Brain Pickings

Walter Benjamin on the Key Qualities of the Successful Person and How to Master the Art of Asking for What You Want

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“And please believe me when I tell you: successful people are never sore losers.”

Walter Benjamin may be best known as a literary critic, philosopher, and essayist — with enduring insight on the written word that includes his thirteen rules of writing and his advice on how to write a fat tome — but he was also a pioneer of early German radio. Between 1927 and 1933, thirty-something Benjamin wrote and delivered nearly ninety broadcasts over the nascent medium. (The world’s first radio news program had aired in August of 1920 and commercial entertainment broadcasts followed in 1922.) Those pioneering pieces, at last translated into English and released as Radio Benjamin (public library), were notable for many reasons, but perhaps most of all for upholding the idealism and optimism of any young medium. (Early German radio, for instance, was based on subscriptions and had strict rules against commercially sponsored programming — something wholly heartening and wholly heartbreaking in our era of “native advertising” and other unending violations of the church-state relationship between public-interest journalism and private-interest greed.) Many of Benjamin’s broadcasts were also groundbreaking in being aimed at children, from educational programming to fairy-tale adaptations to original plays. But one of his pieces in particular stands out for its timeless and timely allure.

On February 8, 1931, Benjamin’s broadcast “How Do I Deal with My Boss?” aired on Radio Berlin. A few weeks later, on March 26, it was broadcast again on Radio Frankfurt under the title “A Pay Raise?! Whatever Gave You That Idea!” The piece, which Benjamin wrote in collaboration with his friend Wolf Zucker, offered a semi-satirical but strikingly lucid take on the eternal question of how to ask for a raise — or, rather, how to ask for anything when there is a power dynamic involved between giver and receiver. Benjamin’s advice, at once playful and practical, is not only timeless in answering the money question today with equal wisdom, but also widely resonant far beyond the particular context of employment — at its heart is practical wisdom on the art of asking itself, with immense insight into its delicate balance of dignity and humility.

The piece is structured as a two-person play-parable, where The Speaker reveals to The Skeptic the secret of success through a couple of anecdotes about workplace dynamics. “Are you suggesting that a single, lousy individual has the power, all on his own, to transform his life into a better one? Do you really believe that?” The Skeptic probes the premise incredulously, to which The Speaker responds: “Yes, nearly one hundred percent, absolutely.”

In the first anecdote, we meet a man named Herr Zauderer — for this was 1931, and the workforce was a monolithic swarm of testosterone — who approaches his boss about a raise with remarkably poor timing, after having underdelivered on a project. After a series of questionable attempts at manipulation by Herr Zauderer, the vignette ends with a door slam, which only confirms The Skeptic’s conviction that it’s impossible to ask for a raise with any outcome other than humiliation. But in distilling the moral of the fable, The Speaker sheds light on the essential elements of a successful ask, outlining the seven rules for getting what you’re asking for:

First off, the dumbest thing you can do is to ask for something when the boss already has reason to be miffed. Second, if you notice that the boss is in a bad mood, don’t keep harping on the salary issue. Third, when speaking with the boss, you can’t be perpetually shy, fearful, and submissive. Never be impolite or arrogant. One must maintain one’s dignity. But stay on point and speak your mind. Fourth: Herr Zauderer responded to the criticism from his boss by passing the blame onto a colleague. This is unfair and makes a poor impression. Fifth: Herr Zauderer addresses the question of the pay raise in terms of his needs alone. The boss is interested in his business, not in the private life of his employees. Sixth: a very stupid maneuver: Herr Zauderer threatens to quit when he sees he’s lost the cause. The boss knows, of course, that there is no chance Herr Zauderer can seriously consider walking away. It is most inept of Herr Zauderer to insist on playing the injured party. It never works. And finally, seventh: the word unjust is never appropriate. A boss does not let himself be told to which employee he will give more or less pay. That is his concern. It is inappropriate for Herr Zauderer to speak to him about other employees’ salaries.

