The Success Trap
The Success Trap

The Success Trap: How Do You Measure a Man’s Life?


The talk this morning is “The success trap: how do you measure a man’s life?” And I don’t know how many of you ever read the play, “The Death of a Salesman.” It was written in 1949 by Arthur Miller. He won a Pulitzer Prize for it, and of all things, it’s a play about an insurance salesman, Willy Loman. And if you haven’t read the play maybe you’ve seen the movie with Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich. It’s excellent. I recommend it, but, in the in the course of the plot, what you have is an insurance salesman who has been deluded into thinking that he is a very successful man. He lives with this deluded idea that he is a big deal, he’s important, and, as you go through the play, as the plot unwinds, and the events unfold, what happens is, Loman is required, or is kind of forced to look reality in the eye, and he comes to the conclusion and recognizes that he’s not what he thought he was. In fact, he recognizes he’s a failure, and at the end of the play, he takes his life. And after the funeral his wife, in mourning, is talking to her son and this is really the way the play ends. She says, “Biff, why did he do it? Why did he do it?” And Biff looks at his mom and says, “Shucks, ma, he had all the wrong dreams. He had all the wrong dreams.”

So, this morning I would ask you to reflect on this issue. What are your aspirations for the rest of your life? What are your dreams? One of the things that I have discovered for me, personally, is that our dreams do change over time. I had a real unusual event, I don’t know if you’d call it an event, maybe an experience, this last weekend that I want to share with you to really kind of kick this off.

I was at my 25th college reunion at the University of the South last weekend, and being a small college, the Alumni weekends, the big weekend in the fall, the reunion weekends are big deals, and they’re heavily promoted because each class was so small you have a pretty good turnout. But what they try to emphasize is the 25th reunion, and the 50th reunion. The class of ’76, which I was a part of, and the class of 51. And, for me, it was, I found myself being very reflective, looking back on 25 years, you go to a place where you spent it four of the most significant years of your life with people who you were very close to. People who, in some cases, you hadn’t seen for 25 years, and you have a whole weekend to really kind of reflect on the past. And, what was interesting is I had several occasions to interact with some of the students. I took two of my children with me and my wife and we were walking around the campus, went to my fraternity house, and you saw students. We even had a student babysit for our children one night, and I had a chance to interact with her. And it was interesting. My reflection on these students were, it’s amazing how young they are. I mean, they’re like kids, and it struck me also how confident they were, almost cocky, a number of them, and they kind of had this attitude, I’m ready to get out of here and go out and slay the world. And then Saturday morning they have a big brunch, and they bring in all the alumni that are in attendance and they give some awards, the distinguished faculty award, distinguished alumni award they have. They talked about giving money, and then they have the Vice Chancellor get up and make a speech, and going in, I ran into a professor who was teaching when I was there, and who also happened to be in the class of ‘51. He went to school there and then he went on and got his graduate and PhD and came back and taught history. Dr. Cushman. I ran into him, and I said, let’s sit together, and so I sat with him, and we ended up sitting at a table just like this, with a bunch of his cronies from the class of ’51. And you know, I was sitting there, and I was looking at all of them and I was wondering what it was like to be here 50 years later. You know, what were they thinking? What was going on through their minds, contrasting them with these students that I’ve seen. And, a lot of these men are from Birmingham. There was a prominent physician from our community.  Two men that owned businesses here. There was a guy I had met in my own industry eight years before who, for a number of years, was president of the US operations of Willis Corroon, who is a big competitor of my firm, the firm I work for, and these were all pretty much successful people. and yet they were all retired. And so, you’ve got to imagine what I had the opportunity to do, and I it was like kind of like a flash, maybe an epiphany. I’m sitting there and I’m looking at, there are a bunch of students at this breakfast, and I look back and I thought, that’s where I was 25 years ago, and then I looked at the men that were sitting at the table and I thought, God willing I’m here, that’s where I’ll be 25 years from now. And you really have an opportunity like that to sit and think, and the thing that kept going through my mind was, what is life gonna be like when I get to the point that those men in the class of ’51 are? And I didn’t know, you know, I’m not sure what they were reflecting on, but ironically, two nights later at home I was reading, and I read where Lee Iacocca, in his autobiography, made this statement. He said, “Here I am in the twilight years of my life still wondering what it’s all about. I can tell you this. Fame and fortune is for the birds.” And I ask myself, you know, is that where I’m gonna be? Is that where we’re all going to be, at the end of our lives wondering, what is it really all about? So, I believe Bob Buford, who wrote the book, Half Time, that’s had such an impact on my life personally, I think he was correct when he said, “You get to a certain point in your life when you want more than just a successful career. You want your life to count for something. You want your life to have made a difference. You want,” as he says, “a life of significance, not just success.”

