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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Success

My friend Jim Sullivan posted this quote:

Thomas Merton: “If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”

There is a similar theme I’ve seen in comics a few times. A teacher asks students what they want to be when they grow up: “a policeman”, “a doctor”, “a teacher” – and then one kid says “rich”.

1. You can’t aim to be a success, or be rich. That’s an end state (if that). Something must be done that’s of use in order to be a success, or to be rich.

2. The definition of success is primarily in terms of others – i.e. it makes us more subject to the judgments of others in terms of what a success is. These judgments may be wise, but are more likely to be shallow and exterior. What do you own? What do you have? What are your awards? Where do you live? What are you worth?

3. Or, the definition of success can be in your own mind. But this encourages a sense of pride in your own accomplishments and perhaps a degree of self-satisfaction that isn’t helpful in many aspects of your life. If you judge success by comparing yourself to others then you have some traps

First, you can feel like a success because you are better than others. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector comes to mind for this one:

Luke 18:9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Your success is not your own. It is important to provide as much work and effort as you can, but you didn’t choose your genetic endowment, the time and place you were born, the people who helped you along the way, the luck in not being run over by a wayward bus, etc.

Second, you may compare yourselves to others who are more successful and feel unnecessarily inferior or demotivated. There’s always somebody smarter, richer, better looking, luckier, etc.

4. Success is also not a unitary thing.

Great athletes are often terrible money managers. Top business executives sometimes neglect their children. I have a PhD, but cannot play a musical instrument or speak a foreign language.

Before I retired, I thought a lot about the question of success: was I a success? If I look at different dimensions of my own life, I was successful in some, a failure in others, with a whole lot of gray area in between.  I concluded that Merton was right: the question of “am I a success” or “will I be a success” is the wrong question to be asking. The right question is, “How can I be a better person today?”, which often is “How can I make the world a better place today?”, which is often more simply “Can I be of use to others today?”.