Sunday, January 31, 2010

Redefining Success...

Recently I read a quote regarding the true meaning of success. (I can't find the blog, but I remember the quote, so I looked it up. It was written by a woman named Bessie Stanley. It is sometimes attributed to Emerson, but the above link sorts that all out.) The quote is actually a poem:


To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
to earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
to know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded. "

I like pithy sayings: proverbs, axioms, general systems laws, rules-of-thumb. This quote is a bit longer than that, but then success is a complex subject.

I teach kids. I teach kids who struggle to be average in academics. The grades they earn are often less than gratifying. Some work hard just to be below average rather than "failing." Have these kids succeeded? And will they be successful?

Part of what I teach these kids is that their worth and success is not measured by grades on a report card. That's not what matters the most. I inculcate a deeper measure of self-worth or success. Are you kind? caring? pleasant? hard-working? These issues of character are more important than grades now, or dollars earned later. Success in life is measured much differently. But how?

That's why I like the quote. It resonates with me. It also validates my life and beliefs. It validates a life many might think of as inconsequential or ordinary.

Abraham Lincoln once said, "God must have loved the ordinary people. He made so many of them."

Fame and fortune are noticeably missing from Stanley's definition. I like that. But something else is missing from the quote: God's view of success.

One of my favorite sayings from the Bible is a nugget found in the often overlooked book of Micah. It reads, "He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you? But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?"

Do justly... love kindness (mercy)... and walk humbly with your God? (Not the three top requirements one might guess God would highlight.) The first two correlate to Stanley's poem, but the third transcends it.

At different times in my life I've struggled with the question, "What does God want me to do with my life? What does He want me to become?"

In struggling with that question I often beat myself up for not "making the most" out of my life. I have not striven for notoriety, money, fame, titles, or degrees. Had I aimed too low? Had I sold out for something lesser than what God wanted me to be?

Then I came to a realization: I can quit apologizing to God for why I'm not what He never asked me to be. Most of my self questioning was based on someone else's definition of success, not God's.

Micah gives me some simple direction regarding a more meaningful measure of success. And that helped.

More help was found as I read the New Testament. It provided me an unexpected emphases on what really matters in life. I read...

One of them, a lawyer, asked him (Jesus) a question, testing him. "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?"

Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."

The greatest commandment? the chief requirement? " the Lord your God..." and " your neighbor as yourself." (Not the commandments anyone was expecting to be highlighted by Jesus, but they were.) Loving your neighbor as yourself certainly covers Stanley's points. Loving the Lord your God covers Micah's. "...walk humbly with you God" -- that's love.

Stanley, Micah, and Jesus all offer words to consider. They offer alternative assessments of what really matters in life and how we need to define success.


  1. Hi Don,

    What a wonderful poem and some great quotations to follow up.

    I think that the work you do is essential, and represents a vital part of the evidence we seek that as a civilized society we have lifted outselves up, beyond the basest of desires. It shows that we have aimed to make life better for all, regardless of circumstance, and we are prepared to make sacrifices of our own so that the greater good might flourish.

    I couldn't do your job. I couldn't maintain your patience. You have gifts that I do not, and I am delighted that there are people out there like you who make a difference to those who need it most.

    So, don't worry about what you might have been, but instead celebrate what you have become, and the positive change you have helped to bring about in the lives of the young.

    With kind regards,


  2. Don, thank you for posting this. Again something that fit right into things I've been wrestling with just recently (other definitions of success). I needed the reminder! (I also appreciate your efforts to research the origins of the quote, and the link to that page.)

  3. Once in a while people here tell me that I should be in a better place!
    That verse in Micah is is a core and cardinal principle.
    By the way, I have learned how to do a new thing. I have learned how to put pictures in my simple!

  4. I often struggle with feelings of wanting more that defines me. Thank you for reminding me that God finds the "successful me" in how I go about my day with my family, children and friends. I need to see myself as God sees me. Thanks Don. This is one of your posts that I will remember for a long time.

  5. @Sacha: Thanks for the kind words. I do find great satisfaction in "run(ing) the race marked out for me." I've followed many sign-posts to find my way to this profession, to this district, to this school, at this time. And it is good.

    @Dawn: I'm glad you found the post helpful. "...and you shall hear a voice behind you saying, 'This is the way. Walk ye in it.'" I'm always happy to be part of the solution to the inner wrestlings of others.

    @Dennis: I heard an old Christian once say, "I have no greater joy than to know the will of God and to do it." That's the place to be: where you are called.

    @September: Winston Churchill was once complimented on an impromptu speech he had just given. Supposedly he replied something along the lines of, "Ma'am, I've been preparing that speech for 20 years." So it is with some posts. I'm glad it was memorable. It contains lessons that took decades to learn. And that is one of the reasons I write: to provide short cuts.

  6. Wow, Don - synchronicity! I just read that same excerpt from the Bessie Stanley poem yesterday - And I can't remember where either!! I was thinking what a great philosophy it is and that I should include it in a post but you beat me to it! Trying hard to write a decent post right now. Keep on doing what you do - the world needs more good teachers. I do my small part once a week in my religious ed class and it makes me feel like a light in the darkness. Interestingly, last night I taught them that greatest commandment...

  7. @Deedee: After I wrote this post I found the site - so I added a link (blog) above. I'm sure there's more than one good post in Stanley's poem... go for it. Lately, I've found inspiration for several posts as I peruse what others in my blogging community have written. We're kind of an online school of writers, progressing together and separately in developing as writers, thinkers, and friends. "I do my small part..." I like that. It fits right in with "...and walks humbly with your God." Thanks for commenting!

  8. What is that first plant (first picture)?

  9. @Dennis: They are all pictures of the same tree. I took the pictures to show my students. We were studying a poem called: Unfolding bud (see Dec. 5, '08 for a copy of the poem.)I took pictures of the same tree last year. It lives on the parkway just outside the entrance to the school where I teach.)