The Measures of Success (RJS)

Several years ago I wrote a post on ambition asking if ambition should be considered a virtue or a vice. Reflections on my series on the book of Job lead me to revisit the topic – and probably not for the last time.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary online defines ambition as (a) an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power (b) desire to achieve a particular end. This is viewed as a virtue in much of our culture – certainly in academia.

I’m skeptical however of ambition as a virtue. It seems to me that ambition is playing with fire. The first definition plays a larger role than most of us would like to admit. Of course ambition according to the second definition is not inherently negative, in fact it is good to have goals and to work for those goals with perseverance. To be ambitious for the kingdom of God is a good thing – as long as it really is for the kingdom of God. And that gets to the focus of this post. How do we know that our aims are, in fact, for God’s kingdom?

We are, I believe, fully embodied souls. Here’s the deal. Ambition according to the first definition (and we can never entirely get away from this definition) is intimately coupled with envy, pride, and perhaps greed. Sin is a product of mind and will, but it is the product of a fully embodied mind. I have begun a series of posts on Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods and other books that explore the relationship between modern psychology and neuroscience and the Christian understanding of persons. I will return to this topic often over the next many months.  The embodied nature of sin is a critical idea.

We are fully embodied creatures and ambition (first definition) feeds on our chemistry and biology and it shapes our natural responses. Ambition, and the success it brings is addictive. The impulses we feed turn around and change brain chemistry in a way that impacts future response and shapes the kind of people we are and we become. Success can go to our heads in rather concrete ways for good and for ill. When measures of success are the world’s measures ambition is not really a virtue – it can use people, destroy relationships, and destroy community.

Scientific developments have impact on our understanding of human behavior and human response. A few years ago I posted on an article, Seven Deadly Sins, in the September 2009 issue of Discover Magazine that posed the question “Why does being bad feel so good?” and describes research being done these days to explore the science of sin. Scientists are using techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and PET (positron-emission tomography) to map the active areas of the brain as a subject responds to certain stimuli. Here I highlight just a few of the main points.

Lust is a big one – Research into brain response connected with lust indicates that (in males at least) the response is all-encompassing. “All said, the most notable thing about lust is that it sets nearly the whole brain buzzing.“ The signals are unique, distinctive, unmistakable and uncontrollable. This isn’t surprising. We know that lust is a problem, we know that behavior can shape response, that there is a biological and chemical aspect that shapes not only the present, but the future. The biochemical response can be addicting and destructive. The lure of pornography is an excellent case in point. We could go on here, but this isn’t really the point of today’s post.

Envy is interesting – in a study of envy a number of volunteers were observed using fMRI while they read one of three scenarios – the key one described a student similar to the volunteer, but better in every respect. The conflict detecting regions of the brain fired and the response was similar to that for pain. This leads to the suggestion that envy is a kind of social pain. Later, when reading about this student’s downfall, the reward and pleasure regions of the volunteer’s brain fired. Not only this but the greater the pain in reading about the student’s success, the greater the reward in reading of the student’s downfall. The reward response is along the same line as that experienced from food – or sex. It feels good.

And now the queen of vices – Pride. Gregory the Great in commenting on Job noted (p. 489-490): “For when pride, the queen of sins, has fully possessed a conquered heart, she surrenders is immediately to seven principal sins, as if to some of her generals, to lay it waste. … For pride is the root of all evil, of which it is said, as Scripture bears witness; Pride is the beginning of all sin.

Does pride show response in brain scans? The science here is rather interesting.

For most of us, it takes less mental energy to puff ourselves up than to think critically about our own abilities. … volunteers who imagined themselves winning a prize or trouncing an opponent showed less activation in brain regions associated with introspection and self-conscious thought than people induced to feel negative emotions such as embarrassment. We accept positive feelings about ourselves readily, Takahashi says: “Compared with guilt and embarrassment, pride might be processed more automatically”. (p. 51)

In another experiment a part of the brain could be stimulated to turn off the protective influence of pride. When this happened “they saw themselves as they really were, without glossing over negative characteristics.” (p. 51)

Even more interesting, the experiments suggest that righteous humility, deliberate self depreciation, is but arrogance and pride in disguise. The brain activation is the same. “Both are forms of one-upsmanship. ‘They are in the same location and seem to serve the same purpose: putting oneself ahead in society.‘” (p. 51)

What does this mean? Self confidence, ambition, pride, envy – this is a slippery slope. It is insidious – affecting our very make-up inside out. We are wrong when we cast it “simply” as a battle of wills. And our capacity for denial, blame-shifting, and self-deception is also rooted in our make-up. It is interesting though, because studies also show that we can train our brains and influence response – especially true of sins of envy, wrath, and pride. Feeding ambition, with its corollaries of envy and pride, is like feeding lust. It changes our very being, our function, our chemistry, our brain paths. On the other hand intentional pursuit of virtue is also self reinforcing.

