What Do You Need To Succeed?

Last weekend I started a run at the rec center behind the high school where I taught for over 30 years. Signs were out welcoming students back for the new school year.

When I run past the high school, especially at this time of year, it evokes a flood of memories of my time in the classroom.

Sometimes I remember certain activities I did with my students, like the times we hiked down to the nearby stream to get water samples for chemical testing as part of our stream study unit, or when we made “golden” pennies in the lab.

Sometimes I recall colleagues, friends I made over the years while sharing classroom successes and failures, celebrating and commiserating together.

Often I think of students, the many kids I got to know and love.

Last week, I thought of Jordan (not his real name).

I had the privilege of teaching many bright kids in chemistry class but Jordan was different. He was brilliant.

Well-read, curious, and a deep thinker, Jordan was an atypical teenager. He was friendly in a detached kind of way, not interested in girls, sports, or the usual dramas of his peers.

One day in class, I happened to mention an unusual bird I had seen over the weekend and Jordan stayed after school to talk to me about it. He was interested in birds too.

After that, he stopped in several times a week, staying for 20 minutes or half an hour, talking about birds, nature, and the environment with me.

Eventually, our after-school conversations shifted to weightier subjects – the cosmos, time and eternity, God, all topics Jordan read and thought about and wanted very much to discuss. He sometimes stayed for over an hour.

Photo by: By Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station Archive, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station / © Bugwood.org, CC BY 3.0 us, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8339006

At the same time, Jordan was executing an ambitious and technically difficult science project as part of the Honors Class I taught. It involved finding a remedy for an infestation of native trees by an invasive insect that was decimating the hemlock forests in our state.

Unsurprisingly, Jordan won the Biology division of our regional science fair with his project, along with quite a bit of acclaim. He worked intently on the project and needed very little help from me.

Unfortunately, Jordan did not exhibit the same enthusiasm for classroom assignments, which I am sure bored him. He could easily have aced the class, but, due to handing in assignments either late or not at all, his grade was in the B range.

One day after school, I received a phone call from Jordan’s father, a high-ranking administrator in a different school district. He angrily berated me, accusing me of basking in the reflected glow of Jordan’s science fair glory, while not giving his son a fair grade in the class.

Jordan was aghast. Worried that the phone call would put an end to our after-school discussions and knowing the true reason for his less-than-stellar grade, he stammered out an apology for his father. I told him that no apology was needed and we continued our talks.

To appease his father, he subsequently made slightly more effort to hand in his assignments on time and finished the year with a respectable grade.

The whole incident made me think about how we define success.

To Jordan, success involved testing new ideas, satisfying his curiosity, expanding his knowledge. To his father, it meant receiving good grades to gain admission to a competitive college.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We revere success, especially in finances or influence.

Power is celebrated.

We use success as a justification for atrocious behavior.

Bad behavior by sports stars and celebrities is well-documented but often overlooked. 

Until very recently, baseball and football players committed violent acts of relationship abuse that were never made public. Actors and Hollywood power brokers regularly committed sexual harassment or even sexual assault for years without negative consequences. 

An instance when overlooking bad behavior lead to much more dire results was in the 1920s and 30s in Germany.

Adolph Hitler was celebrated by Germans during this time as the leader who avenged Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I. Germans who had reservations or misgivings about Hitler’s treatment of Jews and other minorities or his aggression toward neighboring nations were willing to look the other way because he was undoubtedly successful at restoring Germany to her former glory after their ignominious disgrace at Versailles.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was eventually executed by the Nazis, had this to say about the worship of success: “The world will allow itself to be subject only by success…Success alone justifies wrongs done.

Bonhoeffer further wrote this: “In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things, the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. “

Nazis could not fathom Christ’s selfless behavior. Success was the end that justified all means. Ironically, Germany was destroyed not by failure, but by success, through “an ever escalating orgy of self-love and self-worship.

Sound familiar?

Today in this country, people willing to put their health, and even their lives on the line in the service of others are looked at as dupes or fools. Self-love and self-aggrandizement abound.

It is not easy to take the narrow path of compassionate, unselfish, altruistic behavior. 

We must recalibrate our definition of success to include humility, selflessness, and respect for others. 

A healthy amount of curiosity and admitting that we just might not be right all the time wouldn’t hurt either.

