Photo Credit: Chavalit Kamolthamanon
Like most people I enjoy a moving success story, but I’ve discovered I tend to rally more loudly behind individuals who come out of disadvantaged or seemingly hopeless situations. You know the abused wife turned entrepreneur and women’s advocate; or the underachieving teen who is now a highly sought after athlete or performer; or the drug dealer turned preacher and well-known community activist.
People who come from tumultuous situations are often told by well-meaning people that they’re deserving of greater success and will ultimately have a greater impact because of the hardships they’ve overcome. It seems more common to applaud the success of the person once labeled a failure than it is to celebrate the accomplishments of an individual who comes from a normal or affluent background. Recently I asked myself, “Is this attitude or perspective right?” Why validate the success of the disadvantaged as greater, harder earned or more deserved than the success of the average or privileged?
You see, as a boy I was enrolled in gifted programs and advanced courses. My parents had high expectations of me, and I discovered that my classmates did also after being voted most likely to succeed. At the time it felt awesome to have gained such notoriety with my classmates but later in life, I began to despise the honor. Not because I’ve not been successful but because I questioned whether or not “they” would think I was successful enough. The tenets of success have changed. Many people equate success to great fame, riches and social media followings. Even though not always intended, the labels–good or bad–and the distinguished honors we earn or that are bestowed upon us can also create negative pressure that stagnate our growth or impede our ability to appropriately measure our success.
For over a decade, I volunteered as an administrator at the church I attend. At first, when I felt the pull to refocus my energy into other activities, I struggled. I had grown comfortable with the labels and the success I had achieved. I defined my identity and value by that role, which made changing directions painful. From this, I learned we should remove labels and wear our titles/roles loosely so that we are not bound to something intended or maybe not intended to be temporary. You can plan for tomorrow, but there’s no guarantee of what tomorrow will be.
As someone who enjoys thinking through processes and plans, being successful at handling administrative matters comes natural to me, but I get frustrated by attitudes that minimize my success as easy. Sometimes we mistakenly assume that talent or access to resources eliminate the struggle of achieving or maintaining success–that’s not true. The talented and fortunate face similar obstacles as everyone else, like lacking confidence or fearing failure. If they fail, they may still have their talent and perhaps their money but when a person loses hope, talent and money mean nothing. I think Bobbi Christina Brown embodies an example of this. On one hand she has it all but on the other, she seems to lack what is needed to navigate her path to success. In no way do I mean to discredit anyone in this statement. People make mistakes; sometimes the consequences are long-lasting; sometimes they are irreversible.
I don’t think we should measure anyone’s success by what they’ve been through or by what they have. I believe the majority of people who are successful are so because they put in work. Maya Angelou said it best, “Nothing will work if you don’t.” Maybe we should cheer for everyone. If they’re successful, it’s likely that they’re putting in work, no matter how easy it may seem. Things tend to look easy because a person has invested time mastering and honing their abilities when no one was watching. Until we look behind the curtain of someone’s life and understand who they are, their life experiences and what they’re purposed to do, do we have the ability to appropriately measure their success? I don’t think so.
So what is true success? Ultimately I believe the place where we discover our greatest level of fulfillment while still being challenged to grow best reflects true success. The specifics will be different for each of us. The premiere mindset that can hinder us from fully realizing and celebrating our success is comparison to others. I’ve been guilty of this. I had a habit of constantly comparing myself to people who I thought we’re doing better than me. There were times when I actually said, “I wished I was so-and-so.” What a fool I was. At that time, I had no sense of identity. I wanted the trappings of success so that other people would applaud me because I didn’t know how to celebrate myself. Now that I better understand who I am and what I’m purposed for, I don’t find myself envying others very often. I seek to have relationships with people who are doing great things because we need to connect with people who challenge us to live up to our greatest potential, but we should measure our success in the absence of comparison. When doing so, I may still find myself lacking, but success is not always about a positive end-result. Even under ideal conditions, the possibility of failure exists, but if we don’t take the journey, we can’t grow. We can’t be most likely to succeed.