Never change one brush stroke on your canvas because someone doesn't like what you paint.
People buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t like. In the same sense, people do things they don’t like to impress people they don’t respect and to get things they don’t want. We live in a world where people buy homes, cars, and clothes they can't afford to give the impression that they are successful. They work long hours to climb the corporate ladder so they can be successful. Sometimes, if they can't do it, they enlist their children.
As I’m writing this book, several wealthy American parents have been charged and convicted of bribing school officials and coaches to have their children admitted to the top universities. The million-dollar question everyone asks is, WHY? Why did these parents do this?
The answer is their definition of success. One journalist commented that the bribes were not made to benefit the children but to benefit the parents. The consensus is that it was about “bragging rights.” The cultural value placed on a certain perception of success led these parents to violate the law and a sense of fundamental fairness—in other words, to cheat.
Their crimes were rooted in a dangerous version of the American dream where someone can set goals, work hard, become successful, and do better than their parents. The problem with this version is that it doesn’t take reality into account.
This self-centered and individualistic view of success can lead to much unhappiness, and it tends to be passed along to future generations. This cycle needs to be broken. Many of these celebrities’ children didn’t even know their parents tried to bribe their way into the school or into programs associated with the school!
One productive outcome of the exposure of the college bribery scandal is that it forced many people in America reflect on what success looks like and re-evaluate their own personal definitions. Before you chase success, it would serve you well to define what your personal definition of success looks like to you. When you don’t define what success is, society will tell you what success looks like, and it might not be a definition that serves your personal and community well-being. In fact, if you don’t define your success, someone else’s definition can become your prison.
Popular opinion shapes mindsets, but they should never be the driving force behind them. If your definition of success is unfulfilling and/or detrimental to you and your community, you must work to redefine it. Most people don't get what they are going after because they don't take the time to determine exactly why they are pursuing it.
In Chapter 6 – Purpose Toolkit, it was established that each person has a unique, tailor-made purpose. If a purpose is unique, then the accompanying definition of success must be unique as well.
Here are few thoughts and reflections on success and failure that have their own unique implications and applications to life. Take note that these definitions may vary and even contradict each other. That’s why each of us must develop our own unique definition/understanding of success—because each of us has been uniquely designed. Success is as unique as a fingerprint.
Meditate on who you are and what you want. Develop clarity of intention. Then live it out.
When you uncover the rationale behind a goal, you’ll be more motivated. Defining what you believe success is important in determining how to organize your efforts.
Here’s a list of different definitions/ideas of success to consider:
1. Success is running the race uniquely designed for me. Nothing is worse than crossing the finish line only to realize that you were in the wrong race.
2. Success is not about where you are in relation to the person next to you. It’s about where you are in relation to where you started and what you started with.
3. The greatest fear we should have is in succeeding at things that ultimately don’t matter.
4. Success is being respected most by people who know me best.
5. Success is not about starting well but finishing well.
6. Success is not about standing with the greats but sitting with the broken.
While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:15-17, NIV)
7. Success is doing things that are important, even if they are not impressive.
8. Success is never allowing my ambition to become greater than my gratitude.
I’m glad in God, far happier than you would ever guess—happy that you’re again showing such strong concern for me. Not that you ever quit praying and thinking about me. You just had no chance to show it. Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. (Philippians 2:12-13, MSG)
9. Success is refusing to conform to the standards of the people who are “in charge” but submitting to the One who has ultimate authority.
Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I we’re still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10, NIV)
10. People say they want to do things that matter and then measure themselves against things that don’t matter.
11. Success is having more ability than visibility in order to avoid questionable credibility.
12. Your greatest responsibility is to invest in yourself to become absolutely clear about what it is you want.
13. Success is making decisions with eternity in mind.
14. Success is contributing more than you criticize.
15. Success is glorifying God by living in a way that makes sense in light of eternity.
16. It makes no difference how fast you are in the 100 meters if the race is 400 meters long.
17. Collective progress is just as important as individual accomplishment.
18. Success is being relevant to your center instead of adopting mainstream notions of success.
19. Success is holding onto your principles in the midst of pressure. No amount of applause can dictate success. Otherwise, one can be controlled and compromise on what's right.
20. Success means you replace the words “bigger” and “well-known” with “effective” and “better.”
How do these thoughts and reflections resonate with you?
Which one(s) motivate you? In what way(s) do they motivate you?
Do you have your own personal definition(s) of success? It’s been suggested that the ideal definition of success includes four elements: contentment, achievement, happiness, and other people.
Black Success—What Does It Look Like?
One definition of success is about gradual materialization of a worthy goal. What defines worthy? Does your personal background determine what worthy looks like? Does your ethnic background determine what worthy is? How should black people’s definition of success be informed in light of the legacy of racial hatred and hierarchy?
As black scholar and professor Amos Wilson would ask, are your desires and wants being produced by white society, or did you choose them yourselves?
When a black person leaves their community and goes to white-run institutions, they can become accustomed to definitions of success that don’t take into account the well-being of people who look like them. It’s a delicate dance. My only caution is that you approach everything with a self-sustained definition of success, so that you know what really matters to you as you rub shoulders in societies that are ignorant or apathetic to the plight of black people.
I will not attempt to answer these questions here. I do believe that they set the stage for important conversations in this and the next few generations of black people in America.
If you’re ambitious without reflecting on the source motivation of what you're pursuing, you’re setting yourself up as a pawn.
This guide was written to address provide mentoring tools that acknowledge the legacy of racial dehumanization and white supremacy and this might be the most important tool: defining your success.
