Sometime ago, I started mulling over the meaning of success.
This came about when my dad made an offhand comment on how successful one of my distant cousins, a surgeon, was in life. My cousin (whom I’ve never met) was also married with twins. All in, it looked like she was success personified. I remember telling my dad—rather grumpily—that arts graduates can be just as successful in life as their medicine-studying counterparts. I mean, look at New Zealand film director Taika Waititi. He’s successful! English actor Tom Hiddleston was singing Waititi’s praises, admiring him for his directing prowess and also said he loved Waititi’s movie, Hunt For The Wilderpeople.
But the comment got me thinking about the definition of success.
Does it mean having a large bank account, owning expensive clothes and shoes, and living in a luxurious apartment? Does it mean giving up your comfortable job and steady income to volunteer in a third-world country? Or does it mean having a family, settling down in a nice home, and enjoying a good social life with family and friends?
I Googled “what is success?”, and got 1,040,000 search results. The first thing that caught my eye was a playlist of talks featuring prominent individuals sharing their ideas and definitions of success. Two of them stood out in particular.
One was by American author Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote the massively popular 2006 memoir Eat Pray Love. To her, success meant persevering in the face of setbacks. Gilbert received numerous rejection letters over six years before she published her first book. But as devastating as those rejections were, she never saw quitting as an option.
The other was by late American basketball player and coach John Wooden, who defined success as “a peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming”.
After listening to both talks, I felt like I had a better understanding of what made a successful life. It seemed to be about overcoming adversities and being the best we could be. And these principles were consistent with what the Bible teaches. The Bible warns against laziness (Proverbs 6:10-11; Proverbs 10:4) and urges us to give our best in everything we do, recognizing that we work for God and not for men (Colossians 3:23-24).
But I couldn’t help but feel that something was still missing in this “success formula”.
So I looked up my all-time favourite book, The Purpose Driven Life, by American pastor Rick Warren. He wrote that humans weren’t created just to consume resources or to “get” the most out of life, but that God had created us to make a difference in our lives by giving and serving. Mother Teresa, for example, didn’t own a large mansion, yet her works have impacted millions of people around her.
And, of course, there’s Jesus Himself. He was born into a humble life, without pomp or pageantry. He devoted His life to serving and ministering to others, doing many miracles among them to show His Father’s power and love. Later on, Jesus demonstrated the biggest act of service and sacrifice by laying down His life for us. Up till today, His name is remembered and His one selfless act continues to change lives around the world. How’s that for a successful life?
So if Jesus’ life is the epitome of success, we can be confident that God doesn’t measure our success by our material wealth. Neither does He measure our success by the good deeds we do or the achievements we have.
Having said that, it’s not wrong if we’re blessed with a good income, have great achievements, or if we want to volunteer in society. I know a couple of businessmen and entrepreneurs who draw in large salaries and contribute a portion of their earnings to the church as their means of service. And then there are those who are called to be missionaries and leave the comforts of their home to serve in unfamiliar environments. In God’s eyes, both groups are just as valuable and just as successful because their motivation is the same—to serve and give to God.
I know it can be easy to define success by our salaries, job titles, and achievements in life. I fall into this trap every now and then, and compare my job to my friends’ high-flying careers. I sometimes even feel embarrassed for having not embarked on any big missions in my life, and feel like I have fallen short of the mark of “success”.
But I have to constantly remind myself that God doesn’t care for these things. There’ll be a day when we have to stand before God to give an account of how we have lived. Will we be able to stand confidently before Him knowing we have served Him wholeheartedly and given Him our best? If so, I truly believe that that’s the mark of a successful life!