So why is ambition playing with fire? … an example and an application. The feedback for ambition requires measures of success. These measures generally arise from such things as fame, adulation, deference, wealth, prestige, honor.  It is incredibly tempting to focus on these measures (after all they must mean we are doing something right mustn’t they?). There is an incredible adrenaline rush that comes with success, especially success as measured by the meter sticks common in our 21st century western world. Bigger, better, faster, stronger, smarter – these all measure success, right?

I’ve been writing on Scot’s blog regularly now for over five years, more than 500 posts. Over the last couple of years I’ve had access to detailed statistics on my posts. The following graph shows the cumulative unique page views on my posts.

Unique page views on my posts. The yellow line is the median. Half of the posts have more page views, half have fewer page views. The red dots are the posts in the series on the book of Job.

By now I have a pretty good feel for posts that strike a nerve and those that receive, let us say, a more restrained response.  The availability of these statistics are both a blessing and a curse. Frankly there is an urge for success that leads me to focus on the “successful” posts. There is an intoxicating aspect to knowing that “more” people read what I write and appreciate it. It is physical and chemical – not “just” emotional. As a result there is a natural embodied response to try to maximize that feeling of influence and importance.

The long hiatus in the series on Job arose from a few different factors. For one, the middle of the book is a bit boring and repetitive, yet to do justice to the series I had to slough through it before tackling the end. It didn’t seem worth posting on. But there is another reason as well. I know that posts focused on the Bible tend to get lower numbers … unless they dredge up a controversy.  This reduced the motivation to persevere in the series. And this is a problem.

I could design posts and choose topics to build a large following. I could discard the subjects that fall toward the bottom and concentrate on the techniques and topics that yield the largest response. I could justify it as working for God’s kingdom. It certainly happens all the time in the creation-evolution discussion.  But unless I have the right measure of success I would have only a deluded view that I was working for God’s kingdom.  Personally I think the posts that got higher numbers were good posts, but I also think that the series on Job was of value, and that the insights that come from the end of the book, the speeches of God and the restoration of Job are ultimately more significant than many of the “hot” posts.  But series of posts on the Bible, looking in depth, will never get big numbers … never.

This reflection leads me though, to an idea that I would like to pose for consideration. Within the American culture we view ambition as a virtue. We condone ambition, we reward ambition, we cultivate ambition, we admire ambition, we feed ambition.

Is this consistent with the kingdom of God?

How should the church be different?

As for me, I expect the distribution of views on my posts will continue on as it has for the last few years. Many of my best posts fall below the median. A focus on the kingdom of God (in community, with advice and mentors) is the only accurate measure of success. This may match up with expectations of the culture around us. More often it won’t. The measures of success in the kingdom of God are not, and never will be, the same as the expectations in our broader culture.

And if you’re wondering about the picture at the top of the post – The Big Chill at the Big House and the highest ever (yet) attendance at a hockey game – over 100,000. A measure of success?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • JL Schafer

    I’d like to see your earlier post on seven deadly sins. Can you provide a
    link? Thanks.

  • RJS4DQ

    Science and Sin 1 and Science and Sin 2. This post borrows from those, but they contain more detail.

    These were the first two of a series of four posts I did at the time. The other two are Science and Christian Virtue and Science, Worship, and Fasting.

  • Rick

    One’s goal (no pun intended w/ the picture) is key, as is context.
    If we take that outdoor hockey game as an example, what was the goal? A record attendance, long term benefits for the 2 teams, or long term benefits for college hockey in general? The 1st goal was reached, the 2nd probably was helped short-term (at least), and the 3rd goal is probably undetermined at this point (although outdoor games seem to have at least slightly helped the NHL in terms of attention).
    Likewise we need to ask what is our goal(s)? Is a post’s number just for a record, just for the writer and specific readers, or are there long term benefits? When individuals read a post, such a Job, and are blessed and encouraged, and then pass that growth on to others- that is success.

