The whole thing makes me profoundly uncomfortable—talking about, or even considering, how one person might be more likely to succeed than another.
But it has to be true.
Some people just have generally more thriving careers, happier relationships, closer families, more satisfying marriages, and less dramatic financial lives than others. Some people have goals they never accomplish, unrealized dreams, addictions, depression or anxiety that seems to cloud too much of their existence.
Others seem to move seamlessly through life, uncovering a continual sense of well-being and freedom.
So what does one person do that the other person doesn’t?
Is one person “better” than the other person? Is one life “better” than the other? The conversation gets sticky here, because although I can tell you which life I would prefer to have, it’s hard for me to admit there is a difference.
It’s hard for me to put a value judgement on a human life—it really is. The whole thing makes me cringe.
But, if I’m being brutally honest, I think there is a difference.
It isn’t about measuring one life against another life; and it isn’t meant to be a tool of shame or of competition. But it is meant to help us understand what would make one person able to face trials and setbacks with confidence and grace; while another can’t seem to find his or her way, despite opportunities.
The other day I was discussing this with a group of friends.
We talked about how every human life has equal value, but how some people spend their gifts and resources more wisely than others. We discussed the role of emotional or relational health, which acts much like physical health—if you don’t ever take good care of your body, as an athlete, you can’t be surprised when it won’t perform like you wish it would.
We talked about family support, community, and how different definitions of success would have an impact on whether you achieve it or not.
We marveled at how none of us are dealt an equal “hand,” but how where we begin is a terrible predictor for where we end up.
Sometimes, even those who are dealt a terrible hand, end up thriving.
But ultimately, one of my friends ended up saying something during the conversation that caught my attention, and I think even answered my question about the mystery of success. Those who are successful in life do this well, he said. And as soon as the words came out of his mouth, I knew it was true.
The areas in my own life where I’ve put these words to practice, I’m thriving. The ares where I’m flailing around, and not experiencing much growth, I haven’t taken my friend’s advice.
This is what he said:
“Those who are truly successful in life care more about success than they do about their own egos.”
At first blush, it was hard for me to wrap my brain around this advice, because when I think about “success” it’s difficult for me to disconnect it from my ego. I mean, I think when I consider what it means to have a “successful” life, I assume my happiness is the only thing at stake.
Happy marriage, great job, nice cars, beautiful house, maybe a little fame and popularity—isn’t this success?
But then it occurred to me, suddenly: Success (true success) isn’t really about me at all. A successful marriage isn’t a happy marriage, necessarily (although happiness is often the result). A successful marriage is a thriving marriage, where both partners are bringing out the best in each other, and the best in the world around them.
A successful career isn’t a well-paying career, necessarily (although its interesting how those who are most successful in their fields are often rewarded with financial gain).
A successful career happens when as many lives as possible are changed.
The only way for us to uncover this kind of success is to lay down our attachment to ourselves.
We have to be willing to admit where we’ve been wrong in the past—we made the wrong decisions, moved in the wrong direction, said the wrong things, went the wrong ways. We have to be willing to change our habits and patterns, even when change is painful or seems unfair.
We can’t assume every bad thing that has happened in our lives has happened to us. That’s letting our egos get in the way.
We have to assume we played a role.
That’s the only way for us to find a way out of the messes we’re often in—to admit that we know the way out because we know the way in. We got ourselves here. We have to follow the breadcrumbs.
Obviously, this is easier said than done.
Even as I write these words, I can feel my ego get in the way. “What happened to you isn’t your fault!” It’s screaming from inside me, and it’s true. What happened to me wasn’t my fault.
But I can’t let myself twist those words to believe they mean I don’t have responsibility now.
Because I do.
And it’s big responsibility.
I have a responsibility to use what I’ve been given. It doesn’t matter if it’s a little bit, or a lot. I have a responsibility to use it to the best of my ability—which means being resourceful and adventurous and innovative. It means I can’t let petty concerns or my precious reputation get in the way.
I have something beautiful to create (a marriage, a family, a business, a life).
I have a responsibility to work hard. I’m not talking about working too much, or never taking space for myself. What I’m talking about is throwing my whole weight into something, giving it my best shot.
Successful people refuse to their challenges as an excuse. They stay committed to things over time.
And what’s truly amazing to me about those who are really successful in life is that success can look a thousand different ways—from a young man with Down Syndrome who opens his own restaurant, to a Olympic Gold Medalist—and yet regardless of the name on the accomplishment, it has its way of reflecting the precious and the divine.
Perhaps it is for this reason it matters so much.