This piece is not what you might think. I’m not going to tell you how to get your dream job, climb the corporate ladder, navigate social circles, or make an obvious impact on society. I won’t tell you those things, partly because I don’t know them, but also because I want to challenge their status as the definition of success.
College students and new graduates hear a good deal about “success,” but are likely to receive very mixed signals about the particular goals in question. When our mainstream culture speaks of “succeeding,” it tends to have some sort of economic or social ends in mind. Land a well-paying job, achieve recognition in your field of work, acquire the means to live in comfort and security, and you’re probably a “success” by this assessment. The more noble-minded raise this standard to include making a useful contribution to the world, which is well and good, though I will bring in an important nuance later. Schools with a strong Christian outlook, like my alma mater, also emphasize building up the kingdom of God and winning the world to Christ. This is also, undoubtedly, an important and worthy aim. Any one of these, however, can become dangerous if new alumni make it the measure of themselves and their lives.
As many readers probably know, the reality for young graduates is challenging and can be discouraging. My brother, going into his sophomore year of college, is fond of pointing out that young people of two generations ago could own houses and support families on blue-collar jobs, while their grandchildren now may get decent jobs and still have to live with their parents. The opportunities available to a boy or girl just starting in life are generally not exciting. Even finding a job can be a long, frustrating endeavor; finding a substantial job—as opposed to cashiering at Martin’s or taking orders at McDonald’s—is more difficult still.
As for helping people and spreading God’s kingdom, most people have some small means of doing these, but new alumni are usually not positioned to influence people’s lives in great numbers or dramatic ways; they seldom have a chance to feel that they are “changing the world.” A graduate who sets out intending to be the next C. S. Lewis, Fulton Sheen, or Dorothy Day is almost certainly doomed to disappointment. Young people are exhorted, and aspire, to achieve great things, but find themselves struggling simply for their own survival. What a painful discrepancy!
Are they wrong to set out with high hopes and dreams? No, at least, not per se. Ought they to become discouraged, to despair? No again. Before plunging into discussion of the problem, we should avoid the mistake mentioned earlier, and begin with understanding what we mean by “success.”
A thing is said to succeed or fail in relation to its purpose (e.g. we judge a pen’s successfulness by whether it writes). Therefore, to determine whether a graduate is “successful,” let us take a moment to consider the purpose of college. We go through those four years, not simply for their own sake, but to gain from them some thing or things which will benefit us in subsequent years. What is that? The answers vary widely, usually depending on our larger life goals: the ability to get any well-paying job, a degree for a specific career like nursing or engineering, the cultivation of a sharp, well-rounded intellect, the joint growth of faith and reason in the Thomistic tradition, etc. In almost every case, however, the answers have one element in common. Students choose college careers based on the kind of life they want to lead, on what they consider most important for that life.
So what is important? Importance, like success, is an idea extensively talked about but seldom probed. Usually, though, when people speak of something important, they mean something obviously impressive. It’s in this sense that George Bailey, in It’s a Wonderful Life, declares, “I wanna do something big, something important”—he means, as he says, that he wants to do things like design buildings and plan cities. Awkwardly explaining his reluctance to join his father’s small building-and-loan business, he protests his distaste for being “cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office” and dealing with “this business of nickels and dimes.” At twenty-one, George expresses what many twenty-one-year-olds today feel or are encouraged to feel: that the measure of their success is their economic prosperity, their status in the business world, or some such criterion.
To this, George’s father gently replies, “You know, George, I feel that in a small way we’re doing something important, satisfying a fundamental urge. It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace; and we’re helping him get those things in our shabby little office.” Over the course of the film, George finds the “importance” in his own life to be more of this kind than he expected, as he repeatedly sacrifices his ambitions to help others in need. He never accomplishes anything exciting in the way he had hoped, but the movie’s last scenes leave no doubt that his humble selflessness has been well worth it.
