The majority of people consider that failure spells death and, on the other hand, that success spells all that life signifies. Success can be of different kinds, and so, to know the secret of success we shall have to investigate just what kind of success we mean.
There is social success, with which everyone is familiar. We know that people spend their lives trying to attain a certain prominence and position socially, but when they have attained it, are they really satisfied?
Then there is economic success. From a worldly viewpoint, success is ordinarily associated with material possessions. The more of these a person has, the more successful in life he is supposed to be.
There is another sort of success, that pertaining to professional or artistic lines. This type of success, too, is at the personal level, but a different aspect of the personality is involved. Though ambition enters in here also, it is a different type of ambition. And where the desire is to contribute to one's particular profession or art something of oneself, there is less selfishness in that as a rule than in the mere desire to gain money or possessions. A certain inherent feeling, perhaps a memory of the soul, is revived and expresses itself through art, or through a noble profession of some kind.
Thus there are many kinds of success from a worldly point of view. Everyone, unless he is a dullard or mentally sluggish, desires some kind of success. As the Bhagavad-Gita (IV, 12) states: "Those who wish for success to their works in this life sacrifice to the gods; and in this world success from their actions soon cometh to pass."
Would Theosophy state that it is wrong to have this desire for success? It all depends on what kind of success we have in mind. We have to consider the ethical factor and the inner motives, impulses, expectations, etc., of the one desiring success of some kind.
The dictionary defines success as the achievement of a desired aim, the prosperous conclusion of what is attempted. If we use the word success literally in that sense we cannot help but see that a criminal is successful from his viewpoint. Whether criminal or saint, each one who realizes his ambition along his or her particular line of achievement is a success. But how often we see those who seem to be successful during one phase of their life suffering reverses later on and vice versa! And again, success is sometimes attributed to those who least deserve it, those who take credit for the work done by others, which goes to show how dreadfully misinformed we often are, and how falsely we estimate people and are carried along on the wave of what we call popular opinion, without caring to investigate.
We may well ask the secret of success, why it is that certain people seem to have the magical touch. Many of us think that there is an element of luck or chance in the success that people attain. If we use these words in the sense that people achieve that which in some way they have not worked for, have not deserved, then we are wrong. In this universe of law nothing is left to chance or accident. Therefore, we have to get beneath the surface of life, beneath the exterior of man, to discover the subtle and recondite laws which give one the ability to accomplish that which one aims at.
The secret lies in Man himself. Man is the creator and the destroyer. Man makes every circumstance. Man makes every opportunity for himself, and because life is a brotherhood he aids or defeats the purpose of his brother through ignorance as also through the wilful abuse of power and knowledge. We cannot extricate ourselves from the great law of cause and effect; we reap suffering or its reverse on the basis of what we have sown, selfishly or unselfishly, in ignorance or with knowledge.
We need to ask ourselves: What is the purpose of evolution? What is Man? What is the object of earning a living and to what extent should it be carried? What is the fine line between necessity and indulgence, not just according to someone's opinion or religious beliefs, but in fact? All of these questions, if answered truthfully, would reveal that man is not primarily a material being. His physical body, his personality, does demand a certain amount of care and protection; but what are the real needs of Man? Just clothing our bodies and feeding our stomachs and securing the various acquisitions that pertain to so-called civilized life? That apparently seems to be the logical conclusion of most people, looking at the effort that they put forth for the fulfilment of those needs.
Man's success in any achievement depends upon the energy he puts into. Desire is energy; energy is desire. Whether criminal or saint, each uses power and energy. The difference is that one uses it destructively and the other constructively. Both reap results. Man in his lower nature is nothing more than an animal, passing through all the material phases of life. Man in his higher and spiritual nature has unlimited power, energy, knowledge. The lower needs the energy of the higher to rise, to acquire discrimination, to achieve true success.
Man in his real essence is not material. He has lived in the past, has generated causes whose effects he is now reaping; therefore, when we find someone attaining outstanding success which is out of all proportion to his present efforts, it merely means that in some past life he has put forth effort in the same direction. We have here a certain aspect of soul memory. Because man does not realize that in his higher nature he has this great reservoir of exhaustless energy, he is ceaselessly deceived, and in living his life and performing his duties he goes round and round, in a weary treadmill of birth and rebirth, none the wiser.
Success—what is it? What is the secret of success? Can we honestly state that the gaining of that which we desire brings us the happiness and satisfaction that we expect? If we are fully satisfied with our wealth, possessions, home, luxuries, we are apt to feel pity for those who have not what we possess, and perhaps to say, "Poor Jack, he could never make any money; he is a total failure!" A failure only according to material standards; as Theosophists we take a different position. If Jack, though not able to make a great deal of money, merely manages to keep body and soul together, and is putting into his honest work all that he is capable of, without desire of reward spiritually speaking he is better off than the man who makes a lot of money. It matters not how "menial" one's work may be, as the world understands it. Epictetus, though a chained slave, was yet a great philosopher. In anything that we undertake, let us therefore examine first if the basis is an honest one.
It is said that one of the greatest of sacrifices is to give of oneself. What more could we give than the essence of our aspirations? Until we learn the great law of sacrifice, we shall never be able to eliminate from our minds the idea of getting; we shall never reach contentment or peace.
There is but One Self, one great energizing, beginningless and endless power, call it what you will. Being omnipresent, it is within man, though many, alas, do not realize this. Until we learn that the secret of all success is Man himself, until we know what we are in reality, we cannot call upon the Inner Self to aid us in our endeavours. As long as we turn for help outside ourselves, to particular persons, or to religion, science, political parties or one or another "ism," we have not yet developed the ability to think for ourselves. Rare is the individual who has any conception of how to think. If we have no knowledge, no true basis, how can we really think, or have any higher aspirations or ideals? Until we take the position of the real being, who is indifferent to success or failure, we shall never know that living which as souls we were intended to live.
From strength to strength, from the beauty and perfection of one plane to the greater beauty and perfection of another, with accessions of new glory, of fresh knowledge and power in each cycle, such is the destiny of every Ego, which thus becomes its own Saviour in each world and incarnation.