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From the Fall 2001 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

Success...and Failure

by The Rev. David C.L. Prior


“When you come to the end of your life and have nothing but death to look forward to and nothing but memories to look back upon, what will you need to conclude that your life was a success and that you’re satisfied?”

hat is the kind of question we need to hear from time to time but might prefer not to hear, because it poses uncomfortable challenges—about what we understand by success and failure, how we evaluate our lives, what is ultimately important.
  A recent poll of 1,000 people aged between 18 and 24 suggested that “young people who fail to achieve their life goals by the age of 30 are seen as ‘failures’ by their peers and are under so much pressure to succeed, that they sacrifice their health and leisure for success.” Among the young people interviewed “tight deadlines were set for finding a life partner and having money, a senior career position and a home. More than half had set time goals such as being a home owner by the age of 26, getting married at 27 and being rich at 29.” The study showed that 41 percent had given up a healthy diet and lifestyle in their attempts to attain all their goals and targets, and one in two had cut out holidays, hobbies and seeing family and friends.

Winning and Losing

  Success and failure are generally linked with winning and losing. Winning and losing have a close connection with the world of competitive sport. Sport has assumed a pervasive place in today’s culture, and its influence on our understanding of both success and failure is as powerful as the importance of examinations at school and college. There it is damaging to fail, and it is vital, not just to pass, but to achieve high marks and top grades—i.e. to succeed, not only against a benchmark but also in competition with others. So you can succeed and fail at one and the same time.
  These factors can be seen at work in the highly competitive marketplace of the City [London’s Financial District]—and indeed, in most marketplaces today. As the man said, a ”winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!” Mere success is not adequate; it must be greater success than others. Nor does one “success” guarantee anything for anyone—“you are only as good as your last deal.” This, too, is reflected in the sporting world. Former athlete, now politician, Sebastian Coe has said, “Real success is consistency—the hardest bit is…to do it again and again and again.” Comedian Billy Connolly says exactly the same, “You need to be good again and again and again.”
  But if, to be a success, you need to keep on performing and producing results, this has to be kept in focus with two other priorities—potential and perspective. Bob Alexander, formerly chairman of NatWest, says: “What is success for one individual as a magnificent use of their talents would only be a modest use of talent by another.” Another athlete, Roger Black, said recently about winning a silver medal, “To me it is gold because it represents the best I could do.”
  Perspective, too, is vital. The marketplace today seems dangerously locked into immediate results. But success, from a wider and more strategic standpoint, is something that can be noted, measured and appreciated only over the long haul. Sebastian Coe says, “To say a successful outcome is only if you win would be ludicrous, because the single most important contribution that any race has made to my career was the race in which I finished third.”

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