January is the time where we set our goals, make resolutions, and re-imagine what success looks like.
As a college instructor, I also spend this time thinking about the definition of success as we prepare to greet a new cohort of students, many of whom are entering their final semester of college. As they prepare to graduate, how will they define success?
There are many wrong definitions of success. We often have to correct these wrong definitions before we can introduce a biblical one. Probably the most pernicious and pervasive false narrative about success is that you can fake it.
Culturally, we use the idiom “fake it until you make it” for self-improvement.
Not confident? Fake it until you make it!
Not happy? Fake it until you make it!
What we’ve known culturally is now supported by data. Science has shown that we can make ourselves happier and healthier just by smiling more. Similarly, a study by two British researchers found “clear causal evidence that kind acts, systematically deployed, raised the participants’ self-judged happiness.”
There are many of these life hacks we can employ to “fake it” as a means of self-improvement. It is interesting how many of these are rooted in biblical principles.
However, what we do not mean when we use this idiom is that you should fake your success. Overstating or misrepresenting yourself, your experience, or your success is not a form of self-improvement. It is lying.
Overstating one’s success is rampant. As I work with college students, I’m learning more about the insidious impact this is having on young people.
My students often base their expectations about life on the exaggerated success of others. From their vantage point, success may be having a best-selling book, leading your start-up through an IPO, having a masters degree and an equally successful spouse – all by the time you are 25. We are familiar with the bursting of these expectations as the “quarter- life crisis.” Yet the narrative persists.
Two Appropriate Responses to Faking It
While Taylor Swift gave us her recommendations for how to deal with fakers (shake it off), I want to present two more practical pieces of advice.
First, we need to stop empowering fakers.
It is saddening to see people who I suspect are overstating their success. It is absolutely dispiriting when their friends and family enable them.
You have an obligation to help the people closest to you grow spiritually and achieve real success. If you suspect, or know for a fact, that someone is overstating their success, you need to encourage them to repent, stop lying, and if necessary, seek restitution with anyone they have misled.
The following are some practical examples from people I’ve witnessed or my own experiences:
- Don’t endorse someone for a skill on LinkedIn if you don’t actually know that they have that skill. Do make a point of endorsing skills from your friends or colleagues that you have seen them use and have impressed you.
- Don’t let a friend list you as a client of their business if they haven’t actually done work for you and you haven’t actually paid them. Do help promote your friend’s business if you can honestly attest to the quality of their work.
- Don’t endorse someone’s book without having read it and actually liked it, especially if they are self-publishing. Do go out of your way to give your friend’s book an honest rating on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. if you have read it and you do like it.
- Don’t exaggerate a friend’s skills and achievements for them to help them get a job, get accepted into a program, or receive some other merit-based opportunity. Do help your friend work on their resume and cover letter and help them find jobs and programs that would be a good fit for where they are in their skill level.
- Don’t like a friend’s post on Facebook if they are being overly self-congratulatory, especially if it seems they may be exaggerating their success. Do go out of your way to celebrate your friend’s achievements on social media. Go the extra mile and make a special post celebrating them and thanking God for their success and their friendship. Imagine how great that would make you feel if a friend did that for you.
Second, we need to be living examples of true success. Even if we can’t achieve perfect success in this life, we can help cast a vision for our friends and family of what success looks like.
What True Success Looks Like
Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, we are told, and all of what the world strives for as success will be added to you. The kingdom of God is here now, but not yet in its fullness. We understand this through the four-chapter gospel – the story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Christ established his kingdom when he brought redemption, and we are to be using our vocations to co-labor with Christ in order bring about the ultimate restoration, also called the consummation.
In his booklet, Monday Morning Success, Hugh Whelchel says the following about our kingdom work:
It’s not always easy, but in his mysterious way, God takes even the most mundane things we do and transforms them into kingdom work… [S]uccess is born from faithful stewardship of what God has given us. This definition is both challenging and freeing. We are called to greater heights of stewardship than we ever realized.
Success is not overstating your expertise. It is deeply understanding how God made you and seeking wholeheartedly to use your gifts and talents to bring glory to God, rather than bring attention to yourself.
We should be actively helping those around us, such as the students in my classes, to understand how God has uniquely made them, and we need to encourage them in pursuing their talents even when the application seems mundane.
Moreover, we should celebrate the seemingly mundane things we are doing because we know that through it all, we are helping change the world. “We should all have a strong sense of hope and optimism about making a real difference in the world through our vocation,” IFWE writer Elise Daniel once said. “We shouldn’t expect ‘changing the world’ to feel like we’re on top of a mountain. Most moments will feel ordinary.”
We may witness people around us, even people in the church, believing that they can fake success until they really achieve it. It is incumbent upon each of us to be living examples of God’s people pursuing kingdom success and articulating a clear vision of what that means.