I will remember Jordan as a good example of someone who was not afraid to set his own definition of success.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.– Matthew 7:13-14

You can find the places I link up here.

81 comments

  1. Jordan’s story is remarkable, and offers an important and valuable lesson to all of us. God gives us gifts, and certainly Jordan had those of incredible curiosity and deep thought, a willingness to learn and discover. Whenever we use our God-given gifts, we are successful, because we are doing everything to His glory. I so wish and pray, Laurie, that more people in this world would measure success by God’s measuring stick, not ours.
    Blessings!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Laurie,
    In all the scripture I’ve read, the Bible rarely talks about success, achievement, and self promotion. Instead, it has a lot to say about having a humble and contrite heart – about being a servant and living selflessly. I bought into the “success” myth for many years, but now all I need is the love of God and I am made righteous (success in my book) through His Son. Very thought-provoking post!
    Blessings,
    Bev xx

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    • Unfortunately, the ending of Jordan’s story is not very happy. He went to one of the best schools in the country to major in ornithology but had a meltdown while at school and never graduated. He came home and lived with his parents for a long time. I lost touch a few years ago.

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  3. Jordan sounds like an amazing student, more mature than his father. I had the ability to be a pretty good student but if I thought a teacher or class or assignment was not worthy of my time, I would not do my best at all. Which only really hurt me in the long run. Had one art class in college where the work for the entire semester revolved around creating a single sculpture from a block of styrofoam. The instructor, in my opinion, did nothing to deserve his paycheck so I refused to put for much effort at my sculpture. Eventually shaved it down to nothing but styrofoam dust!! Jordan was so blessed to have a teacher like you. Someone who inspired him to dig deeper, to learn more, to research and investigate. Sadly, his father was more concerned with a letter grade than the learning.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jordan definitely was an amazing young man. I was lucky to have met him. That’s crazy about the styrofoam sculpture. What a shame and a waste of time! I hope you had some better art classes too!

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  4. Hi Laurie – I noticed this when I decided not to look for another job when I finished up with the horrible one last year. I felt like I wasn’t living up to my idea (and other people’s idea) of what a “successful” middle aged woman should be doing – basically I was taking the easy route. It took me many, many months of inner dialogue to finally accept the fact that I don’t have to fit into the perceived Western ideal of success, I could just be happy in my own little space and relax – such a momentous and joyous conclusion to finally reach!

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  5. Thank you for this well-written post, Laurie!

    Looking at younger people, I have some hope that they are learning from their parent’s mistakes.

    They seem to realize that true happiness comes from living a happy and content life, being kind and doing good.

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  6. Very inspiring post, Laurie! I was just thinking of how much much you and Anita share in common–both teachers and both bird watchers. I’m so glad that you were a support and encourager in “Jordan’s” life. He sounds like an incredible young man, despite having a reactive father. Yes! Success without humility can really be more of a horrible failure! Thanks for that important message!

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    • Thank you, Beth. Yes, Anita and I do share a lot in common. It’s amazing you mention “humility” in your comment. It’s my word for the year and I just finished writing a post about it! 🙂

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  7. I have been doing a fair amount of pondering on the topic of success lately, and am thankful to be reaching similar conclusions. As someone who scuttled her resume 26 years ago to stay home with babies and homeschool a posse of boys, I really Need to take a broad view of success!

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  8. What a special relationship to share with a student, Laurie. Thank you for sharing this–as a parent of a curious son who is challenged to hand in the work he completes, this is a helpful reminder of priorities. That there’s a place for supporting that whole Executive Functioning checklist–but to be very careful about where the heaviest weight lands. I always say I want my kids to pursue education for the sake of knowledge & curiosity, not a paycheck. Jordan’s story will be a good reminder to walk my talk.

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    • The best aspect of teaching and the thing I miss the most, is the relationships that developed between me and the students over the course of the year. All 3 of my sons were lax about handing in assignments. They attended the school I taught in. You can imagine my concern. They all grew up to be productive members of society, though! 🙂

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  9. I hope “Jordan” has a chance to contribute his brilliance and original thinking to the world without being too hampered by the insistence on success. And yes, the parallels between Germany in the 1930s and the USA right now are truly scary, and are only becoming more and more hard to deny.

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    • Unfortunately, Jan, the last time I saw Jordan, he was not in a good place. I hope he has since found his way. I am frightened by the parallels between Germany and the USA. I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt it.