While I was at Suwanee, one of the things we read in one of the courses I took, were a number of the plays of another playwright, a guy named Tennessee Williams. I don’t know if you ever read any of his plays. They’re very interesting. Probably his most famous was, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. Again, if you didn’t read the play, maybe you saw the movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman and Burl Ives. And the thing about Williams was, he was a very, he lived a very decadent life. He was very wealthy because his plays were made into movies, and he was an interesting man, in that he had a real insight into the human heart and to the human motivations. In fact, it’s been said that so many of his plays reflected, really, what was going on in his life. And, in this play, I’ve got to set it out for you, because you’ve got this wealthy southern family living on this big plantation, and you have this patriarch figure, a father who ran the show. There was no mother, and it’s what’s interesting, he was, his name in the play was “Big Daddy”. That’s what they called him, and his children, you know, lived on this big place, I think this may be where they got the idea to film, or do, the TV show “Dallas”, because everybody lived on the plantation. And, what happens in the course of the play is, you find out that Big Daddy is dying. He’s dying of cancer, and he has a very tumultuous relationship with all of his kids, very contentious, and he has this conversation with his son, Brick, and listen to what he says, knowing, just having told him he’s gonna die, and this was written 50 years ago. He says, “I’m worth 10 million dollars in cash and blue chip stocks, but there’s only one thing you can’t buy on any market on earth, and that’s your life, when you know it, it’s finished.” He says, “The human animal is a beast that must eventually die, and if he has money, he buys, and he buys, and he buys, and he hopes one of the things he buys is life everlasting.” And he’s not talking about everlasting life in a spiritual sense, but that he’ll leave a mark on this world that will be everlasting. And then they get into this conversation. Big Daddy wants his children to have kids so he’ll have grandchildren and Brick and his wife have a very troubled relationship, and they’re trying to determine whether they ought to have kids, and he says to his father, he says, “Big Daddy, why do you want grandchildren?” Listen to what he says, it’s interesting. He says, “I want a part of me to keep on living. I won’t have my life end with the grave.”

For you who were here in April, I shared an illustration that I use often about a study that was done by a group of sociologists who interviewed a large number of people who were 95 years and older, and they asked them one question. If you could live your life over again, what would you do different? And what was surprising, there were a couple of responses that were given by almost every single person, and one of those responses was, if I could live my life over again, I would have spent my life on more endeavors that would live on after I’m dead. I think we should listen to these elderly people and what they have to tell us, and I guess my point is, is that I believe that there is something deeply embedded within each of us that yearns for this life of significance. And the problem is, I think that most men never find it, because it’s very easy, I think, to end up at the end of your life, like Iacocca, and ask the question, what has my life been all about?

