What Is Success In Life?
What is success in life?
Success is an esoteric subject that could be looked at in all sorts of different ways. When someone is described as a “successful person,” however, there’s a very definite picture that tends to appear in our minds. This is culturally learned. In America we naturally picture a wealthy businessman, with a great family and a nice house. Why can’t success be defined differently? If you’ve read or seen Les Misérables, you know the benevolent bishop who opens up the story by saving Valjean’s life. He excelled at giving everything away, and I’d call him successful.
The Bible talks about success. Proverbs 16:3 says “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” I love this, because it requires submitting to God and doing it for Him, and then God will make His plans yours. It’s subtly not saying “God will bless your plans,” but implying that God’s plans will be blessed through you. God will give you success – not yours, but His. Joshua 1:8 talks about meditating on God’s word so that Joshua will be prosperous and successful. When the Bible talks about prospering, it tends to be more of a holistic wellbeing, not only financial. A commission was given to Joshua, and through trusting God he would achieve it.
I’d call success the achieving of God’s call on our lives. This can relate to any number of separate vocations. I’ve got a vocation as a husband, as an employee, as a friend, and so on. At any given moment, I can be succeeding or failing in each. I’m succeeding if I’m accomplishing what God is looking for me to do. If God wants me to gently correct and teach a friend, but instead I only encourage them, I’m failing. If I’m called to encourage a friend, but I try to teach them instead, I’m failing.
How then do we know what to do? We get close to God and listen to him – not just occasionally, or even daily, but moment by moment. This isn’t some kind of weird constant praying or something, it’s just a general posture of leaning on God for direction. In the moment, we’ll know what we’re supposed to do, and success will come if we follow the direction.
Taking the long view then, what is success in life? It’s the same thing, but applied over the course of life. If we’re called to be a fabulous businessman, then success is being the best businessman possible. If we’re called to invent something world-changing after a lifetime of research and trials, then success is finally inventing it late in life. If we’re called to be an incredible father, then success is raising awesome children. And yes, if we’re called to be a faithful custodian, success is doing the best job cleaning each night. Success is finding whatever we are called to do, both in the short-term and long-term, and getting there with the Lord’s help.
Response from Aurelius
I wouldn’t define success as the achieving of God’s call on our lives because without religion that definition is arbitrary, but we both define success in large part by working hard and treating others well in whatever area makes sense for us. One struggle I had in writing my response was distinguishing achievement from effort. While success by itself requires accomplishment, I think success in life is about effort.
When you talk about God wanting to correct vs encourage behavior, I would interpret that as you upholding a moral standard. If you uphold the standard, either by correcting or encouraging, you are succeeding. For example, if my coworker says privately to me, “Truthfully, she was only hired because she has boobs,” I’m forced into an awkward situation. Most moral standards would concur in rebuking this behavior. If I uphold my moral standard and call him out, I’m succeeding, but if I reluctantly laugh or say nothing, I’m failing. In that situation, which unfortunately actually happened, I failed by merely going quiet and walking away, and I hate that I did that. However, when he said something similar in a different setting later on, I spoke out against that behavior and reported the incident to HR.
My problem with leaning on God to provide this direction and calling is when no direction is provided. How can you be sure that direction is God’s? For me, it came down to a gut instinct with a sprinkle of social pressure. Just be the best person you can be in whatever situation you find yourself. Work hard, be kind to others, and devote yourself to something beyond your own ambition, something that will make the world just a little bit better.
As a new father, I try actively to praise my son’s effort, not his results. I will be disappointed if my son is lazy, but I genuinely don’t care if he follows in my family’s footsteps of becoming an engineer or academic, as long as he tries hard, is kind to others, and is satisfied with how well he’s tried and how well he’s treated others, not with where it’s gotten him. That’s what we want for our kids and the next generation – do your best, be kind, and be happy.
So much of what we in our culture consider success in life is nothing more than luck. A corporate executive is seen as significantly more successful than a hotel janitor, but this perception of success is wrong. Success is working hard regardless of the gained achievement. The executive likely had a lot of parental support, financially and otherwise, to get her a top-tier education and the network along the way to position herself at the base of that corporate ladder with no way but up. Sure, she worked hard, but circumstances could have been different. The hotel janitor had to work through high school to support her family, so she had little or no extracurriculars and her learning suffered. Her parents are both working full time making barely above minimum wage struggling to support their four kids in a land where they were told opportunity was boundless. She can’t afford university, and her community college classes are a struggle because she is still working full time now trying to support a family of her own. The cycle continues. There are exceptions, but social mobility is a huge barrier to what we often call success. Toby Morris’ On a Plate illustrates this misconception poignantly.
Hopefully most in the developed world have a sense of success in life larger than material status and social positioning. When I was a Christian I measured my success with how well I thought I exemplified a Christ-centered life, how my relationship was with God and how I helped others in their spiritual journeys. I still measure my success in part by how I help others through their lives and spiritual journeys, just not with a Christian focus. I love teaching and try to incorporate that into my life, judging my own success in part by how well I am using that skill I have been given and am passionate about.
Mostly these days I measure my success by how good of a husband and father I am. At the end of the day, it’s the little decisions that add up. Did I turn around to kiss my son on the forehead before leaving for work or did I go on my way once I realized I’d forgotten because I was already late? Did I call my wife during my lunch break because I knew she was having a rough morning and I thought I should check in, or did I forgo that because I had a lot on my plate that day? When my coworker seemed a little more down than usual, did I ask how he was doing and offer an ear if needed or did I quietly hope everything was alright? How we treat others is ultimately how I think we should measure success.
My favorite excerpt about success is from Ralph Waldo Emerson in a poem entitled Success.
Response from Antipas
I like how you call to mind themes from Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book, Outliers. It’s a great read about what the makings of “success” are, and you’re absolutely right that it’s largely due to situations outside of the person’s control. Taking this same theme and applying it to what you’re saying about a broader definition of success, you could say that success is doing the best with the hand you’re dealt. I like this view a lot, because it doesn’t try to change one’s situation too much, just make the most of it.
We’ve said some pretty similar things, which I like. How we treat others. Whether or not we work hard. Pulling the definition of success away from results is a great move – can you be successful even in failing to accomplish a goal? Yes, and sometimes life works like this, but sometimes it doesn’t. There are times that hard work doesn’t matter without achieving some sort of goal, and we have to keep this in mind. Sometimes we hear people talk about “succeeding at the wrong thing” and so we have to have the goal clear.
My only concern with your line of reasoning is that I believe it’s imperative to have a standard by which to measure actions. How do we know that it’s important to show love to one’s family, to care for a coworker, to be industrious, and to help guide others? I can draw such moral imperatives from my religion, but you draw them from your life goals and a strong moral compass. Without an absolute like religion, it’s important to make sure that such a moral compass isn’t lost.
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