Being top-of-the-line successful is a 24-hour-a-day passion, a self-policed religion that permits no other gods before you. It is nonstop courtship and consummation, and a discipline a rigorous as fasting.

Disraeli spoke of "constancy to purpose" as the secret of success; William James decried as "our national disease. . . the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success." Thoreau assured us that "if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

Successful people keep speaking of the fun they are having while at work -- but is intensive fun the same as fun? They talk about needing time to relax -- but they concede that they can't get away from it all. Nor do they really want to. Besides success, what else is there? Success in another field, success on top of success, success by any other name.

Success ages beautifully and appreciates in value over time. is there a raw new success that doesn't ache for the patina of success?

Even the appearance of success breeds more success: the rich timbre of a commanding voice and the nonchalance of self-confidence secure loans and clinch deals. Like sainthood, success is in the eye of the beholder.

But for the pilgrim who pursues it, success is the ultimate excuse, and end in itself, a secular salvation. In a society where the individual is programmed to succeed -- and with no niche for failure -- success is an American absolute.

In Washington, the biggest success stroy is always the incumbent president's, and others' successes in the government are rated by their closeness to the chief executive. But Washington is more than federal barracks; it has its financial success stories as well.

Washingtonians successful in business maintain that if they had to start now they could't do it -- not in the current economic climate. These days just staying alive is success, they say. Instead of the bravado of boom, today's tone is careful understatement, citing marginal gains in marginal times.

The successful men and women interviewed here spoke about themselves with just a little hestitation. To them, success is both a very private, innermost truimph, the most public face they wear. Talking about it, they sounded as if they were speaking of themselves in the third person, as they were their own spokesmen.

JULIA M. WALSH, 59, investment manager, first woman member of the American Stock Exchange. Walsh runs a highly-regarded, elite firm -- the only full-service investment firm headed by a woman.

"I like things to be harmonious, positive and constructive. Success is to be able to do well for those who invest with you, and then be recognized in the community by being invited to join the symphony board and other community activities.

"Our business is fun because of the variety of investments we deal with. But it's fun only when the market is good. My job is to find the companies worth investing in. In 1978, we recommended gold stocks; in 1980, offshore drillers.

"It's very difficult to accumulate a fortune these days. A few people can do it, but it involves a high degree of risk that few people can assume.

"In my kind of business you have to be disciplined. You can't go out for a lark. Big decisions have to be programmed, researched and reviewed. Ours is a small firm; we don't want to grow big. Our forte is personalized, quality service.

"In the late '40s and early '50s, I was a Foreign Service officer. But they threw me out because I got married. I never went back, but I'd love to end up in a meaningful public service role."

JERRY SKALKA, 38, builds outdoor furniture and playground equipment even sturdier than it needs to be. In six years, his work place has progressed from a garage to a 40-man plant grossing $2 million a year.

"We selected an area -- Calvert County, Md. -- that the state just wrote off. We had tax advantages, yes, but we trained our people and treated them right. People respond to being treated well. They are proud of what they do.

"In this economy, we don't set our sights on doubling the volume every year. We established a policy three years ago to stay alive and to be there when the economy turns around. We kept prices down. We'd rather have some business even if it only means breaking even. We've survived though the meat of our market is no longer there: No more shopping centers, office plazas or malls are being constructed.

"Most of the innovation and new jobs and growth have traditionally come from small businesses. The great tragedy is that it's becoming tougher and tougher to start a new business.

I work about 60 hours a week. There is no such thing as being in business for yourself from 9 to 5. You take your business with you wherever you go."

VINCENT DeVITA, JR., 46 runs the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda. Sometimes called a ruthless administrator, he is said to be a potential Nobel laureate for his cancer research.

"Having clinical experience makes for a good administrator. A quick decision at a patient's bedside may mean life or death, but you don't have all the information and there isn't time to get all the information. A successful administrator knows when not making a decision is worse than making a wrong decision or no decision. I have no difficulty in making a decision.

"I work from 7:30 in the morning to 6 at night, and it's a rare weekend when I don't work. I guess I work about 70 hours a week -- my wife would tell you it's more.

"I have been offered jobs in the $250,000 range. But in science, the jobs that offer a great deal more money offer less of a challenge. I grew up at NIH, and most of the major scientists here could earn more money in private business.

