Success from the Inside Out

Our culture tends to define success in terms of the acquisition of status and wealth; but might there be other more soulful ways of understanding success?

Confusion about what Makes for a Successful Life

Author and spiritual Director, Anthony DeMello, called our culture’s recipe for success into question with the following story:

A small-time businessman, 55 years old, is sipping beer at a bar… and he’s saying,‘Well, look at my classmates, they’ve really made it.’ [But] what does he mean,‘They made it?’ They’ve got their names in the newspaper? Do you call that making it? Who determines what it means to be a success? Being the president of a corporation has nothing to do with being a success in life...[nor does] having a lot of money...People who made it! Made what? Made asses of themselves because they drained all their energy chasing after something that was worthless. They’re frightened and confused… They are controlled and manipulated… Do you call that human? And do you know why that happens? Only one reason: They identified with some label. The identified their “I” with their money or their job or their profession… If I change my profession tomorrow, it’s just like changing my clothes. I am untouched. Are you your clothes? Are you your name? Are you your profession? Stop identifying with them. They come and go…

DeMello might be judged as ranting here, but there is a measure of Truthspeaking in his words. Certainly, in the status quo view, the path to success is to climb the proverbial ladder, striving, over a lifetime, to achieve security and recognition. But has it ever occurred to you that spending your life energy to make a name for yourself could actually interfere with genuine success? First, because, in so doing, you will be ignoring your own inner compass by conforming to society’s recipe for success; and, second, because you will make the mistake of seeing success as a future goal—something that you expend your life energy reaching for—instead of understanding success as a life-long practice of being fully alive and fully present to yourself and to the world, moment-by-moment. This is a crucial distinction because, in the hot pursuit of success, it is easy to forget an essential truth—namely, that our ends and our means are inextricably bound together. This means that if we fail to create good will, health and happiness in the pursuit of success, then the end (the outcome) will be devoid of these essential qualities.

It was, perhaps, with this wisdom in mind that Thomas Merton, who lived his life, one day at a time, as a monk in a monastery in Kentucky, offered this advice to young people: “Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all cost avoid one thing: success.” I confess that I was confused when I first read Merton’s words because he seemed to be saying that there is no such thing as “success”. My confusion lifted when author and environmentalist, David Orr, put Merton’s admonition in perspective with these words: “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people, but it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.”      

How do the ideas in this video affect your understanding of success...?  Your understanding who you are...? Your understanding who you might become...?

Success Exploration 1:
The Paradoxical Power of Surrender

     In his book, Love, Leo Buscaglia shares a Hindu tale about a man in a small boat rowing, against the current, up a fast-flowing river. After a long struggle, the man finally realizes that, in spite of all his efforts, the river is mightier than he is… So, he stops, raises his oars and, rather than fighting against the current, simply goes with the river’s flow, singing on his way.

     Might it be that we experience genuine success, not by resisting the flow of the river of life, but by embracing the belief that the world that we are embedded within is here to offer us guidance, provided we are willing to pay attention? Have you ever considered this? Could it be true? You could explore this idea by responding, in your Journal, several times, to the following open sentence:

What the world is dreaming through me is _________________.

     This may seem like an odd prompt, especially if you have never considered that the world could dream through you. But instead of skepticism, consider holding this question in your heart as you walk out under the stars at night, or cradling it in your belly, at sunrise, as you greet a new day. Trust that answers will come. After all, just as each of us is in the world, so, too, the world is in each of us; we came from it and we belong to it! As you awaken and come to experience yourself as a precious part of the living world, be open to the possibility that a time will come when, rather than seeking to control your life circumstances, you will summon the humility to open, soften and surrender and, in so doing, to allow the world to act on you.

Success Exploration 2: A Failure Resume

Most of us have been taught to avoid failure, at all cost, by playing it safe and coloring within the lines. But what if we were to embrace failure!? You can experience what this might be like by preparing a Failure Resume. That’s right: A Failure Resume! This is different from the standard resume where we attempt to summarize the story of our lives in glowing terms, adorned with achievements and accolades. Rather than an honest appraisal of who we are; the standard resume is often a gussied-up story where we attempt to sell ourselves as successful, in accord with our society’s metrics for success.

But a Failure Resume—now, that’s different because it offers a fuller story of who you are. Show this to a potential employer and s/he will have a true window into your character, into your courage and readiness to step into the unknown, into your willingness to learn from failure, into your capacity for humility and vulnerability, into your tenacity and resilience—all hard won through your personal trials and tribulations.

So, for the purpose of self-discovery and awakening, consider setting aside some journaling time now to create a Failure Resume. And, then, who knows, some day, in the service of aliveness and authenticity, you just might muster the boldness to share both your Success and Failure resumes with a perspective employer and that employer just might welcome you with open arms.

Success Exploration 3:
To Live Divided No More

What really does make for a successful life? For author and educator, Parker Palmer, the answer is “to live divided no more”. Palmer calls this resolve the Rosa Parks Decision in memory of the black woman, living in Alabama in the 1960s, who determined that she would no longer pretend to accept what she knew, in her heart and soul, to be fundamentally wrong. By taking a seat in the front of the bus (instead of in the designated zone in the back), Rosa Parks stood up with her whole, undivided being. She became fearless when she realized that there was no punishment—not public criticism, not jail, not physical beating—that could come close to equaling the punishment she inflicted on herself by living divided from her own soul’s deep truth.  

In the uncertain times in which we find ourselves, it seems that what the world needs, more than anything else, are people who, like Rosa Parks, are committed to living divided no more… people who have come alive! Might this be what true success looks like… and feels like!

Photo: Rosa Parks sitting on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 1956.

"Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

- Howard Thurman

"Growing up, my image of success meant having a great job that paid well and gave me access to lots of nice things."

- Ashley Jenkins, Steppingstone # 9 Guide

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