So, this morning, I want to ask the question, why is it that men have a tendency to miss this? I want to read a verse from the New Testament. It’s from Luke chapter 12, and this is Jesus. He says, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” Jesus is telling us here that a man’s life is not measured by the abundance of what he has. A question I would ask you to reflect on is, how do you measure a man’s life? When you meet somebody, how do you measure him, how do you size up a person? Do you measure him by the car he drives, the house he lives in, the toys he has, his success in business? You know, I was thinking, when I was thinking about this, back when you’re in college and you’re 20, you measured a guy by how beautiful the women were that hung out with him, but more important, I would say, and ask you to think about is, how do you measure your life? As you look at your life, how do you measure it? How will you measure if you were successful, when you get to the end of it? And I think what happens guys is that unfortunately, we all have this tendency to measure our lives by the standards that our culture kind of forces upon us, and the standard that I’m thinking of can be summarized with one word, and that word is performance, or achievement. You think about it, whether it’s business, or politics, or in the arts, or athletics, or scholastically, socially in the civic arena, wherever it might be, people look at your life and measure you by what you achieve. If I’m successful in the eyes of others, or I’m successful in the eyes of others, based on my performance, and I believe most men in middle and upper-class America are driven to perform and to achieve. And the reason is because when we perform and achieve, we are approved and admired by others, and this is what we believe will make our lives worthwhile. This is how a man measures up as he performs in front of the watching world. And I guess the question is, is that in any way true of your life? Now, I know you may not have given it much thought. I’m going to give you some time to evaluate this, because you’ll see how seductive this can be. Now, let me stop and say, some would say, isn’t this the way it’s supposed to be though? You know, this is the American Way. This is what capitalism is all about, the strong and successful succeed, the weak gets stepped on and are kind of relegated to an inferior existence. In fact, this is really the core teaching of Edmund Spenser, social Darwinism, and maybe you subscribe to it, but the point that I want to make is how unhealthy and how devastating it can be to be caught in this web. This, what I call, performance or success trap. And so, I want to share with you four thoughts this morning to help you evaluate your life as it relates to what I call the performance trap, and I’d ask you to be honest with yourself, because I think it’s a very healthy thing to examine yourself, to know yourself, in fact, John Calvin says that wisdom consists of two parts. Knowledge of God and knowledge of self. So, it’s a healthy thing to understand yourself.

Four thoughts. Number one, a person caught in the performance trap is addicted to other peoples’ approval. Now, I don’t know about you, but it is a scary thought to me that I would allow other people, other people’s opinions, determine how I’m going to live my life. That I would empower somebody else and let them decide how I’m going to live, and yet there’s something within us that loves to impress, that loves to impress others. It’s hard to understand sometimes. I don’t know whether I read this, or heard this, but it was an interesting thought. If you go back to 1950, a majority, not all, Americans looked at buying a car as nothing more than having transportation. That was the motive to buy a car, and that, to buy a house was just to have shelter over you, a shelter that you could possibly own, and in 50 years we’ve gone from where now a large part of our population buys a car or buys a home to make a statement. Isn’t it interesting how we desire to impress?

Second thought. The performance trap causes me to develop a fear of failure and therefore we avoid taking risks; risks that we probably ought to take because we don’t want to fail in the eyes of others.  We want to play it safe in life.

I want to read to you a stirring quote, I think, by President Theodore Roosevelt and he addresses this. He says, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much, nor suffer much, because they live in the great twilight that knows not victory or defeat.” You know, that study that I mentioned, those sociologists, a second answer that emerged from those people 95 years and older was, if I could live my life over again, I would take more risks in life. I would take more risks in life. What they’re telling us, I believe, is I played it safe in life. I wish I hadn’t have. I wish I had taken more risk, even if I’d failed. I regret deeply that I allowed other people’s opinions to affect me so much that I ended up playing it too safe, and I deeply regret it.

This third one is interesting. When you do fail, and I think we’ve all probably experienced some type of failure along the way, and if you’re caught in this trap and you fail in this life at whatever you’re attempting to do, it can devastate you emotionally. If you go back to the last recession we had in the early 90s, a fact, one of the facts is, is that our psychiatric hospitals were full of men who were suffering depression because they lost their jobs, and makes me wonder as I read the headlines today, what’s happening in the lives of men as you see these massive layoffs, as you see the economy potentially going into recession. I had a guy call me two days ago, a guy that’s been to one of these breakfasts. He’s lost his job, and he said, I appreciate the invitation Friday but I just don’t think I can get out of bed. He said, I’m scared. He said, I’m afraid that I’m falling into a deep depression. Think about Willy Loman. Even though it was fictional, the point Miller tries to make is, look how failure can devastate people, and yet, you know what the irony is? A lot of successful people will tell you that some of the great blessings in their lives has been some of their failures.

