Just what is SUCCESS anyway?

What is success? Is it beauty? Is it money? Is it fame? Is it athletic ability? And if you have an abundance of one of them, or maybe you possess the combination of all of them, is it enough? What if someone else is more beautiful, richer, more famous, and stronger or faster than you are? “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of all…”

In the U.S., we have many famous movie stars, pop stars, athletes, business people, and politicians, and also stars of various reality shows. And many of them are certainly very successful in what they do, while some flame out after their 15 minutes of fame. And many of us probably wish we could be just like them, and I admit, I am one of them. (And I guess I did have a very slight brush with an opportunity to become a movie star when I was a kid.) But lately I have been giving this a second thought.

I grew up in a Chinese culture imbued with 2000-year old Confucian teachings even though Confucianism was considered backward or outdated in China during my childhood. Chinese culture is also deeply influenced by Buddhism, which may have arrived in China around the third century BC as something very foreign, but it quickly became native and widely accepted in China. And then I came to the U.S. and I was exposed to the Christian teachings here. So all these three great teachings made an indelible mark on me.

To me, Confucius was a great humanist teacher on how we can be a better person within our family, our social circle, and our society. He taught us to pursue that self-betterment on our own volition, with no enticement of an immediate material return or a better afterlife. Buddha was a great philosophical teacher on how we can reach inward and find that innate enlightenment that releases us from worldly suffering and pain, and how to share that enlightenment with others. Jesus was a great spiritual teacher who taught us to have compassion and forgiveness towards others, especially those who are less fortunate than us and even total strangers (and set a path for those who are in search of faith and spiritual fulfilment).

But interestingly, in our current criteria of success or failure, these three great teachers would be considered the biggest losers. Confucius traveled haphazardly through various warring dukedoms trying to find a receptive audience for his teachings, and was shunned by most, starved and chased away by others. Buddha actually walked away from worldly comfort, riches, and power, and wandered about in poverty and hunger for many years in search of a solution to human suffering and pain. And Jesus probably had it the worst among the three. He refused worldly temptation and secular power, and was betrayed and crucified on the cross, when he famously said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

So if we didn’t know anything about their posthumous influence, the sophisticated or the cynical among us would say these three were total failures, or maybe even misguided idiots. Yes, just what were they thinking anyway?

But ironically, these three figures have made an enormous impact on our history, on our culture(s), and on our lives over centuries and still today. So were they, or are they successful? They are so successful that even over 2000 years later, we are still influenced by their teachings, whether you are a believer, a seeker, or neither (and in that case, you are probably still influenced by their teachings through involuntary osmosis). And so why are they so successful? It is very, very simple. They dedicated their lives to helping others.

So just what is success anyway? Granted, most of us won’t be ever like Confucius, Buddha, or Jesus. Most of us are just mere humans, and we have worldly needs to take care of, a career to make, and/or a family to care for. But perhaps if we can just take a very small grain from these great teachings, and say to ourselves, “when we reach a point when we can and we will help others, we are then finally successful.

***If you like this post, pls like it on Medium or share w/ friends!

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Byron Shen’s story.