Are you successful? What does that mean? Did it make you happy?
In this second installment in a series on American false gods, I want to deal with the most American of false gods – success. I pick this term because it is general and can mean different things to different people. I talked about money in my last post, and that can certainly be how some people measure success. However, I think most people define success in a more subjective fashion. Self fulfillment might be a descriptive synonym for success.
I place this particular idol near the top of the list partly because it was (is?) my own idol. For years I aggressively pursued my career in the hopes of gaining prestige and influence over others. I also had an interest in politics for a season. This was perhaps partly to “change the world,” but mostly I have to admit I wanted the notoriety that came with it. Luckily for me (and everyone else) it was clear early on I had no talent for politics.
I now have had a 25 year career in whatever it is I do. During that time I have worked on some interesting things, but I found that I could not find peace or joy in the work that I do professionally. It is a necessity due to the needs of my family, but I can say without reservation that my life with family has given me much more peace and joy than my career ever has. In fact I find that I am disenchanted with my career and would like to try something completely different.
Perhaps God is thinking the same thing. The last company I worked for had problems, but I made a personal commitment to stay with them as long as they would have me. Unfortunately that wasn’t very long and I was downsized in 2014. Of course, I see God’s hand in this because I had made my career an idol and was seeking satisfaction in it rather than God. Now God has provided a job for me that is less than satisfying. I am constantly thinking about changing jobs, but God has made it clear in many ways that he wants me here, so I am learning to not seek joy in my work, but only in God.
Of course, I have ambition to do more professionally. Bono said in The Fly that “ambition bites the nails of success.” Is ambition a good thing or a bad thing?
It is quite rare for someone to be an important person in history without having more than the normal allotment of ambition. One of the greatest figures in history, George Washington, whom I have written about previously on this blog, was known to be a man of great ambition. From his youth he aspired to have land and wealth. He also was unwilling to share the spotlight with other men, which actually worked against him from time to time during the Revolution.
Washington’s contemporary, John Adams, was driven by his desire for fame and the respect of other men. Many of the choices he made in his life were made because it was the most expedient way for him to achieve fame.
Of course, ambition has also been behind an army of other men whose impact on history were not so positive. Hitler, Napoleon, Alexander, Julius Caesar…The list is endless.
Ambition is perceived to be a bad thing. The dictionary definition has a negative connotation as well. It is the ardent desire to achieve rank, fame, or power. These are all things that Judeo Christian culture teaches us to be wary of, or at least to give less importance to than more noble and spiritual pursuits.
The problem is that if men did not have ambition very little of value would be accomplished. Another definition of ambition is a desire to achieve a particular end. This definition is more neutral than the earlier one and implies that ambition can be good if the end you are pursuing is worthy, such as helping others, or otherwise honoring God.
Unfortunately, the majority of us display the negative side of ambition in our lives more than the positive. This is because we may be pursuing success as our ultimate objective. Consider Bill Gates, who is a billionaire revered by progressives. It is common knowledge that he stole ideas from his colleagues to build his own business. His ambition caused him to put his success ahead of his relationships with his friends. Is that really where we want to go?
Our culture tells us that people like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have reached the pinnacle of success. Yet both of these celebrities recently ended their own lives. We will never know exactly why, but one lesson we can learn is that wealth and success in business or entertainment does not guarantee peace or joy.
Our nation has also mourned the recent passing of Billy Graham. Was he an ambitious man? Was he successful? I would say a quick reading of his biography would illustrate that both were true. What made Graham different from almost everyone else is that the end he was pursuing was a spiritual one in line with God’s will for his life. Any success that we perceive he had was simply God’s grace in his life. We should all learn a lesson from Graham to channel our ambition towards the work of God. Success will follow, whether God’s grace will be apparent in this life, or only in the next.