Ralph Waldo Emerson
(1803 - 1882)

In Search of Success

To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people
    and the affection of children;
to earn the appreciation of honest critics
    and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better,
    whether by a healthy child,
    a garden patch
    or a redeemed social condition;
to know even one life has breathed easier
    because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

The above is quite a well-known verse on success often attributed to Emerson and a few years ago I got quite a few inquiries about its source. In requesting information about this on this website, I received numerous replies. None of these made any claims to Emerson’s authorship, and most note its similarity to a poem entitled "Success" by Bessie Stanley, and consider her to be the original author. This poem has a number of variations in the different texts I’ve seen, but what follows is the one most quoted.

He has achieved success
    who has lived well,
    laughed often, and loved much;
who has enjoyed the trust of pure women,
    the respect of intelligent men
    and the love of little children;
who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
who has left the world better than he found it
    whether by an improved poppy,
    a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
who has never lacked appreciation of Earth's beauty
    or failed to express it;
who has always looked for the best in others
    and given them the best he had;
whose life was an inspiration;
whose memory a benediction.

One of the first responses I received, stated that according to Anthony W. Shipps in Notes and Queries for July, 1976, it was written in 1905 by Bessie A. Stanley and was the first-prize winner in a contest sponsored by the magazine Modern Women.

Then, thanks to another reply, I learned from another source, that a woman named Bethanne Larson, who claims to be Bessie Anderson Stanley’s great-granddaughter, has the same story, but with different details. She states that the above poem "was written as the winning entry in a contest run by Brown Book Magazine in 1904."

What I found interesting, and somewhat confusing, was to compare Bessie Stanley’s poem with a version of "Success" supposedly written by Robert Louis Stevenson. This version of the poem follows:

That Man is a Success
Who has lived well,
    laughed often and loved much;
Who has gained the respect of intelligent men
    and the love of children;
Who has filled his niche
    and accomplished his task;
Who leaves the world better than he found it,
    whether by improved poppy, a perfect poem,
    or a rescued soul;
Who never lacked appreciation of earth's beauty
    or failed to express it.
Who looked for the best in others
    and gave the best he had.

As you can readily tell, these two versions are almost identical to each other. But if Stevenson died in 1894, and Bessie Stanley’s poem didn’t emerge until 1904 or 5, this made it rather evident, at least to me, that Stevenson’s version is the earlier or original one. What was puzzling was that his name is only rarely mentioned in connection with this poem. I decided to do a little research. It seemed to me that everything hinged on whether Robert Louis Stevenson did actually write the above. I made some enquiries, and the feedback I received from my local reference librarian as well as the Robert Louis Stevenson Society indicates that he is not the author. Based on this evidence it appears that Bessie Stanley is in fact the original author of this poem.

In what appears to confirm this, I received an email from Lyn Suchan, one of Bessie Stanley's great grand-daughters, that the "Success" poem appeared in the Lincoln Sentinel, Nov. 30, 1905 as the one that won the first prize of $250 in a contest for the best essay on "What constitutes success". According to the Lincoln Sentinel,

"It was required that the essay should be confined to 100 words and should be the best definition of what constituted success, neatness and several of the requirements being taken into consideration. The essay was entered in competition with hundreds of others from all parts of the country."

Last of all, I received an email message message which included a photograph of the monument at the grave of Bessie A. Stanley in Lincoln Kansas. To my surprise, I discovered that the complete "Success" poem is inscribed on that monument.

All this has convinced me that Bessie Stanley is definitely the author of the "Success" poem. If I am missing something here, or if anyone has another piece to this puzzle, please let me know.

If there wasn't enough already, more intrigue was generated over "Success" and its origin by some of the other replies I received.

1. According to one response, the January 1989 "Wellness Letter" (U. C. Berkeley) printed the version normally attributed to Emerson, giving the author as Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969). Perhaps the "Emerson" in this name got someone confused.

2. The Random House Webster's Quotationary, Leonard Roy Frank, Editor (1999) attributes the line "He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much." to Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915).

3. In the Spring 2000 edition of the Emerson Society Papers is an article "Emerson's 'Success' – Actually, It Is Not", written by Joel Myerson. Regarding this article, I was offered the following review by another detective in search of the secret of "Success":

It's short but interesting, as Joel Myerson tracks down the 2nd volume of a book called, Heart Throbs, published in 1911, which contains the Stanley quote, and then a few pages later, a piece by Emerson titled, "Good-Bye." He concludes that "the proximity of Stanley's work to Emerson's suggests that someone might have made the initial misattribution by copying Stanley's work, then returning to seek the author and mistakenly using Emerson's name from three leaves later; Stanley's name appears on the third line of a verso page, Emerson's on the fifth of a verso page, making such an eyeskip possible." He doesn't address how Robert Louis Stevenson might have gotten connected with the quote, however.

