I often attend conferences where the attendees are given name tags that boldly announce who they are. This creates a phenomenon rarely seen elsewhere. As we walk the halls of the conference center or hotel, our eyes are fixed on the name tags of those we pass. We’re anxious to see if they are “somebody.” Is he a well-known speaker? Is she an author we’ve read? Are they part of an important faculty or church or company? We zero in on their name tag to find out. But, as soon as we realize they are just commoners, unknowns, and not so special, we initiate the instinctive neck twist and look away, scanning the horizon for the next chance to spot a celebrity.
As you might guess, at conferences no one ever looks me in the eye, and more likely, they are staring right past me after reading my name. I am used to it by now, but it does make me wonder about what qualifies as success today.
What makes for success? Certainly, for many it is notoriety. You are successful if you’ve made a name for yourself that is recognized broadly. It usually means you’ve written something that has sold well, discovered something that has been widely used, made a lot of money or come up with an idea that everyone wants to hear. I suppose there are other ways to become famous, but the real question is whether fame really should equal success.
A few days ago my wife asked, quite out of the blue, “Why are the Kardashians famous?” And, like the rest of civilization, I had no cogent answer. There is no reason they should be on every magazine cover except that they’ve been on previous covers and millions of people are curious about their every move, even though you’ll not find many who admit it. They are poster children for an ominous trend that is overtaking our society. Success is being recalibrated in our day. Where character, hard work, utility and societal benefit used to be the standard criteria for measuring success in life, today we are increasingly ready to coronate as cultural kings and queens those who may be outrageous, arrogant, irreverent, and downright evil, as long as they are beautiful, rich, interesting or any combination thereof.
But this raises two serious problems. First, given the vast majority of us are not beautiful, rich or very interesting, the result will be only a few will ever be seen as successful. Second, if success becomes equated with beauty, riches, or flamboyance, we will be sacrificing the grand foundation of our culture, which has always measured success in such a way that fame and wealth don’t automatically factor in.
Let me suggest that success is simply faithfulness in all walks of life. A man who is faithful to his wife, raises emotionally and spiritually healthy children, does his work heartily and with integrity, and loves his neighbor must be seen as successful in everyone’s book, despite the fact that few will ever recognize his merit. A woman who sticks to her word, is honest and caring in all her relationships, and brings value to her family and friends is a success despite the fact that she never wrote a book or reached six figures.
Of course, being wealthy, or famous, or interesting doesn’t disqualify anyone from my definition of success. But none of those actually measure what is most important in life. Success is faithfulness, and while some may find their faithfulness rewarded with income and opportunities for public acclaim, we must appreciate their character and conduct first and foremost.
The successful life is the ethical life, lived in alignment with core values such as integrity, courage, honesty, humility and love. Without these no amount of popularity or material gain can make a life truly successful, no matter how many people recognize you as “somebody” at the next conference.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.