitable employment almost on sight, and be rapidly promoted over men, otherwise fully equal to him, who lack this trait. And there may, after all, be no injustice in this, because the selection is based on a real superiority in any work calling for influence over other people. Perhaps the best refuge for the retiring man is to reflect that character is a main factor in such influence, and that if he has this and plucks up a little more courage in asserting it, he may find that he has as much address as others.

I believe that the more external and obvious handicaps to success are much less serious than is ordinarily supposed. Such traits as deafness, lameness, bad eyesight,

( 97) ugliness, stammering, extreme shyness, and the like, are often detrimental only in so far as they are allowed to confine or intimidate the spirit, and will seldom prevent a courageous person from accomplishing what is otherwise within his ability. They are by no means such fatal obstacles to intercourse as they may appear. The very fact that one has the heart to face the world on the open road regardless of an obvious handicap may make him interesting, so that while he may have to suffer an occasional rebuff from the vulgar, the men of real significance will be all the more apt to respect and attend to him.

And the effect on his own character may well be to define and concentrate it, and give it an energy and discipline it would otherwise have lacked. Those apparently fortunate people who have many facilities, to whom every road seems open, are hardly to be envied; they seldom go far in any direction. Except in some such way as this, how can we explain the cases in which the totally blind, for example, have succeeded in careers like medicine, natural science, or statesmanship? I judge that they do it not because of superhuman abilities, but because they have the hardihood to act on the view that the spirit of a man and not his organs is the essential thing.

The most harmful thing about handicaps, especially in the children of well-to-do parents, is often the injudicious commiseration and sheltering they are apt to induce. This may well go so far as to deprive such children of natural contact with reality and prevent their learning betimes just what they have to contend with and how to overcome it.

The natural test of a man's ability is to give him a novel task and observe how he goes about it. If he is

( 98) able he will commonly begin by getting all the information within reach, reflecting upon it and making a plan. It should be a bold plan, and yet not rash or impracticable, though it may seem so; based in fact upon a just view of the conditions, and especially of the personalities, with which he has to deal. It will be, emphatically, his own plan, and an able man will generally prefer to keep it to himself, because he knows that he may have to change it, and that discussion may raise obstacles.

In carrying it out he will show a mixture of resolution and adaptability; learning by experience, modifying his plan in details, but in the main sticking to it even when he does not clearly see his way, because be believes that courage and persistence find good luck. He "plays the game" to the end, and if he fails he has too strong a sense of the experimental character of life to be much discouraged.


  1. Herndon and Welk, Abraham Lincoln, voI. 11, 54, 55.
  2. How Germany Makes War, 111

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