If this sounds like an overstatement or an oversimplification, then take a moment to imagine two ambitious people – one, an enormous success; the other, a hapless failure. Whom do you inherently admire? Whom do you pity? How do you think each feels about himself or herself? It does not take much imagination to realize the crucial roles success and failure play in our lives. Striving for success is hardwired into the fabric of our being; without the possibility of success, our lives would suffer an immense loss of meaning.
Aspiring toward success is one thing – recognizing success when it happens or exists is another matter entirely. This reveals the enigmatic nature of success and leads us to the awesome task of defining what success truly means. There are times success is obvious, such as the achievement of a minor personal goal, and there are times success is more obscure, such as an apparent failure that opens avenues to greater success in the future. Sometimes success is the result of intention, talent, hard work, and dedication; sometimes it is a purely a result of luck, chance, happenstance, and circumstance. Success can be earned and deserved, or unearned and undeserved. Sometimes people who should succeed, fail; and sometimes people who should fail, succeed. This proves success is not always guaranteed even when the right actions towards its attainment are taken. Bookshelves around the world overflow with tomes and self-help guides offering formulas for success in as many areas in life as there are stars in the night sky, and though these books do occasionally offer useful advice, none can claim to have truly found the elusive “secret of success.” Despite this, we have all experienced and continue to experience various degrees of success in our lives. The trouble is, we often do not recognize our success as such, choosing instead to belittle our achievements by comparing them to the achievements of those we deem truly successful.
Now there is nothing wrong with admiring the achievements of great individuals and being inspired by their accomplishments, but it is foolish to constantly compare yourself to the standards of success Hollywood, Wall Street, the Super Bowl, Washington, and the New York Times bestseller lists project into the world because they are mostly narrow and inflated, focusing almost exclusively on the material trappings of success – power, privilege, material wealth, luxury, glamor, and fame. Yet, for a vast majority of people these are the exact things that epitomize success and the driving motivation behind their desire to attain it. Put another way, I would posit most people are more interested in the “ends” of success than they are in the “means.” Acquiring the trappings of success – a big house, expensive car, flashy clothes, a large bank account, influential connections, fame – are, thus, more important to most than the means through which they managed to obtain such trappings. For this reason, I would argue the outward appearance of success carries far more weight in the modern imagination than any actual success does.
Before I am accused of being some sort of raving communist, let me clearly state that I am not against big houses, expensive cars, fame, and all the rest of it even though these things do not provide much thrust in my own ambitions. What concerns me more are the many successful, but ultimately miserable, people I have met in the course of my life. The successful-but-miserable can be divided into two distinct categories: those who possess all the outward appearances of success, but have failed in many areas of life regardless; and those who possess very few of the outward appearances of success, but have succeeded in many areas of life regardless. In the first category are the business people, politicians, Hollywood A-listers, rock stars, bestselling novelists, and others who have achieved immense fame and fortune and regularly project that onto the world, but have otherwise failed in areas that seem crucial to securing true contentment and happiness. In the second category are those who belong to the non-descript masses who, despite their various degrees of material achievement, have not achieved any notable wealth or fame, but have managed to succeed in areas of life that seem to assure higher levels of contentment and happiness.
Of course, not everyone in the first category fails in the more subtle areas of life. Some people truly do have it all. And not everyone in the second category succeeds in the more subtle areas of life. Some people truly do have very little. The overarching point I am making is this – just because you do not possess the outward appearance of success does not mean you are not successful. By all means, strive for the trappings if you wish, but do not sacrifice success in other vital areas of life as you pursue these rewards, because it is not the material trappings that will fill your life with meaning and contentment, but the other areas, those exact areas in which many “successful” people ultimately fail.
