My 10 Favourite Success Quotes
by Mark Tyrrell
"The problem with quotes on the internet is you never know if they are genuine." ~ George Washington.
Quotes can be inspiring, insightful, clever, deeply moving. But watch out. As the first president of the USA said (or did he?), the internet is awash not only with misquoted... err... quotes, but all and every kind of quote imaginable.
The problem is that bite sized sound bites are to personal development what a can of Red Bull is to good nutrition. (Don't quote me on that). But why am I starting this success quotes article on such a negative note?
Consume quote, enjoy buzz, move on
We all like a quote that hits the spot, but it's all too easy to get your 'hit', enjoy having the sense of recognizing profundity when you see it, and then move on without actually absorbing the wisdom.
A quote may excite us - but that's not really useful unless perhaps we're just about to go into battle. A really great quote should excite us, yes, but also make us really think deeply and perhaps even change the way we live.
So how do those inspiring quotes hook us?
Recognizing yourself in a quote
When I read an exciting quote, straight away there's a sense of recognition, an "Ah... that's so true!" moment. You know that feeling? You can almost see your cyber pals nodding their heads sagely as they also read that quote.
It feels great.
It's wonderful to feel understood by someone who may have been dead for two hundred years, to feel that there is (or was) someone out there who sees it just the way you do.
But if that's all there is, then all that's happening is that our way of seeing things is being confirmed back to us. That's nice, and encouraging, of course, but why settle for that? A great quote can offer so much more than a mirror for what you already think.
Who stole my sugar?
Some of the truly top quotes, I found, actually have no sugar in them at all. In fact, I found many of them nonsensical. At first.
(This annoys me, because I'm a good product of the conditioning given me by a sound-bitey world, and I expect my sugar hit. You shouldn't have to work for wisdom! You should just swallow it like Pepsi!)
Some of these jarring quotes are oddly dry and unsentimental and don't tend to get passed around on Facebook. I was raised on Little House on the Prairie (not in it but watching it) and am in danger of not recognizing wisdom if it doesn't push my pre-programmed buttons.
So what is a quote for? Is it just to help us feel vindicated in our pre-existing beliefs, to offer 10 seconds of inspiration, or can it do more, much more, for us?
How to let quotes change your life
It's so easy to exclaim, "Wow, that's so true!" and just keep on hiding from what you fear, or living small, or under appreciating, or whatever the quote was enjoining you not to do. So the quote made you feel good, but it didn't change you.
But a quote, and the less immediately 'salesy' quotes even more so, need to be chewed over thoroughly so that the real 'meat' in them can be properly digested and then absorbed, rather than sucked in for flavour and then spat right out again to make room for the next mouth watering wisdom morsel.
Handle with care
If you really take time to unpack these less instantly sugary quotes they can offer you vistas of insight you won't find in the more obviously 'inspirational' ones.
Quotes can be taken out of context too of course. For example, the Sufi mystic Rumi gets widely quoted around cyberspace (and I have quoted him myself), but it seems some of the old masters would invent a 'quote' as a kind of teaching tool.
Their hidden message is "What's wrong with these words?" This is a totally unfamiliar idea to most people, and therefore tends to be immediately forgotten. (1)
How to get the best from your quotes
So, with all that in mind, I'd like to share some of my favourite success quotes.
I have focussed on these quotes, thought about them at length, been emboldened by them and let them change my life through the years. I've expanded some of their ideas (and referenced any research relating to them) in 10 Steps to a Stellar Success Mindset. I've even found certain limitations with some of them and that too has been useful!
Quote 1: J.K Rowling on the benefits of failure
Whenever I've found myself holding back from acting through fear, and I have examined my paralysis and found that it was only fear that was holding me back, I have thought about this wizard wordsmith's wise words. Bob Dylan said the same thing when he sang: "When you've got nothing you've got nothing to lose."
Anxiety is a major enemy of progress in many areas, and what is it that lies (and 'lies') behind all anxiety?
Expectation of possible loss of some kind.
It could be loss of status, money, health or a sense of security. Whenever fear has held me back, I've checked out what it was I felt I might risk losing, and asked myself whether losing that really would be a great loss. At one time, for example, I was afraid of losing three low paid jobs in order to start a business. But in fact I never spent one second lamenting the loss of those bum 'secure' jobs.
The question to ask yourself is: "What do I really fear losing here? And can I live without that and replace it with the pursuit of real success?"
Quote 2: T.S Eliot on life as adventure
This is ultra simple but has directed much of what I do. All success is the result of an adventure, an exploration. There are no guarantees when you sail over the horizon.
If you don't try, you don't find out. Sure, it might not work. But it might.
