How to Avoid the Worst Form of Failure

“I’m not afraid of failure. I’m afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.” You may recognize those words as belonging to the great missionary William Carey who was giving voice to thoughts many of us have had at one time or another. There are a lot of things in life we could do, there are a lot of things in life we could succeed at, but we come to realize there are very few that actually matter. There are very few that will make a difference to the world and to the people we care about. We know it would be tragic to look back on life and see that we had succeeded at all kinds of lesser things but we had failed at the greater things.

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Just think how many people have gone to the grave with extravagant wealth and all kinds of nice possessions but with a broken marriage and with children who barely know them. I recently stayed with a family whose next door neighbor had built a huge home but who lived there alone. He and his wife had built it to live in together and then doubled it so they could host great parties. But their marriage had failed and she had left and now he was living alone in ten thousand square feet. By one measure he had succeeded—he had a giant home and an amazing car and the wealth to support it all. But by more important measures he had failed. By those measures he had nothing. He was wealthy but destitute all at once. He was an object of envy but an object of pity.

Don’t we all live with this fear that we will succeed at the lesser things in life while failing at the greater things? It’s not like those lesser things are always bad things. Some of them are actually very good. It’s just that they are, by definition, lesser things. They are not the matters of first importance. There is an order to life and we all know that sometimes those lesser things can look so attractive. They can be so distracting. They can keep us from giving attention to the things that matter far more.

See, succeeding at the lesser things at the cost of the greater things is its own form of failure. What does it matter if you become CEO but lose your family? What does it matter if you win the gold medal but lose your wife? Or like Jesus said: What does it matter if you gain the whole world but lose your soul (Matthew 16:26)? We are so bad at making these assessments. We are so tempted to throw away all the big things to succeed at the lesser things. But we can’t deny it: Succeeding at lesser things at the cost of the greater things is the worst form of failure.

There is a solution. The solution to this kind of failure is productivity—productivity that is rightly defined according to the Word of God. It’s this kind of Bible-based and Bible-defined productivity that helps us identify what matters most and then helps us accomplish it. It helps us identify and pursue those very few things God means for us to succeed at and helps us avoid the million-and-one lesser things that matter so much less. Or, at least, it helps us put those million-and-one lesser things in their proper place.

The art of productivity is the art of succeeding at things that matter. At its best, productivity is ensuring that you succeed at the things that matter most. It is meant to ensure that you don’t look back over your life someday and realize you’ve only succeeded at the fleeting things, the minor things, the things that just don’t matter.

I believe we can read through the Bible and see something like this: Productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God. What matters most in life, what matters most in the universe, what matters most to God, is the glory of God. God calls us to bring glory to him in every way we can in every area of life and especially by doing good to others (see, for example, Matthew 5:16). We do good to others and God gets the glory. That means that the greater things in life are the things we do for others, not the things we do for ourselves. The greater things in life are the things meant to benefit other people. The lesser things are the things meant to benefit ourselves.

Do you want to succeed at life’s greater things? Then direct your life toward glorifying God by loving others. Take everything you are and everything you’ve got and deliberately direct it at doing good to others so God can receive the glory.

Do you want to think more about this? My book Do More Better is a challenge to live this kind of life. Also, everything I have written here is drawn from a recent seminar at the Ligonier Ministries West Coast Conference and perhaps you will find that video helpful.