  • JL Schafer

    Even “just for the writer” can be sufficient. The act of synthesizing one’s thoughts and writing them down can be very helpful; the benefits may spill over into other areas of the author’s life in ways that no one may realize.

  • Rick

    Great point. Thanks

  • RJS4DQ

    Rick,

    I agree with you (hence this post). But real growth is hard (even impossible) to measure. Numbers provide a concrete metric. So I’ve heard sentiments such as “those who can achieve, those who can’t make excuses” with “deeper growth” or “long term benefits” being an implied excuse for one’s own shortcomings. So what do we say to this?

  • JL Schafer

    I would say that the kingdom of God calls into question the whole idea of needing to measure benefits and growth.

    Last night, I was reading the great book Spiritual Formation by Nouwen, Christensen and Laird. In the second chapter, they point out how twisted it is to be goal-oriented — to measure our own worth, and the worthwhileness of our activities, by what we seem to be accomplishing.

    Here is a snippet from chapter 2. It’s about prayer, but I think it also applies to other activities (e.g. blogging) which for a Christian can be regarded as acted prayers.

    “Prayer is Wasting Time with God”

    “The world says, ‘If you are not making good use of your time, you are useless.’ Jesus says, ‘Come spend some useless time with me.’ If we think about prayer in terms of its usefulness to us — what prayer will do for us, what spiritual benefits we will gain, what insights we will gain, what divine presence we may feel — God cannot easily speak to us. But if we detach ourselves from the idea of the usefulness of prayer and the results of prayer, we become free to ‘waste’ a precious hour with God in prayer. Gradually, we may find, our ‘useless’ time will transform us, and everything around us will be different.”

  • JL Schafer

    a response appears below…

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    RJS, having only begun blogging in the past couple of months, I completely relate to your thoughts on the challenges of measuring success as it pertains to post views. In fact, it’s quite a relief to know that much more seasoned bloggers than I wrestle with these same thoughts.

    To answer your question, I don’t think having ambition as a virtue is consistent with the kingdom of God. The kingdom is all about denying ourselves and our own success and being centred instead on others.

  • Rick

    I take a strong John 15 view that the fruit develops apart from our efforts to produce the fruit. It is Christ, and our abiding that produces the fruit. I think this is somewhat similar to what JL Schafer is saying:

    ” If we think about prayer in terms of its usefulness to us — what prayer will do for us, what spiritual benefits we will gain, what insights we will gain, what divine presence we may feel — God cannot easily speak to us. But if we detach ourselves from the idea of the usefulness of prayer and the results of prayer, we become free to ‘waste’ a precious hour with God in prayer. Gradually, we may find, our ‘useless’ time will transform us, and everything around us will be different.”

  • JL Schafer

    Rick, you are perfectly channeling what Nouwen et al. are trying to say. From their next paragraph:
    “Prayer is primarily to do nothing useful or productive in the presence of God. To not be useful is to remind myself that if anything important or fruitful happens through prayer, it is God who achieves the result.”

  • Randy Gabrielse

    What is Ambition?

    In a grad school class which examined the history of America and America religion, we had a number of students who persistently — and for the most part correctly — looked to include issues of race and gender in the readings and in their readings of the readings. At one point we were discussing a biography of Alexander Hamilton, one of the early crafters of the new Federal Goverment and its policies, but also an “illegitmate” who was born in the Carribean on a sugar plantation. Some would say he “transcended his class status.’ Some of the students began to complain that Hamilton had “AMBITION,” and they began to raise accusations regarding his being a white male. In an effort to increase their self-awareness after several people commented on this, our professor, my advisor simply said “I see 25 people in this room, most of whom outperformed their peers, and most of whom are seeking a doctoral degree. Does AMBITION strike any of you as relevant here?”

  • Luke Breuer

    I would say that the kingdom of God calls into question the whole idea of needing to measure benefits and growth.

    Jesus says to judge a tree by its fruit. Furthermore, it’s very easy to convince yourself that you’re working on some problem, and without a decent measure of whether you’re making progress, it is easy to deceive oneself. With a decent measure, you can know when to give up the current strategy and try a new one, thus avoiding the problem of ruts.

    The above being said, I will say that many of the measures used in contemporary society are horrible. Any measure that asks how much a situation matches a given human’s idea of how things ought to be is deeply suspect, especially if that measure stays the same for decades (I call this ‘ossification’ and criticize Christianity for ossifying in this way throughout history).

