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Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout recently wrote the interesting commentary Importantitis, Enemy of Art; How to Wreck a Career in One Easy Lesson. In it, he discusses well-known artists and writers who have created outstanding works, but who were never again able to duplicate their successes.

Leonard Bernstein, despite repeated efforts, couldnt come close to the success of his 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story. He seemed incapable of producing one more memorable show or song. When biographer Meryle Secrest asked about this, Stephen Sondheim, a collaborator of that musical, said that Bernstein had developed a bad case of importantitis.

Orson Welles made the cover of Time magazine when he was 23 years old and produced the movie Citizen Kane two years later. But most of his later stage and movie creations were poorly conceived. As Teachout explains it, He became famous far too soon and was acclaimed as a genius before his personality had matured.

Margaret Mitchell won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1936 novel Gone With the Wind, but never wrote another book. Ralph Ellison published his National Book Award novel Invisible Man in 1952, but couldnt finish another one. Teachout half-joked that The best way to make a bad work of art is to try to make a great one.

A significant success of any kind, particularly if early in ones career, may actually inhibit later achievements of the same magnitude. Unfortunately, the importantitis problem is not unique to the arts; there are also notable examples in the business world.

Richard Thalheimer made his first million selling jogging watches during the formative years of his catalogue retailer Sharper Image. The company went public in 1987 and grew to 2,500 employees nationwide, selling through stores, catalogues and the Internet. But, as a CEO who also selected his own merchandise, Thalheimer failed to keep up with the easy availability of competing products and the changing tastes of customers. As a result, he was fired in 2006, and the company filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Thalheimer could not sustain his early success.

Xavier Roberts, inventor in 1978 of the enormously popular Cabbage Patch Kids, never came up with another popular toy. Coleco, his original manufacturer, went bankrupt in 1989.

James Ryder, the founder of Ryder truck rental, was fired as CEO in 1975. Three years later, he tried to repeat his early success by starting Jartran (an acronym for James A. Ryder Transportation), a competing company. Jartran filed for bankruptcy in 1982, and Ryder lost his fortune.

All of these business people seemed to share the thought that one exceptional accomplishment guarantees another. Not so; the next great success would not come as easily, no matter how hard they tried.

The stress of attempting to repeat a great achievement can be overwhelming, but some have managed to handle it. George Balanchine, the famous choreographer, paid little attention to critics and kept on turning out ballets year after year. Steve Jobs, once terminated as CEO of Apple Inc., the company he co-founded, went on to start NeXT and Pixar, finally returning triumphantly to Apple.

The moral here is that if you are lucky enough to achieve something great, forget about it. Because if you dont, you may catch importantitis and never be able to rise to those heights again.

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