What is Success?

Often I think we can identify what makes a successful life by looking at what areas of our life cause the most struggle, because those areas are probably where our soul is trying to grow and to expand its capacity, its expertise.

Robert: Welcome to Inner Sight. Inner sight is simply seeing that which is always present but not yet fully recognized. You have within you the ability to see yourself and the world around you in a new way with new eyes. So, stay with us and together we’ll look at the world and ourselves with inner sight. Our theme for today is, what is success? William James came up with an interesting thought about success when he said, “The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the goddess success. That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word ‘success’—is our national disease.” I didn’t know we had a national disease. What type of success was William James talking about? 

Sarah: Those are pretty strong words, aren’t they? But I think he’s right when he speaks of a national disease. What I think he was referring to, which is still prevalent, is the craving for and the material trappings of a so-called “successful life.” We all live on the material plane and we need shelter, nourishment and clothing. We need work. We need a certain amount of money, but the kind of craving that he was speaking about is the desire for the bigger and bigger home, not because you need it, but because it impresses others, and the fancy car, and not just one car, but maybe two or three cars, and not just any car, but the most expensive, most sought after car that your friends and neighbors might aspire to. And there’s the craving for status in terms of worldly achievement, not because you’ve done something really great for the world, but because it brings recognition and maybe even fame. And the capacity to influence people in terms of wielding personal power; I think those are all the things he’s referring to. 

Dale: Yes, it’s become such a state though now, that it’s produced what you might call the glamour of success. Success has become such a glamorous, illusionary force that we get so caught up in it, that we’re not seeing what’s really happening, I don’t think, because that seems to be the only standard by which people judge the world and judge their lives now. 

Sarah: It’s interesting in terms of the spiritual path—which is always the point of reference that we bring to these programs on Inner Sight—that success in terms of the world can be actually the exact opposite of spiritual success, or spiritual growth. This is a factor that a lot of people who want to awaken spiritually, who want to develop a sense of spiritual values in their life, have to confront sooner or later—that success in terms of ordinary worldly standards may be the exact opposite of where their spiritual growth would take them. By that I mean that a lot of the trappings of success that William James was touching upon, and that we’ve mentioned, are things that foster the separated self, the personality, the ego and that lead to, as Buddha would say, “the craving, the desire for material impermanent things,” like money, fame, possessions—all of the stuff that you can’t take with you when you leave this mortal plane. The spiritual life requires that you face this discordance in your aspirations; you can’t have it all. You can’t crave the bigger and better SUV, the fame, the money, the material trappings, and at the same time crave, desire, or aspire, to a spiritual consciousness. At least that’s how I view it. 

Dale: I think it seems to be a stage that we all have to go through, unfortunately, or maybe fortunately—I don’t know. There are many lessons that people are learning all the time about success; once they think they’ve achieved success, then they find that it’s kind of empty or it’s doesn’t bring them what they thought it was going to. 

Sarah: And the only way you can learn that is through experiencing it. 

Dale: Yes, and that’s what I said, we have to go through this experience. I think we’re getting it up to the hilt here in this society, because it seems to be our dharma, or our karma, or whatever; to live through this and to either come out on the other side a destroyed person or else a very wise person. So, yes, it’s something we have to work through. 

Robert: And do you think that modern society fosters success? 

Sarah: Yes, in some ways; in many ways it compels the aspiration for success. I don’t want people to think that we don’t like the idea of success. I think what we’re trying to say is that there are different standards, different values, which can be pinned upon success—different points of view. What we are trying to say is that the ordinary material success that so absorbs modern society may not give the fulfillment and certainly doesn’t offer the spiritual growth that a more simple lifestyle, a more sacrificial approach to wealth do offer, and this is what we’re trying to emphasize. I think there’s the personality view of success which modern society really encourages: to grab more for oneself. You know the old Budweiser commercial, “you only go around once, grab all the gusto?” Well, that’s the approach to success today for a lot of people. And as Dale said, living through that you find how empty it is. But there’s another kind of success, which is the growth of the soul. In some ways materialistic society seems—oddly enough—to highlight the discordance and in that sense it might actually be a productive thing. Our values are becoming so polarized in terms of material and spiritual values that we can clearly see the difference if we choose to look. 

Dale: Yes, you asked if the modern society fosters success and I think that in the case of sports, of course it does. Particularly competitive sports and professional sports. There’s a tremendous drive to succeed in whatever the sport is, whether it’s in football, basketball, baseball, or in the Olympic sports. There is a great urge to strive to win and I think winning is related also to this whole mania of success; there’s such a glamour around the whole idea of winning in sports. In my estimation, it isn’t so much the success factor as it is doing what you do as best as you can. Take the example of Tiger Woods. He succeeds very well in what he does and he does it very well. He doesn’t always win every game, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a success. I think it’s striving in that capacity, to do what you do very well, that is more important than whether you really succeed or not, because in the long run, that’s what will count as far as the soul goes. 