  • Luke Breuer

    This bit from Screwtape Letters popped into mind:

    “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research thus far has not enabled us to produce one.

    Based on this and scripture, I claim that every sinful desire can be deconstructed into one or more good desires which were perverted. Let’s take ambition. I claim that a good way for it to manifest is to be “one who conquers”. I claim God created us with a fighting instinct because there is something to fight. Recall 1 John 3:8b.

    The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.

    I don’t pretend that this is exhaustive, but one reason for ambition (or the desire(s) behind it) to turn evil is because fighting true evil is harder than ‘winning’ in some other way. Fighting evil requires self-sacrifice. Who wants to do that?

  • RJS4DQ

    True, but what is the fruit by which we judge? A key question, in my view. The answer isn’t “the world’s” answer.

  • Luke Breuer

    By one’s concept of ‘the good’, which is hopefully ever being refined. I see no other measure? Well, we ought to “submit one to another”, partly because cognitive biases are so powerful, and partly because I think God created each of us with only a ‘slice’ of the full definition of ‘the good’, such that we need each other in an intimate fashion in order to truly glorify God.

  • Trin

    But Paul’s ambition was to make Christ known.
    Can ambition be bad? Sure.
    Can ambition be good? Absolutely

    Both/and, not either/or.

  • Susan_G1

    “Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal
    life to which God has called you, which you have confessed so well
    before many witnesses.” “Because of the proof given by this ministry, they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all…” (or, as stated in a commentary on I Cor.: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”)

    If ambition is the drive for reward, clearly it can be good as well as evil. What we “feel” for doing a good deed (neurochemically and the resultant neuroanatomical changes) is just as rewarding (maybe more so, even if or because of being tinged with “humble” pride) as what we “feel” when we get a good grade, get a paper published, or get a big bonus at work. It must be the fruits by which we judge that matter, and they should be the Godly ones.

  • wolfeevolution

    “There is an intoxicating aspect to knowing that “more” people read what I write and appreciate it. It is physical and chemical – not “just” emotional. As a result there is a natural embodied response to try to maximize that feeling of influence and importance.”

    This is a timely post for me. I have no blog but see the same dynamics at play with my Facebook presence. It’s a worthy question to ask myself if there are more things that I ought to post regardless of how many likes it may draw—or simply to be sure I am evaluating, with each post, what will edify, rather than what will garner maximal appreciation. To an extent, I already do occasionally post content just to get people to think, knowing it won’t be liked, but too often I fall into this trap of the ambition game. Thank you for the reflection, RJS.

  • RJS4DQ

    labreuer,

    Every instance of a person bearing fruit in the NT deals with the character of one’s life and deeds. Ephesians 5:8-9 “Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.” and Galatians 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” provide good examples. All of this is connected with the Kingdom of God – and living in accord with the gospel.

    The measure, then, is bearing fruit, and encouraging others to grow in their bearing of fruit for the kingdom of God.

    An “ambition” for such fruit will not go wrong, but few actually seem to pursue these.

    I can think of a few people with whom I have significant (theological) disagreements, but in whom I also see the fruit (genuine as far as a human can discern). These I listen to carefully.

  • Luke Breuer

    The measure, then, is bearing fruit, and encouraging others to grow in their bearing of fruit for the kingdom of God.

    I agree. And I will use my concept of ‘the good’—a concept which hopefully lines up with passages like Gal 5—to judge said fruit. We must be careful not to imagine that the words in the Bible are magical and always construct exactly the right concepts in our heads. So even though we may all read Gal 5, we won’t be thinking identical things. Some folks’ concepts of it will be more glorifying to God than others. This is why I zeroed in on our concept of ‘the good’. :-)

    An “ambition” for such fruit will not go wrong, but few actually seem to pursue these.

    :-(

    I can think of a few people with whom I have significant (theological) disagreements, but in whom I also see the fruit (genuine as far as a human can discern). These I listen to carefully.

    I think this is one of the hardest things for Christians to believe. One of my mentors drilled this into my head. “I may think that you’re a lunatic in how you go about things, but if you bear good fruit, that’s good enough.” We are so prone to create others in our own image, vs. view them according to the spirit (2 Cor 5:16). One of my best friends, whom I call a ‘crypto-Christian’ because he claims to be an atheist, says that he tries to view people as they could be, not as he thinks they should be. A subtle difference, and yet one of the most important differences in the world.


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