We can extend this idea to include overcoming overly simplistic notions of success and failure. If you push something to see if it works, it might not work but the pushing you have been doing during the attempt so often makes something else unexpected come into being and work.
Don't be afraid to 'go too far' because all human progress depends on breaking out of the accepted 'wisdom' of what is and isn't 'possible'.
Quote 3: William H. Rehnquist on doing for doing's sake.
Common sense has been borne out by detailed research (which doesn't always happen). People are much more powerfully motivated by the love of doing something for its own sake. We can even lose motivation if external rewards (such as money, adulation, fame) come to be more important than the simple fulfilment that comes from pursuing dreams for their own sake.
This has massive implications not only for how we can best encourage children but also for how we motivate ourselves and other people.
Quote 4: Bette Davis on the importance of intrinsic reward
Like Number 3, this quote emphasizes thinking ahead and the power of intrinsic reward.
So many people who chase money for its own sake end up with a weird empty sense of disappointment. Money is a by product or bonus (the gravy) of some kinds of success, just as increased physical fitness is a side effect of training to win a sporting event. Success will feel empty unless it also helps us obtain connection to the community, a sense of meaning, challenge and that magical 'in the zone' feeling.
A successful career or project needs to support the completion of all your basic emotional needs, and you need to have a sense of how it will do that from the start.
Nice one Bette!
Quote 5: US Naval Officer and Prisoner of war James Stockdale on facing the facts
This is perfect, because it can remind you how important it is to look at what is actually going on while maintaining your inner vision, even when others can't see it, of what is possible but not yet real.
This is a fine balance, and who better to remind us of it than a guy who suffered the terrible privations of being a prisoner of war? Denying the facts of a situation is not the same as 'being positive'. And of course temporary failure can provide real feedback, letting you know what to avoid in future, and therefore taking you closer to real success.
Quote 6: James Allen on procrastination pitfalls
If we are too much controlled by instant wants, or even fears, then the bigger long term vision can be torn apart and scattered to the winds of what could have been.
Procrastination is often not just about avoiding what needs doing, but actually choosing temporary satisfactions (and even fears) instead of work.
This isn't a particularly profound thought but Allen packs so much into one line here that I find it really inspiring. If 'we are what we repeatedly do' then giving into 'controlling desires' makes us somehow much 'smaller' than we could be. So, constant procrastination and giving into distracting impulses actually changes who we are. That to me, is great motivation to kick procrastination into touch.
Quote 7: Abe Lincoln on being true to yourself
Fear of what others might think of us if we 'stick our necks out' and do something different squash that part of ourselves that wants to grow in life.
Being prepared to lose the respect of (some) other people by not conforming makes you strong. How many people might have told J.K. Rowling to focus more on 'getting a proper job' to support her daughter rather than writing some stupid wizard book that was never going to sell?
Don't become estranged from yourself by only trying to live up to what you think others expect from you. Live by your principles, but be flexible.
Ultimately, we all have to answer to ourselves - and remembering that is beautifully empowering.
Quote 8: Mark Twain on doing stuff
In 10 Steps to a Stellar Success Mindset I show how visualizing your desired outcome too much can actually make it less likely to happen. That is, unless you also strongly visualise each and every step along the way.
Before you can do this you need to break down the steps so you have a proper route to your dreams. There is a great fun way to do this that I call the 'Time Machine'.
Quote 9: Seneca on forgetting how to live
Living in the future, even envisioning success, can actually block that success from happening if you replace the focus of real efforts with the comforts of fantasy. We can get so swept up in what we are going to do or be that we forget to live now.
This quote reminds me to focus on what 'success' really means to me and to put my plans and dreams and the future aside sometimes so I can practise spontaneous living.
It also reminds me how important it is to take time to actually enjoy success (when it comes) in the moment.
Quote 10: How A German philosopher got me started in life
Not many people know that it was a German philosopher who got me started in life.
Years ago I was stuck. I had young children to support and was working seven days a week in three different low paid unfulfilling jobs. At 27 I was thinking about striking out on my own. Starting my own business.
But insecurity had fastened itself firmly around me and was busy squeezing the last drops of aspiration from my soul.
One day I was thinking about all of this when a book suddenly fell off my bookshelf onto the floor. Did somebody push it? I picked it up and stared at the page that had been flung open by its fall. My eyes landed upon Goethe's words you see above.
I inwardly thanked him, and have never looked back.
- In the book 'The Commanding Self' the writer and authority on Sufism Idries Shah describes how sufi masters of old would publish or have people repeat their sayings in order for people who had discernment enough to be able to look beyond the obvious sentimental aspect or even to see what was limiting in the saying.