Book Review : “Art of Success”
By: Dante M. Velasco
A Choice of Conquest: Territories or Self?
Success is a goal “devoutly to be wished,” if I may use a Shakespearean line. In our generation, the usual route to success is a forked road.
One road is the well-beaten path of following the formula of success of people ahead of us – be visible, bask in the shadow of the boss, step on others as you climb the corporate ladder, leave your friends behind – and use any virtue or vice to propel you faster toward intoxicating success.
The other road -- “the road less traveled” to use M. Scott Peck’s book title -- is one that exalts virtue as the non-negotiable quality, create real achievement without need for public applause, respect others’ rights, keep friendships and alliances intact – and never sacrifice one’s principles at the altar of bogus or, at best, temporal success.
The success formula, of course, is not as clear-cut as the two distinct roads that are truly diametrically opposed. If you opt to take what I prefer to call “the low road to success and conquest” of known villains of history, then you succeed with a sense of guilt for achieving an end with dubious means.
On the other hand, when you take the high road of pure virtue, all sunshine, with no dark corners, you turn a blind eye to the realities of human frailty and social diversity, and success eludes you.
There have been books written by wise men of old and instant mentors in these post-modern times – all offering an abundance of advice, magic potions, aphorisms and even anecdotes to give us a myriad of options on how to arrive at that desired pinnacle of our ambitions. No wonder, our book stores and libraries, not to mention the internet, offer books of many persuasions, CDs burned and re-burned, and DVDs distributed right at your doorstep. They are supposed to help us navigate the alternately rough and smooth seas toward heady success.
And yet, in varying degrees, these materials are mostly biographies – and you are at a loss how to exact lessons from personality sketches and action; or they are a list of immutable laws or to do’s that prescribe techniques but fail to cite principles underlying such techniques.
Here comes a book that successfully delivers a formula for success or conquest, with stories that steer clear of myths behind well-known conquerors in antiquity – and with annotations that extract meaning from such stories. And yet this book must be read with a clear “PG Warning”: Parental Guidance requested.
This is unusual book on how to succeed because, at first glance, the stories come across as prescriptions of using such not-so-desirable behavioral patterns as betrayal, trickery, cruelty, hypocrisy, crocodile tears, cowardice, hatred, insincere love, unabashed use of religion and ideology, expansionism, and terrorism.
So when you here of historical accounts about the murders of Alexander the Great, you would hesitate to call him great from hereon. When you read about the betrayed of Genghis Khan against one who supported him, you will remove the famous Khan from your list of heroes. When you note the Machiavellian devices of Napoleon, you will soon forget that he was a master strategist worth studying.
And yet this book doesn’t come as clear cut as that. The author has put together accounts of these renowned conquerors, placed them in the perspective of history, so that you and I can now learn how to read history. After all, as one writer said, “All history is biography.” And, if you intimately know a person in this book, full of warts and all, you can sift virtue from vice, right from wrong, the exemplary and the despicable.
Thankfully, the author has a forewarning in his preface: “For a long time, historians avoided the evil conduct committed by conquerors to make them seem greater than life and deserving respect. But actually, they also betrayed, fled during battle, treated love like a business deal, and sacrificed close friends without hesitation for specific aims.”
So, I ask: What is there to learn from these conquerors who seemed to have no qualms about violating every human right, about betraying trust, and about using cruelty when is clearly a virtue?
Reading through the entire book has shown that these conquerors are mortals. They are not gods from Mount Olympus with distilled wisdom and unadulterated virtue. The book has also given us a caveat that our rulers, charged with the common weal, are sometimes forced to compromise pure virtue or else abdicate the throne.
It is instructive to know that he “who betrayed you once is very likely to betray a second time.” How many times have we been disappointed by an official who does not keep his word? Of course, we remember someone who declared: “Only a fool doesn’t change his mind.”
Our most revered feeling, love is taken to task by the author, saying it is used for conquest or subjugation of a country. The alliance of Julius Cesar and Cleopatra and the ill-starred love of Mark Anthony are treated clinically by the author, as if love is a device to be used for a greater end. In my book, The book, love is the sine qua non, the non-negotiable quality.
This is an interesting book since it looks at the human predisposition with realistic eyes. The leader must be feared, not loved. You must show cruelty to instill discipline. You must use deception against the enemy. Actually, the words may be too strong for our mild thinking, but these truths are actually practiced in the context of the greater good. It is not cruelty; it is firmness. It is not deception; it is strategy of a smokescreen. The advice of Sun Tzu is milder: “You can pretend to be weak if you are strong.”
Actually, what keeps popping up in my mind is how all these “secrets” of conquerors compare with the life of Jesus. Why wasn’t it necessary for Jesus to use doubtful means to achieve a noble end? This statement on the ambition of conquerors for example immediately led me to scribble a note on the book: “What conquerors protect is not the world of the mind but their territories.” My scribbled note is this: “What about the Nazarene who chose to touch the mind, stir the soul, and thus was able to turn the world upside down?” Just a thought.
This book is actually one that deserves to be in every leader’s library – not only to serve as a manual to survive the devices of competitors for leadership, not only to equip us with street-smart initiatives or responses to others’ leadership offensive; not only to continually remind us that there is no such thing as pure strategy; not only to give us a menu of options to deal with intransigent followers – but also to continually remind us that over and above these earthly techniques, there is a higher calling that also tells us that conquest of territories is not at all desirable if we have to abandon cherished principles. At first glance, you may disagree with the strategies of the conquerors, but this is a good beginning for a discussion on a choice of strategies.
There are personalities in the book that failed to conquer because they are far too good, too idealistic, too innocent, and too much devoted to real love. They have chosen the high road to consistency in character, rather than descend to the depths where everything – including love and friends – can be sacrificed at the altar of success. Not only a choice of weapons or strategies, or a choice of god.
If at all, this book makes clear to us our fundamental choices. You go for conquest of territories, and so you must be prepared to abandon things that and who are precious to you. You go for conquest of the self, and all that are precious and noble remain. It is actually a choice of a lifetime.