The word "success" has all but lost its meaning thanks to advertising, marketing, and all of the pretenses that weave their way through our media-driven lives. We think that success is a destination to be reached. Or we are told that it's a journey that we are taking. But I think it is something different. Success in life is about forging healthy relationships with other people and vigorously pursuing the deep inner calling of what you are supposed to do with your unique set of skills, talents, and creative faculties.
As we continue extracting truths about success from the "Man is His Own Star" quote that appears as an introduction to Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self Reliance, let us move from the topic of where your life's navigational system is located and toward the consequences of following it, rather than accepting the standard templates for living that constitute a life of conformity.
Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man,
Commands all light, all influence, all fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late.
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.
When the speaker here talks about how the honest and perfect person "commands all light, all influence, all fate," the first important point to observe is what he likely means here by the word "perfect." It certainly does not seem that he is implying that this person makes no mistakes, or is without error. The word has evolved to mean something quite different from its Latin roots in the verb perficere, which means to finish or bring to completion.
By re-examining the description of the honest and perfect person in light of this alternative definition, you see that you become perfect not by committing no error, but rather by bringing yourself to a state of completion that is consistent with the directions of your internal navigational system. However, do not be allured by the idea that your perfected state is one of stasis, for stasis is almost the complete opposite of a perfected human.
At the age of 24, I had taken my first startup public, drove the right car, lived in the right house in the right part of town, and had all of the trappings of what most people and society in general would have described as extreme success at a young age. But it was built on an unsound foundation. When all of those external markers of success eventually betrayed me, I was left questioning what went wrong. It wasn't me, the process hadn't been me, and I could see that the results were not truly mine.
What I learned was that I was far from successful, because I was far from being in a perfected state. Through the subsequent years of demolishing each and every pillar of my life and identity, I began to learn that the perfected state is a framework of coping with and approaching life's difficulties in a way that is honest and consistent with who you are, what your values are, what you are supposed to perceive, where your star is directing you to go, and how it is directing you to get there.
If you think that this sounds impossible, it's because it quite nearly is. There are few if any journeys through life fraught with more peril than that of discovering how to live truly to yourself, to develop and hone your models and frameworks so that your reactions to challenge are not base or mean (in the literal sense of being "average"), but are always tending toward the fulfillment of your life's calling, rather than pulling you away from it, as most people's reactions do.
The upside, however, is the extraordinary power you will acquire in doing so. Commanding all light, influence, and fate may seem like hyperbole, but I'm quite certain that it is not. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Donald Trump are all quite recent examples of people who, for better or worse, were true to themselves and their callings, and achieved things nobody thought they could.
As you can see, following your own star does not necessarily mean that you will be a paragon of virtue. It just means you will be a paragon of yourself.
Being true to yourself is the first step of following your own star, to understanding who you are and what you are becoming. You cannot run away from yourself. Those personality traits that you would prefer nobody see--you have be true to those too. Only then can you work to transcend them, to leave them behind, to make them part of who you were, but no longer part of who you are.
This it is so critical to go the extra mile. It should not be enough to achieve impressive things with your life, but rather for those impressive achievements to not only impress in their difficulty or magnitude, but also in their quality and the effects they have in improving the human condition. To command all light, influence and fate toward this end, that is the journey worthy of a life.