We often chase success, yet we have a mistaken view of what that means or what we should pursue. The true meaning of success is found in deeper things than achievement, wealth, and status. I believe a good way to re-frame what success actually means is hearing from people who have “made it.” Let’s start there.
From The Top
David Brooks, a popular New York Times columnist and author of The Road to Character, recalled in an article the phone call he received notifying him that his book made the New York Times best seller list. He said that he really didn’t feel all that different, that it felt very “external” to him, despite the massive achievement.
Jim Carrey shares openly that he wishes everyone could experience the wealth they desire so they can see that it isn’t what they think it is. That it doesn’t bring them a sense of completion.
Nathan Feuerstein, aka NF, is a rapper somehow a lot of people have not heard of. He has millions of followers and has been dubbed famous, yet he shares openly that the fame did not make him happy or feel fulfilled. He actually shares in this Interlude that depression set in when he achieved “success” as he realized that these achievements didn’t bring him the joy he expected. “If this is it, this isn’t gonna work.” NF tackles some of the most complicated life issues, like mental health and hopelessness, with encouraging passion and honesty in songs like Leave Me Alone. He is an incredible artist and reaches one of the most isolated groups of people in the world by making them feel like they are not alone. I would encourage you to listen to his work whether you like rap music or not. You can listen to his latest album, The Search, and support him here.
As you can see, the foundations of success as we believe it to be: achievement, wealth, and status, are not as fulfilling as they appear on Instagram.
The Lies of Identity
All of those issues are consistent with the lies of identity as written by Henry Nouwen. We learn over time based on that faulty view of success that we are the things that we chase, as opposed to being what we are inside. When we have an “identity crisis” we are likely waking up to the idea that we are not these things.
Lie 1: I am what I do.
This is the belief that what we are is the job we have, the sport we play, the things we make, and so on. These are certainly all ways that we express ourselves and use our gifts, but the fault in believing that we are the things that we do, besides the fact that it is so restricting, is that these are things that are constantly subject to change. While we do constantly develop and change, our inner man is as constant as the character of God, who doesn’t change. This connects to David Brooks’ comment about his achievement of making the best seller list as feeling “external” to him. Consider today how you think of yourself when you fail at something you do. Maybe you missed a deadline, made an error, lost the game. Notice how you attach to the negative and view yourself differently. Is this really all that you are? This failed thing that you did?
Lie 2: I am what I have.
Another way we are drawn to the negative is believing that we are what we have. We typically look at all the things we don’t have rather than all the things we do have, as if the things we do have are an accurate picture of who we truly are anyway. Isn’t it funny how we identify with the fact that we don’t have the house or car we want but we don’t identify with the security that we have a home at all? Here again, the things we have are fleeting and can be gone in one life event. We must become anchored in something more permanent in order to achieve success or fulfillment. As Jim Carrey shared above, his wealth did not fulfill him.
Lie 3: I am what other people say I am.
Have you ever noticed how we identify with our fearful imaginations of how people perceive us without asking them first? Or how people say things without full knowledge of you first? My neighbor saw my youngest son run down the street all by himself after he let himself out of the house. He is two years old and has found a way to escape every door in the house, as well as open every dangerous cabinet or pantry. My wife and I were getting dressed to leave the house before we realized he had opened the front door. When we got him, our neighbor was out and asked us “did you know he was out here!?” No, we didn’t. His son ended up coming over to play with ours after this and his boy told my wife “You can’t watch me because you don’t watch your own kids.” Oops! What if we parented based on that? “Oh no, I don’t watch my kids. This person said that about me. I guess I can’t watch my kids, then.” That just doesn’t make logical sense.
I bring these things up for one reason, and that is to show that this thinking is faulty. It is incomplete. Inaccurate. We cannot base our identity off of these things.
In pursuit of this so-called success, we often get in our own way through self-defeating tendencies. We can use this as a tool to clear some of the brush that is blocking our path and see what exactly is the “success” that we are stopping ourselves from.
1. Self Preservation: The belief that you have to preserve your reputation.
We do an exceptional job at the protection aspect of self-preservation. Our bodies alert us when we are in physical danger and our minds alert us to emotional danger, like manipulation. These are advanced areas of protection that we should not let go of, and that we should be aware of and thankful for. What we should consider letting go of, however, is the preservation of our reputation, which is likely seated deeply in perfectionism and fear. If we are talking about growth, you cannot grow without risk, specifically facing fears. Failure and vulnerability certainly accompany risk and facing fear, just like maintenance mode certainly accompanies stagnation.
