Fill in the blank: Chris is a successful __________ .
What word did you think of? For me, it was “businessman.” Maybe it’s because I live in money-centric Silicon Valley, or maybe that’s the zeitgeist of the entire U.S. Maybe you filled in a different word, like pastor. What connotes a successful pastor? I think of “big congregation” / “famous” / “multimillion-dollar budget.” I doubt these are God’s values, but they are society’s idea of success. How about “successful philanthropist”? To most people, it means someone who was successful at making a lot of money, and then gave it away as an afterthought. Not someone who was good at giving money away effectively. Perhaps it’s just hard to measure effective giving, or there’s not a lot of competition in the field.
Another common phrase is “trappings of success.” Google “trappings” and you get: The outward signs, features, or objects associated with a particular situation, role, or thing: “I had the trappings of success”. In my mind I picture it as rich gold epaulettes or a cape over your shoulders. That’s right — this bling *shows* I’m successful. But consider how people acquire material objects to show success, and how much it traps them through care and upkeep. Home ownership is the most common example — new homeowners are often shocked by the amount of time and money it takes to maintain and upgrade their property.
What does it mean to be a successful spouse or parent? Few would argue that these roles are less important than our jobs, but the word success doesn’t go well with them. At best, a successful parent is one who raises successful kids. But can I be a successful husband? Does it come with a performance-based executive compensation bonus plan?
In my opinion, the most insidious part of success is its insatiable appetite. The New York Times recently ran an article with the insightful line:
Hence the cliché: law school is a pie-eating contest where the first prize is more pie.
The reward for success is generally the opportunity for more work and more difficult challenges, which recalls the wisdom from Bladerunner: “The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”
When I think about my emotional investments and compare them with my ideal values, I find I’m overweighted in success. I’d like to lead a more balanced life, with more compassion, fellowship, laughter, and memorable experiences. What about you — would you like to have more or less of a focus on “success” in your life?