Sarah: There’s also another way of looking at it: that to the soul success probably means forward movement. So much of our material craving is to maintain the status quo, to keep what we have, to not rock the boat so much that our life becomes one of crisis. The materialistic outer self can be really fixated on maintaining a kind of equilibrium for itself, whereas the soul rejoices in crisis. The soul seeks growth—forward movement in consciousness. The soul can view tests, difficulties and crises as wonderful learning tools. So, from that standpoint the important thing is to grow, to move forward and to not just remain in a kind of static position. For every human being, there is some forward movement that they can probably identify in their lives, and some area in which they would like to grow. That could be said to be achieving success. 

Robert: Do the achievements of great spiritual Beings have any relevance for the rest of us? 

Sarah: Well, they do. If you think about the life of someone like Jesus or the Buddha, you can see certain indications of how success is achieved. Jesus, from the age of about twelve until he was about thirty, spent a lot of time studying. Apparently he traveled in the East and studied with other teachers, according to some of the more esoteric traditions of Christianity. He did his preparatory work before he began his teaching, which lasted only about three years. And the Buddha is a splendid example of the old saying, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” In terms of spiritual enlightenment, he tried every kind of path. He tried the wandering mendicant path. He tried the self flagellation path, the begging bowl, mortification of the flesh, he studied with the great teachers. He tried them all and he found that they didn’t bring him to the enlightenment he sought and finally, after years of this, in frustration he decided to sit under the Bodhi tree—which is still apparently growing in India—and wait until he would reach his enlightenment. He demanded it and the legend says he sat under this tree for forty days and nights before he made his breakthrough and he became illumined. Well, even if this is a parable, it shows you that, as Benjamin Disraeli said, “The secret of success is constancy to purpose.” It doesn’t come easily even to the Great Ones, but they remain constant to their goal. 

Dale: Yes, that reminds me of something similar in the Bailey books, where she mentions the power to succeed is dependent on a singleness of purpose. That’s one of the requirements, the singleness of purpose. 

Sarah: What do you mean by that? 

Dale: Essentially, one-pointedness in what you’re doing. If you think about the great people who have succeeded, their lives have been very much one-pointed. They’ve come into life to do a specific thing and they’ve spent their whole life doing it and they’ve done it very well, so there has been a singleness of purpose. It reminds me of that quote in the Bible, “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” It is that singleness of intention which maintains a point of tension. As long as there is a point of tension—this is spiritual tension, not physical anxiety tension, but spiritual tension in the mind—with the mind held steady and focused on what you’re doing, then you will succeed eventually. Even though there may be periods of failure or setbacks, you just keep going. I think that’s what Disraeli actually meant.  

Sarah: Coming back to your mention of Tiger Woods, I read recently that he practices his golfing strokes on a daily basis for hours at a time; as great as he is, he gets out there every day and practices. Yo-Yo Ma, the great cellist, practices constantly. His father taught him as a boy to play Bach every day, because that’s one of the supreme exercises to develop talent. Those are examples, too, of constancy of purpose; repeated practice of the technique and not just expecting it all to fall in one’s lap. Talent is certainly there in Tiger Woods or Yo-Yo Ma, but great effort also and persistence. 

Dale: There’s another very good example of that in Thomas Edison and the invention of the light bulb. How many times did he go through the trial of the light bulb before he… 

Sarah: I don’t know— how many times? 

Dale: I don’t know—thousands of times I think! (laughter) They were trying different kinds of filaments in this bulb to get one that would not burn out and would stay on for a while. So, they just kept at it. He had this laboratory, he had people all working for him and that’s what they did—they just stayed there until they found the right kind of filament that worked. 

Sarah: It’s true of Alexander Graham Bell’s experiment, too, with the telephone, that it was years of effort and failure prior to the breakthrough. These examples of persistence and constancy and faithfulness to the goal are maybe not that exciting and thrilling to the impatient personality, but they are surely a demonstration that success is never handed to us so easily; It’s something worth working for. 

Dale: Yes, and yet you see in this one pointedness of effort what it does also, it invokes the power of the will—the spiritual will—and this is different from the personality will that’s going to hammer through and get through no matter what—but it’s the strength of will that comes from within. I think that’s what the singleness of purpose also invokes. 

