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Success Has Many Friends, Failure is an Orphan

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After the failure of the Bay of Pigs, John F. Kennedy told a journalist that, “victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.” It’s an old idea. The historian Tacitus (who happened to be fascinated by and a peer of Seneca), once said, “This is an unfair thing about war: victory is claimed by all, failure to one alone.”

When things are going well, it’s easy to find support—probably and ironically because you don’t really need it. It’s when things are tough that suddenly your options disappear. Epictetus put it well, “In prosperity it is very easy to find a friend; but in adversity it is most difficult of all things.”

This isn’t just a sobering, sad thought. It’s another Stoic reminder about preparedness. When things are going well, our ego makes us think we don’t need other people. We assume it’s going to be like this forever—that we’ve got everything covered. Of course, this is delusional.

It is precisely when things are good that we should be considering the possibility that someday they might not be so good. We should be acquiring allies. We should be doing favors and good for other people—because someday, we’ll need them to do the same for us.

It can be lonely at rock bottom, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s going to require doing some work now—while the seas are calm, so that we’re not left alone in a rough ocean when that changes.