Avoiding the Success Trap: The Radical Alternative of Value-Centered Living

Whether we like it or not we receive an endless stream of unsolicited advice or images related to success. Success sells: it has the appearance of competence, mastery, cleverness, and daring. Successful people are “doers,” who are oft described as “killing it.” (One wonders what or who is being killed). Rarely is this sort of success defined, and when it is, one usually hears something vague about achieving your goals.

Typical understandings of success usually come down to plaques on the wall and triumphant photos on Facebook. But maybe this is all misguided. Perhaps there are better interpretations of success or just better ways to evaluate our lives.

The problem with a simplistic model of achievement is its superficiality.

Why is it so great to get the corner office, the next promotion, or the next lifetime achievement award? This kind of question is often met with blank stares or euphemisms about expanding opportunities and new responsibilities. This sort of language is part and parcel of contemporary business speak, resumes, and the newest self-help business book, but it is hardly convincing or deeply thought out.

The truth is that the path of modern careerism and American “success” is a way of life that is shallow and ultimately trivial. And this is evinced by the inability of success-proponents to explain or justify their goals.

Consider the following question: what goals should I select? Given that one only has so much time, energy, and resources, one cannot achieve every goal. And in fact some goals may be incompatible during the same period. For example, hiking the Appalachian Trail and starting business school. There is nothing inherently wrong or unfair about the situation; it is just the nature of things. On the goal-oriented approach to success how do we adjudicate between competing goals? Furthermore, should we think that accomplishing just any goal is to be considered praiseworthy? Probably not, but the goal-oriented approach to success has no basis for dealing with these difficulties and as such begins to show its inherent weakness.

We need something beyond goals and success. We need to think in terms of values.

It is easiest to speak of value as a verb rather than a noun. In this sense, valuing is among the most important things we do. To value is to esteem, respect, and love; it is to estimate an objective as worthy of time and energy. In many ways, what we value, defines our character and our lives. As Augustine famously said, my love is my weight, for we have a natural tendency towards the beloved. Considered in this way, values are logically and psychologically superior to mere goals and speak to a better way of thinking about life. After all, what do achievements really matter unless the underlying work or product is valued? Goals only make sense against the backdrop of value. So what if we chose a different path? What if we developed a value-centered approach to life? What would that look like?

In constructing a value-centered model of success we can be greatly assisted by one of Aristotle’s primary insights into human psychology. Aristotle observed that we always pursue objectives that we perceive to be desirable in some way or another. Some we see as desirable for pleasure, others are useful, but then some we desire for their own sake. We really value those things that we esteem and love for themselves regardless of pleasure or use. Persistently making this simple distinction can go a long way towards clarifying our values.

Although values differ, it is probably worth considering the advice of the great philosophers. Aristotle recommends friendship and contemplation. Plato speaks of wisdom and self-examination. Epictetus recommends piety and familial duty and Epicurus emphasizes simplicity. Augustine counsels humility and repentance before God. If one were to follow this wise path marked out for us by the great philosophers, he would create pattern of life, habits, and relationships which evinced wisdom, contemplation, family, and piety. Whether one adopts these values or others, value-centered living is about creating an ethos and character to your life; it is about investing your life with a rhyme and rhythm that resonates with meaning, purpose, and enduring significance.

Does choosing values over goals mean that we will produce less good?

Probably not. To be sure, value-based living is less likely to produce those measurable outcomes that so fascinate the managerial class, but such outcomes are hardly the only or even most important things in life. A life committed to faith, family, and learning or similar values, when lived with consistency and commitment will inevitably yield fruit for ourselves and for others — children, wisdom, friendship, piety, etc. This is what it means to create a life that has character, beauty, and enduring significance.

A man can achieve all the goals he wants, and look back on a life devoid of enduring meaning. Indeed without convictions goals are meaningless and leave the “high achiever” only to look for the next goal. This is an endless chase with no victory at the end. Only frustration.

Meaning, purpose, and enduring significance are created not by achievements, but convictions and commitments. In the end, it is not about what we have achieved; the weight of a man’s life is measured by the nobility of his character, the ideals he esteems, and the ones that he loves.