Success and the Law of Cycles


The following piece is adapted from Mitch’s latest book, The Miracle of a Definite Chief Aim (Gildan Press/Hachette).

There is a special power to going about your business carefully, meticulously, and unceasingly—persevering at the work that is uniquely your own.  Life is composed of cycles and when a cycle of opportunity reaches you, and you are prepared, the results are stellar.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists understood that our existence, the commerce of the world, and all human events mirror the cycles of nature. Life is seasonal, generatively repetitive, and cyclical. The demand for a certain service, product, or idea will manifest at a definite but unknown moment. Be prepared.

Mark Twain put it this way: “By the Law of Periodical Repetition, everything which has happened once must happen again and again and again – and not capriciously, but at regular periods, and each thing in its own period, not another’s, and each obeying its own law … the same Nature which delights in periodical repetition in the skies is the Nature which orders the affairs of the earth. Let us not underrate the value of that hint.”

Ecclesiastes 3:1 put it simply: “To everything there is a season.”

It is not necessarily given to us to know the arc and patterns of these cycles. The bounce or opportunity you need will almost certainly arrive unexpectedly and after a great deal of sweat equity. Preparation alone allows you to make use of the opportunity when it comes. Emerson wrote that personal power consists of “concentration” and “drilling.” He meant focusing your energies on a single goal (concentration), and persistently training, practicing, and perfecting your craft (drilling). This is what germ- theory pioneer Louis Pasteur was getting at when he said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Here are examples of some high achievers whose success reached them at unexpected moments, seemingly “out of the blue”—unless unless one thinks in terms of cycles. Each of these people was prepared and ready when destiny beckoned.

Social Crusader

The liberal evangelical activist Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, spent the 1980s and 1990s writing books and articles on restoring the “social gospel” tradition to Christian culture. Jim was trying to get out the message that religious activists, in his view, needed to make more room for defending the poor and vulnerable, and that non-religious activists needed to understand and embrace the social-justice teachings of Christianity. Jim’s chief aim was to provide and promote a liberal alternative to the more conservative policies often associated with evangelical movements.

When George W. Bush became president in 2000, Democrats and liberals, many of whom hadn’t heard Jim’s name, suddenly grew concerned that they needed a better understanding of Christianity and politics, an area in which Bush was considered strong. Suddenly a whole new wave of readers, who hadn’t been listening to Jim earlier, embraced his books and message. Jim’s books shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and remained there for weeks. Jim himself hadn’t changed. The times had. And suddenly a large audience discovered him, ready to listen to his case that political people of all stripes needed to better grasp and apply the social justice teachings of Christianity.

I watched it myself when this cycle hit. The events taught me that whatever you do in life, stand in your place and do your work. Don’t change your tone or message for anyone else’s benefit, or try to be “with the times.” Plant your flag and go about your business. If your message is sound, the wheel of life, and of public opinion, will eventually reach you.

The Phone Call

In 1967 the classically trained Canadian-American stage actor Jonathan Frid (1924-2012) was preparing to quit the stage. Although Frid had landed some Broadway roles, he had grown tired of the boom-and-bust cycle that characterizes the work life of an actor. He wanted a steadier and more predictable livelihood. Frid was planning to leave New York City to open shop as a drama coach in Los Angeles, where acting teachers were in demand.

One day Frid was packing up his apartment when the phone rang. It was his agent asking him to read for the part of vampire on a low-budget, ratings-challenged gothic soap opera. The whole thing sounded silly to Frid. Preoccupied with his move, the actor refused. His agent persisted. Frid agreed to the audition. He got the part – and soon became famous as the guilt-plagued vampire Barnabas Collins on TV’s Dark Shadows.

This is a phenomenon that Napoleon Hill called “three feet from gold.” In Think and Grow Rich, Hill told the story of a mining engineer who quit his seemingly futile search for gold and sold his mine at a bargain price. The new owner struck a vein of gold – three feet from where his predecessor had stopped digging. This story exemplified Hill’s principle that persistence delivers you. It is what happened to Jonathan Frid.

When Frid read for the part of Barnabas the producers immediately detected in the stage actor the kind of classical mien, and mixture of malevolence and vulnerability, that they sought for the role. Even after Frid accepted the job he expected it to be temporary, and arranged to delay, not cancel, his move. Barnabas was originally part of a subplot in the show’s storyline. But viewers went wild over Frid as the agonized vampire. Ratings shot up and he became the show’s main character.

Frid not only attained celebrity, but his portrayal of Barnabas as a tormented, near-sympathetic monster set the tone for the post-Dracula rendering of vampires by writers such as Anne Rice, who humanized the undead.

People sometimes refer to stories like Frid’s as someone getting his “big break.” But that doesn’t really capture what happened. Years of training prepared the actor for the moment when his personal style and inflection were perfect for a once-in-a-lifetime role. Twenty years of effort preceded the phone call that day.


Perseverance Conquers

Minister and educator Russell H. Conwell (1843-1925) was determined to help working-class members of his Philadelphia parish attend college. In 1882 the minister began to teach students in the evenings in the basement of Grace Baptist Church. He also sent personal checks to college students to help them afford their studies.

