Defining Success

Rummaging through the attic this week, I found some old high school trophies. Half a century ago, these treasured testaments sat proudly on a shelf displaying my teenage achievements.  “MVP,” “Most Likely to…,” “Best All-Around..”  Well, you get the idea.  Yet, today, these long-forgotten, bygone memories are rusting and collecting dust in a box that had been unopened for years, if not decades.

Seeing these leftover laurels of yesteryear, I wondered, how does one define success? Certainly not by dusty, rusty medals that once served only to feed my ego.

Is success only defined by achievements? One’s bank balance? The power or influence one has?  The neighborhood one lives in? How much “bling” one wears upon their body or the fame one has garnered? 

This reflection on personal success reminded me of my last post, where I shared a 25-year-old email about Success Sickness, the “disease of always wanting more and never being satisfied when we get it.” 

That email outlined the three infectious viruses of success sickness. (1) The Rat Race of endlessly pursuing material wealth, (2) The Unexamined Life that fails to reflect on life’s larger meaning and purpose, and (3) a Cultural Christianity that defines God on our terms.

There are some among us who view life as an endless struggle, and any attempt to define success is limited to just being happy, or a good provider for the family, or at best, seeing one’s children becoming independent and engaged in a laudable career.

Those thoughts prompted me to ask myself — what definition of success would I want my grandchildren to know?

Recently, a friend, who regularly sends me a “Quote of the Day,” shared the following: “The mark of a successful man is one that has spent an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it.”  (Author Unknown)  Reading this quote made me stop and ponder the layered meaning behind the words. No doubt there is some truth in that statement. But is it that simple, or is understanding true success a bit more complicated?

In this Instagram, TikTok world, we are tempted to capsulize meaning and purpose into tiny bite-sized sound quotes — those pithy, easy-to-remember, superficially digestible, and feel-good definitions — that massage our egos. Yes, this is a world that caters more to that which tickles our ears rather than convicts our hearts.

But there are voices of truth — if we have the ears to hear them.

Throughout the ages, many have commented on what a successful or meaningful life involves.  On a research trip through my archive of quotes, I discovered several success-oriented notable quotables whose richness and depth require time to digest.

This collection of citations is a treasure without measure  — each one an individual gold nugget of wisdom. And just as you might hold a precious gem and carefully and deliberately admire it from different angles, I suggest you not breeze through these quotations, but savor each one, contemplate the author’s message, and digest its insightful meaning.  

Then, maybe, we will grasp the true meaning of success in life.  

Besides, none of the fundamental truths reflected below ever gather dust or rust. They possess an eternal quality worth pursuing.



Twenty Ways to Define Success

You can use most any measure when you’re speaking of success. You can measure it in a fancy home, expensive car, or dress. But, the measure of real success is one you cannot spend:  it’s the way your child describes you when talking to a friend.” Martin Baxbaum, Author

Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.” Francis Chan, Author

All that you can take with you is what you have given away.” From the movie, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) as seen briefly on a sign hanging in the Bailey’s Savings and Loan office.

People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”  Thomas Merton

If you carefully consider what you want to be said of you in the funeral experience, you will find your definition of success.” Stephen Covey in an interview with the NY Times. 

“Your greatness is measured by your kindness; your education and intellect by your modesty; your ignorance is betrayed by your suspicions and prejudices, and your real caliber is measured by the consideration and tolerance you have for others.” William J. H. Boetcker, (1873-1962) Religious leader 

“Any man who thinks he can be happy and prosperous by letting the Government take care of him better take a closer look at the American Indian.” Henry Ford

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Helen Keller

“True success is having the love and respect of those who know you best.” John Maxwell, Leadership Guru

“Pleasures are gifts to be enjoyed, not goals to be pursued. No pleasure, however delightful, provides a reason for living or a goal for growing. The pursuit of pleasure leads into a swamp of boredom. The foundational human appetite is for God. God has filled the world with all manner of delight. To enjoy it we need the light touch of one who accepts a gift. We need protection from the sweaty, enslaving compulsions of taking a God -gift and immediately de-godding it into an idol. It is possible to accept all the gifts of life and enjoy them completely only if we refuse to make gods out of them.” Eugene Peterson, Author

“The most magnificent form of success is when you shift your mindset from ambition to significance and realize that in the end, it’s about the lives you touch.”  Michele Ruiz, Journalist

A good character is the best tombstone. Those who loved you, and were helped by you, will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered. Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.”  Charles Spurgeon, 19th Century Preacher

The measure of your success will be the measure of your generosity.”  Pope John Paul II

The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being.” Pope John Paul II

The most important thing in your life is not what you do; it’s who you become. That’s what you get to take into eternity.” Dallas Willard, American Philosopher

“Work for a cause; not for applause.  Live life to express; not to impress.  Don’t strive to make your presence noticed; just to make your absence felt.” Author Unknown

“A hundred years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove…but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.” Author Unknown

“Successful is the person who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has gained the respect of children, who leaves the world better than they found it, who has never lacked appreciation for the earth’s beauty, who never fails to look for the best in others or give the best of themselves.”  Author Unknown

“When it comes time to die…make sure all you’ve got to do is die.” Author Unknown

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” Mark 8:36 (NASB)

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