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My “Success” Story: What I Learned from Jesus and John Wooden

I am a 23-year-old college graduate. Am I quickly making a name for myself in the political world? Playing professional sports? Or rapidly climbing the corporate ladder? No. I’m serving tables at a restaurant while I search for a job. In a society that compulsively obsesses over achievement and success, it is easy to become discouraged. At times I feel like a failure. Is this really what years of education gets me? Many other recent college graduates are in similar situations. Some are working in mindless entry-level jobs. Some find themselves in one unpaid internship after another. And even worse, others are back living in their parents’ basements. Beyond the anecdotal evidence, a recent report by the Mercatus Center shows that young people have been disproportionately affected by the sluggish economy. Mercatus research fellow Keith Hall writes: “Those age 20 to 24 years old make up 13.2 percent of the long-term unemployed but just 10.0 percent of the labor force.” The high expectations that our culture engrains in us, coupled with this sober reality, can be tough to handle. As a result, those of us who are not “successful” right out of college can easily become depressed and vocationally debilitated—in D.C. and other large cities, particularly, some just give up and head home. Is this simply a reality of life? Are we destined to lead unsatisfying vocational lives? Or is this a result of a faulty view of success? Whelchel BookIn his book “How then Should We Work?,” Hugh Whelchel, executive director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, blames this trend of “quarter-life crises” on a faulty understanding of success. Our culture tells us two hopeful, but also damaging, lies about success. They are: 1) “If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be;” and 2) “You can be the best in the world.” While hard work is certainly an honorable trait, foolish optimism leads to discouragement and depression. The truth is, we are each born with different skills—some are more adept at certain skills than others—and we are put in different situations to make use of them. As far as I can tell, I have not been given the necessary skills or been placed in the proper circumstances to be the best in the world at anything. But that is fine. Legendary college basketball coach John Wooden offers a better description of success. “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” This may seem a rather conservative and uninspired definition, but it does come from a man who won 10 NCAA national championships in 12 years, and more importantly, it has Biblical backing. Whelchel uses Jesus’ parable of the talents to illustrate a proper understanding of success. In the parable, before a man leaves for a long journey he leaves money with three servants; he gives five talents to one, two to the other, and one to the last. When he returns, the master praises the servant whom he had given five talents for working hard to earn five additional talents. He dotes equal praise on the servant who had received two talents for earning two additional talents. But the third servant is scolded for merely burying his one talent and saving it for the master to return. This parable translates perfectly to our vocational lives. God invests in each of us—he gives us certain skills and opportunities—and expects a return on his investment. As long as we do the best that we can to bring him glory—whether we earn two talents or five, he will be pleased with us at the end, saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” This perspective on success is crucial to a healthy vocational life. It is both realistic and challenging. Going back to John Wooden’s sport of basketball, I have always enjoyed playing the game; I once wanted to play in the NBA. But if Lebron James is a five-talent basketball player, I am somewhere in the red. So maybe two years of high school basketball was the best return I could make on that investment. I am not going to let my inability to play professional basketball cripple me for the rest of my life. This mindset is important because our vocational calling is a crucial aspect of our lives on this earth. God calls us to be faithful stewards of the gifts and opportunities that we have received, whatever that looks like. And we must answer that call. Not all of us are granted brilliant intellectual capabilities or have the opportunity to go to an Ivy League school. That is quite all right. As long as we faithfully work for his glory, God is equally pleased by the plumber who gladly serves people and the president who wisely leads an entire nation. My own place is probably somewhere in the middle. If I end up becoming a career table server, I will likely have wasted some of the talents and opportunities that God has given me. But the fact that I am not hugely successful a year out of college should not be too disheartening. For those in situations like mine, don’t lose hope because society says you are a failure. Continue to work hard as you strive to glorify God and make a return on his investment, however meager it may seem. Because in his eyes, your effort and motives are what matter most.