In 2006, a group of students at Xavier High School in New York City was given an assignment by their English teacher, to write to their favorite author. Five of those students chose to write to Mr. Kurt Vonnegut, the famous novelist and author. He replied to their letter promptly, and here is a small part of his famous letter which contains an important advice for all the students:
What I had to say to you, … Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.
Mr. Vonnegut’s advice is to not consider getting money and fame as the success of one’s efforts in education. Quite often, students think that success is to get more marks than others and to eventually get more money and fame. This misconception is a source of lot of misery for students. It is not a natural harmonious way to think. In fact, most often such a view of success leads to exploitative tendencies in students.
Rather as Mr. Vonnegut says, one should practice any skill in education for the purpose of learning and growing oneself. Vedic ideals present a far more refined aspect of education. Vedas proclaim that one should study for the purpose of expressing one’s innate skills and utilizing that skill as a means to serve the world. So, are spiritual ideals against money and fame? No, money and fame are secondary and are seen as a natural outcome of one’s desire to serve through one’s skill. They are not sought after, but they come unsolicited.
Thus, according to the Vedic spiritual ideals, the right definition of Success is to do your duty to the best you can. Or in other words, to put one’s best efforts according to one’s individual capacity for the purpose of serving through one’s talent. Failure is defined as not performing one’s duty. With this definition of Success, everyone can be successful, and not just those who score the highest marks. There is no comparison, there is no competition, there is no desire for exploitation. The only desire is to serve to the best one can through one’s talent which one acquires through education.
In Ramayana, the monkey soldiers of Lord Rama were constructing the stone bridge across the ocean to Ravana’s Lanka. Different monkeys had different capacities to lift the stones. Hanuman was lifting huge boulders, whereas other ordinary monkeys could lift only smaller stones. However, Lord Rama considered everyone equally successful, because everyone was doing their best according to their individual capacity. When Ravana was flying through the sky after abducting mother Sita, Jatayu attempted to protect her. Though old, invalid, and no match for Ravana’s strength, yet he tried his best to stop Ravana. However, he was unsuccessful and at the end Ravana fatally wounded Jatayu. Though it may seem that Jatayu failed, but he was a success because he tried his best. And for this reason, Lord Rama actually rewarded him appropriately.
When we work with the right definition of success, success does not lead to pride, nor does failure lead to depression. Failure would mean to lack a sense of personal responsibility or an improper attitude. The discomfort due to failure turns into an opportunity to learn from that failure. Comfort zone vanishes and one works in the Responsibility zone. One is not discouraged by failure, rather one takes it as one’s responsibility to improve in order to serve to one’s best capacity. The inner desire to stand firm in one’s duty helps one overcome the failures which come in life.
When Hanuman and his monkey troops failed to search out mother Sita, they became despondent and thought of abandoning their attempts. But, Hanuman did not want to disappoint Lord Rama. He gathered his wisdom and led these troops further in the search, confronted several challenges and finally discovered mother Sita.