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Success: What It Isn’t


The problem for most people who want to be successful is not that they can’t do it. The main obstacle for them is that they misunderstand success. Maltbie D. Babcock said, “One of the most common mistakes and one of the costliest is thinking that success is due to some genius, some magic, something or other which we do not possess.”

If that’s not right, then what DOES it mean to be a success? What does it look like? First, let’s talk about what it DOESN’T look like:

Many of us have a wrong picture of success. Frankly, the majority of people misunderstand it. They wrongly equate it with achievement of some sort, with arriving at a destination or attaining a goal. Here are several of the most common misconceptions about success:

1. Wealth: Probably the most common misunderstanding about success is that it’s the same as having money. A lot of people believe that if they accumulate wealth, they’ll be successful. But wealth does not bring contentment – or success.

Industrialist John D. Rockefeller, a man so rich that he gave away over $350 million in his lifetime, was once asked how much money it would take to satisfy him. His reply: “Just a little bit more.” King Solomon of ancient Israel, said to be not only the wisest but also the richest man who ever lived, said, “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).

Even Greek millionaire Aristotle Onassis recognized that money isn’t the same as success. He said, “After you reach a certain point, money becomes unimportant. What matters is success.”

2. A Special Feeling. Another common misconception is that people have achieved success when they feel successful or happy. But trying to feel successful is probably even more difficult than trying to become wealthy.

The continual search for happiness is one of the main reasons that so many people are miserable. If you make happiness your goal, you are almost certainly destined to fail. You will be on a continual roller coaster, changing from “successful” to “unsuccessful” with every mood change. Life is uncertain, and emotions aren’t stable. Happiness simply cannot be relied upon as a measure of success.

3. Possessing Something Specific and Worthwhile. Think back to when you were a kid. Chances are that there was a time when you wanted something really bad, and you believed that if you possessed that thing, it would make a significant difference in your life. When I was nine years old, it was a red and silver Schwinn bicycle. Back then, the thing to do in our neighborhood was to race around on our bikes.

But I was riding an old hand-me-down bicycle, and I had trouble keeping up with the kids on newer bikes. But I figured that if I had that new Schwinn bike, I’d have it made. I’d have the newest, fastest, best-looking bike among all my friends, and I’d make them all eat my dust.

On Christmas morning, I got my wish. And for a while it was great. I loved that bike, and I spent a lot of time riding it. But I eventually discovered that it didn’t bring me the success or long-term contentment that I’d hoped for and expected.

That process has repeated itself in my life. Over the years, I found that success didn’t come as the result of possessing something I’d wanted. Possessions are at best a temporary fix. Success cannot be attained or measured that way.

4.  Power. Charles McElroy once joked, “Power is usually recognized as an excellent short-term anti-depressant.” There’s a lot of truth to that statement, because power often gives the appearance of success, but even then, it’s only temporary.

You’ve probably heard before the quote from English historian, Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Abraham Lincoln echoed that belief when he said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Power really is a test of character. In the hands of a person of integrity, it is of great benefit; in the hands of a tyrant, it causes terrible destruction. By itself, power is neither positive or negative. Nor is it the source of security or success. Besides, all dictators eventually lose power – even benevolent ones.

5.  Achievement. Many people have what I call “destination disease.” They believe that if they can arrive somewhere – attain a position, accomplish a goal, or have a relationship with the right person – they will be successful. At one time, I had a similar view of success: I defined it as the progressive realization of a predetermined worthwhile goal. But over time I realized that definition fell short of the mark.

Simply achieving goals doesn’t guarantee success or contentment. Look at what happened with Michael Jordan. In 1993, he decided to retire from basketball, saying that he had accomplished all the goals he had wanted to achieve. And then he went on to play baseball in the minor leagues – but not for long. He couldn’t stay away from the game of basketball. He played again from 1995 to 1999. Then he retired again – for a couple seasons. He played his final seasons 2001-2003. Playing the game was the thing. Being in the midst of the process. You see, success isn’t a list of goals to be checked off one after another. It’s not reaching a destination. Success is a journey.

My thoughts

This post is something that John Maxwell put together and I thought I should share it with you. It really is something to think about. What is success to you?


27 thoughts on “Success: What It Isn’t

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