The greatest quote about success ever said

“The higher you go, the worse the fall.”

Nassim Taleb

Author of bestsellers, The Black Swan, Antifragile and Skin in the Game, Nassim Taleb recently delivered a commencement speech at the American University of Beirut.

As you’d expect from Taleb, it contains worldly wisdom from a man who has thought deeply about the world, the human condition and what personal success should mean.

“For I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life.

“Let him be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel. If you do not feel ashamed you are successful. All other definitions of success are modern constructions; fragile modern constructions.

“Success requires absence of fragility. I’ve seen billionaires terrified of journalists. Wealthy people felt crushed because the brother-in-law got very rich. Academics with the Nobel (Peace Prize) who are scared of comments on the web. The higher you go, the worse the fall.

“For almost all the people I’ve met, external not internal success came with an increase in fragility and heightened state of insecurity.”

Nassim Taleb

“The worst are those ‘former something’ types with four page CVs who, after leaving office, are addicted to the attention of survival bureaucrats find themselves discarded as if they went home one evening to discover that someone suddenly un-emptied your house of all its furniture.

“Self-respect, on the other hand, is robust”.

Taleb nails it here. Success is based on your own definition. How you feel about yourself and not what others say and feel about you.

Society has conceded in valuing success as both external and material. How much money you can make, how prestigious the job title sounds, who likes you, where you live, the size of your house and so on.

If these are your priorities in life your self-validation comes from outside forces.

You are a slave to these outside forces and you have no control over them.

People will do their best to make you feel shame, guilt and embarrassment for their own needs. Be it friends, industry peers, consumer advertisers or the biased media.

Someone will always have more money than you, a better car, a hotter girlfriend, a bigger house, a better body and so on.

If, on the other hand, your sense of self comes from inside no one can take that away from you. You are, in Taleb’s words, antifragile.

What would your 18-year-old self say to you?

Would he be proud of the man you’ve become? The principles you’ve applied to your life? The knowledge and wisdom you’ve acquired over the years?

Or would he be disappointed of the shell of a man you’ve become?

If it’s the latter then you’ve got problems.

I know my 18-year-old self would. So far. But life is a long game and there’s lots more work to do in the meantime.


Watch Nassim Taleb’s commencement speech at the American University of Beirut below.

Written by Ste Davies

Stephen Davies is a digital strategist, consultant and speaker. You can reach him here.

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