"People who make decisions seem to be ruthless. Just translate ruthless as decisive. If you are concerned with pleasing everybody, you invariably make the wrong decision. A diplomat who wants to please everybody can wind up getting us into World War III."

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER, 52, No. 3 in the State Department. In his 20 years in the Foreign Service, he jumped a grade nearly every year: the quintessential staff man, a consummate bureaucrat.

"I never really specialized, and it has been good for my career. The Foreign Service needs capable generalists more than it needs capable specialists.

"When I was ambassador in Belgrade, I discovered how important morale is and how much more efficient the operation is when the ambassador worries about his staff having running water in their apartments.

"Success implies a certain plateau. But in foreign policy you don't buy a company, you don't make a merger. Instead, you are always faced with another challenge. You seldom win a victory; more often, you avoid disasters. I can say I was successful in Yugoslavia. But what the hell does that mean? I improved relations between the two countries -- but that's not a final status. It's an ongoing thing.

"I work an average 12, 13 hours a day. I haven't had a weekend off for two months. I don't deny that it's bad for family life. And for your health. Unless you are a damned genius, a difficult job requires a great deal of time. "

LIZ NOLAN, 39, hairdresser to the black plutocracy, country charmer in the city. Nolan worked her way up from picking cotton in Greenville, S.C., to owning Natural Motion, the trendsetting Georgia Avenue salon with suburban branches employing 80 hairstylists to handle 325 customers a day.

"D.C. is elegant. People want to look tapered, tailored. We deal with career women. I imagine them to be me -- I change my hair every day.

"What I know about business comes from my grandfather. My parents died when I was very little, and he raised me. He sold watermelons and rabbits, and he taught me that selling is the way you say 'Good morning' and 'Yes, ma'am' and 'Thank you.' I know nothing else but to be happy. I get evil once a year -- for 10 minutes.

"I treat my customers the same way I'd like to be treated. I like looking good. When I look good I feel good. I think everybody is like me. I give my clients 100 percent of me.

"For 15 years I worked from 8 in the morning til 10 or 11 at night. No vacations! I wanted to be the best in the business. Now I'm doing the things I should have been doing when I was young: studying English, improving the way I walk. If I had to start all over again, I'd do the same -- but I would take a vacation now and then."

JEFFREY COHEN, 33, owns acres of downtown real estate, including the old Children's Hospital. He is board chairman of the National Bank of Commerce, is married to Miss American Teenager of 1968 and is godfather to Mayor Marion Barry's son Chris.

"Success is the ability to choose what you want to do and to enjoy what you do, so what you do is not work. If I don't feel challenged by what I am doing, I get bored.

"I have a feel for real estate -- I see intuitively what can be done with an old office building or a neighborhood. I look at banking as more than a business: it's a method to get involved in the community.

"I bring in partners in everything I do, and when someone offers good money, I sell. We have been lucky . . . I am active in charity; I am on 10 different boards.

"If you create the impression of success--that's all you really have to do, and it's an impression you can't afford to lose -- you find people and opportunities coming your way. But there is the danger of your believing that you can do it all, that you'll always be successful.

"It's difficult to leave the office at the office. I suffer from not having enough time with my family. And the time I have is not so pressure-free as to be quality."

Christopher Kendall, 33. Conductor and lutanist; a rare musician who earns a good living working with no less than three ensembles.

"In these days, succeeding in the arts means all too often just surviving. But for me, and for most musicians, success means achieving certain artistic goals and communicating them to as many people as possible--and to feel some forward motion.

"All my enterprises are collaborative. I don't really distinguish between my success and the success of the organizations I work with: the 20th Century Consort and the Romantic Chamber Ensemble at the Smithsonian and the Folger Consort at the Folger library. Or still other projects I am involved in: the Martha's Vineyard Music Festival and the Millennium Ensemble.

"There isn't a whole lot of time left for other aspects of life. But since I haven't started a family, playing, touring and recording music is a rich enough life--it's a juggling act. But I wouldn't want to concentrate on any one project. Progress is a refinement of a balance among all my activities.

"I feel very fortunate. What makes me less than totally happy is that the arts do not have an appropriately strong role in our culture. I'd like to see a little less struggle . . ."