But Conwell wanted to do more than tutor people in a basement and write checks. The minister was already known for his motivational lecture Acres of Diamonds, which defined success as filling a legitimate human need. In addition to his ministerial and teaching duties, Conwell maintaining an exhausting speaking schedule, delivering his Acres of Diamonds talk across the nation. One evening in an unfamiliar city he got an idea: He would dedicate his speaking fees, minus travel expenses, to establishing a college for working-class students.

In 1888 Conwell received a charter for the school that became Temple University in Philadelphia. To ensure the financial viability of his enterprise, Conwell continued giving his Acres of Diamonds talk and donating his fees to Temple. By his death in 1925 he had recited the speech more than 6,152 times.

Today Temple honors its founder with the official motto: Perseverantia Vincit, or Perseverance Conquers. It took Conwell just a single moment of insight—in this case dedicating his resources to a school for working-class students—to alter the face of higher learning in America, and secure his legacy as one of the nation’s most innovative educators.

 Uncommon Commonsense

The legendary motivational writer Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) began his career as a sales executive for a soap manufacturer. He dreamed of being a crusading social writer and novelist. In the early 1890s, Hubbard used a small fortune he had amassed from his share in the soap company to start a political and cultural magazine called The Philistine, as well as the artisan community Roycroft in East Aurora, New York.

In his writing, set against the upheaval of the industrial revolution and the urbanization of the country, Hubbard championed a call to commonsense values of fair play, equal justice, saying less and doing more, and restoring personal craftsmanship to products, which he practiced at the Roycroft workshops. Hubbard inveighed against child labor and sweatshops. He criticized the “sophisticated” modern mindset, which resulted in collegians who were educated in everything except useful, skilled crafts and jobs, which Hubbard believed were undervalued in the new industrial economy

Near the turn of the century, however, Hubbard had found only middling success as a writer. But one evening at a family dinner in February 1899, Hubbard had an idea that made him, for a time, one of the most famous writers in the world.

The publisher and his son discussed the experience of Lieutenant Andrew S. Rowan, an intelligence officer in US Army during the Spanish-American War. At the outset of the conflict in 1898, Rowan was ordered to deliver a vital US military message to General Calixto Garcia, the leader of a rebellion against Spanish rule of Cuba. All that was known of Garcia’s whereabouts was that he was hunkered down at a jungle base somewhere in eastern Cuba. With little strategic briefing or material help from the US Army, Rowan landed on the island, located the rebel general, and delivered his “message to Garcia,” which was a vital piece of military intelligence that solidified the US alliance with Cuban partisans, and led to Spain’s defeat.

Hubbard was deeply taken with the character of Lieutenant Rowan. The officer displayed independence of thought, resourcefulness, and determination. Those traits, Hubbard reasoned, were in alarmingly short supply in the lives of most working people, who quickly vacillated from excitement to boredom, and often did their jobs with apathy.

Hubbard needed to fill a bit of blank space in The Philistine. So, after dinner, in the space of one hour, he produced what he called a “literary trifle” on the virtues of Rowan, and used the essay to plug up his empty column in the March 1899 issue. The piece was so minor to him that he ran it without a headline. But the brief statement quickly gained national attention. Employers, managers, college presidents, and generals ordered reprints of the issue or paid to reprint the Garcia piece as a pamphlet – first by the thousands and eventually (and quite literally) the millions. The essay, which Hubbard later titled A Message to Garcia, became so popular that for many years the term “carry a message to Garcia” was slang for attempting a challenging task. The essay got translated around the world and was read by foreign armies and workforces. Parents gave copies to children who were starting college or entering the job market. Enterprising clerks, with eyes on the corner office, gobbled up copies.

A Message to Garcia remained a mainstay of American success literature for close to fifty years. While the work’s popularity today is nowhere near what it once was, it remains possible to find the occasional employer who still gives copies to new hires. A friend recently told me that his daughter received a copy from an old accountant the day she started working for him.

A Message to Garcia made Hubbard a household name in America, and brought attention to everything that he said and wrote thereafter. Hubbard’s essay was not only one of the first mass-read works of motivational literature, but it set the template for the entire field of business motivation as it exists today.

Hubbard and his wife Alice died in 1915 when a German U-boat sunk a passenger liner that they taking to Europe to protest World War One to the German Kaiser. The tragic ending to Hubbard’s life in no way reduces, and in many ways reflects, the dynamism and relevance that marked his existence. Hubbard’s ability to make his voice heard internationally grew from an hour’s work one night—an hour, one could add, for which he had been preparing all his life.

* * *

When reflecting on all of these figures and their achievements, consider this precept from Jewish sage Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), known as the Rebbe: “All good things come unexpectedly.” To which I would add: but only to him who is prepared for life’s cycles.

Mitch Horowitz is a PEN Award-winning historian and popular writer whose latest book, from which this essay is adapted, is The Miracle of a Definite Chief Aim (Gildan Press/Hachette). Follow him @MitchHorowitz.


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