Who Owns Our Success?

Posted on July 19, 2012


Mr. Obama has a case of foot in mouth lately. Poor guy. I actually sympathize.

Several years ago my oldest, who has taught me a lot about being a more humble human being, pointed out that I didn’t own either her successes or her failures. In utter exasperation one day, she said that she was a free agent and that if everything she did was somehow an outgrowth of some contribution or failure on my part in her raising, that she would never own her own life.

That was the day I quit feeling guilty about how I parented. It was also the day that I realized I’d never be able to gauge whether I was a success.

Few of us could list all the people who have contributed to our success. Few of us try. When something goes well, we pat ourselves on the back and move on, chalking it up to a ¬†personal success. People who contribute to the successes of others have fewer things to chalk up, unless they go about trying to own the successes of others (as was explained to me, not a very nice thing to do.) That’s unfortunate, and doesn’t encourage the kind of collaborative behavior that actually creates more successes.

Which brings us to Mr. Obama’s unfortunate phrasing that we don’t own any of our success if anyone else contributed anything to it. As people have commented widely since, that’s preposterous. It’s also a very destructive thing to throw out there. Isn’t it strange how denying anyone any of their own success actually alienates people from one another, making them more competitive, placing any ultimate success completely out of reach?

I’ve talked before about how important it is to have some means of measurement in our lives. We don’t get that much after school. We try for it by comparing ourselves to one another (salary, toys, callings, number of children, etc), but the reality is that it will never be enough. There is no grade, no ordinal placement among our peers, no verifiable gold star on our foreheads that says, “You’re a success.”

Joseph Smith stated that in order to exercise true faith, three things must occur. We must know that God exists, we must have a true idea of his character and capabilities, and we must know that the course of our life is acceptable to him. The only way to know that is through revelation. We must have a revelation that we are on the road to success.

Joseph sought that repeatedly, the most significant occasion when he went as a 17-year-old boy to inquire whether he had failed the trust given him at 14. Many of the first revelations of the church were directed to others who questioned whether they were acting aright. The Lord was clear. “You are doing well. You have need to repent.”

Still, that’s specific guidance, not a statement that we have been a success. We want final grades before the class is over. The judgment is the only time we get a definitive answer to the question of whether we’ve been a success, because we have second and third and four thousandth chances to do better.

And it doesn’t matter if we did it alone or with help, because ultimately, we can’t do anything alone. The atonement is continually before us stating unequivocally that we couldn’t do it alone, that we don’t own our success alone.

Funny thing is, I don’t think Jesus Christ will be leaning back pointing at us telling us what we didn’t do, what he did do, or how much we owe him. He will be, as he has always been, our Advocate. How could we ever be free agents if we own nothing of our own success?

No, we didn’t build that. But we did build on that, and that makes all the difference.

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