Sarah: Coming back to that question of whether modern society fosters success, I think this is an area of the will that is not really understood or cultivated today, particularly in the way we raise our children. I suppose I’m going out on a limb here, but I have a real disagreement with this practice of putting tiny kindergarteners and little grade schoolers through graduation ceremonies. By the time they actually do graduate high school they’ve put on that cap and gown numerous times. I think it denigrates and trivializes real achievement to reward children too early for too little that’s been done. I know they mean well, the teachers and parents that are doing this, and they want to instill a sense of confidence and of achievement and that’s good. But at the same time, I think we all need to develop a capacity for the long haul in life. The capacity to not want everything right now. And if you look at our technological age, we aren’t willing to wait for anything anymore. It all has to be instantaneously granted to us. The Internet means we have to communicate immediately; the computer has to come on immediately; television has to be responsive; the radio. We don’t want to wait for anything, and this works against the tenacity, the patience, and the will, which are needed for success. 

Dale: That all adds to the glamour of success, that if we don’t get it instantly, well… 

Sarah: Go on to something else. 

Dale: Yes. It’s really denigrating the whole idea of success, in a way. 

Robert: And sometimes by imagining the end of our life, we can sometimes determine what really should be important to us. I don’t think there’s anybody out there who will reach the end of his life and say, “I wish I had spent another day in the office,” or a person who’s competent at whatever business that she’s into saying, “I spent a lot of time in the office. I completed all my tasks.” So, if we are really questioning the traditional American value of what success is, as spiritual people—as I think both of you are—what do you think is a successful life? 

Sarah: I think a successful life is a life in which you have grown; you have moved from point A to at least point B. If you can look back and say, “well, I made my way through this problem or that hurdle and I moved beyond it; something that used to trouble me or provide a major test is no longer disturbing to me.” Often I think we can identify what makes a successful life by looking at what areas of our life cause the most struggle, because those areas are probably where our soul is trying to grow and to expand its capacity, its expertise. Instead of looking for the things that are easiest and smoothest, maybe we should try to identify the areas of our life where we have our struggle. That might be where we’re ready to make a breakthrough if we can summon up some will. I’m talking about something like perhaps overcoming fear or gaining a sense of confidence in relationship to others or learning to handle authority more skillfully. All of these are aspects where there might be a lot of conflict, but if we move beyond the conflict and gain a little bit more capacity, we can see that success. 

Dale: Yes, I don’t think we need to look at success as being something big and flashy, making millions of dollars or being a big star on the sports field or in the theatre or whatever. There are little examples of success that go on daily all over the world with people. I’m reminded of something I heard about just the other day. A lady wrote in— talking about her niece, who had been brought up and raised up by her grandmother—and one day this niece made the comment that she had been given tools to successfully get through the difficult time in life by her grandmother, and she was very appreciative of that. That was a wonderful commentary on the grandmother’s success of bringing up this child, because she apparently gave this child the right tools so that the child could get through her teenage years successfully. That’s just a small example of success, but it’s those little things, too, that I think we should pick up on. 

Sarah: Raising a child properly—what could be a more successful life than bringing children into society that are going to make the world a better place? That’s a tremendous achievement. If you’re a teacher, teaching children and helping them become better citizens. What could be more wonderful? It’s not the constant craving for material achievement that our soul is going to evaluate its success by, but how much it achieved in terms of right human relations—I think that really is what it all boils down to. And that touches on areas like the capacity for humility, for sacrifice, perhaps. In terms of the spiritual path, renunciation—the ability to set aside self-interest, to put other needs before your own—sometimes that’s the sign of success to the soul. So, all of these outer achievements that we’re so focused on, they really aren’t what the soul is interested in. 

Robert: It sounds like the soul is much more interested in becoming the type of individual that God wants us to be. 

Sarah: Right, exactly. 

Robert: Which is a very different measure of success. Do you have any final thoughts on success? 

Sarah: Well, only that I think we should learn to view failure as just a prelude to success. That sometimes the failures we experience are the very things that teach us what we need—in terms of skill, wisdom, experience—and lead to success. So, don’t be overwhelmed by them. 

Robert: Good thought! That’s about all the time we have for our discussion today. You’ve been listening to Inner Sight and now we would like to close with a world prayer called the Great Invocation. It’s a call for light and love and goodwill to flow into the world and into our hearts. Let’s listen for a moment to these powerful words. 

Sarah: Closes the program with the adapted version of the Great Invocation.

(This is an edited transcript of a recorded radio program called “Inner Sight”. This conversation was recorded between the host, Robert Anderson, and the then President and Vice-President of Lucis Trust, Sarah and Dale McKechnie.)

(Transcribed and edited by Carla McLeod)




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