Keys to success

As in recent years, SAFE’s final blog entry for the year will take the form of a series of true stories. We hope readers will find them interesting and instructive.

Wouldn’t it be nice to find the secret to success and happiness, a veritable key that opened all doors?


But experience shows that success is elusive, for there are a number of keys involved and a lot of competition. In short, we can’t all expect to be winners. Life is not a zero sum game, however, and the successes of a few can benefit many – as the following examples will show.

A. Skill (talent + practice) – Last December we wrote of Alice Herz-Sommer, a virtuoso pianist still active at the age of 110 who was also believed to be the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor. Remarkably, she harbored no bitterness against her former Nazi captors, only compassion for her fellow prisoners and a love for the music that was “our food” in those dark days. Not by bread alone, 12/23/13 (E).

A key part of the mosaic of Herz-Sommer’s life was her intellectual as well as emotional love for music. Consider these anecdotes from an obituary that was published after she passed away this year. Alice Herz-Sommer, who found peace in Chopin amid Holocaust, dies at 110, Margalit Fox, New York Times,

•After taking her mother to a Prague deportation center in 1942, an extraordinarily painful experience, Herz-Sommer embarked on a deep study of Chopin’s Etudes, a “set of 27 solo pieces that are some of the most technically demanding and emotionally impassioned works in the piano repertory.” As she explained decades later, “they are very difficult” and “I thought if I learned to play them, they would save my life.”

•Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic, visited Herz-Sommer in London circa 2012. Having been told that she could find journalists wearying, he presented himself as a musician. On being asked to “play something,” he “gamely made his way through some Schubert” before she stopped him. Now,” she said, “tell me your real profession.”

A 38-minute film about Herz-Sommer, entitled “The Lady in Number Six [her flat number]: Music Saved My Life,” won a 2014 Oscar (announced several days after her death) for documentary short subject. Here’s a
video (2:23) of the trailer, which among other things shows Herz-Sommer playing her piano in a very accomplished manner.

B. Balance (beware your Achilles heel) – Just because a person is good at doing certain things, that doesn’t mean they won’t strike out in other areas. Consider this update on oilman Harold Hamm, who as we reported two years ago has enjoyed great success in unlocking the value of shale oil formations in North Dakota and elsewhere through the use of fracking techniques. Five golden rings, 12/24/12 (story one).

Hamm has become very wealthy as a result of this activity, but many others have benefitted as well. Thus, the Bakken Field and other shale oil formations have contributed to a big recovery in US oil production – which had been dropping since the mid 1980s – with a resultant payoff in terms of lower fuel costs, reduced oil imports from unstable areas of the world, etc. Chart of the year, Myles Udland, Business Insider,


For all his business success, Hamm reached a parting of the ways with his wife of 26 years, Sue Ann Hamm. He now faces the dubious distinction of being involved in one of the most costly divorces in history. Ex-wife of oil baron will appeal $1 billion divorce award because she says it’s not NEARLY enough, David McCormack & Louise Boyle, UK Daily Mail, 11/13/14.

So much bitterness and legal strife (e.g., a 10-week trial), what a shame for all concerned including the couple’s two daughters!

C. Perspective (at least consider other viewpoints) - Why do human beings often disagree about things so deeply that rational discussion becomes difficult let alone finding common ground? Here’s a book on the subject based on an intriguing assortment of real life cases. The unpersuadables: Adventures with the enemies of science, Will Storr, 2014.

The writer’s theory, admirably supported by interviews with people holding very pronounced and often controversial views, is that human beings need a story that places them in the scheme of things and provides assurance that their lives matter.

Thus, to use one of the cases, suppose a global warming alarmist argues with a global warming skeptic like Lord Christopher Monckton. “It is not a matter of data versus data, it is hero narrative versus hero narrative . . . David versus David . . . a clash of worlds.”

When things get teed up this way, we can easily be fooled by our own minds – which will look for evidence to support the chosen position, assure us that we’re right, and dismiss intellectual opponents as misguided or worse.

So should one conclude there is no such thing as “truth,” as human beings exist in their own versions of reality? Or is there some way to break the power of stories and determine how things really work?

The story-breaking method is supposed to be science, which tests theories based on the actual evidence, but it turns out that scientists (such as investigators who set out to debunk any theories that suggest paranormal capabilities, e.g., foresight or extrasensory perception) can be just as fallible and dishonest as the rest of us.

