Light to guide

Posted: January 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

There is a quote by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that goes thus: “”The heights that great men reached and kept were not obtained by sudden flight. But they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”

Until December 16, 2010, I liked this quote for its literal translation. It points to the notion that success involves gradual work towards a solution, and often, the investing of one’s time and self than would be ordinarily required. But there are other interpretations of this quote that I find interesting. I can’t be certain that Wadsworth intended for his words to have so many layers of insight, but still I find these layers within his words.

The first interpretation is the oxymoronic idea that “overnight successes” are both true and false. True, in the sense that people of great achievements typically toil upward in the night—and come morning, they achieve success. That is, success is achieved “over-the-night”. In this sense, the phrase “overnight success” becomes a strikingly accurate description of an entrepreneur’s journey. Again, I can’t be certain that the originators of the phrase “overnight success” intended it to have dual meanings.

The phrase is also false, because those heights we reached not by sudden flight, but through work that persisted during the day and into the night (and then unto several days and nights). It indicates that great people dedicate more effort to their aspirations, when compared to their contemporaries. And it is this persistent effort—often extending beyond regular boundaries—that leads to exceptional accomplishments.

But I also have another take on the quote. It is one that looks at the metaphorical meanings of “sleep” and “night” in the context of achievements. My interpretation of “sleep” is a participatory attitude toward life and life’s circumstances. An attitude that requires of the individual no more effort than is necessary to go with the flow. Just like with physical sleep, effort is still being expended in finding a comfortable position, breathing (and perhaps swatting the occasional bug), but usually on nothing more than these.

In contrast, great people invest deliberate effort in staying awake and toiling. That is, they rise above the flow and ask the questions of: why, how, and what if. They expend intelligence muscle and emotion on asking and answering (or at least, attempting to answer) audacious questions. Theirs is not a participatory attitude, but a predatory attitude: they want to pursue, to rip apart, to consume, and then spit out the indigestible parts of conventional wisdom.

“Night” stands for the unknown: a place of darkness and limited vision. This is a place where few people roam, and the monsters of failure, ridicule, and uncertainty rule. Ordinary people close their eyes to this place. They never feel the pain from the claws of the nighttime monsters, nor the absolutely consuming distress of momentary self-doubt, nor the terror of having one’s candle blown out by the wind of sudden change. But they also never experience the exhilarating feeling of raw possibilities pulsating under their feet, and electrifying the air, as one walks the streets of this daring place.

Great people toil upwards in the night. They apply themselves in taming its monsters and unveiling the riches in its dark places. They know that the night is the rock from which great inventions are carved. They know that it is the paper upon which wealth is printed. They understand that it where you go to get a Nobel Prize. The night is where you enter when you cannot find the answers during the day or in your sleep.

As ironic as it may seem, it is a truism that the night is where you go when you want to find a light to guide the path of those who sleep.

By Benedict Agbonkhese.


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