# 299: Chimney Philosophy

Williams, Tennessee (1999/1945). The Glass Menagerie. “The Catastrophe of Success,” 99.

Story behind the Passage

Today the chimney sweeper came to visit. She had to inspect the chimney and the heater, which is something she needs to do every three years. The checking does not take long or require too much concentration. A conversation unfolded and by the time she was done with everything, she asked about the “Dr.” on the name plate outside. I had decided to put that there some years ago for different reasons. At first, I had not wanted to do this. Then, I did it because of ego and defence reasons. And then I kept it because I had overcome the ego issues and still accepted that this academic title was part of my life — maybe even still is my life.

So, the thing she asked was: “What did you do your Ph.D. in?” That was the trigger for the actual conversation we had then because I, in turn, was fascinated by her question. I did not give a long answer about my field, which would not have been interesting. I instead was more interested in her question and the motivation behind it. I love when people ask all kinds of questions and the way in which she asked was not the “shrug of the shoulders” style which many non-academics often do — which is a pity, by the way. Many people bow to some mythical authority of academics. Her asking was of genuine interest. So, I then asked her about why she had asked. And then she said a remarkable thing:

“It is the knowledge behind it. Knowledge is power, that is all. I do every kind of training I can do to learn more.”

Do you see now why this post has this headline? Can you imagine the bliss I felt when she said this? She had put centuries of discussions among my dear humanities colleagues, and many others, into one single sentence and underlined if with her personal life experience. What else does it take to convince people of the value of learning? Of the liberating, emancipating, even hedonistic effect of education? And how cruel is it that nowadays, this kind of message, this idea that knowledge means “power” and that it can be obtained by any human being — no matter from which background — seems to have lost its value?

Actually, this aspect of diversity also struck me in our conversation and we ended up talking about it as well. She told me how she had consciously decided against completing her Abitur because she wanted to learn a practical trade. This she did, got her master craftsmen’s diploma, and has been a successful business owner for many years. The reason why I am sharing this, just to make it clear, is this: It was her decision to walk the path she has been walking and she appears to be genuinely happy and content about it. I could not feel this “I feel bad about not having studied” thing that you often encounter nowadays. To the contrary, this is also what we talked about, she followed her inner compass and did what she really wanted to do. When I did my Ph.D., I followed what I wanted back then. That was it.

We made choices.

Not more.

Life is a mere accident.

I know this will sound terribly cruel and I am touching on some of the most fundamental questions of theology, philosophy — even of life here. But the example today brilliantly emphasized this and my mission of fostering an education again that gives people the feeling they actually have a choice and they are also the ones making them — not society, not their parents, not even their self-restricted selves. No, life is a series of choices and in line with what I wrote yesterday about how Emerson saw intellect as something that is not necessarily unique about “successful” people, we should all become aware again that one person is not better or worse, happier or sadder, just because this person became an academic and that person a chimney sweeper.

If the ultimate goal of people is personal happiness,

combined with social contributions as part of happiness,

this is all that matters.

You might wonder now what all this has to do with the essay by Williams? The keyword is “success,” of course. I actually thought of The Glass Menagerie when looking for a book involving chimneys in my shelf. Then I took this play out because I thought I remembered that a chimney appears there. But this is wrong, actually, it is a fire escape, as I checked now. Still, what I also found in this rather gloomy play is the essay by Williams at the end of the slim book which is entitled “The Catastrophe of Success.” Williams here talks about how the play actually catapulted him to fame and how that changed his life. And this is where the issue of “success” as a coincidence, as it is sometimes depicted, comes in, linked to the chimney philophy from today.

My Learnings

“No, my experience was not exceptional, but neither was it quite ordinary, and if you are willing to accept the somewhat eclectic proposition that I had not been writing with such an experience in mind — and many people are not willing to believe that a playwright is interested in anything but popular success — there may be some point in comparing the two estates.” What Williams makes it sound like here is that success came more or less unexpected which, in a way, also means unintended. But unintended and “wanted desperately” or “planned” are two extreme ends. Saying that neither of the two hold true would certainly be wrong as well. After all, a writer, in his case, wants to be read at some point and the natural need to make money with something adds to the idea that “success” is not a bad thing, even if it might not be the primary thing why ones writes at all.

What I am trying to get at is that, usually, when people attribute their good luck to some outside circumstances, they do so because they really believe in the fact that their success is a coincidence. Most certainly, it is not — at least not entirely. Usually, the respesctive person does a lot for this success and if she/he did not, nothing would have happened. Yes, extreme success might need what we usually call “luck” but luck does not come without effort, as we know. Now, all this philosophizing about accidents and luck might sound familiar but what about the other extreme — bad luck?

As far as I read somewhere in a management book a while ago, it is usually the not so-successful people who attribute bad outcomes on outside circumstances and good outcomes on their own actions. Super successful people, including Williams, I would say, do the opposite. They are self-critical and assume that they have made very little contribution to good outcomes. For both groups, perhaps even more for the latter one, it is extremely difficult to deal with strokes of faith which come out of nowehere and might be “unfair,” as we would conventionally say, if a person has been living a righteous and virtuous life.

The thing is: in all these cases, an awareness of your conscious choices helps both of the above-mentioned groups — despite the fcact that stroked of faith will happen the way they happen.

Especially if you are struck by death, loss, and any kind of human tragedy, the question of “did I do that” usually comes up, often paired with the question”why is God doing this to me.” But even in this case, it is comforting to at least know that you can choose your mental response to these questions.If you keep the balance of knowing that you can do a great deal to become successful (or healthy) while at the same time being aware that this does not guarantee success, I think, this is the perfect mixture that leads to agency and an awareness of how your choices impact the outcomes of your life.

I am so grateful for the visit of my chimney sweeper today.

Conversations like these really make my day.

I do wish she will spread her philosophy to as many people as possible.

Success is usually not an accident and your career choices are not either.

So, go for what you love and what makes you feel content.

I will do the same.

I am ready.

Thanks to my chimney philosopher.

Reflection Questions

1) How do you define “success”?

2) Do you agree that “knowledge is power”? Why/not?

3) Do you agree to the statement “to live is to choose” (Kofi Annan)?

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Founder & CEO of Companypoets

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Silke Schmidt

Silke Schmidt

Founder & CEO of Companypoets

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