While it would be hard to credit that Hitler knew nothing about the Holocaust or the creation story in the Bible is literally true, other controversies explored seem less susceptible to black and white answers. Maybe brain waves do emanate beyond the physical boundaries of our skulls (some recent research suggests that “mind reading” may be possible after all), homeopathic remedies work in some cases (if only due to the placebo effect), and the global warming debate is about politics rather than science.

If there is hope, Storr seems to be saying, it lies in humility. We may or may not change our minds about things, but we should try to understand why other people hold different views and consider whether they might actually have a point. Amen!

D. Ownership (of the problem) – A recurring theme in discussions about the results being achieved by public school students from predominantly lower class or minority families is that low test scores should be expected because teachers “are tasked with bringing up students who often start far behind academically and who face huge hurdles outside of school.” In other words, societal problems are limiting the educational progress that can be made – a ready excuse for failure. State says most priority school principals must go, Matthew Albright, News Journal, 12/16/14B.

Such arguments should not be taken at face value, however, because inner city students are doing much better in some – but not all - charter schools. Improving Delaware education, SAFE newsletter,
Fall 2014.

As shown by testing data for Wilmington schools, good charter schools are performing well in comparison to the public schools despite receiving less financial support. As for bad charter schools, e.g., Moyer, they should be shut down.

The key issue is not how a school is organized, but whether its administrators and teachers are empowered and motivated to raise the level of their game. Check out what a formerly abysmal public school in Leavenworth, Kansas was able to accomplish using an “eat, exercise and excel” model. Video [6 minutes]: A collapsing public elementary school reverses in just two years, Gary North,,

Anthony Elementary School’s approach (e.g., have students take vitamins daily, eat lunch in classrooms with their teachers, and exercise nonstop for 45 minutes at recess) is not the only way to go. And some of the group interactions seem more like Army boot camp than our idea of a school. Nothing succeeds like success, however, and the evident enthusiasm of all concerned plus soaring test scores provide a powerful endorsement.

E. Teamwork (people can accomplish great things by working together) - The story of an eight-man rowing team (plus a cox) from the University of Washington that represented the United States at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin is truly inspirational, the stuff of legends. Here is a bit about their final race.

Years of grueling effort – physical, mental and emotional – had gone into preparing for this challenge. Time and again, the team had risen to the occasion. But now, everything seemed to be going wrong.

Don Holm, the stroke rower, was ailing from a persistent respiratory infection. This morning, Coach Al Ulbrickson had reluctantly announced that Holm would be replaced with a backup rower, and then relented after everyone on the team insisted that they wanted Holm in the boat.

The Americans were given an unfavorable outside lane assignment, where they would be buffeted by winds, while the German and Italian teams were in lanes close to the shore. They got off to a bad start, and it was a relatively short 2,000 meters (about 1.25 miles) to the finish line. Still, they were going to give it their best shot.

Before the race was over, the Americans would do more than they had ever known they were capable of. They were not just eight rowers doing their best; they were a team that would never call it quits. The boys in the boat, Daniel James Brown,

[Cox Bobby] Moch grabbed the wooden knockers on the tiller lines and began to bang them against the ironbark knocker-boards fastened to either side of the hull. Even if the boys couldn’t hear it, maybe they could feel the vibrations. They did. And they immediately understood it for what it was – a signal that they needed to do what was impossible, to go even higher. Somewhere, deep down inside, each of them grasped at shreds of will and strength they did not know they possessed. *** Hume took the beat higher and higher until the boys hit forty-four. They had never rowed this high before – never even conceived of it as possible. *** In the span of a single second, the German, Italian and American boats all crossed the line.

There had been six earlier races that day, of which German rowers had won five, but this was the grand finale and the event that people most cared about. Given the closeness of the finish, nobody knew who had won, but the crowd began chanting “Deutschland, Deutschland, Deutschland” and the Nazi leaders standing in their place of honor seemed ready to celebrate. Then the loudspeakers crackled back to life with the official results – USA (1), Italy (2), Germany (3) – and everything changed.

The chanting of the crowd faded suddenly, as if turned off by a spigot. On the balcony of Haus West, Hitler turned and strode back into the building, unspeaking. Goebbels and Göring and the rest of the Nazi officials scurried in behind him.

In the American boat, it took a moment for the boys to understand the German announcement. But when they did, their grimaces of pain turned suddenly to broad white smiles, smiles that decades later would flicker across old newsreels, illuminating the greatest moment of their lives.

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SAFE’s next blog entry will be posted on January 5th. In the meantime, happy holidays to all!

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