Defining Success By Dr. Al Hearne II
How Do You Define Success?
To lead, a person must have an inner desire to succeed. This inner desire drives them forward, helping them navigate the obstacles to achieve success. Yet success is hard to define because the definition changes based on the person, the industry, the project, or the task. Therefore, from start to finish, achieving success is a journey, beginning with preparation and ending with recognition.
I’ve written this blog post because my mentor asked me to think and pray about how I define success for myself. I found it helpful and freeing in my life, so I wrote about my journey to defining success here, hoping it will help others on their journey to success.
My immediate reaction to my mentor’s question was, “That’s easy. It’s the opposite of failure. It’s getting the job done to the best of my ability.” However, this definition seemed too general, needing more nuance. The more I thought about defining success, the more complex the task became. Finally, I began to define success based on my roles in life. How do I define success as a follower of Christ, as a husband, as a father, as a Christian school superintendent, as an adjunct college professor, as a community leader, and as a friend? In each area of life, I gave success a different definition based on the role’s desired outcome(s).
I wondered how others defined success, so I researched how two leaders I respect define success. John Wooden, one of my favorite coaches, described success as “peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” Stephen Covey, one of my favorite authors, says, “If you carefully consider what you want to be said of you in the funeral experience, you will find your definition of success.”
Wooden’s definition of success resonates with me for two reasons: first, the sense of self-satisfaction that comes with success; second, the notion that success is based upon doing your best. Reflecting on Wooden’s idea of self-satisfaction in knowing I did my best helped me recognize that success is achieved in both small and great things. Yet, I did not feel closer to answering my mentor’s question.
Is there one overarching definition of success I can use in every area of my life?
I decided to turn my attention to see how the Bible defines success. I searched my Bible app for the word “success” in the English Standard Version. The search results surprised me for two reasons. First, it surprised me that “success” was not found in the New Testament. I had just assumed that success was a word used by both Jesus and Paul. Second, in the 11 times that “success” is used in the Old Testament, it is used in four different contexts: prayer, following God’s word, an achievement given by God, and God stopping success.
My study of success in the Old Testament helped me see that achieving success is a journey that begins with preparation and ends with acknowledgment.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRAYER
Three times in the Old Testament, a person turns to God in prayer and asks for success before beginning their success journey. In Genesis 24:12 (ESV, 2001), Abraham’s servant prays, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.”
In Nehemiah 1:1, Nehemiah prays, “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”
Finally, in Psalm 118:25, the Psalmist prays, “Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success!”
Success is achieved in each of these examples—Abraham’s servant found a wife for Isaac; Nehemiah found favor in the sight of the King; with the Psalmist, God continually grants success to his people.
The First Step on the Success Journey Begins with Knowing and Following God’s Word
The first step on the success journey begins with knowing and following God’s Word.
The Old Testament also has three examples that explain that the first step of the path to success begins with knowing and following God’s word. The first two examples involve instructions from God to Joshua, and in the third example, Solomon is passing wisdom on to his son.
As God is commissioning Joshua to be the leader of Israel, he repeats himself. Whenever God repeats himself, whatever he says is very important. In Joshua 1:7 and 8, the Lord says to Joshua, “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or the left, that you may have success wherever you go. 8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”
Then in Proverbs 3:1 & 4, Solomon writes, “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments … So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man.”
Both examples make it clear that knowing and following God’s word is necessary to achieve success.
The last step of success is acknowledging God’s role in achievement.
The Old Testament has two examples explaining the success journey’s last step. After being successful, the success achieved by both Jacob and David was attributed to God. Although
Jacob was involved in great deceit, lying, cheating, and stealing to get his brother’s birthright, in Genesis 27:20, he attributed his hunting success to God, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” Although Jacob’s actions did not follow God’s word, Jacob still understood that God grants success. He told this lie, that God had granted hunting success, because he knew it was believable. In our lives today, we obviously should not lie, cheat, and steal to achieve success because this goes against the first step of the success journey of knowing and following God’s word. Yet, Jacob’s life shows that despite our failures in following God’s word, God can still use us. Let’s turn our attention to David, another man who committed a great sin and yet was known as “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).
In 1 Samuel 18, David’s success is attributed to God. Samuel 18:14 acknowledges that David was successful because “the Lord was with him.”
Verses 15 and 30 acknowledge David’s remarkable success, reflecting on verse 14. The last step in achieving success is acknowledging that it came from God.
Recognize God can keep the ‘craft’ from achieving success.
Finally, the Old Testament provides an example of how God may not grant success. In Job 5:12, Eliphaz, Job’s friend, declares that God “frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success.”
Eliphaz, with pastoral care, is attempting to show Job that he doesn’t need to turn to a “holy one” (Job 5:1) but instead, he should “seek God” (Job 5:8). This reflects the first step of the success journey to know and follow God’s word.
Each success journey is going to be different, based on the purpose. Each success journey begins with preparing through prayer, continues with knowing and following God’s word, and ends with acknowledging God’s role in achieving success.
This is where our different roles in life come into play. Preparing through prayer, asking God to grant success, and knowing and following God’s word are required. But between the beginning and end, there are many twists and turns. They will differ for each person based on the success journey’s purpose. Success as a father or mother will have a different purpose than success at work, just as successful as a friend will have a different purpose than success as a follower of Christ.
The example of Abraham’s servant shows that success can be achieved for a singular purpose, and then the job is done. Whereas Nehemiah shows that success can start small, with being granted favor, having multiple tasks added, and ultimately ending with helping restore true worship of God. I’m learning to recognize success in the small things, such as having a great play date with my boys, and in the big things, such as completing a significant project at work. I’m learning to prepare for each activity and each plan with prayer, to do my best to follow God’s word, to act, and then to thank God for the success that he granted.
This Old Testament study about success helped me, along with the insight regarding personal satisfaction from John Wooden, to define success as “beginning with prayer, following God’s word, applying my best effort, arriving at a sense of personal satisfaction, and ending with acknowledging God helped with each step along the way.”
Now are you ready to define success?
Dr. Al Hearne II is the Superintendent of Redwood Christian Schools, the Center for Steward Leader Studies President, and an adjunct professor for Columbia International University. He holds a Master’s of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Columbia International University.
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