The following is a brief list of some the areas of life in which many so-called successful people fail. These are areas in which you could prove yourself far more successful than most. In my mind, the final point on this list is the most important, supplanting all others, but for what it is worth, I will mention the others nonetheless:
Last I heard half of all marriages ended in divorce; the number may even be higher amongst those considered successful. Gossip rags and tabloids abound with tales of infidelity, divorce, and broken marriages among the successful. Despite having it all, many successful people struggle to hold a marriage together, and ultimately fail. Some fail several times. The same holds true for the less successful. Though it is not widely regarded as a mark of success, getting married and staying married could truly be a seen as a high-water mark of achievement in our world of easy and common divorces.
Many a success story is built upon a foundation of lies, pretense, and hypocrisy. If you can maintain your integrity, go into the world with honesty, and deal with people frankly, not only will you sleep better at night, but you will have achieved something many successful seem utterly incapable of achieving.
We imagine successful people are swimming in money, but in many instances, the opposite is the case. How many times have we heard members of the rich and famous suddenly declaring bankruptcy despite the millions or billions they have earned? Remember, many successful people invest heavily in the appearance of success, and these appearances do not pay for themselves. In their dealings, successful business people often assume large debt loads, together with the accompanying worry and stress. Using debt to build a business is often unavoidable, but as Dickens noted nearly two centuries ago, the dividing line between happiness and misery can come down to simply being six pence below one’s annual income. Debt is a common problem among the less successful as well, so if you can find ways to reduce or free yourself of debt entirely, you will have succeeded materially in a way most people can barely imagine, regardless of their station in life.
Many regard fame as an important sign of success, but rarely consider what being famous truly entails. Imagine being gawked at everywhere you went, having paparazzi hound you day and night, and being a constant focal point of media interest. For some people this amounts to a dream, the fulfillment of Oscar Wilde’s famous quip that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, but obscurity is not without its benefits. Being able to travel and go about your daily routine without the fear of being spotted or recognized has its own neglected charms, and the world abounds with successful people who purposefully avoid the limelight for these reasons alone.
Success stories are often tainted by tragic tales of overdoses, lifetime addictions, and premature deaths due to drug and alcohol abuse. That so many successful people rely on drugs and drink to make it through the day is revealing on several levels. As outsiders, we envy a rock star’s extravagant lifestyle without giving too much thought as to why he blasts himself into oblivion every chance he gets. Of course, substance abuse is rife among those who regard themselves as failures, as it is among average people irrespective of their success or failure in life. Though many of us think successful people use drugs and drink for purely recreational reasons, the stories we hear of on television or in the papers hint at something else entirely. If material wealth, fame, and the trappings of success were all that were required to achieve happiness, why is intoxication necessary? If you can stay sober in your life, you have succeeded at avoiding a trap that is the death knell of many.
No matter who we are, or how far we make it, we all face the same ultimate physical end. Regardless of our success in life, we all become equal in death. We enter the world with nothing but our bodies, and leave the world in the same manner, leaving behind all the material wealth we created, the privilege we had inherited or earned, the lands we conquered, and the empires we built. All that remains is our children, the memory of us, and our works. True, the works of greatest talents and world influencers remain with us indefinitely, but even these works can become distorted or fall out of fashion with the passage of time. In the end, our material legacy becomes a zero-sum game – you cannot take it with you and you can no longer control it once you are gone.
This obvious truth notwithstanding, the vast majority of us continue to view success from a purely materialistic perspective, yet there is One who has shown us where true success really resides – not purely in the material, but in the blend of the material and the spiritual. By accepting the gift Jesus offers, ultimate success can be achieved by embracing love, transcending death, and gaining everlasting life.
This, in my mind, marks the apex of the success we can achieve on this Earth. Not only is it the greatest of all rewards, but it is one that is freely available to every single one of us. Like other forms of success, it requires work, dedication, and right action. Unlike other forms of success, it does not project any material appearance of success. Yet it remains highest form of success a person can achieve in this life, and if you accept the gift He offers with all your love and soul, you ultimately cannot and will not fail.
In the end, this is not only the final success we can experience, but also the most important and most meaningful, which makes one wonder why so many, especially among the most successful, simply reject it and refuse to pursue it.