The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Harlan Ellison on success

This was recently sent to me, words from one of my favorite human beings in all the world on the topic of success. Ellipses added...
(On the subject of: what is the path to success)
Mostly, it’s a boxcar full of incomprehensible terminology. Mandelbrot sets. Linear versus non-linear systems. That trite and wearying “butterfly effect” everyone uses when they want to sound informed. Fractals. Simple attractors. Strange attractors. Iterated growth and erosion. Self-similarity. The Koch Curve (same as fractal). Random behavior, in seemingly normal patterns. The manner in which smoke disperses; the manner in which cream permeates a cup of coffee; a lone walker standing at a fork in the road. Chaos Theory.None of that gibberish will help you. But…
Using the underlying concept of Chaos Theory and its universal application to flawed, fallible, mostly ridiculous human beings -- that’s you and me, kiddo -- I can codify for you The Big Secret. I can tell you how to attain riches, fame, true love, avoid accidents, reap the benefits of being well-liked, assure your future and, in short, make Life a Sweet Song for you. Pay attention.
“Chance favors the prepared mind.”—Louis Pasteur
I’ll start with an anecdote. It never fails, not even once; at every lecture I deliver, whether at the Yale Political Union or MIT or the London School of Economics or Caltech or Estrella Mountain Community College -- hundreds and hundreds of lectures over more than 50 years -- it never fails: someone will come up and ask me for The Secret.Like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, where he demands of the hallucination of his brother Ben, “What’s the secret? What is it, Ben! Tell me how to achieve success! What is it, Ben?!” And the ghost says something useless like, “be well-liked Willy” or “I went into the jungle and hewed an empire out of the vast waste…it’s diamonds, Willy!”That’s what they want to know. The Secret. As if we who have made something of our life ascend to the attic at dead midnight, bearing a chamois bag filled with the knucklebones of a chacma baboon, and we cast the runes and come down in the foggy morning light with The Secret. All that is as useless as Chaos Theory terminology. But Chaos Theory itself isn’t. Because, as Pasteur said, chance favors the prepared mind. So when a student or a businessman asks me -- in one way or another -- “What’s The Secret?” I tell him or her: “Read the Sherlock Holmes stories. The entire Conan Doyle canon.” Because all the stories are built on the concept of using logic, of ratiocination as a weapon and tool to control your own existence.The more you know, the more clearly you look at all aspects of the problem, the more likely you are not to wind up in bad situations with lovers, not to enter into illogical and blue-sky business plans, never to get involved with time-wasting or demented leaners who will lead you into the morass.
If you understand that there is no such thing as chance, but only patterns we do not understand, you will cease to believe in phony religions, astrology, flying saucers, heroes and demons, good and evil (most of what we call “evil” is usually only ineptitude), ghosts, the infallibility of politicians and all the other coo-coo distractions from clear thinking.There is no chance. There is Chaos. And Chaos is Entropy Misunderstood. The world is not run by secret cabals, it is run by people who do not understand the systems within which they operate; and so they attempt to bend them to alternate purposes.But Chaos will have its way. Those rivers will find their true courses, no matter how many dams of bigotry, greed, hatred and frenzy are erected. Chance favors the prepared mind. Chaos works to your benefit. Know as much as you can. Understand and remember.Life has only one great lesson. It says to you Pay Attention. Whether in Chaos or Entropy, the more you know, the cleverer and more well-informed you are…the easier it is to ride the tide of Chaos, to achieve The Secret.You’re welcome. And you didn’t even have to sign up for a seminar. Chaos is a highwayman, wild and free.Chaos is when a man walks ahead, but his soul lags behind.
Award-winning author, journalist and screenwriter Harlan Ellison® has written or edited 75 novels and 1,700 short stories, essays and articles. His books include Deathbird Stories, Slippage, Mind Fields and The Essential Ellison, a 50-year retrospective. His television work includes writing for Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, and he’s the only member of the Writers Guild of America to win Most Outstanding Teleplay four times for solo work. He has also received the Silver Pen for Journalism from P.E.N. Copyright © 2003 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation. Harlan Ellison® is a registeredtrademark of the Kilimanjaro Corporation.
A note from Steve: Harlan is one of the ten human beings I am most honored to know. Period.

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