The fourth thought is, the performance trap leads to a fear of rejection, which explains why men have such superficial and shallow relationships with other men. It’s been said, and I think it’s true, and you can observe it yourself, you get a group of men together and our tendency is to talk about sports or business or other men. Rarely will we share with other men, even if it’s a good friend, our hurt, our pain, the things we’re struggling with, our fears. Somebody that I can just unload… how many people do you have in this life that you can bare your soul to? I’m talking about another man. It makes you wonder how what kind of depth our friendships have, because I think it’s important that you can have people that you can go and really share what’s on your heart, that you can bare your soul to. You know, in thinking about this, this is a sidelight, as a new parent, one of the things that concerns me, and I believe parents probably do this often, not realizing it, but I have this fear of building into the lives of my children this mentality that you’ve got to perform to be worth anything. You know, you’ve got to be cheerleader, you’ve got to make the football, you’ve got to be anything, and what concerns me is that when our kids don’t meet our expectations it can shatter them. Just something to think about as you raise your kids.

Now, some of you may be thinking, well what’s wrong with succeeding? What’s wrong with performing well, and, of course, my answer to that is nothing. In fact, it’s interesting, if in your work life, you follow God’s mandate in the Bible, the pillars of a man’s work life should be diligence, integrity, service, serving others, and a pursuit of excellence, and if you make those the pillars of your career, most likely, it will lead to some type of success, and, of course, then the question is, what do you do with the fruits of your success? Because that’s the huge issue is, it can be used for good in your life, and in your family life, in the life of the community, or, as Jesus warns us, the problem with the fruits of success is, it can corrupt us, and it can corrupt our families, it can corrupt our children, and so that’s an issue in itself, but, there’s nothing really wrong with performing well.

The point I really want to make this morning is if performing for others is the driving force in your life, if it’s how you measure your life and your life’s worth, I believe that you and I are opening ourselves up to a disappointing life, and a disappointing existence, and when we get to the end of it, we’ll wonder, what’s it all about, what was my life all about?

So, what does, in closing, what does one find, or where does one find, a life of significance? I want to share with you a parable from the Bible, and it’s my favorite parable, because it’s about a successful businessman, something we can all relate to, and recently, I heard a guy retell this parable in a modern setting and he did a really good job and I’ve written it out and I’m gonna read it to you. Now, I need to tell you, he lengthens the story quite a bit. I need to warn you. I mean, it won’t take me but about a minute to read but he lengthens it over because the parable is about eight verses in the scriptures, but what he does, he does a great job in driving home the core point that Jesus was trying to make, and I would invite you to go back and read it yourself to get a good feel for what he’s trying to say. And it’s in Luke chapter 12, starting in verse 16, but let me read to you the retold parable.

