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Re-evaluating Success and Failure

by | Aug 12, 2014 | Blog | 2 comments

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.” Ecclesiastes 9:10

The Guilty Burden of the Success Syndrome

Most people, but 21st century Americans in particular, are marked by a need for success. According to Webster, the technical definition of success is “outcome OR result.” The rub comes in when that definition is expanded to represent how it is regularly used, namely a “favorable or desired outcome.” The problem of the matter is that little sticky word “desire.” It is our desire that often causes us to be burdened with the guilt of “being a failure”, when, quite often, noting could be further from the truth.

I will give an example from my own life, from this very blog. Some time back, I embarked on an aggressive reading journey (see the blog about that here). Along the way, I stated I would write a series of blogs related to some of the things I was reading (see that post here). Well, along the way this year, something very interesting happened, and is going to continue to happen until the year’s end – I will not finish the reading course I set for myself and I will make few (if any) posts about it.

So, have I failed? Should I be burdened down with guilt and shame for not accomplishing my task exactly as I planned? Should I throw up my hands and quit altogether because every little plan I had has unraveled at the seams? (I hope you are sensing the deep sarcasm in all of this). No – of course I should not. Now, if I were measuring my success or failure by my intended goal – then I would be/and have failed miserably. But, we should not confuse our goals with our desired outcomes. Or better – we should not view success or failure by the reaching of a goal. Let me explain further.

If my desired outcome was only to read a certain number of pages from a certain author – then I can clearly calculate that I have failed. It is objectively clear. But, the reading of a certain number of pages from a certain author was merely my goal – a goal I set to strive for my true desire. And what was that true desire? To cultivate a greater presence of reading in my life, and to make it a habit. So, as I began to read an unusual thing happened – I was challenged in my thinking on some issues! And, rather than wait to give greater investigation to those issues, I stopped the course of reading I was on, and turned my attention to other texts that could give me clarity to the new challenge my mind was facing. Once I read, studied, listened, talked, and wrestled through some of the issues, I returned to my schedule. But, there is neither time nor effort to be had “to catch up.”

I now have two options: I can yield and accept “failure” and the marvelous shame and guilt that is associated with that concept. Or, I can understand that my truest desired outcome indeed was accomplished – there was a greater habit of reading established in my life.

Overthrowing False Failure in the Rest of Life

This “success and failure” thing can topple us in a great many places in life. “I want to lose 100 lbs.” And so a person starts a healthier life, mindful of rest, exercise, and nutrition. Before you know it, they have begun to rest better, move around more, and make wiser food choices. But then comes the dreadful day – the day set to have lost all the weight. “Oh no! I only lost 43 lbs.! I am a failure. What a waste of time this has all been!” Sound familiar. We have confused our goal with our desired outcome. We do it everywhere: our jobs, families, homes, even in our free-time.

For the Christian, the desired outcome of any situation should be greater glory to Jesus and more conformity to His image. We should make plans and we should set goals. Whatever we find to do, we should “do it with all our might.” But, we should realize that it really isn’t about the grade in the book, the number on the scale, the salary, the number of pages read…it is about a process of continual transformation. Anything that moves us toward a life reflective of Jesus is a success, even if we have to take lots of small steps along the way. Even if our goals have to be made, and remade, and unmade along the way.

I started a journey and never got to where I was going. Rather, I ended up where I always needed to be. And that my friends, is true success.


  1. Becky Foster

    I have had chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia for 17 years. With this comes a lot of brain fog, which causes me to have difficulty getting my thoughts to my mouth. At times this is a good thing, if in that time I realize those thoughts don’t need to come out of my mouth! (ha ha) But many times it is quite frustrating and I feel like I have the vocabulary of a 1st grader!

    I really like this blog describing success. This is exactly how I feel but have never quite been able to articulate it. I have copied it so I can use in the future to remind myself and my adult girls what success really is.


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