Dear Me: Success Then and Now


“Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” Albert Einstein

“Without growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement and success, have no meaning.” Benjamin Franklin

Here is today’s prompt: What did you think success would look like when you first went to work? How do you define success now? Did you succeed?

Dear Sweet Fresh-out-of-college Shannon,

I hope you are still enjoying clerking for that [Insert big name] law firm downtown. It won’t be long until the requirement to wear panty hose everyday will wear thin.You’ll feel it for the first time as you come around the corner carrying a very tall stack of overstuffed red wells that only seconds ago you finally finished reviewing and organizing. But for now, you’re still impressed by the size of the loan these documents represent, still flattered that the attorneys in their corner offices are pleased with your work, still enjoying the feel of your new high heels clicking on the floor as you deliver this arm load of hard work. 

You are working late, perhaps racing the constantly looming Fed-Ex deadline, but the attorneys are all in the conference room sipping cocktails and convincing law students who need no convincing that they should clerk here this summer. This event is planned by the firm’s recruiters, a team of very fit, very young, very shiny women. They pull off impressive parties and laugh and mingle like the most skilled socialites, but you can’t help but wonder how well their methods work on the women students in that room. Why doesn’t the firm hire some handsome male recruiters? 

As you come around the corner with that impressive stack of red wells, one of the partners you enjoy working with the most is visiting with a candidate whom you know because you took his place when he left your position a few months ago for law school. He will watch, even laugh, as the elastic pops and papers fly everywhere. He will continue sipping his drink and chatting while you crawl around gathering up every last page wearing a skirt, heels and panty hose that he was never required to wear. 

You do not cry. You do not feel embarrassed. You are mad as hell. Good for you. These two men are too busy puffing their chests and spreading their feathers to stoop to help. This is the first time but certainly not the last time that you will think, “This is not who I want to become.”

You will never regret this job. You learned so much about professionalism, about corporate culture, about good work. You were exposed to so much of the legal profession, enough to know it wasn’t your future. You made friends; you met your husband. This is his future, not at this particular firm, but everyday you spent here helps you better understand his work, the pressure he will sometimes feel, the B.S. he will sometimes believe about how valuable his time is. He never becomes a chest-puffing feather-spreading kind of attorney and neither do the vast majority of his colleagues. In fact, some of the most generous, honest and fun people you know will be attorneys.

Ironically, you will find your place in an even more male-dominated profession. You will love it. You will be surprised by how much it integrates things you enjoy and are good at but still challenges you in so many ways. You will laugh with your female colleagues when men shake your hand at the back of the sanctuary and tell you you’re the prettiest preacher they ever heard (did they listen to the sermon?). You will be kind and compassionate when it’s painfully obvious that you make the family of the deceased uncomfortable as you plan his service. Your heart will thrill a bit when a couple of people are kind enough to tell you that they didn’t believe in women preachers but they’ve changed their minds after knowing you. This is high praise, but your heart will break at the thought of how many minds remain unchanged and how many gifted inspired women sit in pews where they are still told they have a limited place in this world.

You fell in a few traps along the way. You flattered yourself that you were still willing to work long hours for less money than if you’d gone to law school. You let your own chest puff a few times as you bought into the lie that it had to be you. You want to do it all. You fiercely believe that you can do it all. As your own nest grows, you try spreading your feathers wider and are unkind to yourself when balls drop anyway. 

You decide the cost is too high. You surrender. You choose your family, and in many ways, yourself. You smile kindly as people say you’ll never regret staying home and tell you how happy they are for you. You know this choice is a luxury. You know it is right for this time, but it burns as it goes down. It tastes like failure. 

In the law office, success is easy to measure in collections billed in tidy six-minute increments. In ministry, it’s harder. We fight the temptation to measure success by the ABCs (Attendance, Buildings, Cash). Transformed lives are hard to quantify and sometimes the most powerful of testimonies are insufficient to hold back the pressure to produce the ABCs. 

Now I have no idea how to measure success. I end up calculating how often I yell, how much screen time I allow my children, how many dishes are in the sink, how high the pile of unfolded laundry is on the bed. No paycheck deposits every two weeks reminding me that my work is worthy of compensation. No one sits me down for an annual evaluation and helps me correct my course or acknowledge my accomplishments. I wish I had more to go on than whether or not a little person yelled “I hate you” today.

I realize that for generation after generation, women had so  very few options outside the home. Perhaps this is why modern-day women run their home like a CEO and why mothers are as guilty as anyone of puffing their chests and spreading their tail feathers at each other. We’ve come so far, and I’m so very grateful. We still have far to go. 

Women need a new definition of success. So do men. Men deserve to be praised and valued for their character, not just their performance. Men deserve a definition of success that allows for more women to work alongside them and gives men greater permission to choose family, to be present at home and at school, to feel less pressure to always bring home more money. Women need to find a way to make room for men in our well chartered territories. Equality takes two.

I’m still figuring out what success looks like, in part by eliminating what it’s not. I think Jesus defined success by being loved and loving others, not by doing and earning. This is harder, less measurable. I sat in a chair in comfy clothes with a cup of coffee for well over an hour writing this post while my three-year old watched YouTube. Maybe it’s not the best use of time, but it tastes like grace. And that’s success enough for today.

I really want to hear your own work stories and your thoughts on success! Email your response to



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