Does Success Equal Validation?

My family and I enjoy watching several of the competition shows on the Food Network — Chopped, Cupcake Wars, and Sweet Genius specifically. It recently occurred to me, though, just how many of the competitors on those shows say that they are competing, at least in part, out of a desire to prove to their families that they made the right decision by going into the culinary arts. This prompted two questions in my mind. First, does success necessarily equal validation?

The implication of the statements so many of these competitors have made is that if they win the competition their families will then see that they are good at what they have chosen to do and therefore the right choice was made when the individual decided to go into cooking or baking. I think this is a dangerous line of thought in general, and particularly so in these instances. These Food Network challenges are designed to be legitimate tests of the contestants’ skills, but in an outside-the-box sort of way. A competition on Chopped, for example, may be required to utilize four ingredients that have no connection to each other at all–and in more than one instance I have seen mandatory ingredients that the contestants indicate they have never used–and to make a creative, tasty and visually-appealing dish in 30 or 40 minutes. On a recent episode of Sweet Genius the contestants were required to use split pea soup in making a chocolate dessert. The real rub comes, I think, in taking the inverse of the argument being suggested by so many of these contestants–that if they do not win, their families may not be proud of them, and/or somehow their failure to win means that they were wrong when they chose to pursue a career in the food industry. I think that this is a dangerous manner of thinking. Never mind the fact that to even get on the show the individuals have obviously demonstrated real culinary skill. The simple reality is that anyone can have a bad day. And in a competition that has such limitations as an unfamiliar kitchen, wacky ingredients, and a strict time limit, one small mistake can make the difference. Or even if someone happens to have his or her best day ever, the “luck of the draw” may have paired them with another competitor who is better. We’ve all seen instances, I am sure, when someone would have beat any other competitor in the field but the one they were paired against. No one, however, would suggest that the individual who therefore lost is somehow unsuccessful. In some ways this would be like suggesting that a major league slugger is a complete failure if he makes it into the home run derby but does not win. Does that make any sense? Of course not.

When considering a biblical worldview it is also necessary to remember that success does not necessarily mean that the right choice was made. Using my own life as an example, I reached a crossroads when I needed to decide whether I was going to live for me or live for the Lord. I could have gone on to graduate school or law school as I had planned and then become (this is an illustration, remember) a top-notch incredibly successful lawyer, political strategist, etc. I could have achieved a recognizable name, a six-figure income, a prestigious address, and so on. In other words, I could have achieved worldly success. Yet, if I was outside of God’s will for my life I would not have been successful at all in any context that really matters.

The second question I have been considering is whether or not someone has to be good at something in order for them to be happy doing it. I think the answer is no…and I also think that “good at” is a highly subjective measure. Speaking for myself, I tend to take more pleasure out of activities I do well. I would rather play baseball or softball any day than play golf, but that’s due in no small part to the fact that I don’t play golf very well. Do I enjoy baseball because I am good at it, or am I good at it because I enjoy it? I suppose that’s a catch-22 in some ways. Because I enjoy it I do it more, and, generally speaking, the more we do something the better we get at it. But that’s not always true. I enjoy bowling, but I am not that good at it. The few times I have been skeet shooting I have been fairly good at it–but, while it was enjoyable while it lasted I have never felt the need to buy a gun and spend hours shooting clay pigeons. I can take it or leave it.

Let’s go back to my bowling example. Suppose I decided that I wanted to become a professional bowler. Would my decision to do that only be validated by becoming a champion professional bowler? In other words, do I have to be the best in my chosen pursuit in order to convince others that I was not wrong in how I have chosen to spend my working years? Perhaps that standard it too high… After all, there have been some incredible baseball players that have never won a World Series title, but no one would suggest that they were not good or thus should not have played professional baseball? No. So maybe we need to ask if making it to the highest level of a profession is what makes the individual successful. Again I would have to say no.

I think that there are two standards that need to be considered. First, does the chosen profession make the individual happy? Does it allow him or her to find enjoyment and to take pride in the work? If so, I think the right decision was made, whether or not the trophies, accolades and “big bucks” come along, too. I can still remember my father telling me that he did not care what I chose to do with my life so long as I was happy. “I don’t care if you decide to be a garbage collector so long as it is what you want to do,” he said. And, I can honestly say, he never pressured me to pursue any particular career or vocational path. One caveat to this standard is the ability of the individual to meet his or her needs and, when applicable, those of his or her family. If I decide I want to paint pictures of trees all my days, and it makes me incredibly happy to do so, that’s not okay if in so doing I am unable to provide for my wife and children.

There is a second caveat, though, and it is one I alluded to above. The ultimate standard for validation for any believer must be whether or not he or she is in the will of the Lord. Worldly success will not necessarily come, but that does not automatically mean that the wrong choice was made. God will provide for the needs of His servants. Sometimes He blesses with incredible material wealth, and sometimes He provides just enough to get by. But it doesn’t matter; what matters is whether or not we are in His will.

So to parents, I would suggest this: pray for and with your children that the Lord will clearly reveal His plan for their future, and that your children will submit to His leading in their lives. To everyone, don’t let the size of your paycheck, the length of your title, the number of letters after your name, the kind of car you drive, or any other worldly term of measurement define whether or not you are where you should be. Rather, seek first the kingdom of God. Find His will for your life, and go where He calls you to go; do what He calls you to do, regardless of the material rewards that do, or do not, follow. God does not define success the way man defines success…and it is God’s definition–and only God’s definition–that matters.