MEET with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same. So a father tells his son in If, a beautiful poem by Rudyard Kipling. I read that poem decades ago in school and promptly forgot it. Then, many years later, the phrase resurfaced from my memory and offered to explain my life.
Then I thought about the lives of other people — people I knew, people I read about, people famous and people obscure, people alive and people long dead. And I began to suspect that the two impostors, as a pair, amount to a classic and even archetypal storyline:
Life is about reversal → How somebody responds to triumph and disaster, success and failure, is that person’s character.
I make that idea come alive by telling stories. The main stories are the lives of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who almost exterminated the Romans and was considered invincible, and of his Roman enemies Fabius and Scipio. Their stories are interwoven with the lives of Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Steve Jobs, Meriwether Lewis, Tennessee Williams, Carl Jung, Ernest Shackleton and others. (Here are the dramatis personae.)
Every chapter is about one particular theme relating to success and failure in our lives, corresponding to a life stage: the influence of parents, confusion between tactics and strategy, the redefinition of success in midlife, et cetera.
The big idea–an old one, started by Plutarch–is that the lives of others, told in the proper way, offer lessons to me, to you, and to almost everybody. I invite you to see yourself in these stories, just as I see myself in them.
Here is a 14-minute “teaser” talk about my book that I gave in Berkeley in March 2010 (before the book was published) at one of The Economist’s conferences: