Defining Success

In my last blog post, I talked about resolutions and goals. Today, I want to focus on another critical part of goal-setting: defining success. We all want to succeed, but how can you hit a target you haven’t created? How will you know when you’re successful?

Sometimes knowing where you stand is simple… in school, you earn grades and awards; in the business world, you get performance reviews and promotions; in professional sports, you receive better contracts and better stats. But in other areas of work and life, success can be much more ambiguous. Nobody gives a stay-at-home mom a perfect attendance award. There’s no corporate ladder to climb if you’re an artist. And I haven’t seen any trading cards containing stats for school teachers, missionaries, or writers.

Merriam-Webster defines success as “a favorable or desired outcome” or “the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.” Is that the definition of success, then? Achieving fame and fortune?

Writer, how would you finish the following sentence?

I will be a successful writer when…

…I finish my novel.

                …I get an agent.

                …I can find my book in the library.

                …I make loads of money and become more famous than JK Rowling.

I see two major problems with defining success in terms of fame and fortune. First, we can’t really control the results. No matter how hard you work, no matter how brilliant your writing is, your story just might not make the New York Times bestseller list. It might not even get published. Does that mean you’re unsuccessful as a writer? Your years of hard work and persistence have been a waste?

Second, the funny thing about us H. sapiens is that contentment doesn’t come naturally for us. As soon as we’ve achieved one benchmark of success, we realize it wasn’t enough. There’s still something…missing. We’re not satisfied; we need more. So we press on to the next, and the next, accomplishing great things but never being satisfied with any of them. And at some point, when we fail – because it will happen – we feel the full weight of our own inadequacy.

I had the privilege of hearing Lynn Austin, best-selling author of historical inspirational fiction, speak at a conference last fall. She shared her own story of striving for goal after goal, only to realize nothing made her feel like a success. There was always someone else who had sold more books, or won more awards, or received more speaking invitations. Finally, she had to acknowledge that we can’t define success in terms of money or popularity or accomplishments. Instead, she urged us as Christian writers to look at the way God defines success: by the Cross – wholehearted obedience to the call, leaving the results up to God. Jesus obeyed God so completely that He was willing to suffer and die on the cross, and, in doing so, provide us the only possible path to salvation.

So instead of looking to fame and fortune to measure my success, I’m going to look at what I can control – giving my best effort, pressing on when I fail, and never giving up at doing the work God has given me. (Although I would really like to find my book in the library one day… Let’s just be honest about that… ).

But in the end, it comes down to the words Jesus speaks in one of his parables in the book of Matthew: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” Those are the words I want to hear one day.

Those are the words that will tell me I’ve succeeded.

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