May 17, 2023

The Measure of Success

Whenever I reflect on what success is or how to define it – particularly how I define it, I find it helps to think about how other people define it and how I could help them do it. As is often the case, we most frequently discover ourselves through the eyes and perspective of others. In the past, or in my past career(s), I measured success the way many people do, which is by how much money I could make. As a teacher in the U.S., if I was dumb enough to measure success by how much money I made, I’d feel like a failure pretty much all the time. So, I find myself having to reframe and redefine the idea of success or how I understand it. And, in doing so, I was reminded of a quote by yet another person who was much smarter than myself, and it helped me a good bit. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that, "Success is to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived."

Now, don’t get me wrong, it is true that you can’t please everybody (and that really is okay). I’m sure there are some people that like me or my classes, and some who would be glad to see me dematerialize from the planet. God knows I’m familiar to what it’s like to not be liked, so I can accept that with some peaceful contentment. But for those people that I was ever able to help in some way, to give a new perspective on life in any positive way, or even that were just entertained by me for a brief period... that makes anything and everything I do worth the trouble. I suggest you adopt the same way of thinking, for your own good and the good of everyone around you.

If you measure your success by material things, you’re doomed to perpetual struggle.
If you measure your success by quantifiable or material things, you’re really just doomed to perpetual struggle. Money does come, but it also goes much easier than it ever arrives. Status is a hard-earned luxury, but is easily ruined in seconds (reputations, after all, take a like time to build and mere seconds to destroy). And even as far as personal abilities go, well, all it takes is some unfortunate life event to rob you of just about any of physical things you cherish. One car crash can easily rob an olympic athlete of their legs just as quickly as an unexpected lay-off can rob us of our financial stability.

Even Jesus himself, after literally dying and being resurrected, said hardly jack and shit about all the amazing miracles he performed during his life or how many people he converted. The Buddha didn’t go around boasting of his enlightenment and how awesome it was to be better than everyone else. They both talked to their disciples, about them and their accomplishments under their guidance, and what they all still needed to do.

“It doesn’t matter which direction you move in, just that you keep moving.”

Even in my line of work, I don’t remember my high school grade point average. I don’t remember my exact ACT score. Hell, I don’t even remember my GPA from college, to be totally honest. What I do remember most (and most frequently) are the people I helped, the people I hurt, and the good times I had with them all. A helpful piece of advice that my father gave me when I was in high school (that I try to pass on at every opportunity) is this: “It doesn’t matter as much which direction you move in, just that you keep moving.”

So, I leave you with two thoughts to consider, whether you’re just settling in to a new life situation, entering a new one, or just seemingly floundering through the current stage of life you’re in. First, I reiterate what Emerson said: "Success is to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived." And second, I would be remiss as a theologian if I didn’t remind us of what God himself told us in the book of Joshua in Old Testament, when sending his people out to go and live and prosper in the world: “Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for God is with you wherever you go.”