The (Real) Secret to Success

As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man. – Proverbs 27:19

I’ve been feeling a little down the last few days. Part of it is that my two weeks of vacationing and hosting friends is over. Back to reality! But it also seems that whenever I have a few days away from work and other commitments, it gives me time to reflect on the past year - on what I’ve done and what’s gone undone. Unfortunately, this unstructured reflection led me into a dangerous comparison trap.

It’s so easy for me to compare myself to others and what they’ve accomplished and to get down on myself. But just because I haven’t started a business, bought a house, gotten married, run a marathon, written a book, or run for office doesn’t mean I’m unsuccessful or inadequate. On the other hand focusing too much on the things I have accomplished can give me a puffed-up sense of myself. As a white, middle-class American, I have advantages and privilege that I can’t take credit for. As Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers reminds, no one makes it alone.

For me then, focusing on actions is not a reliable indicator for success. So how do I define what success looks like for me and my life? One way I’ve learned is to focus more on who I am instead of what I do.  

Andy Stanely, a highly successful leader of a group of Atlanta-area churches, has a leadership podcast that I absolutely love. One of the first episodes I heard was on making resolutions. (If you have 24 minutes, listen to “A New You Resolution” right now!) Andy starts by saying, “It’s a mistake to decide what you’re going to do before you decide who you’re going to be.” He then describes an activity from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in which you’re invited to think about how you want the people you most care about to remember you at your funeral. This exercise helps you cut through the material visions of success our culture can force on us and to clarify our own personal definition of success. Andy suggests you create a list of adjectives calling them “be goals.” The list shouldn’t be too long, and you should spend some time thinking about them.

Another name for “be goals” is core values. Just like any great organization, core values help guide your behavior making it easier to decide both what to do and how to do it. If you keep your core values, which represent your personal definition of success, at the top of your mind, you will stay in alignment with yourself regardless of material accomplishments or failures.

How do you keep your core values at the top of your mind? After listening to Andy's podcast several times and co-leading a retreat for the young adults at my church on "be goals" a fw years ago, I came up with a list of 8 words which has since been tweaked and focused to 6 goals. I have these adjectives written on ornaments that adorn a small tree in my bedroom, so that I see them all the time. A simpler idea is to hang the words on your mirror or write them in your planner – someplace you will see them every day.

I also decided to keep a separate journal where I write about my values, defining each “be goal” and its stakes for myself and reflecting on how my values relate to my personal experience. Nearly 2 years after I started this practice I read a great post from blogger and speaker James Clear where I learned that there’s actually research that backs up the value of journaling about your core values. According to Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal, “writing about personal values makes people feel more powerful, in control, proud, and strong. It also makes them feel more loving, connected, and empathetic toward others. It increases pain tolerance, enhances self-control, and reduces unhelpful rumination after a stressful experience.” Wow! And she also says that in many cases just writing about your values for 10 minutes can accrue these benefits for months or even years after the exercise.

I think this work around creating your personal definition of success is important for everyone, but for Christians, I think it’s essential. If I stay focused on living out my core values I am less bound to the specific accomplishments and material goals I set for myself, which makes me more open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and more nimble in response to calls to join the work God’s doing in our world right now. The great men and women of the Bible did not receive much notice about what God would task them with. They were called because God knew their character. God cares less about how much money we make, how many miles we run, or how many initiatives we complete than he cares about what kind of people we are. Who knows what we will accomplish for God’s glory or how we will be remembered if we focus on who we are and whose we are first and foremost?

So, in order to extricate myself from my recent comparison-trap funk, I’m returning to some more intentional reflection. Though I will likely still design a vision board of things I want to accomplish in the New Year, my primary focus will be staying connected to my definition of success and ensuring that I’m being the person that I want to be today and every day.

What about you? Are you tempted to focus more on what you’re doing than who you’re being? Have you created a personal definition of success? Do you have a method to reflect on your alignment to your personal vision? What’s an action step you can take this week to re-focus?

I would love to hear from you in the comments below. And thanks for reading!

Hearing Voices

More Than a Meal