4. Still another respondent felt the poem to be so far beneath the quality of Emerson that this was proof enough that its author was definitely not Emerson. According to this person, this poem is

"trite and prosaic to an embarassing degree. If one is willing to attribute these grotesque lines to such a lofty writer as Emerson, one would have to account for this tremendous decline in his literary gifts and inspiration. Just to illustrate: Emerson could never have indulged in such a clumsy verse as: "to leave the world a bit better." One does not have to be a T.S. Eliot to realize that the poem is ... not by Emerson."

5. Finally, there was one interesting reply from Leland Bond-Upson who offered the following quote:

To live content with small means;
To seek elegance rather than luxury,
To be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich;
To study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly;
To listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with an open heart;
To bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never.
In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious,
    grow up through the commonplace.
This to be my symphony.

This was written by William Henry Channing (1810-1884) who, like Emerson, was also a Transcendentalist. Although it is very different from "Success", Leland's reply offered that "this has the same pedantic feel and plodding meter of 'Success,' and WHC's dates are close to Emerson's. It appears that this type of writing was in vogue in the 2nd half of the 19th C. Even if 'Success' can't be found in WHC's writings, I think a search of the writings of Unitarians of that period are likely to bear fruit." Perhaps someone will be motivated to take an interest and follow this up.

For more on the Success poem, visit this Wikipedia page on Bessie Stanley.

Let me conclude with some reflections of my own. I discovered many versions of this poem, and even the ones attributed to Bessie Stanley by different sources contain significant differences. This suggests to me that success seems to be an important item in some people’s minds. One person’s idea of what promotes success doesn’t seem to readily concur with that of another, who feels they have a better idea as evidenced by the need to modify what was there. Perhaps the original version never had a chance of remaining what it was because of this strong diversity of ideas about success and what it meant for each particular person. It makes me wonder what it is about success that attracts so much attention and evokes such unconscious behavior. Perhaps it has to do with the fear of being unsuccessful, or perhaps even more, the fear of success itself.

What we are witnessing here is similar to something I witnessed a few years ago having to do with a quote that supposedly came from Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech on May 10, 1994. I found this quote a number of times on the internet, and it also has to do in part with a fear of success. One source told me it came from a 1992 book by Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love - Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles. Although it is only indirectly related to our inquiry into "Success", I offer this quote as an item of interest.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,
our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves,
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn't serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won't feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest
the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we're liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

Although I found this verse quite inspirational, it also had a "New Age" flavor to it. The dates by themselves already evoked suspicion, so I decided to check it out for myself. I found Mandela’s inauguration speech on the internet, and discovered there no reference to "our deepest fears" or anything else in the quote. It appears that Mandela’s name and reputation was being used as a springboard for someone else's ideas. I checked the book Return to Love, and at first I did not find the quote there. Then someone kindly indicated to me where to look. I was glad to discover the quote there without any mention of Nelson Mandela, and it was clear to me that its author was in fact Marianne Williamson. It is interesting that the person who used this quote to be attributed to Mandela left out one of Williamson's lines: "We are all meant to shine, as children do." It seems that idea did not quite fit in with this person's thoughts.

This "attribution" phenomenon is not new by any means – it is seen throughout history. During the time of the early Christians for example, people were constantly using the name of Paul and other well-known and respected people as the author of somebody else's writings, hoping that these ideas would be accepted more readily. According to scholars, to this day it is not known for certain who is the author of some of the writings or letters traditionally attributed to Paul in the New Testament.

Whether this phenomenon applies to the "Success" poem is not for me to say, but certainly the parallels are strong. If anyone has any more pieces to the puzzle to "Success", please email me.

Meanwhile, here is what is perhaps the final word on success. The author is unknown to me – could it possibly be Emerson?

At age 4, success is...not peeing in your pants.
  At age 12, success is...having friends.
    At age 16, success is...having a driver's license.
      At age 20, success is...having sex.
        At age 35, success is...having money.
          At age 40, success is...finding meaning & purpose to life.
          At age 45, success is...finding meaning & purpose to life.
        At age 50, success is...having money.
      At age 60, success is...having sex.
    At age 70, success is...having a driver's license.
  At age 75, success is...having friends.
At age 80, success is...not peeing in your pants.

With thanks to David, Kevin, Tom, Mike, P.G.C., Leland, Marvin, Maura, Brian, Richard, Diego, Julie, Lyn and others.


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Last revised: December 22, 2004.