I’ve become convinced that most people handle failure much better than they handle success. Failure can make a man, and success can ruin a man. I’ve seen it in the lives of the business leaders with whom I’ve worked. I’ve seen it in politicians. I’ve seen it in athletes, in actors, in celebrities who regularly make the news and in local hometown titans.
“Regular people” who win the lottery sure do feel successful, but research shows that lottery winners are more likely to declare bankruptcy within three to five years than the average American.
Perhaps the challenge of success is why Albert Einstein once said, “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”
It’s not that success is bad, but it must be digested.
When you digest something, you’ve broken it down and it becomes part of the body, not just an attachment on the side or something that sticks in your gut and causes nothing but pain. Success is something you fully consume, or else it will fully consume you.
How can success consume you? Four dangers come to mind:
First, success often causes an overinflated view of your abilities. Think of what success brings—congratulatory praises for the star athlete from well-meaning friends, family, and fans; a bigger office, a fancy title, a higher salary, and other perks for the rising-star executive; standing ovations for the speaker or preacher; honors and accolades for the straight-A student. Everything here shouts, “I did this!”
Second, success often brings with it a sense of entitlement that harms your relationships. People simply treat you differently when you’re successful. They don’t question your decisions as often or as forcefully. They go to greater lengths to accommodate your whims. They ask your opinion, even if you have no particular expertise on a subject. And they laugh at your jokes, even if they aren’t funny. Entitlement says, “You exist to serve me” rather than “I exist to serve you.”
Third, success is addicting, and you become willing to do just about anything to keep it. King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, tried to have a man killed when his rule felt threatened. If Solomon could do that, then we’re all vulnerable. We’ll cut corners, abandon friends, work longer than we should, go back on our word, and more. And we do it to remain at the top. Success becomes an idol, a false god we serve.
Fourth, we can go to the other extreme and get complacent. A.W. Tozer wrote, “Complacency is a deadly foe of all spiritual growth.” But it’s not just about the spiritual. Martin Filler said, “The danger for any artist whose work is both recognizable and critically acclaimed is complacent repetition.” Successful CEOs stop looking to lead. Successful parents start phoning it in for their younger kids. You get the idea.
Success often seems great until you wake up and realize it is costing you everything that really matters because you’ve slowly abandoned the beliefs and the people who got you to the top. Jesus said, “For what will it benefit someone if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will anyone give in exchange for his life?” (Matthew 16:26) And yet, I’ve coached and watched so many people trying to gain the whole world. Be careful!
I’m not anti-success, though. The message here is how to digest success, not how to avoid it. I’ve seen the amazing good that people can do with success when they digest it properly. When they use their authority, their finances, and their acclaim to help others and to serve God, they always end up living a more fulfilled, satisfied life.
Proverbs 27:21 says, “The crucible is for silver and the furnace for gold, and each is tested by the praise accorded him” (NASB). The praise of men refines us. It reveals who we really are inside—do we get our value from the praise of men or do we see the praise of men as something fleeting to be viewed and used wisely?
So how do we digest success? It begins with the simple but challenging matter of remembering—remembering who helped you in your success, remembering the more noble purposes of success, and, most of all, remembering the deepest source of success: God.
If your success turns you to this kind of remembrance, three good things will result:
- Success will increase your humility and rein in your arrogance.
- Success will cause you to think, “Look what God enabled me to do!” instead of “Look what I’ve done!”
- Success will trigger a desire to help others, promote others, and leverage your good will for others and God’s kingdom.
In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, God warns the Israelite people of their future success. Perhaps a warning of success to come sounds odd, but look at what He says to them (and to us): “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and my own ability have gained this wealth for me,’ but remember that the Lord your God gives you the power to gain wealth, in order to confirm his covenant he swore to your fathers, as it is today. If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve them and bow in worship to them, I testify against you today that you will perish” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18).