The Illusion of Success

I remember a particularly poignant question my younger son asked me once during a visit from his grandfather. On the Saturday afternoon of my dad’s visit, my son and I were throwing the baseball outside while my father was taking a short nap in his room.  I can always tell when one of my boys has something on his mind. So I probed and asked him if everything was all right.  He responded with, “Dad, remember when we talked about what it means to be successful a few weeks ago?  Is Papa successful?”

Wow!  That was an interesting question and a mature one from a child his age.  He was referring to a conversation we had a few months previously about being successful in business and what kind of career he wanted to have after college.  I gave him a thoroughly modern version of what I thought success looked like in business, but also made sure we talked about having strong faith and the importance of starting and caring for a family some day as well.  At the time, I had kept it at a high level for him, but his question about my father deserved a deeper answer.

I explained that my father came from a different generation.  He was in the army for six years after high school. Then he completed two years of college before going to work full time.  He met and married my mother who also worked for his company in 1965 and I came along in 1966.  We didn’t have a lot of extras when I was growing up, but we had what we needed.  Both my parents worked when I was growing up, but we always had dinner together and my father frequently coached my sports teams.  They were both active volunteers at church.  Even though my parents did not finish college, they both instilled in me a passion for learning when I was young. There was no question in their minds that I would be continuing my education after high school. The same was true for my younger sister.

Our father and mother taught us about faith and the value of hard work.  We knew how to be self-sufficient at a young age.  Strong values and great life-lessons were instilled in us from my earliest childhood memories. So, is my father successful?  By modern standards, a quick glance at his meager savings and lack of material possessions would merit a resounding no.  But, in the areas that mattered most to him and my mother, they were incredibly blessed all their lives with everything they could ever desire.

You see, my parents never tried to keep up with the Joneses.  Acquiring toys and wealth never mattered.  They were focused on raising faith-filled children, helping us as much as possible with furthering our education, and teaching us how to be responsible.  My father always wanted to talk about the kid’s school and athletic achievements when I called him, or find out how my book was selling.  He rarely talked about himself and certainly never complained.

He comes from a generation that has much to teach us today.  We can deceive ourselves all we want that today’s world holds us to a different standard, but as I get older I recognize that we also have the ability to choose the lives we want to lead.  The more I detach myself from modern society’s view of success, the happier and more fulfilled I feel.  This detachment allows me to put the appropriate focus on serving Christ and His Church, raising my children, loving my wife and giving back to others instead of accumulating toys that become false idols.  I learned these invaluable lessons from my parents, especially my father.

The idea of success that many of us are taught at a young age is often an illusion that can create frustration, anxiety and years of wasted time as we wind up chasing something that may not be what we need or want as we continue to grow older.  My father was wise enough to avoid this trap and he did his best to convey the lesson to me, although I must admit I spent several years in the quicksand of pursuing false success.

So, back to that question from my youngest child: Is Papa successful? 

“You know, I think my father is the most successful man I know.  I hope I am half the man he is when I am his age.”

“Thanks Dad.  I think you and Mom are doing a pretty good job.”

Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

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