This is the parable about a very successful man who owned a very successful business. Like many successful people, he was consumed with his work. He did what it took to get the job done. When he wasn’t working, his mind would always drift back to the business. At home his wife was continually trying to get him to slow down, to spend more time at home, and he was vaguely aware that the kids were growing up and he was missing it. However, the kids had come to the point of not expecting much from him. He would continually think to himself, I’ll be more available next year when things settle down. He, however, never seems to notice that things did not ever settle down. He continually reminds himself, and his wife, I’m doing it for you and the kids. His wife bugs him about going to church and he goes on occasion, but he prefers to sleep in because it’s the only day to do so. He would have more time for church when things settle down. One night, he felt a strange, felt a twinge of pain in his chest, and his wife rushes him to the hospital. He suffered a mild heart attack and his doctor informs him of the changes he must make in his lifestyle. So, he cuts down on the red meat and ice cream and begins an exercise program, and soon he feels better, and all the pain goes away and eventually, he lets things slide, reminding himself, I’ll get in better shape when things settle down. One day the CFO of his company comes in to see him. He is told by the CFO that their business is booming to the point that we cannot keep up with all the orders. We have the chance to strike the motherlode. If we can catch this wave, we can all be set for life, however, we’re going to need larger facilities, new equipment, and the new state-of-the-art technology and delivery systems to keep up with all of our orders. So, the man becomes more consumed with his work. Every waking moment is devoted to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He tells his wife, you know what this means don’t you? When I’m through with this new phase, I’ll be able to relax. We’ll be set for life. I’ve covered all the bases. I’ve prepared for every contingency. We will be financially secure and can finally take all those trips you’ve been wanting to go on. She, of course, had heard this before, so she did not get her hopes up too much. At about 11 o’clock that night, she tells her husband she’s going up to bed and asked if he was gonna come up with her. He says, you go ahead I’ll be up in a minute. I have one thing I want to finish, as he sat in front of his computer. She goes up, falls asleep and wakes up at 3 in the morning and realizes her husband is not in bed. She goes downstairs to get him and finds him asleep in front of the computer. She reaches out to wake him up. but his skin is cold. He doesn’t respond. She gets this sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. She dials 9-1-1. By the time the paramedics arrive, they tell her that he died of a massive heart attack some hours ago. His death is the major item of discussion in the financial community. His extensive obituary was written up in all the papers. It’s a shame he was dead for he would have loved to have read all the good things written about him. They have a memorial service for him, and because of his prominence, the whole community comes out for it. Several people get up to eulogize him at the service. One said, he was one of the leading entrepreneurs of the day, he was a real leader. Another said, he was a real innovator in new technology and delivery systems. A third said he was a man of principle. He would never cheat anyone in his business. It was noted by many that he was a pillar in the community, and was known and liked by everyone.  His life was truly a success. They then buried him and then they all went home. And late that night in the cemetery, an angel of God comes along and makes his way through all the markers and tombstones. He stands before this man’s memorial tombstone and he traces with his finger the single word that God has chosen to summarize this man’s life. And if you’ve read the parable, you know what that word is. It’s, you fool. You fool. Let me read to you Jesus’s own words. “You fool, this very night your soul is required of you, and now who will own all that you’ve prepared? So is the man who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God,” or, as another translation says, “is not rich in the things of God.”

So, where does one find a life of significance? I would say, being rich towards God; to be rich in the things of God, or as Jesus says in Luke 16:11, “to find the true treasures of life, the true riches of life.”

In November, when we meet, that’s what I’m going to talk about. What are the true riches of life? What really has value in this life?

I want to take five minutes to close with a couple of comments and then an illustration and we’ll be done. Yesterday morning, as I was preparing, I began to wonder that if Jesus with standing before this room, this distinguished, before this distinguished audience, and He was asked, make a comment or two about this issue of success, I wondered what would He say. And, in thinking about it, it struck me, the one thing about Christ was He never sugar-coated anything. He usually told people what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear, and though I don’t know this, I think maybe He might tell us what He told His disciples in a big crowd in Mark chapter 8 verse 36 when He says, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” In other words, Jesus was saying, what good is it, if over the course of your life, you get everything you want, but you forfeit your soul for all eternity? We learned the same thing in the parable we just read, didn’t we? Jesus says, you’re a fool if all you do is store up treasures for yourself and yet, at the same time, are spiritually bankrupt.

