Success, near as we can tell, means different things to different people. I often encounter this when I talk to my students about evaluating the success or failure of any given policy. To clarify, I have this conversation when I teach my undergraduate course in American foreign policy, but the insight is a pretty general one, and is broadly applicable.
One reason for this difficulty is that we have an unfortunate tendency to treat success and failure as absolutes. But many of the problems or tasks we face are multidimensional, and therefore success and failure are often matters of degree. And timeframe also matters. Something that looks like a success in the short term may in fact result in long-term failure, and vice versa. And frankly, our definitions of success are likely as idiosyncratic as we are individual.
A recent article by Bill Borror at the website Mockingbird put these ideas in the front of my mind for this evening’s conversation. Borror begins his piece, “5 1/2 Habits of Remarkably Ineffective People,” with a provocative question:
Was Jesus successful? I guess it depends on your definition and criteria. The gospels themselves swing between accounts of Jesus drawing a crowd then preaching it down to a dozen (e.g. John 6:1-13; John 6:66ff).
Recently I was preparing to preach on the rich and strange story of Jesus’ temptation in Luke 4. Clearly the Devil is offering Jesus a highly effective path to glory — to trade his Passion for praise and recognition. Had Jesus done exactly what the Devil said, there would have been no question among his followers about his messianic destiny. Jesus declined the offer anyway.
Borror goes on to ask whether there can be a Christian concept of success that threads the needle between secular definitions rooted in “prosperity” and “accomplishment” and Christian definitions rooted in triumphalist smugness. And he continues by pointing out an uncomfortable truth:
Today, many of the institutions and ideas that have shaped our culture are on life-support. And it has been “successful” people who have led us to this place. This “post-everything” moment offers us an opportunity to question what seems unquestionable, to study our values — and maybe even reconsider Jesus’ upside-down approach.
In fact, you could argue that the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry is one that ends in pretty spectacular failure. He alienates those he came to save, the people who had flocked to hear his teachings turn against him, his closest friends desert him in his moment of need, and he dies an ignominious criminal’s death. But if this was in fact a failure, it is a failure that bore remarkable fruit. Or, to put it in Borror’s terms, Jesus in life was remarkably ineffective and yet, in the end, accomplished real success.
This gets us to the meat of Borror’s article. He suggests that there is something of great value in being “remarkably ineffective” and offers “5 1/2 habits” that we might want to embrace ourselves. Here’s his list:
- Go where you are needed, not wanted — A lot of what we do, he argues, consciously and unconsciously, is driven by our own desire to be wanted. But that may not where we can do the most good, for ourselves or for others.
- Do not network for success — When we treat relationships like commodities to be exchanged, we are likely headed down the wrong path.
- Avoid positive thinking — This is not, Borror points out, a call to think negatively. But rather to recognize that secular optimism makes no sense in the face of suffering, and that requires us to cover up or ignore the harder things in life and pretend they’re not happening.
- Do not “do you” — In short, look, and act, beyond the self.
- Look beyond the cutting edge — New and improved isn’t necessarily true. As Borror points out, we often mistake “new” for “good” or even “necessary.”
- Choose noble lost causes — Nobody plays to lose, but failure, Borror argues, is often better for the soul than success. Not all lost causes should be embraced, he writes, but at some point all of us have been the lost coin or the lost sheep. “We are surrounded by kids and addicts and refugees and bigots and idiots and losers who no one thinks are worth fighting for — except the God of lost causes, who never gives up.”
So we’re going to talk about what it means to be a success in our conversation this evening, using Borror’s list of habits as a jumping our jumping off point. Join us for the discussion beginning at 7pm at 313 Pizza Bar in downtown Lake Orion.