From success …

It used to be that success was a worthy goal. We wanted to be seen as successful, to have others say at the end of our lives that we had lived a successful life. Those days seem to be coming to an end. Much is being made about the need for a shift from success to significance as an indicator of a quality person and a good life. Those of the faith community, and now others as well, have become suspicious of the term success due to its association with an overemphasis upon status, power, money and certain careers. The recent Wall Street and political debacles haven’t helped much. Significance is being considered in its place. So now we should want to be significant people and live significant lives. Are you buying it?

A quick linguistics refresher: Linguists will remind us of the difference between denotation and connotation. Denotation is what a term literally or explicitly means. Connotation refers to the cultural or symbolic meaning with which a term is associated. The symbolism of success has become tainted by its current associations with greed, abuse of power, and selfishness. Significance, on the other hand, feels somehow more pristine—and important. The struggle implied in the shift from success to significance is all about connotation. It is a dialogue about the values and behaviors of people and our broader culture. The conversation around these issues is as old as human civilization. For example, Ecclesiastes suggests that riches, fame and power are all vanity, a chasing after the wind. Plato argues that the measure of a man is to be found in his use of power. Does he wield it well or abuse it? Dickens’ lead character in A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge (so also Forbes profile for Scrooge McDuck), is likewise challenged: Can a person who profits from the misfortune of others really be considered a successful person? Can such a career truly be considered successful?

The popularity of fame, fortune and power without substance is seen daily on reality TV, Wall Street and in politics. These reveal a cultural definition of success that is unhealthy and divorced from the values for which Plato and others since have argued. For all the progress humanity has made in technology, medicine, transportation infrastructure, government, business, and quality of life, we seem to be unable to transcend our dark side of greed, pride, and other such ailments.

to significance …

Significance seems poised to replace success as the new marker of a good life or person, at least in some circles of influence. I confess that I’m not entirely sure what the connotative difference is between success and significance. And how long will it be until significance becomes sullied and a search for a new term begins? The issue reminds me instead that language, like knowledge, is not enough on its own. We cannot but help to return to the reality of human nature and the problem of change so eloquently expressed in the novels by the likes of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Dickens.

As humans we are prone to self-distortion. We have this amazing capacity to not see ourselves clearly. We can change our language, but in the end it can become a linguistic game. Jargon functions this way. It can hide reality. A language shift does not necessarily change a person’s character, attitudes, values and behaviors. We see this at work with other terms like humility, servant leadership, etc. We may label ourselves as such, but our way of being in the world betrays our language.

… to substance?

In a flash of insight, I thought that perhaps we might use the term substance to replace success or significance. From success to substance has a nice ring to it. I am a substantial person. She is living a substantial life—filled with meaning, purpose, integrity, authenticity.

But I was deflated when an advertisement for a luxury car company lumped all three terms together—success, significance and substance—and they included meaning and purpose for good measure. So perhaps I’m too late with this suggestion. The words remain, but don’t be fooled by them. And we need to remind ourselves to not hide behind them. Whether you’re living a life of success, significance or substance—or all three!—it’s the connotation that counts. How you live out those words in your cultural context is the key.

So whatever term you use to describe a good life, make sure that life is filled with these attributes—or positive connotations—of success/significance/substance: quality of character, authenticity (being the same person inside and out), a view of the self that is balanced with the reality of how fortunate they are in life’s lottery (for people of faith, read God’s goodness for lottery), humility, generosity and gratitude, and the ability to relate across all spectrums of social class with grace and empathy. Such people treat their fellow travelers on life’s journey with goodness, kindness and care. They are self-less and seek the good of the other while at the same time practicing self-care and personal development. Their lives are a tough balance that is the result of broad life experience and exposure both to success and failure, adversity and triumph.

To become this sort of person and live this kind of life is to be successful, significant and a person of substance. This will in turn shape how we use our finances, power and status.

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