You know, guys, this is the fifth breakfast we’ve had and I would be remiss if I did not tell you that at the heart of Christianity is this one message, the importance of men and women to be right with God. I mean, that’s why Jesus went to the cross, so that we could be right with God. So, the final question that I would throw out, I really would ask you to reflect on it between now and the next time we meet is, today, are you right with God? If you died tonight, do you know with certainty that you would spend eternity with Him? If you think about it, there’s no more important question that you could be asked, and through all of my experiences, and talking with men, or a group like this, when I ask that question, generally I have four responses. The first response says, yes, I am certain that I will spend eternity with God because I have surrendered my heart to Christ. I desire to follow Him. I’m right with God because I put my faith and I have entrusted my life to Him and what He did on the cross. That’s one answer. A second answer that I hear is, yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m okay. I’m a member of a church. I go to church. I believe the right things. I’ve never been to jail. I’m a pretty good guy. The problem with that, as we talked about back in September, is that Jesus tells us if we’re depending on getting into Heaven, because of our good works, by being religious, He says, we’re in big trouble, because the problem is, guys, we can never be good enough. As the Apostle Paul said, I think he said it best, if we could earn our way to Heaven by being good enough, then Jesus died needlessly. Jesus didn’t need to go to the cross. A third response, and this to me is probably one of the most important responses, is when someone says no, I’m not right with God and I admit it. You know, generally this person is very close to the kingdom of God, because guys, we all have to get to that point, to recognize, I’m not right with God, before I can get right with Him. But you know, the most common response I hear, is well, you know, I really don’t know, I’m really not sure, and the reason is because this hadn’t been an issue of real high priority in my life, because we have that mindset, kind of like the guy in the parable, you know I’ll think about getting right God with God later when things settle down.

If you and I were in private, just one-on-one, and I asked you that question, are you right with God, if you die tonight do you know where you would spend eternity, what would be your answer? I ask you to think about that between now and the next meeting, but I want to tell you these breakfasts and all the Bible studies that flow out of it are there to help you, help any of you, to seek a deeper relationship with God, or maybe for the first time, find God Himself. I’m available, maybe the person who invited you is available, to talk about this, because, think about it, when we cut through it all, there is no more important issue in life.

In closing, I want to tie this together with an illustration. It’s kind of a humorous illustration, but I think it’s appropriate to tie this all together, and I can remember this as a kid seeing it, and I have seen it on ESPN a number of times replayed, but it’s not, it was the year 1964 or maybe 1965. The Minnesota Vikings were playing the San Francisco 49ers, and there was a guy by the name of Jim Marshall that played for the Vikings, and this group I think is old enough to remember the purple people eaters. He was one of them, and, during the course of the game, I bet some of you have seen this, San Francisco has the ball and somehow the quarterback fumbles, and there’s a mad scramble for the ball, and Marshall picks it up and he starts running. Unfortunately, in the course of, the frenzy of the fumble, he got turned around, and he’s headed in the wrong direction. This is a true story, and you can see him, I mean, he is just, and nobody’s around, nobody’s chasing him, I mean, think about it, he’s just, he’s running for glory, and he’s got that ball, and he’s carrying it like a loaf of bread, and he’s just, I mean, you can see him, you can see the expression, I mean you can’t see his face, but you imagine what it’s like, and he goes running across the goal line and he throws the ball up into the stands, and this is before they did dances in the end zone, and just throws his arms up, and then he turns around, and nobody’s excited. You can see his teammates just standing there like, yeah, and then a guy from the 49ers goes up and pats him on the rear end and says, good job, and then some of his players, some of his teammates go up, and you can see him going like this, they’re saying you know, like, you idiot, and then he what strikes me, he’s just kind of standing there in disbelief of what just happened. I mean, he just stands there like this. And, I think it’s a great illustration, because that’s my fear, you know, for all of us, is that, you know, we move through our lives, and our careers, so fast and so furious, chasing after success, and when we get to the end, my fear is that we’re shocked to find out that all of our lives, we’ve been running towards the wrong goal line.

Let’s pray. Father, I thank You for each of these men, thank You for their lives. Father, thank You for all the friendships that exist here. We thank You Lord for our families. Above all, Lord we’re grateful for the fact that You have revealed Yourself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We thank You Lord that You loved us enough to send Him to the cross to die for us. We thank You Lord for the wisdom and the insight that You give us from the Scriptures to learn about life and how to live it. I pray that You would use this time to cause us each to reflect on his own existence and ask the question what is it all about? What is my life all about? Lord help us to see what our needs are. Help us to see what our spiritual needs are, and where we stand with You, for we pray these things, in Christ’s Name. Amen.

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