Thursday, June 26, 2008


Success. How do we define success?

The Age-Based Definition
Its meaning is as elusive as the age of a person.
  • For a 10 year old, it is to be able to win all the glass marbles during the game.
  • For a 20 year old, success is basically getting to the top school of choice.
  • For the 30 year old, success is getting married to the right guy/gal, and get a promotion in one's organization as soon as possible.
  • For the 40 year old, success is to reach the highest earning bracket.
  • For one in his 50s, success start to focus on helping one's children to attain good results and career development.
  • For the 60 year old, success is seeing all his family members live in harmony.
  • For the 70 year old, success is having multiple generations living together under one roof.
  • For the 80 year old, success is seen when one's legacy of life is passed on to the next generation and the next.
  • Beyond the 90s, success is being able to live a life that one does not regret.
The Secular Definition
In other words, one's view of what success is, is often connected to where we are in life. Popularly, success has been linked to materialism or ranked high in careerism. Another view of success is in terms of health. An ex-colleague of mine shared with me his conviction, that from a health standpoint, a healthy person is already a millionaire. From a wealth standpoint, the latest report shows Singapore having 77000 millionaires, making the island state #7 fastest growing millionaries in the world. Interestingly, the list has many Asian nations rising to the top. The same report does not say what is the cost of attaining such gleaming results. Social problems, suicides, relationships have soured more than before. Relationships and general quality of life have become inversely proportional to rising affluence and individualism. There is always a price to pay.

The Power Definition
Success coaches like Anthony Robbins believes that one's success is tied to the ability to release the power that is within a person. His popular "Unleash the Power Within" has topped the bestseller lists. Robbins's teachings are highly seductive. He says:
"One reason so few of us achieve what we truly want is that we never direct our focus; we never concentrate our power. Most people dabble their way through life, never deciding to master anything in particular."
He defines success as follows:
"My definition of success is to live your life in a way that causes you to feel a ton of pleasure and very little pain - and because of your lifestyle, have the people around you feel a lot more pleasure than they do pain."
Such a hedonistic philosophy appeals to many seeking to live a more fulfilling life. Unfortunately, it is like trying to lose weight without a corresponding diet control. It is doing what one 'feels' right. It is one that pits pleasure against pain, and that negative things are to be avoided. However, what about the fallen nature of man? If one is able to unleash the power within, what about the sinful inclinations of a person? Can a person become so success-driven that morality takes a back seat? Success according to power, is based on one's hunger for a power-unleashed lifestyle.

The Relationship Definition
Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People has been a bestseller for many years. While he is careful to say that friends are not to become a means to an end, I must say that his teachings tend to start from the personal self, from which all relationships are developed from. It is like saying, if YOU want a successful career, make friends. If YOU want a happy life, make friends. If YOU want to be a good leader, create a friendly environment. See the point? His main point is the way that the secret to happiness and success is to be able to work and live among friends. My question to such a philosophy will be, what if one day, one does not have a tangible goal anymore, does that mean one then does not need to make friends?

Another popular speaker is Barbara de Angelis. Her books by the title alone gives me the shivers. "Are you the one for me?" already starts from a self-centered premise. Her teaching is quite similar to Anthony Robbins:
"No one is in control of your happiness but you; therefore, you have the power to change anything about yourself or your life that you want to change."
The focus of power and control is enthroned in the self. A successful person is defined as a person with great relationships. Appealing indeed, but insufficient in itself. It introduces another complicated dimension. "What is the meaning of good relationships?" Chances are, the definition has to do with some heavily motivated self-driven perspective.

The 'Maximal Utilization' Definition
Success is also defined by some in terms of utilitarianism.
Success means doing the best we can with what we have. Success is the doing, not the getting; in the trying, not the triumph. Success is a personal standard, reaching for the highest that is in us, becoming all that we can be. If we do our best, we are a success. Success is the maximum utilization of the ability that you have. (Zig Ziglar
Ziglar's books like See you at the Top, Top Performance: How to Develop Excellence in Yourself and Others, and Staying Up, Up, Up in a Down, Down World are popular because it reflects the inner desires of many people, especially in the prosperous societies. Like the pragmatic who believes: "If it works, do it," this kind of utilitarianism is driven from a maximal output perspective. Unfortunately, space at the 'top' is extremely limited. There can only be one US President at any one time. Even large corporations have only one CEO. There is only one Pope. Countries have only one head of state. What about the rest of the people? Granted, they will strive to reach the top of whatever situations they are in. Taken to an extreme, this appears to be a very cruel philosophy. It simply tries to pumps one's drive continuously, without enough consideration of where and who the person is made to be. Not everyone can be at the top. There will be lots at the bottom.