We then meet another fellow, Herr Frisch. He is the head of accounting at a wholesale knitwear company and “accomplishes everything he sets out to do.” We follow him as he asks his own boss for a raise, with a very different result, thanks to his arsenal of courage and composure, dignity and determination. The Speaker then examines the secret to Herr Frisch’s success and what universals it might hold for all. He tells The Skeptic:

Every person is an isolated case. Nevertheless, there will always be certain situations in which the same rules apply to everyone.

This second fellow had avoided all the mistakes of the first, The Speaker points out, to which The Skeptic retorts that there surely must be something more to success than merely avoiding mistakes. The Speaker responds:

Something else is necessary… A fundamental attitude, a state of mind… An inner bearing, the basic values [the successful person] displays at work, with the boss, and in his entire life. He is clear, determined, and courageous. He knows what he wants and therefore he can remain both calm and polite at all times. He understands how to attune himself to his opponent’s state of mind without sacrificing his dignity in the slightest.

In a sentiment that Pixar’s co-founder would come to echo decades later in exploring the rewards of fostering a fearless culture in a company, one that also calls to mind Nietzsche on the value of suffering, The Speaker points to the particular value of Herr Frisch’s relationship with failure:

[The successful person] is always prepared. Even in failure, he is composed. He is not easily discouraged. [He] considers his struggles to be a kind of sport, and he approaches them as he would a game. He contends with life’s difficulties in a relaxed and pleasant manner. He keeps a clear head even when things go wrong. And please believe me when I tell you: successful people are never sore losers; they’re the ones who don’t whine and give up after every failure. Indeed, they are the ones who keep their chins up, weather life’s misfortunes, and live to fight another day. Who will be first to fail the test? The timid and the faint of heart. The whiners, the complainers. He who goes to the exam cool and calm is already halfway there. Such people are in great demand today. That is, I believe, the secret of success.

Radio Benjamin is a treasure in its totality. Complement this particular excerpt with Joseph Brodsky’s rules for winning at the game of life, possibly the greatest commencement address ever given, then revisit Thoreau on defining your own success and Picasso on why you should never compromise in your work.

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Kahlil Gibran on the Absurdity of Self-Righteousness

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A simple reminder that nothing undoes dignity like peevish indignation.

Decades before artist Anne Truitt pondered the cure for our chronic self-righteousness, another extraordinary creative mind tussled with this human pathology. Among the many gems in Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran’s 1918 collection The Madman: His Parables and Poems (public library) — Gibran’s first work in English, a classic that falls somewhere between William Blake and Mary Oliver — is a short poem that speaks with great subtlety and great insight to our illusion of separateness and the self-righteousness it produces, our lamentable tendency to mistake others for interruptions and nuisances, to forget that everybody is simply doing their best in this shared experience called life.

SAID A BLADE OF GRASS

Said a blade of grass to an autumn leaf, “You make such a noise falling! You scatter all my winter dreams.”

Said the leaf indignant, “Low-born and low-dwelling! Songless, peevish thing! You live not in the upper air and you cannot tell the sound of singing.”

Then the autumn leaf lay down upon the earth and slept. And when spring came she waked again — and she was a blade of grass.

And when it was autumn and her winter sleep was upon her, and above her through all the air the leaves were falling, she muttered to herself, “O these autumn leaves! They make such noise! They scatter all my winter dreams.”

For a different side of the same existential coin, treat yourself to Mary Oliver’s beautiful reading of “Wild Geese.”

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What It Really Means to “Live Our Mission”

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A beautiful meditation on how we learn to stand at the gates of hope in troubled times.

“How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip and yet do trip, and then get up and say OK?” Maira Kalman asked in pondering happiness and existence. What is it that propels us to get up after loss, after heartbreak, after failure? What is that immutable rope that pulls us out of our own depths — depths we hardly know until that moment when the light of the surface vanishes completely and unreachably?

That’s precisely what the Reverend Victoria Stafford explores in a gorgeous essay titled “The Small Work in the Great Work” from The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times (public library) — a soul-stretching collection of reflections by such luminaries as Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, Diane Ackerman, Alice Walker, Bill Moyers, and Nelson Mandela, edited by social activist Paul Loeb and titled after Billie Holiday’s famous song lyric, “The difficult I’ll do right now. The impossible will take a little while.”

