The Illusion of Success

The Illusion of Success

My father came to our house for a visit last summer, which he typically does two or three times a year.  He loves to see his grandsons and we talk to him every week by phone, but for health reasons it is sometimes difficult for him to travel from his Florida home to Atlanta.  I have occasionally written about my dad over the years and the wise counsel and good example I have always received from him.  This particular weekend visit was different because of a powerful lesson he helped me teach my one of my children.

On the Saturday afternoon of my dad’s visit, my younger 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 alright.  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 and mature question from my youngest child.  He was referring to a conversation we had a few months ago 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 and made sure we talked about having strong faith and the importance of starting and caring for a family some day as well.  I kept it at a high level for him at that time, 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 and 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, 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 and 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 also to my mother while she was alive, 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 us as faith-filled children, helping as much as possible with furthering our education and teaching us how to be responsible.  My father always wants to talk about the kid’s school and athletic achievements when I call him or find out how my books are selling.  He rarely talks about himself, and certainly never complains.

He comes from a generation that has much to teach us.  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 God and my faith, 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.

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.”  This is probably the most validating statement a parent could ever want!

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 has done his best to convey the lesson to me, although I must admit I spent several years in the quicksand of pursuing false success.

In order to shed more light on the idea of success, I reached out to a Boston-based business leader and author I have gotten to know over the last year who has a fascinating story and candid thoughts on what success really means.  His name is Andreas Widmer.

Andreas is Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at The Catholic University of America and President of The Carpenter’s Fund, a startup that seeks to provide loans to emerging market SME’s. He was previously the co-founder of SEVEN Fund, a philanthropic organization which promoted enterprise solutions to poverty.  He is also the author of The Pope & The CEO: Pope John Paul II’s Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard, a book exploring leadership lessons that he learned serving as a Swiss Guard protecting Pope John Paul II and refined during his career as a successful business executive.

Andreas, thank you for taking time for this conversation.  Considering the fascinating life you lead I am curious how you would describe a meaningful life?

“Becoming fully human – that is to say, one’s intellectual, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual fulfillment which, with God’s grace, will lead to eternal life with God.”

What are the various aspects of a meaningful life from your own experience and from others in your life?  Does balance play a part?

“The point of the ‘balance’ is to become fully human. People with a meaningful life live it as authentically human persons. Part of that is that we’re not meant to be lop-sided toward one of the aspects of our humanity because that makes us less human. Another part of it that we often overlook is the true aspect of the social life, where it is in giving that we receive. The pursuit of the meaningful life as a human person cannot be fed by an egotistical self-centeredness. It has to be nurtured by sacrificial love or it won’t be truly human – truly in the image and likeness of God.”

You have shared with me that you are not the same man and leader you once were.  What did you mean?

“I lived for over 10 years in the myopic pursuit of economic success. I gained it. Then I lost it. The experience made me realize that having the money (and not having it) actually didn’t provide meaning or happiness, so I set out to find meaning elsewhere.”

Did your Catholic faith play a significant role in the professional and personal choices you have made?  Did it help you recognize that the success you were striving for was an illusion?

“It does now. Through the influence of my faith I live my life much more consciously. It sounds contradictory, but my faith helps me focus more on the moment and on eternity at the same time.  It’s one of those beautiful ‘both-and’ things of our faith.”

What advice would you offer other professionals who are longing to do more, give more and achieve more in life?

“Find time to pray, read the bible and religious books. Develop a habit to journal your intuitions and the events around you. I find a good balance to be to pray both in contemplation and in conversation.  In the former, I love the Rosary and/or an Adoration. For the latter, I like journaling and then having a discussion with God. You’d be surprised how much change comes from it. The key is that you trust God. Once you are led in a certain direction, work as hard on it as you can, but trust God that he’ll take care of things.”

Andreas, what prevents so many people from pursuing this kind of life?

“If you want to attain any level of happiness in your life, you better pursue a life of meaning and purpose. What’s holding us back is a fear of letting go of our self-centeredness.”

How do you balance your professional life, teaching, writing and philanthropy?  How would you describe this stage of your life?

“My first priority is my relationship with God. My second priority is my relationship with my wife, and my son. My third priority is my professional career. It’s in that order I try to evaluate decisions. Often they’re intertwined, but I always know what the right decision is if I’m honest with myself.

“Also, my wife and I have an ongoing written ‘plan’ for our life. We meet every year to review last year’s ‘plan’ and create the New Year’s plan. In it we describe what’s important to us and what we’ll do about it this year. We discuss this a few times during the year as well to check where we’re at. It’s been incredible how this has focused our actions and helped us achieve things.

“My current stage in life? I’m at the point where I’ve started to know how little I know. So that breeds humility and gratefulness. It also helps me be less afraid of the future because it allows me to trust God much more.  That’s made a great difference in my life and happiness.”

Think about how you grew up and your first few years in the workforce.  It is likely you were trained to achieve success through climbing the corporate ladder and making a good living.  These things in themselves are not bad, but they become negative if we define ourselves and who we really are by mere economic success and titles.  The stories of my father and Andreas Widmer remind us of the importance of trusting God’s role in our lives, the need for humility, gratitude and to be focused on serving others.  I also think it is a subtle yet important point to recognize that both men receive their validation not through awards and the trappings of material success, but through their success as parents, husbands and servants of God and to their communities.  Andreas had it all, lost it and has since attained a new and authentic degree of success as he puts his gifts to use in serving God and his fellow man.  My father has spent most of his life disinterested in anything other than becoming the best husband, father, grandfather and selfless servant he can be.  He has never missed the illusion of success that drives so many others.  Andreas experienced his own crucible of painful lessons to emerge in much the same place.

Consider what it is you are currently chasing in your life and ask yourself if you are fulfilled.  As you consider the pursuit of a meaningful life, how will you know if you have been successful and is your current definition of success truly making you happy?

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What does success mean to me now versus 10 years ago? 20?  How do I define it?
  2. Have I considered the role of humility and service to others in defining success?
  3. How do I receive personal validation today?  Is it encouragement from my loved ones?  My name on a plaque?  What?
  4. As I reflect on my views about success, do I need to rethink and change how I might teach these lessons my children and grandchildren?

This article is adapted from Something More: The Professional’s Pursuit of a Meaningful Life with permission from Liguori Publications and Randy Hain.

Randy Hain, Senior Editor and co-founder of The Integrated Catholic Life™, is the author of The Catholic Briefcase: Tools for Integrating Faith and Work which was released by Liguori Publications. The Catholic Briefcase was voted the Best Catholic Book of 2011 in the Catholicism Reader’s Choice Awards.

Randy Hain’s exciting new book, Along the Way: Lessons for an Authentic Journey of Faith was  released by Liguori Publications in November, 2012. Along the Way was recently named Runner-Up in the Catholicism Reader’s Choice Awards for Best Catholic Book of 2012. Learn more here. His third book, Something More: A Professional’s Pursuit of a Meaningful Life, was released in February, 2013. All of Randy Hain’s books can also be purchased at your local Catholic bookstore, Amazon or

Looking for a Catholic Speaker? Check out Randy’s speaker’s page and the rest of the ICL Speaker’s Bureau.

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