There are a lot more secular philosophies that are out there. The trouble is, the supermarket of motivational and success-driven speeches are too narcissistic and hedonistic. It smacks of gnosticism too. At a glance, it may seem that my critique of the philosophies may be too harsh. However, the seductive nature of their teachings require a more deliberate critique from a Christian standpoint.

The Biblical Understanding of Success
What is the biblical definition of success? It is certainly very different from Anthony Robbins, Barbara de Angelis or Zig Ziglar. The gospel of Matthew preaches the kingdom of heaven as the key to living a Spirit-filled life.
  • "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3)
  • “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)
  • “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:4)
The Apostle Paul's exhortation to Timothy is that "godliness with contentment is great gain." (1 Tim 6:6). This alludes to my previous blog post about 'The Rich Man Problem.' In that article, I argue that we need to have a healthy sense of what is enough, so as to rein in our human nature of uncontrolled desires and infatuations. A healthy sense of sufficiency can only be found in identifying with the person of Christ. Such an attitude is evident in the attitude of the Old Testament servants. Abraham's servant's motive for success is essentially obedience to his master.
He said, “O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today, and show lovingkindness to my master Abraham." (Gen 24:!2)
King Solomon asks for success in terms of wisdom to rule the people. God was pleased as a result. Joshua, who succeeded Moses was given this commandment with a promise:
“This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. " (Joshua 1:8)
In the Old Testament Hebrew language, there are at least 7 different words to describe success. Many of them has to do with wisdom. Possessions are seldom the motivation for success. Daniel was given success in Babylon not because he wanted to be rich and famous. Instead he desired to be faithful to God. Another observation in the Hebrew rendition of success is that 6 out of 7 times, 'success' is a verb rather than a noun. This is insightful because it reveals that the essence of success is not in the achievement of things but an attainment of righteousness and wisdom that comes from a pure and sincere heart. It is the attitude of the heart that matters more in the biblical understanding of what success means. Matters pertaining to the soul are seen to be essential for living. Let me end with this story as a glimpse of success.
Once upon a time. There was a rich merchant who had four (4) wives.

He loved the 4th wife the most and adorned her with rich robes and treated her to delicacies. He took great care of her and gave her nothing but the best.

He also loved the 3rd wife very much. He's very proud of her and always wanted to show off her to his friends. However, the merchant is always in great fear that she might run away with some other men.

He too, loved his 2nd wife. She is a very considerate person, always patient and in fact is the merchant's confidante. Whenever the merchant faced some problems, he always turned to his 2nd wife and she would always help him out and tide him through difficult times.

Now, the merchant's 1st wife is a very loyal partner and has made great contributions in maintaining his wealth and business as well as taking care of the household. However, the merchant did not love the first wife and although she loved him deeply, he hardly took notice of her.

One day, the merchant fell ill. Before long, he knew that he was going to die soon. He thought of his luxurious life and told himself, "Now I have 4 wives with me. But when I die, I'll be alone. How lonely I'll be!" Thus, he asked the 4th wife, "I loved you most, endowed you with the finest clothing and showered great care over you. Now that I'm dying, will you follow me and keep me company?"

"No way!" replied the 4th wife and she walked away without another word.

The answer cut like a sharp knife right into the merchant's heart.

The sad merchant then asked the 3rd wife, "I have loved you so much for all my life. Now that I'm dying, will you follow me and keep me company?"

"No!" replied the 3rd wife. "Life is so good over here! I'm going to remarry when you die!" The merchant's heart sank and turned cold.

He then asked the 2nd wife, "I always turned to you for help and you've always helped me out. Now I need your help again. When I die, will you follow me and keep me company?" "I'm sorry, I can't help you out this time!" replied the 2nd wife. "At the very most, I can only send you to your grave." The answer came like a bolt of thunder and the merchant was devastated.

Then a voice called out: "I'll leave with you. I'll follow you no matter where you go." The merchant looked up and there was his first wife. She was so skinny, almost like she suffered from malnutrition.

Greatly grieved, the merchant said, "I should have taken much better care of you while I could have!"

Actually, we all have 4 wives in our lives. The 4th wife is our body. No matter how much time and effort we lavish in making it look good, it'll leave us when we die.

Our 3rd wife is our possessions, status and wealth. When we die, they all go to others.

The 2nd wife is our family and friends. No matter how close they had been there for us when we're alive, the furthest they can stay by us is up to the grave.

The 1st wife is in fact our soul, often neglected in our pursuit of material wealth and sensual pleasure.

Guess what? It is actually the only thing that follows us wherever we go. Perhaps it's a good idea to cultivate and strengthen it now rather than to wait until we're on our deathbed to lament.
This story may seem fictional, but it drives home the point that we cannot place our hopes on things temporal but on things that are eternal.


1 comment:

Rosie Perera said...

Great story!

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