I was talking with an employee on my team who said they had too much on their plate. They often complained about issues, but at the same time complained that they were not advancing. I agreed that action needed to be taken to balance them out more, so we discussed it. There were two options: I could remove their simpler task alignment, or I could remove their more complex, yet more fruitful business process improvement project they were part of. They took about a day to get back to me when they finally said, “Well can’t I have both? Can I not have the easy stuff and growth at the same time?”
The blunt answer to that is no, we can’t. We can’t have both growth and ease at once. What we can have, though, is a time of understanding that comes from that growth which translates perhaps to “ease” or comfort, but this as a result of accepting your challenge first. Once that happens, you will find yourself transitioning to the next new, “hard” thing. You can’t stop in comfort and protection if you want growth in any way.
What came from this conversation was that this person was afraid. They shared that they were afraid that if they left the project they would be considered a failure, and that future opportunities would not come to them. While we should certainly see things through, if we are burned out and not doing good work, we should speak up. Someone else is hungry for that opportunity and you will likely do better work elsewhere. There were other opportunities this person could have pursued, and it seems the project was only an interest for the possibility of advancement, and not because it was a true interest. In this situation, no growth could occur until that fear was faced.
2. Lack of accountability: The belief that success is out of your control.
“If only I had more money.”
“If only I had made better decisions before..”
“If only I had more time.”
“If only that hadn’t happened to me.”
“If only I knew the right people.”
Have you ever heard people say these things? Yikes, have you ever said these things? The term victim comes to mind.
There are multiple definitions of “victim”. One is the sufferer of a crime, or accident. But another definition is someone who is tricked, or duped. A pushover. An easy target. When we believe the lies above, we are in fact acting as a victim, but we are closer to that second definition. Even victims of crime or accidents, not just those who believe negativity about themselves, will always remain a victim unless they accept what has happened, accept what they have, and make something of it. Victims do not want to remain a victim. Have you ever met someone who was in an accident that altered them? They likely do not want you to acknowledge them as what they were the victim of. They don’t want pity. They want to carry on a normal life and make something with it. I want to share a few examples of people who could have stopped at “victim” and called it a life but didn’t.
David Francisco is a local folk musician who has appeared on American Idol, but I’d hardly call that the highlight of his career. David moved to Nashville to pursue music and shortly after settling in, he was hit on his bicycle by a distracted driver, causing sever damage to his spine. He would have to learn how to walk again after the injury.
He was a victim. But this is where he had an option. He could have chosen to be the guy that got run over and called it done. Instead, he making beautiful music and giving strong people who are overcoming some of the biggest challenges we will ever hear. He is giving them a platform to share their own encouraging stories through Lionheart-30 Stories in 30 Days. I’m sure glad he decided to accept what he had and where he was and then make something of it.
Tom and Tiki Finlayson are local activists and pastors who lost their son, Kevin, to a drunk driver back in 2011. The situation was completely out of theirs or Kevin’s control. You could call them both victims and again, they could have stopped there and become “the people that lost their son.” Instead, they started 1N3 to educate people on the dangers and real consequences of drunk driving.
They don’t want you to identify with them as a victim. David doesn’t want to be “the guy that was in an accident.” Tiki doesn’t want to be “the lady that lost her son.” They do not want your pity, they want to make a statement with their lives. Their first step toward that strength was honestly accepting that they have been a victim, and in recognizing that, acknowledging that they want more for their lives. We all must honestly evaluate and accept where we have deemed ourselves a victim before we can become more. Are you going to be “the guy who didn’t have enough time” or are you going to be something more? You decide.
3. Low self esteem: The belief that we don’t deserve success.
It is difficult to look at ourselves as whole beings. To see ourselves as having all we need to build on what we have. We constantly focus on what we aren’t, what we don’t have, and what we don’t know. From this perspective, of course we don’t think we deserve success. I believe I should be more outgoing in public and at parties, so when I don’t feel like that I fight doubts and thoughts of being a failure. I believe I should have more financial security than I have because I’m a husband and single income provider for my three sons, so because I don’t, I fight those same doubts about myself. i wish I was better at playing Spikeball, so when I don’t play well I compare myself to those that are better. Focusing on these things is exactly what gives the thief of comparison a place to thrive.
