The Definition of Success

When I was a kid, on weeknights after dinner my father would stretch out on the couch in front of the TV, tell us what we were going to watch that night … and promptly fall asleep, snoring as often as not. Then my brother and sister and I would change the channel, giggling at poor ol’ Dad. A couple hours later, he would wake up, say good night, and go to bed.

Now that I have my own family and career, I seem to be the one who can hardly keep his eyes open after supper. Sometimes I’m too tuckered out to tuck in the kids, and I’m asleep before they are. Hard work will do that to you.

An early riser (and snorer) like my dad, I’ve come to appreciate the long days, the business trips, and the heavy responsibility he shouldered for us–as well as the Sunday morning family softball games (Dad usually pitched) followed by orange juice and crushed ice, the regular trips to the beach cottage we shared at Cape May Point, and other expressions of his commitment to our family. At the time, though, probably like most kids, I thought that was just what dads do.

No, Dad wasn’t perfect (who is?), but he and Mom were there for us. He worked hard at the office and moved up the corporate ladder, but he mostly kept his life in balance, with my parents producing three responsible kids and eight loving grandchildren. Financial matters aside, I’d call that a successful life, wouldn’t you?

The other evening, however, I was sick in bed and turned on talk radio to relieve the tedium. Conservative host Sean Hannity, who I mostly agree with on the issues, was interviewing another rightwing talker, Neal Boortz, the self-styled “High Priest of the Church of the Painful Truth.” Boortz, boasting about his motorcycle, his plane, and his other costly toys, was mocking those who worked “only” 40 hours a week, saying they would never be successful. Hannity, who claims to be a voice for traditional morality, was agreeing with him.

While I have no idea how Hannity and Boortz balance their work and family responsibilities, you have to ask: How moral is it to never see your family while you are chasing the brass ring? How much work is enough? What price are we willing to pay for such “success”? And if we are forever chasing “success” on the job, who will do the needed works in our churches and private organizations that provide the glue that keeps our communities together?

Certainly hard work is a virtue (and can be richly rewarded in our capitalist system), but if spending half of your waking hours at the office during the workweek is a sign of being a slacker, then something is seriously out of whack.

According to a recent Business Week cover story, all our technological innovations and increased productivity have failed to deliver more leisure time:

“More than 31% of college-educated male workers are regularly logging 50 or more hours a week at work, up from 22% in 1980. Forty percent of American adults get less than seven hours of sleep on weekdays, reports the National Sleep Foundation, up from 31% in 2001. About 60% of us are sometimes or often rushed at mealtime, and one-third wolf down lunch at our desks, according to a survey by the American Dietetic Assn. To avoid wasting time, we’re talking on our cell phones while rushing to work, answering e-mails during conference calls, waking up at 4 a.m. to call Europe, and generally multitasking our brains out.”

As someone who also feels the desire (and the pressure) to achieve, to produce, to provide, and to make a mark, it’s hard to admit that I try to keep my work from taking over my life. Friends frequently ask me how many hours I’m putting in at the office, and I feel a subtle pressure to stretch the truth.

Yes, there will be seasons when work is more demanding and time-consuming, and if you love what you do and are good at it, the work will find you. But that doesn’t mean it has to take over. My dad once gave up a transfer (and a bigger house) when he and Mom sensed it would not be a good move for the family.

In Rod Dreher’s provocative new book, Crunchy Cons, he tells the story of Robert Hutchins, a Christian who was climbing the career ladder fast while working for a defense contractor.

“I had it in my mind that I could get to a level and to a position where I could conquer the job in a comfortable amount of hours, and have adequate time for my family,” Hutchins said. “But that was a pipe dream, because in today’s environment, once you get to that level where you’re making a six-figure salary, the job owns you.”

Not willing to be owned, even by his success, Hutchins quit and started an organic family farm. He’s less “successful” by the standards of Hannity and Boortz, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

“What do I gain?” Hutchins asked. “The hearts of my children, for one. I gain the ability to be the dominant influence in their life.”

Another Christian who is taking a countercultural approach to “success” is George W. Murray, president of Columbia International University. Murray, a high-energy achiever, is learning to throttle back. And get more sleep.

“I used to think that sleep was something you could do only after all the work was done (a futile assumption),” Murray wrote in Books & Culture. “Then, I discovered that sleep was something I needed to do in order to get the work done (a great improvement). Now, I am discovering that sleep is something you do as an act of faith that God is getting the work done (yes, even without our help).”

I have nothing against good, honest work. When God made Adam and Eve, he gave them a job to do. And in our now-fallen world, God has promised us hard work “all the days of our lives.” But he has also provided us a day of rest, creating a pattern of toil and repose that enables us to focus on both our spiritual and earthly needs.

So go ahead, strive for success. Just make sure it is the right kind. After all, no one gets to the end of his life and says, “Gee, I wish I had spent more time at the office.”

About Stan Guthrie

Stan Guthrie is an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine and for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. His latest book is God's Story in 66 Verses. He also is author of All that Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy. He is co-author of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Besides authoring, writing, and editing books, Stan is a literary agent, bringing together good authors, good books, and good publishers. Stan writes the monthly Priorities colum for He has appeared on National Public Radio's €œTell Me More,€ WGN's Milt Rosenberg program, and many Christian shows, including The Eric Metaxas Show and Moody Radio'€™s €œNew Day Florida.€ A licensed minister and an inspirational speaker, he served as moderator for the Christian Book Expo panel discussion, Does the God of Christianity Exist, and What Difference Does It Make?
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