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The Real Measure of Success

Photo by Frederik Löwer on Unsplash

Recently, I read a substack from Elif Shafak, one of the people I think most highly of on the planet. A quote that Elif used grabbed my attention. She talked about success, and this is how she closes her post:

So every time we hear people boast about material success, let us remember the words of the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.

‘To laugh often and much: to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children: to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.’

I loved the Emerson quote. Being a scientist at heart, I went online to verify the source. A dig around the internet revealed that this is a quote often misattributed to Emerson, and it’s actually by a writer named Bessie Anderson Stanley, who submitted the verse in response to the question, “What is success?”

Of course, I had all kinds of thoughts about it. My first thought was that even my idols can make careless mistakes. It’s nice to know everyone’s human. My second thought was that the internet is all too happy to attribute a resonating quote written by a woman to a man. Then, I noticed that the quotes are subtly different. The differences got my gears going. Why were the quotes different? To be fair, I can’t answer that. But I want to look closely at the differences between the original and the “internet” quote. I find the easiest way is to do it side by side. 


Bessie Anderson Stanley


To laugh often and much: 

He achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much;

Love is missing from the internet version.

to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children: 

Who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;

The trust of pure women is missing from the internet version.

to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; 

Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;

The internet invented this line whole cloth.

to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; 

Who has never lacked appreciation of Earth's beauty or failed to express it;

Stanley focuses on natural beauty, and she repeats this line twice in the original.

to leave the world a bit better 

Who has left the world better than he found it,

That is a similar notion, but the internet changed the order and the specifics.

whether by a healthy child, 

Whether an improved poppy, 

Stanley refers to a single flower. The internet widens the scope to a whole garden.

a garden patch, 

a perfect poem, 

No reference to a poem or even art on the internet’s quote.

or a redeemed social condition; 

or a rescued soul;

There’s perhaps an assumption that souls needing rescue are of inferior social conditions.

Who has never lacked appreciation of Earth's beauty or failed to express it;

Repeated in Stanley’s poem only.

to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. 

Who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had;

Stanley is much more detailed, but the internet is more specific. 

Whose life was an inspiration;

The internet ignores this. 

This is to have succeeded.

Whose memory a benediction.

This, too. I had to look up benediction, so maybe that’s one reason for the change.

It’s not that the internet version is better or worse. But the differences can tell us all sorts of things. 

For instance, the term “pure women” must have sounded derogatory to modern ears, so it was changed to “intelligent people” rather than differentiate between intelligent men and pure women. In that sense, it indicates the progress in women’s equality since Ms Stanley wrote her definition of success.

In contrast, the omission of love and art from the internet version could reflect modern resistance to defining success by such ephemeral measures. For many people, this quote means that success shouldn’t be measured by money or property. But we’re not willing to go so far as to measure success with love or poem writing. I wonder if that’s a bit of the scientific obsession with quantitative measurement. We can’t measure love, but we can measure the number of laughs. It’s a more easily operationalised measurement. 

There’s also no mention of honest critics OR false friends in the original version, and I can only guess what the internet means by this. I wonder whether this is an attempt to make it “sound more like Emerson” or something. I have no deep knowledge of Emerson’s writing, but this is an interesting take if you want to dig even deeper. That article, by the way, made me want to read Emerson (of course).

All of this doesn’t detract from the resonance of the quote. Sure, it’s cheesy, but in a capitalistic world where success is measured by the square meters of your house and yard or the initials emblazoned on your clutch purse, it’s a start. And if this post made you think about how you measure success in your life, I’ve done my job. 

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