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  10. This is a really insightful post. How we define success will in large part determine how we live. Thank you for sharing Jordan’s example! I’m visiting today from the Inspire Me Monday link up. Have a great week!

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  11. I know I’ve said this before, but I really love how you weave your posts from start to finish. You were able to take your experience with Jordan and find parallels with what has happened throughout history and into today. Truly a delight to read.

    I hope Jordan found the path that brought him happiness and led him towards a satisfying life.

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    • Thank you so much, Janis. I appreciate your very kind words. Unfortunately, as of the last time I saw him, Jordan was not living a satisfying life. I hope he has since found his way.

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  12. This is something I wrestle with a lot. To me, a successful day is getting done the things I had planned to do that day. But in God’s eyes, the half-hour unexpected conversation was part of His plan for my day and not the interruption I took it to be.

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  13. I remember fondly a few teachers who were capable of communicating on a more personal level. A lot of teachers could not step out of the student-teacher relationship. I’m glad to read that you were able to make that transition.

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  14. Laurie, I love this post. Your wisdom is spot on. I loved reading about the relationship you developed with Jordan and how God must have used you in his life. On a very personal note, I am challenged to talk with my sons about how they define success, so I can better understand them. There’s a balance between pushing them toward adulthood with the world’s view of success and helping them discover their own definition and living toward that as Jordan did. Thanks for inspiring these thoughts!

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    • Thank you, Jeanne. Raising boys has its challenges, but I am sure you have given your boys a good foundation. They (and you) will figure it out. I hope you have a good talk with your sons about success.

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  15. Jordan sounds like a young man with a head on his shoulders and a zest for all the learning he could cram into that young brain. I like that he was afraid his father’s tirade would make your after-school talks cease and I’m glad they did not. I am glad you shared the same interests and hopefully he is one of the students that you say you see from time to time since you’ve retired.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Oh Laurie, how good was this recognition you gave Jordan…and then how sad was his family life when in the end, he went no further..so to speak. However, YOU his teacher honoured him. This was a time in his life I imagine which gives him memories other than ones of negativity. Being a teacher sure is a challenge but with some students we know how much it means to be one!

    Thanks for linking up this week, next week, the optional prompt is 39/51 Healthy. 28.9.2020 Hope to see you there too. Denyse.

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    • Thank you, Denyse. High praise coming from a veteran educator! I am hoping that Jordan has since turned his life around. The last time I saw him, he had dropped out of college and was living with his parents. Thank you for hosting. Hope to see you next week!

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  17. And this present definition of success the world lives by is so stressful, worrisome, and an unnecessary burden to carry. Jesus still offers rest. This world would be so much better if more people would accept His offer. Thanks for sharing, Laurie. Many blessings to you!

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  18. Thanks for sharing Jordan with us. What a beautiful relationship you were able to share. I’m sure you’re one of the stand-out teachers that he will remember from his school days. Yes, we can define success in so many different ways. May we all take note to reexamine how we’re currently defining it.

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  19. Laurie, I noticed in the comments where you said Jordan’s story seems to have taken some not-so-great turns. That is so sad. I hope that he can reach a point sometime in his life where he is able to move forward and live out his God-given potential. If he does, I have a feeling it will be due in no small part to the investment you made in his life. Thank you for sharing this thought-provoking post, my friend.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I hope he can turn his life around too, Lois. It’s been several years since I have seen or heard from him. It’s harder for kids to get in touch with me now that I’ve retired. The school doesn’t give out contact information for retired teachers.

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  20. Laurie, this is such a powerful post. I have been wondering for some time how we all lost sight of what is truly important in life. Praying my life is defined by God and honors Him. Nothing else is truly worth it or will last.

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  21. Such a powerful story and very well said! “We must recalibrate our definition of success to include humility, selflessness, and respect for others.” I especially loved this line. This is so needed in our world today.

    As a daddy to five girls, this was a good reminder to me that success comes in many different forms. I need to be on the lookout for nontraditional successes so I can encourage, support, and praise those too!

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  22. Hello,

    I enjoyed your story about Jordan. It is important for student to like and respect their teachers, I am glad Jordan felt comfortable talking with you. Teachers, parents and peer pressure can have a positive and or negative effect on young students. You are a great example to the students. Take care, enjoy your day!

    Liked by 2 people

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