What is success, and how do we reach it? Here’s how applying purpose, preparation and perseverance can help us achieve the most important things in life.
How would you answer if a job interviewer asked, “What is your definition of success?”
What about if a family member asked you? Or your minister?
For that matter, what will it take for you to consider your life a success?
Looking at all the famous quotes about success by successful people, you could conclude there are many definitions of success. It’s broader than money and fame. In fact, those with wealth and celebrity often have been burned by them and mention other things instead:
- “Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming”—John Wooden, renowned UCLA basketball coach.
- “If you carefully consider what you want to be said of you in the funeral experience, you will find your definition of success”—Stephen Covey, best-selling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
- “I measure success by how many people love me”—billionaire and philanthropist Warren Buffett.
Boiling it all down, success is achieving the most important things in life.
And there are practical steps that lead toward success.
These keys to success have been stated and numbered various ways. As a quick memory aid I like the three Ps: purpose, preparation and perseverance.
Purpose and passion: setting the right goals
“The secret of success is constancy of purpose”—Benjamin Disraeli.
Early in my college career I was asked to read a book titled, If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, You’ll Probably End Up Somewhere Else.
Defining your goals—having the end in mind—is an essential starting point. You can redefine goals as you go along, but if you don’t have goals, you can end up running in circles.
Every book on success has a section on goals, so instead of covering all the same ground, let’s focus here on identifying what God wants us to put first.
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37; see also Matthew 6:33 and Ecclesiastes 12:13).
This doesn’t immediately sound like the standard definition of success. But, actually, putting this overarching goal first brings everything else into perspective. Becoming more and more like God “is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8). God does want us to enjoy life abundantly and rejoice (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10; John 10:10; Philippians 4:4). So after putting God first, we can set our other priorities, such as loving others (Matthew 22:39) and pursuing a career or calling with passion.
Learn more in our online article “Christian Priorities: Putting God First.”
Preparation: growing in knowledge, understanding, skill, resourcefulness and wisdom
“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success”—Alexander Graham Bell.
Every goal requires knowledge. Develop a plan to gain the facts and information you need about how to achieve your goal. Formal education is vital, but hands-on, self-directed training is also important for taking your knowledge to the next level: understanding.
Along with understanding, we must develop the necessary skills, and that takes practice. “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise,” writes Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success. He quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin, “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything” (pp. 39-40).
In support of this 10,000-hour rule, Gladwell presents examples as varied as the Beatles and Bill Gates. Those preparing for success must devote the time and practice to excel.
As we grow in mastery, we must develop the ability to find a way to overcome every challenge and obstacle that comes along. This kind of problem solving can be called resourcefulness. Creativity and outside-the-box thinking help us deal with novel or tenacious difficulties.
The Bible calls the highest level of thinking wisdom. In the book of Proverbs, wise King Solomon praised and personified wisdom: “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding. Exalt her, and she will promote you; she will bring you honor, when you embrace her” (Proverbs 4:7-8).
Our preparation to achieve physical goals can lead to practical, commonsense wisdom. Our spiritual goals require a different, deeper wisdom—the wisdom from above (James 3:17). God invites us to ask Him for it: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
In the same way that practicing a physical skill produces mastery, practicing obedience to God leads to greater understanding and spiritual wisdom (Psalm 111:10).
Many people can’t wait to finish their education and preparation. They want to get on with achieving their goals! But in reality, learning should never end, and practice must continue throughout life. The next key helps us build on this preparation and go on to success.
Perseverance: pushing forward and sticking with it
“I’m convinced that about half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from the nonsuccessful entrepreneurs is pure perseverance”—Steve Jobs.
“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do”—Pelé.
You can’t win the race if you quit. You can’t cross the finish line if you stand still or turn back.
All the planning and preparation in the world will be worthless if you give up.
In order to persevere, we must remind ourselves of our purpose—our passion—and not let it fade. Troubles will come, so we must commit to sticking with our goals.
Our level of drive and perseverance is affected by our health and stamina. Developing good habits of exercise, diet and sleep can build a bank of health to help us face our challenges.
To be successful, we must also increase our level of diligence. The Bible says, “Diligence is man’s precious possession” (Proverbs 12:27).
Successful people are known for their drive—their intensity of effort. Musician and actor Will Smith once said, “I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented. Where I excel is [my] … work ethic” (quoted in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, p. 46). Considering his example and many others, author Angela Duckworth concludes, “When it comes to how we fare in the marathon of life, effort counts tremendously” (p. 47).
Dr. Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and founder and CEO of Character Lab, studies the importance of grit to success. She says, “Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it. … It’s doing what you love, but not just falling in love—staying in love” (p. 54). Her work shows how passion fuels perseverance.
“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”One man who displayed drive and endurance was the apostle Paul, the author of at least 13 books of the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 11 he lists many challenges he successfully faced in fulfilling his mission:
“In labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. … Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (verses 23, 25-28).
Through all this Paul raised up congregations, taught thousands of people and wrote a great deal of the best-selling book the world has ever known.
As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said on Oct. 29, 1941, during some of the sternest days of World War II:
“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
Diligence and perseverance are not only keys to physical success, but also—and even more so—keys to eternal spiritual success. As Peter wrote, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:10-11).
The struggles and trials will all be forgotten. As Paul wrote, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
What does eternal success look like? David gives us this brief glimpse: “In Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). As our new booklet God’s Purpose for You shows, the Bible reveals an exciting eternal life of accomplishment as we fulfill the wonderful purpose for which God created us.
For more about the key of perseverance, see our online articles “Diligence: Why Does God Prize It?” and “Perseverance and the Science of Resilience: Applying Biblical Principles in Trials.”
For more about success, see “The Surprising Key to Lasting Success.”