Success

Success is having enough and having the wisdom to recognize it; success is doing what you’re called to do while you do what you have to do.

Last Friday author and teacher Thorn Coyle had a blog post on redefining success. She led with a quote from poet Maya Angelou, who said “success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” Thorn’s post was an attempt to draw people away from the mainstream view of success as more more more and the attitude that you can – and should – do / be / have anything if you just work hard enough.

The many comments (24 as I write this) expressed a variety of thoughts, but running through many of them was the frustration of trying to feel successful with love and faith and service while dealing with financial, physical, or other material difficulties.

There are two commonly held definitions of success in the wider Western culture. Neither of them are entirely helpful to most of us most of the time.

The first is the traditional materialistic definition of success and the route to get there: work hard, make a lot of money, enjoy a luxurious lifestyle of huge houses, fast cars and expensive hobbies. I doubt I have to tell any readers of this blog the problems with that definition. The satisfaction of things is a temporary satisfaction; or, as I heard somewhere, the gap between “more” and “enough” never closes. On top of that there are moral issues with consuming huge and disproportionate amounts of limited resources.

However, this does not mean material success is unimportant. Try to feel loving and compassionate when you can’t pay the mortgage or rent, when your car is broken and you don’t have a way to get to work, or when your child is sick and you don’t have insurance. It’s not impossible, but it’s pretty damned hard.

Success is having enough and having the wisdom to recognize it; success is doing what you’re called to do while you do what you have to do.

The second commonly held definition of success has become popular since the 1960s or so: do what makes you happy, express your creativity, follow your bliss. The problem arises when we confuse our lifelong satisfaction with our short-term wants. All acts of love and pleasure may be the rituals of the Goddess, but they aren’t a strong enough foundation on which to build a life. Or, in the words of Isaac Bonewits, “do as thou wilt, not do as thou whim.”

Adopting this definition of success sets us up for failure when the realities of life intrude on our dreams. Being successful doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with difficulties or do things we’d rather not do. “Chop wood, carry water” applies to more than just Buddhists.

And speaking of failure, the fact that we don’t currently meet our definition of success doesn’t mean we have failed. It simply means we’re not there yet. You don’t have to be successful today, or tomorrow, or next week. If you have a goal and a plan and you’re making good progress over time then you’re doing OK. The only thing worse than not recognizing success is defining success so low and so vague that you stop working to make things better for yourself and for others.

Success is having enough and having the wisdom to recognize it; success is doing what you’re called to do while you do what you have to do.

“Having enough” means doing the things that are necessary to earn enough. But very few of us are able to earn a living by painting or singing or writing or by doing any of the many things that make us feel truly successful – the things we’re called to do.

To use a classic example, consider acting. A very few lucky folks are identified as “talented” at a very early age and are turned into stars (though given that group’s crash and burn rate I’m not sure how lucky they really are). Everyone else has to make it on their own – they have to earn their living while pursuing their dreams. Maybe they move to Hollywood and wait tables or tend bar while going to auditions. Or maybe they stay home, work a professional job and do community theater in the evenings. Both of those options are routes to success, albeit different kinds of success. But what the people exercising both these options aren’t doing is waiting on things to be “just right” before starting – they’re doing what they’re called to do while they’re doing what they have to do.

What is it that you’re called to do? What is not your whim or your fancy but your true will? What is your bliss? Start doing it today! You’ll still have to chop wood and carry water, but you’ll be one step closer to success as you see it.

Success is having enough and having the wisdom to recognize it; success is doing what you’re called to do while you do what you have to do.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Anne

    Thank you for writing this. I am 23 and have terrible amounts of debt from school loans. I am very very lucky to have finally found a job after many unemployed months of scrambling and depression. I have felt trapped by my life, and having a job I may not like because of my debt. Reading things like this remind me that I am still very young, and I am on a good (although somewhat slow) track to paying off my debt and improving my life. I recently took up the Native American flute, and I can’t even explain how much joy it has brought me. Again, thank you for writing this and making me feel more at ease with this stage of my life.


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