Define Success

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?

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13 thoughts on “Define Success

  1. I detect a measure of uneasiness with success there, Ed. I know the feeling.

    Put most generally, success just involves achieving the right goals in the right ways (this is basically an Aristotelian definition).

    This means it’s just nonsense to ask whether we have too much success. For instance, if you should have more balance of some sort, then success *just is* achieving that balance. It’s just a matter of setting the right goals.

    But setting the right goals requires knowledge: both knowledge of the good (what’s really most important in life) as well as self-knowledge (knowing our talents and what we’re capable of achieving).

    Because different people have different talents and opportunities, genuine success will be different from person to person. This means a big part of success involves figuring out what success should look like for you.

    For me, angst about success comes from doubt about whether my goals are the right ones.

    And our society is often very unhelpful in giving us guidance on what our goals should be. There seems to be too much emphasis on fame or honor, fortune and pleasure.

    The problem with these things is best put by Spinoza: they are rarely (if ever) the right goals for anyone, but they so distract our minds that they make it hard for us to focus on what’s really important. He said (back in the mid-1600s) that our appetite for these things is generally insatiable: achievement of these only spurs us to go in for more. And pursuit of fame has the added problem that it enslaves us to the opinions of others.

    Anyways, I guess my point is to agree with you on numerous specific points, but to urge us to recast the issue. We should accept the unconditional value of success (put most generally) and question whether we’ve got the right goals.

    And to answer one of your questions: success for a husband is easily stated. It is to make your wife happy. And I’m sure you know by now that this success does indeed come with a marvelous “performance-based executive compensation bonus plan”. Or, at least, failure at this goal will definitely spell misery. 🙂

    • Hi Ang, I agree — reframing success is the key issue. And the main problem as we both point out is that others (society as a whole) have a much different view of the meaning of success.

      • What I find worrying is that Ecclesiastes seems to teach that *nothing* in life can have any ultimate significance or meaning. So it’s just not possible to find the “right” goals: they all eventually disappoint, just not as obviously as fame fortune and pleasure.

        We might say that the Christian is left with just one viable overall goal: “seeking the kingdom of God” or “following the will of God”. I’ve found this sort of answer to be rather unhelpful, as it seems merely to rephrase the problem using spiritual jargon.

        So I’m torn between pursuing the ideal of discovering and achieving my highest potential and instead just taking the advice of Qoheleth: to stop searching for authentic success and just “enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.”

      • Perhaps life is too complex to be broken down into an either/or: achieving one’s highest potential, and enjoying the little things of life. As in financial investing, diversification may be the best approach in the face of uncertainty.

        (Ecclesiastes does mention the enjoyment of one’s work, so those two investments are not diversified.)

      • I don’t deny that work/family balance is important. I just wish diversification was always possible. For instance, I know some people who would love to be able to deal with religious doubt by splitting their allegiance among all the major world religions. Too bad that strategy will just piss off all the gods, so they’d end up damned no matter which one was real. 🙂

        Anyways, I think we have too little time to adequately diversify. Or at least, I don’t have enough time left. (Philosophy is my fourth major subject area, after physics, business and theology. I don’t think I can switch again and still have a chance at success. I’m getting too old.)

        Focus is important. In other words: for many things, you gotta (eventually) go all-in to win. What if ultimate success in life is one of those things? (It may already be too late for me!)

  2. Hi, Ed, your and Anh’s consensus on reframing success very much resonates with me such that, even though this post was published five days ago, I had starred it right away intending to thank you for sharing and to also reply with my thoughts. I’m glad I finally got around to it!

    I think your blog particularly resonated with me because this past year (2010-2011), I learned this exact lesson of reframing success, and I have thus far responded to it in much the same way that you are considering–by engaging in more fellowship, laughter and memorable experiences.

    Specifically, I wrote in my journal on 1/9/11 as I was reflecting on the year for a house church assignment: “In God’s eyes, success/progress isn’t measured by what’s on your resume, what your relationship status is, how big your paycheck or bonus is, what school you went to, how many marathons you’ve run, whether you have a mortgage on a comfortable house or how many letters come after your name. Rather, it is measured by how much closer you draw to Him.”

    Thus, reading your blog post immediately took me back to that journal entry. 🙂

    For some context, I think this learning particularly rang true given the circumstances of the last third of 2010: I was then

    1) one year out of Google, making 1/3 of my previous salary as an AmeriCorps volunteer,

    2) just weeks out of a one-year law firm stint during which my peers were finishing grad school and I had confirmed only that I did not want to go to law school (to my mother’s immense chagrin),

    3) and finally–most significantly to me at the time–coming out of my third breakup from a serious relationship since graduation, with someone whom I had once been so sure that God had chosen for me given our mutual passion–so stated, at least–for social justice and economic discipleship both locally and abroad, among other things.

    In summary, Fall 2010 was pretty rough, but one of the wonderful blessings with which God has blessed me is this new, down-to-earth group of friends with whom I’ve tried new, sometimes scary, and often silly activities, ranging from rock-climbing and slumber parties (featuring, you guessed it, Dance Central on the Kinect!) to fondue dinners and visits to the zoo.

    I guess I’m of the belief that there are fewer things in life than we think that we need to truly outgrow and that there is something to having a child-like delight for simple joys that brings us closer to God and, in my case, to divine healing–whether it be playing with goats at the petting zoo, admiring Spot Pond (Middlesex Fells, MA) after an afternoon hike or making smoothies with your neighbors at midnight.

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