“If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success…If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”
—Thomas Merton, Love and Living
The January night was moaning with a cold-dark wind. And our fireplace was talking back in hisses and pops of disappearing wood.
When a small voice inside of me said, “Three years of fires in this fireplace, Kelly, and you’ve never just sat. You’ve never just watched.”
So I settled in to gaze into the firelight.
Yet a mind on fire can burn hotter than wood, can’t it?
Within seconds, my eyes glazed and my thoughts blazed—blog ideas begging for a keyboard, voicemails to be checked, books to be read, texts and emails to return, a world to be kept at bay, a life to be conquered.
The desire for success can mangle the beauty in almost anything.
The Success Deception
As a psychologist, I feel like I’ve been let in on one of the most important secrets in the history of humankind: success doesn’t make us happy.
Each week in the quiet solitude of a psychotherapy office I hear some version of this story: “I wanted to prove everyone wrong and I worked like mad to reach the pinnacle of my profession and I’ve got it all—the spouse and the kids and the house and the cars—and I’m still not satisfied.”
Peter Rollins has said success feels like Wild E. Coyote the day after he catches the Road Runner—it feels like, “Is this all there is?” and “What now?” Every lottery winner describes the same kind of despair, because they’ve stumbled onto success and its dirty little secret: no amount of success can make us happy.
I think joy and contentment may be available to us all the time, in every place and in every moment, but the search for success keeps us looking in all the wrong places. Because the search for success keeps us thinking about the future—planning, organizing, anticipating—while joy and contentment are the qualities of a mind anchored in the present.
Anxiety and stress are not only caused by fear of the future—they are also caused by coveting the future. The bottom line is, whenever we invest our mind and spirit in a moment not yet arrived, we pave the way for anxiety and stress and their close cousins—anger and depression.
The search for success robs us of this moment and replaces it with endless moments of yearning.
Every Bush is Burning
Perhaps Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it best when she wrote:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.
If we can quit searching for success, we can start plumbing the depths of what is, right here and right now…
On a January night moaning with a cold-dark wind, the firelight danced in front of me. I struggled to be still, as I felt within me a storm-surge of just-do-something-for-crying-out-loud! It felt like panic and I rode that wave of ego and insecurity with one steady breath after another. The wave crested and my mind’s tide slowly receded.
I turned my attention to the fire. I turned my attention to the moment.
I watched as orange-purple tongues licked the air in every direction. I felt my cheeks tightened by heat, and I felt the coolness of the dark behind me. I saw shadows dance, and I smelled smoke like an ancient messenger. Somehow, the fire seemed to transcend time—present at the birth of the universe and enduring agelessly, warming hands before language and now warming hands that hold iPhones.
I felt time burn away, and without time there is nothing to aspire to, nothing to work toward. There is only being, and only one place to be: in this moment.
To Become Like Children Again
And I became aware of how timeless we feel when we’re playing instead of striving, and how foreign it must be for my playing children to have parents ranting about getting out the door on time. And I wondered, could all things become play if we sacrificed our “successful” futures at the altar of our ordinary—and extravagantly beautiful—present?
Could we forsake the compulsion to succeed in everything we do?
Could we turn every moment of work into play by gazing deeply into it and finding the beauty of the ordinary there?
Could we get lost in time, rather than losing our lives to time?
Could we run late because joy doesn’t wear a watch and giggling doesn’t always stop when we need it to?
Could we fail brilliantly if that’s what it takes to reclaim the awe and wonder of every person and smile and grimace and laugh and sob and breath?
Could we simply get messed up by the awesome-ordinary?
And could we take off our shoes and behold that every common bush is burning?
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.