If I believe I should be more outgoing and beat myself up about it, doesn’t it stop me entirely from being more outgoing? Doesn’t it stop me entirely from building more financial security now when I drown in self-hatred and throw my hands up because I haven’t gotten there yet? Doesn’t it stop me entirely from improving at Spikeball if I just quit playing and say “well, I’m just not good at that.”? Self esteem issues are rooted in a focus on the wrong things and the belief that we “just aren’t good enough.”
Will the Real Success Please Stand Up
*Note-If you understood that reference, please connect with me on Facebook. Let’s be friends.
From these self-defeating tendencies, we learn what we are actually getting in our own way of. This gives us the picture of real success that we are actually looking for. We heard from some people who achieved success and shared that they didn’t feel fulfilled by it. Now let’s hear from some other people who share their perspective from the big picture of success.
Real success is facing fears and taking risks.
On facing fears and moving forward, Winston Churchill said “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
Real success is in accepting our reality and taking responsibility for our lives.
On taking action, Walt Disney said, “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”
The whole idea of acceptance and responsibility being real success is new to me this year. I just got healthy from a long-lived anxiety state or a nervous breakdown, I guess you would say. Speaking of, this is a great time to encourage you to always seek the help that you need. It is so brave to step up and speak out to say “Hey, this isn’t my best. I want my best. Will you support me getting there? Will you help me?” The right people will be there behind you all the way. Anyway, my therapist said he viewed me as a success case. I laughed because I certainly feel very successful sitting in his small, dark, sometimes uncomfortable office talking about issues I didn’t understand and didn’t want to be dealing with in the first place. Success didn’t really come to mind for me there. But he said I was a success because of how I worked hard in between our visits to get the most out of them. I was a success case because I was open to input and was always accepting of advice or a new way to look at things. I was a success case because I accepted where I was and wanted to do something with it.
Real success is in focusing on the right things.
On real confidence and purpose, Albert Einstein said, “Try not to become a man of success. Rather, become a man of value.”
Here is our remedy for low self esteem. When we focus on all the things that we are not, all the things that do not have, all the things that we can not do, of course we will feel low. But when we focus on becoming people of value, we rise and we shine. When we focus on being of value to God, and being of value to other people, we realize the goodness inside us is where we gain our strength from. Don’t confuse this with being valuable. That is the same mentality of believing that we are what people say we are. No, being of value is focusing on what you have in you that can make a difference for someone else.
Notice how none of these indicators of real success have anything to do with achievements, belongings, or popularity. Thank God for that.
So, What’s Left?
So if these self-defeating tendencies lead nowhere and we are not these lies of identity, and the success we imagined is dead, what are we? Who are we, then? What a terrifying question. Take a moment to let this simmer and just be quiet. Feel the energy as if you are in a disaster scene from an action movie. Everything familiar around you has just been obliterated. Many of us have spent our entire lives operating from these tendencies and these lies. Now, as the dust settles, I assure you that no matter how long that has been the case, today can be the day where you move forward the way you have worked so hard to do so. Today can be the day that you know and appreciate yourself deeper, as God made you, as like God. Today can be the day that you become more grounded in truth, and make way for a more meaningful life.
What we have left may feel so small considering our past expectations. An important job title, a custom home, a fancy car, a spotless reputation, a milestone achievement, all feel so large. They should! We have worked toward them for an extensive amount of time and they have been built up as mountains. We have harnessed relationships, spent years training or chasing, and formed ideas of ourselves all around those things.
What remains is what has been dying to be our identity all along. It is what we have actually searched and longed for. It is our very nature and our driving energy toward all that we have hoped to become. What remains will become larger than all the things we have pursued up to this point as we start to realize that this is who we actually are. What we have left is fruit from the spirit inside us that is ever-present, alive, and appealing. It is the small relief you feel in your gut when you connect with it. The fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is what we have left.
This may seem so small compared but as we spend more time with it, this fruit can become the mountain that we made out of chasing the other version of success. These are the things that make us like God, the very things that give us our true purpose, true fulfillment. We can possess many, if not all, of these fruits, but as you spend time focusing on these, it will become apparent which of these fruits you find you embody the most. Everything we strive for comes from the motivation of this fruit, this gift, and it will generate all that you truly need in your life for success and fulfillment. You are loved.
Hear and Share the Message
I shared this message at my local church over the weekend and I wanted to record it so that I could share with you. I forgot to record during the live session, so I ended up recording in my office at home. It is always more awkward to share alone than with a group! Feel free to share this video in your small group, or anywhere that is fit for a good discussion.
Shareable link: https://youtu.be/6SeE_cbsdoo