Success Sickness

Growing old is, what can I say, an adventure?

Arthritis is like a non-stop robocall that keeps ringing at all times of the day or night. Then there are those senior moments when I forget why I walked upstairs.  Now entering my eighth decade of life, I have to live with the fact I am old enough that my friends in heaven don’t think I made it.  

I do appreciate the senior discounts most stores offer, but that’s just a bonus for not dying young.  And I certainly appreciate living long enough to witness my children grow up and have their own children.  I am grateful for the life experiences that have taught me the wisdom of spending time on things that matter and avoiding the things that don’t.  But there is another rather unexpected yet delightful gift that comes with living into your golden years — the joy of discovering long-forgotten things that remind you of a life of blessing.

I have been on a renewed mission in recent months — my wife would say years — to periodically take a box out of the attic, go through its contents and either throw it away, give it away, or, at the very least, discover why I kept it in the first place.  I prefer to view this as a treasure hunt rather than just a decluttering exercise. I recently found hand-colored pictures that my forty-something son drew in kindergarten.  Stuck on the bottom of a box was a hand-written letter from an old friend expressing thanks for my help with some long-forgotten project. Then there are the letters/emails I wrote decades ago, prompting me to ask myself, “Did I really write that?”  Such was the case of one email I shared with friends back in 1997.

That year found me in the 25th year of what would be a 42-year career working with a major telecommunications giant.  My youthful exuberance had long since yielded to a mature view of the realities of working in corporate America.  Oh, the work remained exciting.  Telecommunications was, and is, one of those industries on the bleeding edge of technological change.  Intellectual challenges were ever-present.  Yet, I recall my ambitions had a reality check.  Opportunities for advancement dwindled with each downsizing initiative.  It reminded me that a title or a paycheck should never define true success and contentment in life.  

Everybody can’t be the CEO.

Now, twenty-five years later, we are dealing with a worldwide virus called COVID and facing a new threat called Monkeypox. But in November of 1997, I emailed friends about another virus making its way through Western culture.   Author Patrick Morley referred to this virus as Success Sickness.  I found a paper copy of that correspondence this week during one of my decluttering “treasure hunt” exercises. 

The words were not original.  Most of what I shared paraphrased the author Patrick Morley.  It was meaningful then and still worth sharing today.  While Mr. Morley’s target audience was men, his words apply to both genders.  What did I share in 1997 and consider worthy enough to share again? Read on.


November 1997

Dear Family and Friends,

I read a short article in Men’s Life newsletter summarizing author Patrick Morley’s comments in his newsletter, For Your Life.  The topic dealt with what Morley called Success Sickness.  I was impressed with the great insights offered, especially how he defined the issues.  He seemed to concisely capture the conflicts between one’s professional and personal life.  It touched a nerve for me.  Following is a condensed version of what I read.


For many men, managing their lives has become like trying to tie two pieces of string together that are not quite long enough.  The result? A pervasive lack of contentment stalks them.  As Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  What is it that men really want?  Man’s deepest need is his need to be significant — to make his life count, to make a difference.

Many men equate the fulfillment of this need with success — success in careers, families, finances.  Our society has a tumor on its soul that we might term “success sickness.”  It is the disease of always wanting more and never being satisfied when we get it.  We are a nation that weeps over winning only silver medals.

Success sickness is the intangible pain of not achieving goals that should never have been set or achieving them only to find they really didn’t matter.  There are three viruses that infect men with this success sickness.

Virus #1:  The Rat Race.   What is it?  The rat race is the endless pursuit of an ever-increasing prosperity that ends in frustration rather than contentment.  According to Francis Schaffer, most people adopt two impoverished values:  personal peace — not wanting to be bothered with the troubles of others, and affluence — a life made up of things, things, and more things.  As a result, many men are off balance, asking themselves, how can I be so successful and so unfulfilled at the same time?  Is this all there is?

Virus #2:  The Unexamined Life.  To lead an unexamined life means to rush from task to busy task but not call enough time-outs to reflect on life’s larger meaning and purpose.  The price of pace is peace.  Most men have not carefully chiseled their worldview by a personal search for truth, an obedience to God and His Word. Rather, they are drifting.  They are not thinking deeply about their lives.  Buffeted by whipping winds of daily pressure, tossed by the surging waves of change, they long for the sure-footed sands of simpler days but have scarcely a clue about how to reach such a distant shore.  Lamentations 3:40 exhorts, “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the LORD.”  Only on the anvil of self-examination can God shape a man into the image of His Son.

Virus#3:  Cultural Christianity.  In his book, The Man in the Mirror, Patrick Morley defines the term this way, “Cultural Christianity means to seek the God we want instead of the God who is.  It is the tendency to be shallow in our understanding of God, wanting Him to be more of a gentle grandfather type who spoils us and lets us have our own way.  It is sensing a need for God, but on our own terms.  It is wanting the God we have underlined in our Bibles without wanting the rest of Him too.  It is God relative instead of God absolute.”

You may be sitting at the top of your game and still feel tired, unfulfilled, and frustrated.  This is when you should take a time-out to reflect on the fact that there is a God we want and there is a God who is.  They are not the same God.  The turning point of our lives is when we stop seeking the God we want and start seeking the God who is.


After reading these words, my only thought was, yes, this guy has hit the proverbial nail on the head.  How often have I heard the verse, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), and failed to realize the importance such times of reflection are to the contentment of my life?


What do you think?  Worth sharing again?

In the years that followed that 1997 letter, my professional career advanced well beyond my expectations. And while I was professionally encouraged and challenged by those events, I never forgot Morley’s thoughtful reflections.  His insights became the foundation for my worldview and attitude toward work.  If I am honest, I must confess to occasionally falling ill with these three viruses, but never for long. My faith (and my wife) never allowed me to remain ill for long.

Now excuse me, my attic is calling — time to do some more treasure hunting.

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