8 Things That Do Not Define A Successful Life

When people find out I’m moving, they often have an interesting reaction. I’ve been threatened with kidnapping (we’re going to lock you up so they can’t take you); I’ve been asked for a reason why (sure, there’s a very good and thorough explanation as to why they chose to move me, but I have no idea); and I’ve been interrogated about the next appointment (I’m not there yet, I don’t know). But the reaction that always surprises me is the person who exclaims “Congratulations!” I don’t understand. I’m telling you I’m leaving you and your first reaction is how wonderful it is? Hmm, maybe we weren’t as close as I thought. Naturally, people are taken aback with the news and they just say the first thing that pops into their heads. At least it’s an encouraging sentiment. But it always makes me stop and wonder, what makes them think my move is something to congratulate me on? I didn’t choose it, and my new assignment is not necessarily more prestigious than my current one. A move doesn’t mean I’m more successful.

Everyone wants to assume that if I’m moving it must be a sign of success. Success is something we crave in life. But what if I’m not moving? If I were to stay here a little longer, would that be a sign of failure? No. Moving is not a measure of my success in life. In fact, here are 8 common successes that do not define a successful life.


  1. Income. As children, the importance of a good paying job is drilled into our minds. Why do we have to go to school all day? To get an education so you can get a job. Why do we have to do our homework? Why do we have to listen to our boring teachers? Why do we have to study our books that get less and less pictures as we get older? To get a good job. And it continues on into our adult lives. Why should I work hard at this job? To get a promotion so you can get a pay raise. Why should I take on a second job? To make more money. Why should I work late nights and extra shifts? To get overtime pay. The more money you make, the better your life is. Or is it?
  2. Family Status. As soon as you get a spouse and two children, you have arrived. You can fit in with all the other couples in your social circles. You can join all the other moms posting pictures of their toddlers on Facebook. Every. Freaking. Day. You can sympathize with the friends who need to “vent” about their spouses. You can condescendingly comment to nonparents “You’ll understand someday when you have children of your own.” I don’t want to minimize the importance of family. If you’ve found someone to marry, that’s wonderful. If you have beautiful children, I’m happy for you. What concerns me is this romanticizing of the family status. If you feel like you’re a failure because you don’t have the “right” family yet, you’re wrong. The strength of your marriage, the number of your children not yet in jail, the cuteness level of your family portrait—none of these define a successful life.
  3. Career milestone. Closely tied to income, the level you reach in your career does not define your success at life. This is an especially dangerous trap in my job. My income is based solely on my family status (still single, ha!) and years of service. So it’s easy to start thinking my position can make me more or less successful. When I transitioned from associate officer with a couple to associate officer with another single, you would have thought I won the career jackpot with the way people congratulated me. Therefore, my next aspiration must be to be the one in charge. If you only knew. Being at an appointment by myself is not my top priority. I used to feel inadequate because I wasn’t in charge. Now I feel self-conscious because I don’t want to be in charge. There’s so much pressure to make that my priority in life. But it’s not. Because that’s not what defines a successful life.
  4. Education. Perhaps you don’t aspire to a successful career or a six figure income, but you know the importance of a good education. There’s pressure in academics to continue pursuing the next degree in your field. If you’ve graduated high school, then you must attend college. If you finish your bachelor’s degree, then you must start working toward your masters. Education is a wonderful thing and I highly recommend furthering your education, but don’t make a particular degree or a certain GPA the definition of your success.
  5. Good citizenship. When I asked a few friends what they thought defined a successful life, they mentioned all the usual things: family, friends, money, but they also threw in one I hadn’t thought of yet: “I stayed out of jail, which makes me successful.” Well, I suppose that is one kind of success in life. But does that mean that someone who has been in jail or even prison is now a failure in life? Not at all. Fulfilling the role of good citizen does not define a successful life.
  6. Free of alcohol or drug addictions. Allowing any addiction to take over your life will keep you in bondage, damage your life, and hurt the people who love you. Though talking about sexual immorality, Paul’s words can apply to any addiction “’I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Is a sober and clean life the measure of success?
  7. Self-sufficient. Congratulations. You’re an adult. You now have to provide for yourself. You have to take care of your own food, shelter, clothing, social life, and bills. If you can take care of all this and not rely on government agencies or non-profits for help, then you have arrived. But does that mean that a family with an unexpected loss or a sudden illness who loses their home a failure? Self-sufficiency is a good thing, but it is not the definition of success.
  8. Good health. Being able to take care of yourself is a good thing. Staying out of hospitals and keeping yourself injury free is wonderful. But is that what makes your life successful?

The problem with choosing a measure to define a successful life is that you also have to define what makes a failure. And who are we, as mere mortals to say if someone’s life has been a failure? Yet, if there’s no such thing as a failure, then are we all automatically successful at life regardless of what we do with it?

Personally, I don’t think life is something that can be quantified with a level of success or failure. Life is not a pass/fail class at community college that only requires attendance. Life is a journey we are all on. There will be successes and failures along the way and the quality of that life depends on what you do with those successes or failures, but life itself isn’t a success or failure.

1 Corinthians 10:31 instructs us “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. The Westminster catechism asks “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” In the end it’s not about whether your life stacked up to be a success. It’s about how you glorified God with the life that you had.


“You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” Psalm 16:11

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