Success (1): What Is It?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the topic of “success”.  I suppose this is due to multiple factors:

1) I’ve been reading and teaching from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The author, who describes himself as one of the most materially successful people who has ever lived, questions all of his accomplishments and concludes, “it’s all smoke.”  In my opinion, we are wise to listen to someone who says, “I’ve been there, at the top; here’s what I’ve found.”

2) I just turned 30, and have been very reflective both on the last ten years of my life as well as what I want the next ten years to look like.

3) I live in a culture where images of “successful” people constantly barrage my consciousness.  Whether it’s this story of people who have made their quick million off reality television, or whether it’s re-connecting with friends from high school over Facebook, I find this constant itch to compare and measure myself against the accomplishments of others.

I’ve decided to pen some of my thoughts on the subject as I wrestle with it.

What are the standard images that embody our culture’s view of success?  I posted one of my favorites above: “justification for higher education”.

(Incidentally, I heard yesterday that economists say that every extra year of school usually translates to an extra 8% in income).

At the most simplistic level, success according to our culture is “getting what you want” – and this is primarily defined in terms of stuff: houses, cars, gadgets, etc.

But it seems like most people, in their best moments, can see the emptiness of this definition.  So the definition is refined.  Success is “getting the best out of life.”  This is no longer simply material possessions, but includes experiences, accomplishments and relationships.  Another way to say it would be “reaching your maximum potential,” or living “your best life now”.

At the heart of this way of seeing success is individualism and self-actualization.  Success is all about me maximizing myself.

And yet, that’s not quite far enough.  Because a person who accumulates great possessions and wealth at the expense of a slave labor force is not regarded as a success, but a tyrant.  Hitler got what he wanted, maximized his influence and power for a decade: was he successful?  No, because there was something fundamentally wrong with what he wanted as well as his means to achieve it.

In other words, there are limitations, moral parameters for maximizing, and when you go over the limits, you are no longer a success.

But where do these standards, these limitations come from?  Who got to decide that self-actualization is the highest good, unless it interferes with someone else’s self-actualization?  Without some outside source to limit and shape our pursuits, we are left floundering to root our definition of success in something solid.

This is why I look to the Scriptures.  Ancient wisdom, God-breathed, tried, true and tested throughout time – here is where I must go to shape my definition of success.

And that’s where I’ll be looking throughout the series.

Question: What’s your definition of success?

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