Success or Significance, Revisited

success-or-significanceI often find myself gravitating towards the same subjects, over and over again. Maybe you would call it a passion, maybe an obsession, maybe it’s like Curly in “City Slickers” said and I’ve found my “one thing.” Regardless, I return to subjects over and over again and this is one that I find has been an important part of who I am as I have grown older.

During seminary, I built some significant friendships with a few guys with whom I tracked through my program. Last month, I took a trip out to take part in the ordination service of one of these guys. It was a great time to support a friend and brother and to just get away and hang out with him. He and his family opened their home to me and I was their guest for a few days.

One of the things that we valued most when we went through seminary together was the time spent together in Minnesota while taking intensive classes. I think that I can safely say that we looked more forward to the times spent outside of the classroom than the time spent inside the classroom. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed our classes, but there was something formative and transformative about the conversations that we would have. All of us were involved with full-time ministry already, so the conversations centered around the praxis of theories and concepts in the real world.

The last afternoon that I spent with my friend before leaving, the two of us had some uninterrupted time to talk. It was probably the highlight of the weekend for me. It felt like old times again as we vamped on life and ministry, marriage and family, and a whole sundry of topics. I don’t remember the exact course of conversation, but I remember one thing that he said that I just couldn’t shake out of my mind. He said that some people get hungover on success while searching for significance.

That phrase seemed to resonate so hard with me. Maybe it was because I had seen so many friends go through that struggle in their own life. Maybe it was because I had experienced it myself at one time. Maybe it was because I was still experiencing it a little bit. Either way, it seemed to strike me square between the eyes, promising to leave its mark.

It seems that we have such a way of confusing the meaning of success and significance. While they may be related, I think we should be careful to believe that “success” in the eyes of the world always amounts to significance. Steve Jobs was fairly successful, but was his life significant? His company has made a fairly significant contribution to the world of technology, but how do we measure significance? Is it a temporal significance or an eternal significance?

In a world driven by SMART goals and vision statements, we can easily fall prey to searching for success at the expense of significance. The church can easily focus on “The Win” for the team but how do we define that “Win”?

Some of the greatest accomplishments in history were achieved by people whose names we may not even know. We may recognize the name Billy Graham, but do we know the name Mordecai Ham, the man who was instrumental in Billy Graham’s journey to faith? Is there a lack of significance just because we don’t know the name?

Right after college, I hung out with a bunch of twenty-somethings who were part of a group at a local church. I remember one of the guys talking about his mom’s words regarding significance. When it came to evaluating something, she would say, “When you take it and throw it up against the wall of eternity, does it make a mark? If so, then it’s valuable.” While it’s a little simplistic and maybe overdramatized, the essence of the truth it speaks is important. Do we look at our conversations as eternally significant? Do we look at our service and our work as eternally significant? Do we look at everything we do as important in some eternal way?

It’s a reminder to me that I can easily get entangled in trying to be successful while forfeiting significance. While the two are not mutually exclusive, it’s important to realize that one could easily be abandoned for the other. I need to begin reevaluating things again, or at least giving them a closer look just to make sure that I’m not caught up in a success hangover at the expense of finding and achieving significance.


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