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Success and Reunions

Roy Esaki

Eventually, people all leave their respective ports of origin and sally forth into their blue yonders. After a leave of however-odd years, people occasionally return to touch bases with old friends and acquaintances. Some people seem to be incorrigibly the same. Others end up unexpectedly successful or surprisingly not. Regardless, it seems there’s something about being confronted with past colleagues and their divergent present lives that reminds one of the paths we might have taken, and makes one keenly aware of one’s level of success in comparison to what success may have been possible.

Recently, for his high school’s 25th reunion, Steve Case, Chairman of the Board of of AOL Time Warner, gave a short talk to fellow alumni in Hawaii. Attending speeches by notable notables isn’t terribly rare, but as someone who hails from the same alma mater as him, there was a certain feeling of humbling comparability between myself and the leader of one of the most influential media conglomerates in the world. Nobel laureates or world leaders who share one’s collegiate alma mater are a dime a dozen, but knowing that one of the world’s most influential business leaders underwent the same preparation at the same simple high school makes one question how different one’s life could be with different choices and opportunities.

The issue of unexpected fortune and circumstances is akin to the classic role-reversal of the high school reunion, where the football all-star and the prom queen are overweight and working at the gas station to everyone’s secret satisfaction, and the newest star attraction is the neglected outcast. From a class where brilliant and promising students went off proudly to their Ivy League colleges and road-mapped careers, suddenly, one classmate, formerly a peer, leaps into the limelight, becomes so famous that hordes of local news teams and people push and shove to hear him -- just a mortal human like any of us -- speak about what the future holds for the world.

It makes one wonder about the recipe for success -- just how much one is responsible for one’s ultimate position in life. Certainly, it’s a balance of nature, nurture, conscientious effort, and serendipitous luck, or lack thereof. Not to discount individual merit, but it seems that being in the right place at the right time, as well as having the right connections, is the characteristic distinguishing the successful from the thwarted, especially for businesspersons and politicians. Even for scientific careers, connections in getting jobs, luck in getting good results, and serendipity could conceivably contribute to success more than hard work and intelligence.

It’s an interesting duality of sentiment. On one hand, the public realizes that any given personage is only human, perhaps even considering oneself to be more competent than the other, as is the case with the current U.S. President. One wonders why, despite their greater hard work and effort, others enjoy such greater success and trappings of wealth and prestige. (It seems sometimes that the frustrations of MIT contain a tinge of enmity at those who don’t suffer the extra hardships, but still seem to reap greater sucess as measured by wealth, prestige, or happiness.)

On the other hand, much of the public idolizes and worships celebrities and notables, with mobs rushing down to be the first in line to talk to the speaker after the talk. Perhaps because of subservience or a general desire to ingratiate oneself with the rich and famous (or, influential, like a Professor or employer), respect and admiration for a person doesn’t always correlate with awe or jealousy of the person’s position, an unfortunate manifestation of either society or human nature.

With Case’s humble down-to-earth demeanor, passion for his field, and sincere devotion for public service and community responsibility, it was comforting that someone really successful really seemed to be a decent, deserving person (then again, so are all people from Hawaii). Though one can only hope that we ourselves will become someone able to so profoundly and successfully influence society, if we can, we can hope above all that the successful will be the deserving.