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The Secret to Success

If you ask people what they liked most about Harvard, the answer is always, "The people!" You love the people. They are smart, they are interesting, and they are headed great places.

It's when they get there that's the problem.

Oscar Wilde used to tell his dinner companions a story about two devils who were torturing a holy hermit. They beat him and applied thorns to his tender regions and did all kinds of terrible things, but the holy man persisted in defying them. Then the Devil came along. He leaned close to the hermit's ear and whispered, "Your brother has just been made Bishop of Alexandria." At this point the hermit turned bright red and started to scowl. "That," the Devil said, "is the sort of thing I should recommend."

The further you get out of college, the more of a resemblance your life bears to this story.

You are going along, confident and chipper and feeling that, if your life is not exactly perfect, you are headed in the right direction. You have had a healthy breakfast, and this is going to be a Tuesday unlike any Tuesday before it.

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Then you glance up at the TV and see the horrible news: Your best friend has just sold his start-up for several million dollars.

This isn't actually horrible news, of course. Really horrible news would be if a horse collapsed on top of your best friend and he lost an arm. So why do you get that weird, momentary stab in your gut?

"Every time a friend succeeds," Truman Capote said, "a little something in me dies."

"No," you're saying. "I'm not like that. I am just overflowing with yeasty benevolence toward all and sundry, a phrase that I realize now sounds weird and alarming, but I'm going to go with, because now I'm too deep into the sentence to turn back."

This is the one thing Harvard has neglected to prepare you for.

Trust me. I have reached the exact age where I dash up to high schoolers on the street, grip them by the arms and mutter, "It's not too late!  You must listen! Save yourself from the mistakes that I have made." If that's a phase and not just a thing that I am doing.

Look, you can deal with failure. You have read that it is the crucible where character is forged, or something like that. You can handle it, because you believe in yourself. "All right," you say, when the third rejection letter comes in. "Heck yeah! Forging some character right here!"

But how do you deal with success? How do you deal with the worst kind of success: the kind that befalls other people?

Worse yet, it comes in different forms. There are eight Emmies sitting on your shelf, but Dorothy over there has managed to find love. You figured out how to fix throat cancer, but Andy already has a firstborn son. You have a generally perfect life—but it's Here, where everything closes at 11:30 and there is nothing that can be reasonably described as a cappuccino, and everyone else seems to live There, where fun never sleeps and Ryan Gosling routinely darts out to save people from oncoming traffic.

No matter how successful you are, no matter how good you are at what you do, even if a golden path rolls out in front of your feet your whole life, there will come one particularly bleak Tuesday when you glance over at Facebook and notice that Jen From Down The Hall has just won an Oscar. Burt Zinffer, whom you once rejected at a party because he reminded you of a vole with a poor conception of personal space, has just married a freakishly attractive human and become the governor of Michigan.

That was the whole point of coming to Harvard: to meet all these interesting great talented people who were going to do great things. But when these Great Things go from theory to practice, it hits you in the vitals. Sure, you like the relevant announcement on Facebook. Then the temptation is to go punch a small hole in the wall and bellow, "WHY GOD WHY," and eat several pounds of brisket while screaming wordlessly. I'm not saying you succumb. You are bigger than that. But still.

It's hard enough to be happy for yourself.

That is why you absolutely have to do the thing you want to do and not what you think you should do or what your parents do or what you feel gives you the highest number of Life Achievement Points. When Jeff from Canaday comes strolling by with his Ryder Cup, if you cannot say, "Well, but today I did something that made me happy," you will rupture something, and it certainly won't occur to you to send Jeff a thoughtful card.

Do you.

If you're doing what you do because you love it, you have room to be happy for others. And that's a lot of fun, when you get down to it. Cheering is a great time, and you have an immense team of people to cheer for. When you cheer, people want to be around you. You get to go to the party to celebrate Dave's promotion and meet Warren Buffett, rather than sit at home unnerving your Roomba by scowling at it.

"Anyone can sympathize with the suffering of a friend," Oscar Wilde wrote. "It requires a truly fine nature…to sympathize with a friend's success."

Figure out how to do this, and you have it made.

Alexandra A. Petri ’10, a former Crimson editorial writer, is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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