As American politician and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan discussed in his 1965 report The Negro Family – The Case for National Action—specifically in the fourth section, called The Tangle of Pathology—white America broke the will of the Negro people by destroying the Negro family.
The resurgence of the will reasserted itself over time, but from my vantage point, the idea of success was still distorted by white supremacy. The legacy of white supremacy at it relates to success says that white people should always be in charge, black exploitation can be used for white profit, and the aspirations and thoughts of black people have no merit.
The 1952 book Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison was written at a time when racial attitudes in America were in flux. It was one of the most important voices in the civil rights movement. Many black people, including Ellison, had been taught that there were only three ways a black person could be successful: Be like white people. Please white people. Separate from white people.
In The Miseducation of the Negro, Carter G. Woodson comments that if you can control a man’s perceptions, you don’t have to be concerned about his actions. The same goes for a man’s standards and expectations for his life. Miseducation leads to mis-leadership.
Everyone has a definition of success based on their conditioning. I was taught that success was moving out of the ‘hood (which we did), successfully imitating sophisticated white people, and no longer associating with lower-class black people.
A contrary definition of success is to invest in your neighborhood, provide community building resources, make a commitment to value the beauty of the culture, understand the culture in order to bring healing, and stay intimately connected with the lower class and those on the margins, to create grounded solutions.
The struggle for every black person in America is deciding which path they want to take in the world. Sometimes, the path is given based on the opportunities available. Other times, there is conflict based on the differing ideologies around success.
The decision-making process concerning black people has an ugly history. A phrase that was common in the south is that “blacks should know their place.” Some have interpreted this to mean that, if black people diminish themselves in front of white people, they will somehow achieve equality. When this happens, which is fairly often, it encourages the notion that black lives don’t matter unless white people say so.
I believe the phrase “black lives matter” needs to be directed at black people more than anyone else, because what we think about ourselves is more important than what anyone thinks about us. If we have our own definition of success, we can wake up every day and make choices based on who we know we are, as opposed to what someone allows us to do.
When you define success for yourself, you’re saying you do know your place and you have also chosen it. You’re saying that you choose to live the life you were meant to live, not the life that was given you—even if you fail. What’s more frustrating than achieving in a life that you were never meant to live is failing to achieve in a life you were never meant to live.
Examples of Black Success: What Does Success Look Like in My Color?
The great South African anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko, explained the black consciousness movement. One of the main points of his ideology is that black people must participate in articulating the ideals and aspirations. He realized that we have a lot of great black history, but it was also important to craft a great black future rooted in the self-determination of black people. Biko said that if white people determine whether black people are free or enslaved, there is never an opportunity for the black man or woman to choose his or her own destiny.
One of the legacies of black oppression was the destruction of the desire to be concerned with one’s own destiny and the wholesale adoption of the oppressor’s ideas and values about what life should look like. Even after slavery, black people were held captive—culturally, economically, legally, and academically. It’s not rare for people being held as captives to think like their captors.
When you have a group of people with a history of marginalization and oppression who have been cut off from their culture, customs, and family traditions, they will often sit in the shadows and wait for an opportunity to imitate the oppressing party, because their oppressors have modeled what “success” looks like. They might even believe wholesale what the oppressing party dictates about life.
It’s important that we have this conversation as often as necessary, because people who are unaware of their condition often attempt to become something other than they are. As Dr. King said in his last sermon, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, we must straighten our backs, because no one can ride you unless your back is bent.
What can be done to elevate the aspirations of black people? One thing we can do is to review the history of black people who aspired to do great things and were successful. Here are two great examples:
1. The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the “New Negro Movement,” was a powerful turning point in black cultural history. In the 1920s, the movement helped writers and artists gain control of the representation of black culture. The movement worked to help bolster and redefine black people as a force in American life. They were guided by the principles of self-definition, self-reliance, self-expression, and self-determination. The Harlem Renaissance helped to redefine how Americans and the world understood African American culture. It integrated black and white cultures and marked the beginning of a black urban society. The Harlem Renaissance set the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.
2. In 2019, Tyler Perry launched one of the biggest movie studios on a former Confederate army base in Atlanta, Georgia. He endured a long journey to get to this place. He had realized that no institution will give you a space to articulate a vision of the world that undermines their power at their expense. Years prior, Perry had been picked up by a major network to do a show, but the notes from the studio said that he wasn’t allowed to say “Jesus” in the sitcom. How many people would have compromised that to secure an opportunity to work with one of the largest viewership on television? What happens when your dream is a threat to someone else’s reality? In his case, he was ignored. So he ultimately purchased a studio whose size now is a combination of Disney, Paramount, and Warner combined. At a time when black people were praying for forty acres and a mule, he built a studio. Despite his success, he is ignored in Hollywood. Black people have always had to engage in a world where, at best, those in power didn’t look like them and were non-responsive to them—and at worst, were hostile to them and wanted to marginalize. Tyler Perry’s example shows you can’t lose at their game if you don’t play. Perry made his own lane. One journalist called him “the most successful mogul that Hollywood has ever ignored.” But Perry’s definition of success is ownership. When someone asked him if he would let his son play football, he replied, “If he owns the team.” Black people in America have managed to do great things, in spite of America’s climate of racial hostility.
We have great examples historically and contemporarily of black people who didn’t allow racial hostility to change their intention and ambition. They defined their success. You can, too.
For additional exercises and tools, see Chapter 12 – Define Your Success in Bridge the Gaps – Lessons on Self-Awareness, Self-Development and Self-Care. Visit www.amazon.com or www.thebridg330.com to pick up a copy.