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Painting of Charles Baudelaire by Gustave Coubert / Public Domain image

Unselfishness and Creative Success

I can’t help it, but I regularly think about what makes some people successful in life (and of course, what ‘success’ actually is) – and after reading many biographies and interviews with Hollywood actors and blacklisted screenwriters, comic illustrators and disco producers, decadent French poets and Medieval Arabic scholars, I can see that there is no one path to go down, no pattern that you could hold up as a ‘golden ratio’ for leading a creative life.

But one thing that I do think reflects greatly in many of these people is unselfishness. They might hold their art and interest as something precious, a talent unique to them; something they are unwilling to comprise on, or drag through the mud – but they can also put it aside for a while, to care about other things, like friends and family.

They manage to achieve some balance in their life. I am Legend author Richard Matheson would always put down the pen on weekends to take his family out for a drive somewhere – an observation made by his friends. And I think that Stephen King’s success is also that he raised a family. Perhaps if he’d been a single man, he may not have succeeded in the way that he did.

But I don’t also think that it has to be just restricted to having a family.

I can see that Charles Baudelaire, one of the greatest French poets, dedicated a phenomenal chunk of his life to translating the works of Edgar Allan Poe into French, a person who he admired deeply. He recognized the genius of Poe at that time, the 1840s, in a way that many Americans did not – and a significant part of Poe’s place in the canon of world literature is thanks to Baudelaire’s championing of him.

If Baudelaire was a much more egotistical, selfish person, he would have said that translating another person’s work, was just eating into his own time to spend on his own creations, taking away from his legacy.

But Baudelaire loved someone else, more than his own self-interests. And that to me, is the golden rule. It’s love above all things; the only guiding principle strong enough to steer you away from becoming a completely selfish, self-obsessed person, who then fails to create anything worthwhile.

Portrait of Charles Baudelaire by Gustave Courbert (1847)

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