Friday, September 16, 2011

Two Definitions of Success

Every so often, I wrestle with the concept of “success.”

I start to wonder, “Am I successful?”

Today I looked up the dictionary definition of success on four different online dictionaries:,, and, and guess what?

They all provide two different definitions of success:

1.       Accomplishing an aim or purpose
2.       Gaining fame and fortune (or popularity and wealth)

Because there are two quite different ways to view success, the concept of success can be a difficult one to wrestle with.

What’s more, guess which definition of success is the prevalent one in society? If someone asked you what success was, which definition would you automatically respond with? Which definition of success do the media bombard us with? Which definition of success are we faced with, no matter which way we turn?

Definition #2.

On one hand, success means having a dream or a goal or a passion and then seeing it develop unto its full potential. Well, that’s easy enough: with a dream to make life exciting and keep hope alive, and with a passion to drive the dream into reality, anyone can be successful. Everyone ought to be successful.

However, the other definition of success appears to be much more selective. Definition #2 is much harder to attain, and for many, may seem impossible. For example, there are thousands upon thousands of musicians out there, but only a handful are chart-toppers and only a few more gain enough of a fan base to make a good living out of it. Millions of people start their own business, but not everyone gains substantial wealth from it. In fact, don’t half of small businesses fail within the first few years? I don’t know how many little girls dream of being movie stars or celebrities, dressing up in old gowns and putting on lipstick and mom’s high heels, singing into a brush (I sure did), but how many of them actually went on to become celebrities? Not me! Not many.

To be successful via fame and fortune is unrealistic and difficult. We can be made to feel like failures because the product idea we had didn’t end up making money, or the business we started only provided us with an average income, or we didn’t end up using the costly education we invested in to start a financially rewarding career.

It would also seem that “things” are an indicator, or measure, of success in the wealth/popularity sense. There are always new cars, new phones, new clothes, new TVs, new furniture, new vacation hot-spots, new hairstyles…it never ends!

For me, this creates a lot of pressure. Although that lovely Definition #1 of success still exists, the pressures of gaining Definition #2 of success and having all the products and things associated with it seems to always make their way to the forefront.

I am often made to question myself: If I’m not making x amount of money, have I made a mistake somewhere in my career or life choices? Since I don’t have a flat screen TV (gasp!) an iPhone, a Blackberry, or any other “smartphone,” and I don’t have an iPad either (OK, pick yourself off the floor), does that mean I’m not keeping up with the times like a “successful” person would? If I haven’t gone on a fantastic, overseas vacation in the past year, does that mean I’m not as “successful” as the people who have because that’s what “successful” people do?

All of these questions pertain to Definition #2 of success. I feel like I constantly need to click “Send to back” to put those fame and fortune ideals behind more important things in my mind.

I thought about success some more, and realized that based on logic alone—that not every single person in the world can be a famous person because how could everyone actually be able to know over six billion other people by name, and because there are enough competitive, greedy capitalist giants that there’s no way the entire world could be wealthy by first-world standards—I don’t like Definition #2 because it’s just not realistic. It’s not a fair definition because shouldn’t everyone have an equal opportunity to gain success? As much as I would love our next Zusters album to go platinum, or for Joel’s band to open for Wilco or Sam Roberts Band, or to be randomly discovered by some agent while I’m out grocery shopping, or to win $10 million in the next Lotto Max, although not impossible, these things are not quite as likely as pursuing a personal passion and positively impacting people with it.

There is often a struggle between trying to stay focused on doing what God put us on this earth to do (Definition #1) while being constantly distracted by the magnetism of fame and fortune (Definition #2).

Here’s what I remind myself of: When you are doing what God intended for you to do, you will be the happiest and feel the most fulfilled.  

We should be asking ourselves questions like this instead: What am I really good at? What do I love doing? Am I doing that—whether it’s part of my career or something I do in my free time? Do I feel passion for a cause? What do I feel like I should be doing with my life? What kind of mandate can I live by? Am I acting on my dreams, passions and the calling that I believe God has on my life?

Don’t let yourself get distracted by Definition #2. Become focused on learning and living out what God has lovingly selected for you to do—and don’t look to the right or left. God will entrust us with what we have proven we can handle, so personal growth and development in both a practical and spiritual sense are important to success. In the creative sense, awaken your passions, and in the practical sense, grow wise. That said, if you become famous and gain fortune by doing what you were purposed to do, there’s nothing at all wrong with that—God knows what He’s doing—just steward those gifts wisely. There’s nothing wrong with being successful in the Definition #2 sense. I think the problem occurs when that becomes the main goal because reason tells us that it’s just not possible for everyone, so you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.

Don’t compare (or I should say, contrast) yourself with someone else who has more than you do, or is more “successful” than you are—you have no idea what that person has gone through, is struggling with, or how hard that person has worked, and you have no right to question what God has intended for that person versus yourself.

I believe that God wants us all to be successful in terms of Definition #1, and whether that means changing society through politics, changing the way people think about something through a book, handing people change as a server or changing your children’s diapers, when you are doing what God created you to do, when you are following your passions, when you are acting upon opportunities and when you exercise patience and can wait for the timing to be right, you can legitimately refer to yourself as successful—even if you aren’t well-known and don’t have a fat bank account. (Click “Bring to front” to bring that image of success to the forefront of your mind.)

Just because Definition #2 has found its way to the forefront of society doesn’t mean it deserves a place in the forefront of your mind. Make room for Definition #1: it’s realistic, it’s the way God sees success and it will bring the most happiness and fulfillment to your life. 

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