Artwork by William Blake for Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Click image for more.

Stafford considers what motivated the men and women who marched in the first LGBT pride parades four decades ago — what beyond courage and imagination. In a beautiful sentiment that calls to mind Charles Bukowski’s poem about the irrepressible impulse that drives creative work, Stafford channels what these visionary marchers might tell us:

Once you have glimpsed the world as it might be, as it ought to be, as it’s going to be (however that vision appears to you), it is impossible to live compliant and complacent anymore in the world as it is… And so you come out and walk out and march, the way a flower comes out and blooms, because it has no other calling. It has no other work.

[...]

I am interested in what Seamus Heaney calls the meeting point of hope and history, where what has happened is met by what we make of it. What has happened is met midstream by people who are — among the multitude of things we are — spiritual beings and all that that implies of creativity, imagination, crazy wisdom, ancient wisdom, passionate compassion, selfless courage, and radical reverence for life. And love—for one another absolutely, and that love that rises out of us, for something larger than ourselves, call it what you will. I am interested in the place, the places, where history is met by the hope of the human soul, life’s longing for itself. I am interested in hope on this side of the grave — for me there is no other kind — and in that tidal wave of justice that could rise up if only we would let it.

Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother,' a photograph as iconic as its story is remarkable. Click image for details.

Reflecting on the “particular, precise disaster” of September 11 and how “silence made its holy way” among those bearing witness, Stafford argues that this longing, this hope, is all the more piercing in such moments of unholy din. She illustrates this with a poignant anecdote:

I have a friend who traffics in words. She is not a minister, but a psychiatrist in the health clinic at a prestigious women’s college. We were sitting once not long after a student she had known, and counseled, committed suicide in the dormitory there. My friend, the doctor, the healer, held the loss very closely in those first few days, not unprofessionally, but deeply, fully — as you or I would have, had this been someone in our care.

At one point (with tears streaming down her face), she looked up in defiance (this is the only word for it) and spoke explicitly of her vocation, as if out of the ashes of that day she were renewing a vow or making a new covenant (and I think she was). She spoke explicitly of her vocation, and of yours and mine. She said, “You know I cannot save them. I am not here to save anybody or to save the world. All I can do — what I am called to do — is to plant myself at the gates of Hope. Sometimes they come in; sometimes they walk by. But I stand there every day and I call out till my lungs are sore with calling, and beckon and urge them in toward beautiful life and love…

There’s something for all of us there, I think. Whatever our vocation, we stand, beckoning and calling, singing and shouting, planted at the gates of Hope. This world and our people are beautiful and broken, and we are called to raise that up — to bear witness to the possibility of living with the dignity, bravery, and gladness that befits a human being. That may be what it is to “live our mission.”

That mission, of course, is different for each of us. We can’t — nor need we — all be psychiatrists reigning desperate souls in from the edge. In our age of “troubled times,” per the book’s title, so much of that fear and so little of that despairingly necessary hope is being mongered by the media — which calls to mind E.B. White’s urgently unforgettable assertion that a writer’s duty is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

Artwork by Maira Kalman from 'The Principles of Uncertainty.' Click image for more.

Stafford, that rare kind of writer who does the heavy lifting with immeasurable grace, considers what is required of us — what we owe ourselves and each other — in planting ourselves gently but unflinchingly in our mission:

We stand where we will stand, on little plots of ground, where we are maybe “called” to stand (though who knows what that means?) — in our congregations, classrooms, offices, factories, in fields of lettuces and apricots, in hospitals, in prisons (on both sides, at various times, of the gates), in streets, in community groups. And it is sacred ground if we would honor it, if we would bring to it a blessing of sacrifice and risk…

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.

The remainder of The Impossible Will Take a Little While is just as vitalizing, just as tenderly tenacious at lighting that inner fire that warms us out of our complacency and cynicism, those virulent specters of contemporary culture which we, in a billion daily ways, choose to propagate or choose to eradicate.

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