My generation can learn much from the story of George Bailey. Poverty, setbacks and frustration run throughout his life; he even reaches a point where he believes himself “worth more dead than alive.” He does end up doing the seemingly trivial work that he feared, work that he often finds mundane and not as rewarding as he would like. Some critics have charged that this is a painful story of a young man becoming trapped and his dreams being crushed. I could go on at length about why that’s so wrong, but this piece is not primarily about It’s a Wonderful Life (for more on that topic, see an essay of my father’s, here). We are meant to see George’s life as wonderful, but what makes it so? Each time he is confronted with a major decision, he makes the best choice for his family and his community. Despite his own disappointments, he thus founds his life on other-centeredness and self-giving. The results may never be acknowledged beyond his own small town, but are they any less real or valuable on that account?
Furthermore, even more crucial than the results is the person George has become through his choices—still a flawed man, to be sure, but nonetheless a man of strong principles, a loyal and generous soul. This, the film indicates, makes his life a “success” much more than building airfields or skyscrapers would have done. The film’s concluding tagline proclaims, “No man is a failure who has friends;” perhaps a more accurate maxim—and, I think, equally true to the movie’s spirit—would be, “No man is a failure who has charity.” This, then, is the standard of success: by choices great and small, to become the man or woman you are meant to be, the person God intended you to be. That is the greatest good you can hope for yourself and the best way you can do good for others.
After all, this idea is nothing new. Saints have always attested to it, serving God with heroic virtue in humble, inconspicuous circumstances. Many have been cloistered, never attracting notice during life. Some, like Lydwine of Schiedam, spent most of their lives bedridden. Marcel Callo and Pierina Morosini, both beatified, were simple young working people, gaining notice only because they were martyred. St. Therese of Lisieux, perhaps the poster child for these “extraordinary ordinary souls,” famously put it thus: “He has no need of our works but only of our love.”
This, you see, is the farthest thing from settling for mediocrity. Therese’s description of her longings to be a missionary for all of history and suffer every martyrdom (Story of a Soul, chapter IX), or her resolve not to miss one chance to offer something to Jesus, blaze with an ardor completely opposed to all mediocrity. Young people are right not to settle for anything less than greatness. The point is that greatness does not lie in externals. The things you have acquired, the notice you have attracted, or your impact on the world are not the source of your greatness.
By all means, take whatever opportunities you have to do as much good as you can—but never do it simply in order to leave a mark on the world. All marks on this world, after all, are so temporary; and your greatest efforts, done with the purest intentions, may lead you only to frustration. That will not be the measure of your ultimate success or failure; it will not determine the state of your soul. When you die, God will not look at your accomplishments, but at your faithfulness and generosity.
St. Teresa of Calcutta, no mean success as far as fame and influence went, insisted, “I do not pray for success. I ask for faithfulness.” Anyone who doubted her words could watch her work. She was not interested in her impact. She went about picking up from the streets people with just hours or minutes to live, not because consoling them would affect society or history, but because they were made in God’s image and deserved love. Paradoxically, it’s those like Mother Teresa, who have done good because it was good and not to make their mark, who have done the most to bring saving change into the world.
So what does all of this mean for college graduates? Everything. Despite the diverse uses of “success,” when we talk about a successful college graduate, we probably mean a graduate who has made full use of the tools that his college education gave him to benefit his life. Logically, lesser kinds of success should be at the service of the greatest success. If the greatest success, as asserted earlier, is becoming the person you ought to be—at least, as fully as possible on earth, and, by God’s grace, completely in the next life—then all other kinds of success need to serve, or at least not hinder, this one. Thus, the best use that anyone can make of his college education is to use it to grow in virtue and truth, to grow nearer to God Himself.
I conclude with a word to my fellow recent graduates: If you feel that your education has done nothing to further the ends described above, or has even hindered your pursuit of them, you have my sympathy and you’ll have to try as best you can anyway. If, however, you find that your four years gave you some increase in wisdom and goodness, or some intellectual tools that may help you to grow in them, use those as much as you can. By all means, look after yourself—and anyone who depends on you—materially, financially, etc., but keep those things in their proper place, which is not the supreme one. God wants to bring you to a full and beautiful perfection that is uniquely yours, so that you may become the ideal version of yourself; and fulfilling that ideal, as much as you can, will be the measure of your genuine satisfaction and success.
In St. Catherine of Siena’s famous words, “Become who God made you to be, and you will set the world on fire”—and you will be successful indeed.