This essay is obviously an opinion piece, for success like beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. There is no universal idea for what constitutes a successful life. Judging what is successful depends on the standards one applies to evaluate the journey taken between birth and death and upon who applies the standards. The dictionary definition of success is this: “turning out to be as was hoped for.” Hence, the specifics of what constitutes a successful life change with time, historical context, individual communities holding to a given definition, and individuals whose lives are being evaluated. What follows is my personal view of success in life.
A successful life will have had some sense of purpose, a conscious sense that living is worth the struggle. In a successful life a person will not just have lived willy-nilly, blown hither and yon, by the winds of time, but his or her life will have had a focused direction and goals, however dimly defined. And one’s life will have accomplished something of what was aimed-at, however insignificant the accomplishments might seem to others. Life would have been characterized for the most part (we are not perfect creatures) by integrity. Integrity is defined as “the quality or state of being of sound moral principle; uprightness, honesty, and sincerity.”1 Such a life would have touched others in a positive way and included close friends and family (we are social creatures). Individuals who succeed in life will have learned to live with who they are (self-acceptance) but strived to be self-actualized (aiming to achieve full development of one’s abilities and ambitions). I would like to think that this description could fit either the undereducated farmer or the over-educated college professor.
I personally know of only one description in the Bible of a successful life (it is surely out of date for our times): Prov 31:10-29. In this passage the successful person is extolled as wife, mother, and spousal companion:
Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all (Prov 31:29, RSV).
In Hebrew Bible the successful life was recognized in terms of its longevity (for example Methuselah, Gen 5:27; and Prov 3:1-2; 1 Kgs 3:10-14; Ps 61:6-7; Ps 91:14-16). The writers of the New Testament do not extol successful or prosperous (not necessarily financial) lives lived in the secular world. They only valued success in a life lived from a particular religious or spiritual perspective (3 John 2-4; 1 Cor 16:1-16; 2 Thess 1:3-4; 2 Tim 1:5-9). From the Bible’s perspective only the person who finds favor with God is truly successful in life.
A successful life should not be judged on the basis of the extraordinary moments it contained but judged on one’s success in ordinary living. Most of us are ordinary folk and live ordinary lives. For example, being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor is an extraordinary accomplishment, but the rest of what the CMH winner does is simply ordinary living. People will choose different paths in life for many reasons and make a success of living (or not) in the different paths they chose.
When one’s end-time nears, if one can look back over the years and say: “I strived to do the best I could with what I had to work with,” then one can reasonably think of his or her life as successful.2
Missouri State University
1The third definition in Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed., 2002), s.v. integrity.
2In this statement I forgive the intemperance of youth and its wasted opportunity.