I once attended a conference where I had a sense of frenetic action all around me. The people there were constantly involved in one activity or another. There were workshops, conference sessions, and side events going on all the time. It was a really positive atmosphere. It felt like something important was happening and things were being accomplished. It reminded me of what the Companions used to repeat while they were at work building the mosque in Madinah:
Those who go to the mosque all the time
Standing and attending, are not the same
As those who shy away from getting dirty.
Getting dirty is something you have to get used to if you are going to build something. You cannot be over-sensitive about it. It is one of the consequences of hard work, living life, and getting things done.
When the closing session of that conference adjourned, everyone left until I was alone at the venue. The isolation felt acute after all that bustle and activity.
My experience at that conference made me think about how life’s real successes depend on working under a wide range of conditions and circumstances, and adapting to change. Winston Churchill said: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Remembering these words helped me through a lot of tough times.
Some people excel when they are in the public eye. They draw their inspiration and enthusiasm from those around them. If they are going to be consistently productive, they need to learn how to persevere when they are not in the limelight. It should make no difference to their performance whether they are addressing thousands of people or an audience of ten.
Success at being a writer, public speaker, intellectual – or even being a mother, father, spouse, or friend – depends on our outlook on life, our hopes, our satisfaction, and our convictions. Some people get caught up in the zeal of a public movement or crisis and work at a heroic level, propelling themselves to the forefront of the movement. They speak, mobilise, write, and maintain a presence on social networking websites. They stand for or against policies, make demands, counter opposition, and find themselves fulfilled and refreshed in the process, in spite of spending many sleepless nights. You almost always hear them speaking to people about the issues that concern them. Then, when the issue gets resolved or the crisis has passed, they dissolve back into the crowd, never to be heard from again.
For some of them, it means becoming idle, and the idle time takes its toll on them. After months or years, they begin longing for another cause to come their way and capture their imaginations and engage their lives, but it never comes. Years later, you ask about them, but no one can tell you anything.
In other cases, they find a different kind of success. You hear that they completed their studies, enjoy successful careers, made a profitable business for themselves, married and raised a family. All of this is good. These people have turned to working on a mundane, less extraordinary level. Yet, it is hard not to miss them and the positive impact they used to have on people’s lives.
Then there are others whose names we want to hear again, those who used to draw crowds and provide leadership in times of crisis. You find that they now work in silence, building, organising, establishing, thinking and planning. As a consequence, they are less likely to react to things as forcefully. These are the people who have learned that those who truly have an impact on life are the ones who show persistence and fortitude and never fail to get things done. They do not need the public eye. They are not like the spectators who crowd around a traffic accident and then drift away without purpose.
Those who can only be active in times of crisis fail to realise their full potential. They put all their efforts into the one thing and expect everyone else to do the same. They think they are building a future for generations to come. They are good at making their voices heard, but never get to the heart of the matter. The problem is that when things settle down they never ask themselves about the consequences. They never reassess their positions. It is a problem of youth that they work within a narrow perspective and are satisfied with the inner sense of accomplishment that they get from it.
They sometimes say: “We must act, and leave the consequences to God.”
This saying needs to be looked at critically. Everything belongs to Allah and comes from Allah. However, he placed cause-and-effect relationships in this world for us to act upon and with which we organise the activities of our lives. We must consider the consequences of our actions.
Allah says: “Whoever does something wrong will be recompensed for it, and he will not find besides Allah a protector or a helper.” [Sūrah al-Nisā’
He also says “Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change their own condition” [Sūrah al-Ra`d
And: “Allah does not make prosperous the deeds of those who work corruption.” [Sūrah Yūnus
And: “And whoever fears Allah, He will make for the ma way out.” [Sūrah al-Talāq
Whenever we baulk at considering the consequences, our work becomes deficient, misguided, and ill-advised.
When an individual or a society achieves success, in the East or West, it is not something random or accidental. It comes as a result of Allah’s mercy and wisdom in that whenever people work for their worldly lives in a correct and productive manner, they make progress. Those who do not work and take the practical steps toward worldly success are deprived of success even if they are pious and devoted. This is the norm that Allah has placed in the world.
At the same time, it may be that most people in the world live in the moment. They do not think about the future or plan for it. They wrestle with their immediate concerns in a simple and straightforward manner, then forget about what they did or said at that time. It is not expected that all the people in a country are going to become like geniuses or philosophers. It would not be expected that the people would follow such an elite if they were found among them.
I once met a young man at a social gathering who brought life to the evening and set the tone of the conversation. His spirit, energy and enthusiasm inspired everyone, and he had brilliant ideas. He believed people could make a difference if they were creative and he spoke about life’s many opportunities.
At that meeting, I felt that here was a young man who is going to make a future by building the present. His enthusiasm rubbed off on me and I keenly followed everything he said and I asked him a number of questions. I hoped to keep in touch with him.
Circumstances got in the way and we lost touch, and I never heard any news of him again.
There are a lot of people like that. They start out inspired and have the ability to inspire others, then either obstacles get in the way or they find things not going smoothly enough, so they slow down in their efforts and ultimately come to a grinding stop and retreat from any progress they might have made.
Abraham Lincoln said: “I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.”
You hear about a great preacher or thinker, or read a book by that person which makes you think that here is someone who is going to do great things. Then you wait for a long time and never hear that person’s name again. Why does this happen?
I decided to look at the lives of influential people, whether they were religious scholars, educators, literary figures, intellectuals, or community leaders; those who remained active throughout their lives and continued to have an impact. It became clear to me that their persistence and long-term influence had the following causes:
1. They had noble far-reaching goals, along with the patience and foresight to pursue them over the long haul. They were able to realistically evaluate their circumstances and strike a balance between their hopes and their practical expectations.
2. They were adaptable and able to respond to different situations. They could resist frustration and despondency and negotiate obstacles, missed opportunities, and difficult circumstances. They were flexible and not locked into a narrow vision. When they found the path ahead to be blocked, they did not give up. Instead, they looked for other ways to proceed. They never blamed the times.
It is necessary to adapt yourself to the heat and the cold, light and dark, plenty and scarcity, success and failure, so you never take failure to be the end of things. Being patient does not mean to simply wait around. It means to look for other ways to prevail. Do not limit your vision to a specific image of your goal that must be realised exactly as you picture it. This is unlikely to bring success
3. They were able to reinvent themselves. They could renew their thoughts and activities and they could seek out wisdom wherever it could be found. They were insatiable for it, and that is why they could always avail themselves of new ideas and new opportunities. Ibn Mas`ud said: “There are two kinds of insatiable people: those who covet knowledge and those who covet wealth.”
Even if you are eighty years old, do not presume that there is nothing new for you to learn, even about a topic you have studied well and even from sources you think you have exhausted.
Today, those of us of the older generation are learning a lot about technology – and the world – from our children. We need to have a spirit that seeks knowledge with humility. This keeps our minds vital and our lives dynamic, not like a cassette tape that plays the same recording over and over again. We should be like the Sun that every day illuminates a new horizon. The Sun does not become a different heavenly body, but it rises from a new point in the east and goes to a new setting place in the west every day.
4. They lived for a long time. Those whom Allah blesses have noble goals, flexible minds, and the ability to reinvent themselves, are refined by time. They get beyond the heat of youth and become more proficient at responding to their circumstances. They gain knowledge and become better experienced. They earn the love of the good people around them. They rise above the varying circumstances of the times and through their persistence they prevail and prove their detractors wrong, especially if they live long enough that they outlive many of their peers.
Those who from the beginning think they have reached perfection are quick to extinguish their own flames. This is because they think they have arrived before they have even gotten underway.