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Success: It’s Not Always What We Think It Means

Why do you think some people are successful in life and others are not?

When I read this question, my first thought is, I question this question. I think the answer depends on an individual’s definition of success. Is success measured by riches–money, possessions, demographic–or recognition–fame, acceptance, affirmation–or reward–achievements, expertise, excellence? Or is success in life based on none of these? People within the same household might have different answers.

I asked my parents how each of them would answer define “success.” I thought about answering for them, but I wondered if maybe their answers would surprise me. I considered how their responses might have influenced my own. Or do I have a completely other understanding about what defines success in life? More essential, am I living out that definition?

I sent each of them a separate text with the question and told them not to share their answers with each other until I said they could. I smiled at what I imagined would be the individual way each would respond. In part, I was right.

But, they did surprise me.

Mom got back to me first, and I had anticipated correctly what her initial credo would be.

“Having laundry done.”


Whenever we discuss goals, this is the first thing Mom says. The irony is that laundry is never truly done. About the time we think it is, someone throws a pair of socks in the hamper.

Yet, the truth behind Mom’s statement is that there are repetitive actions throughout life. We sort those tasks into piles. We do what needs to be done with each pile based on size, type, and immediate need. Once completed, we put each stack away. Then we rest before beginning the routine over again.

I thought that would be the only thing Mom would say. Her goals are minimal. Dad is the goal-setter. The word itself is one Dad has made a goal to live out. He has mentored others about the topic. I giggled a little thinking he wouldn’t answer in a single text message, but would opt to email with attachments about his philosophy of success.

Yet, he surprised me.

“Success is accomplishing a goal in the right way for the benefit of all with a stake in the mission/purpose.”


In this succinct statement, Dad summed up what he has lived and taught others for decades.

I was surprised yet again when another text arrived from Mom.

“In a practical sense, success is completing tasks. In a spiritual sense, success is becoming more Christ-like. In a philosophical sense, success is a feeling of well-being. Overall, success is helping others achieve these goals with you.


Mom’s extrapolation and Dad’s summation seemed out of character until I considered something important. In essence, they were expressing the same essential goal to success.

Working together toward a common good.

I asked my parents this question on March 6. Later that day, I met up with a friend to work on our separate projects in the same room. While I started knitting a scarf, she tore up pieces of toilet paper for her papier-mache project. Within a week, our daily goals included adapting to social distancing, flattening the curve, and filling the pantry. Suddenly, defining success was discovering a store still stocked with toilet paper.

Does that mean that my parents’ definitions of success are no longer valid? No. I argue they are more critical for the successful survival of as many people as possible during this pandemic. Working together for the common good may have changed in practice, but in purpose it remains essential work for all of us.

I asked another person about his definition of success on March 6. I expected my husband to give one of his typical, cynical retorts.

I laughed when he inadvertently attached a photo of the new pattern I had not yet memorized and forgotten to bring to my friend’s house. As if a knitting pattern could be his vision of success! My dad attached a picture of our youngest son with a walleye caught on their January ice fishing trip, and another picture of my middle son the day he found out he had gotten a job at the grocery store.

But, I think my husband’s response surprised us all.

“Success is lower on my scale of needs than contentment.”

My husband

I texted back, asking him if I had told him that “content” was my One Word for 2019.

“Think so,” he texted back.

I realized in that moment that my husband’s definition of success matched mine in a similar way that my parents’ had synced in theirs. We chose different ways to express our thoughts about this somewhat elusive lifelong achievement. Our view of what it means to work together for the common good and live with contentment while separately existing in the same world could change as daily as the news. Like the reality of unending laundry, we may struggle to sort out our piled-up worries. Yet, like my scarf pattern, stitch by stitch and row by row on a one-day-at-a-time basis we may appreciate the interlocking cable of courageous, conquering completion.

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:9 NASB

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Book Reader and Reviewer
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Labrador Retriever Owner
Mother of Three Boys
Quiet Moments (a rare commodity!)
RV Camping
Singer in Church Choir
Wife of My High School Sweetheart
Yarn-Lover (the wool kind and the story kind)

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