Can You Stand Success?

“Can You Stand Success?” Ensign, Feb. 1978, 31

Can You Stand Success?

We all want success—but what kind? And what are the price-tags?

Hard-working. Goal-oriented. Well-educated. Loyal.

On evaluation forms, these adjectives seem to indicate one thing—success. Employers like these qualities. Parents teach them to their children. And other Church members, looking at the person with those qualities, say, “There’s a real leader.”

Scholars who analyze the motives that spur cultural groups toward achievement rank Mormons among such groups as the Jews and Japanese for industry and productivity.1

A U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador once requested a study on local Latter-day Saints in order to pinpoint how membership in the Church changed behavior and produced industrious workers.2

Eric Hoffer, the American longshoreman philosopher, coined a maxim: “Put a Mormon in the hopper and out comes a tycoon.”3

The kind of success that Latter-day Saints, both individually and as a people, have achieved is something we can all be proud of, and achievement springs from some of our deepest spiritual needs. As spirit children of God, we constantly seek for improvement and exaltation; as free agents, we take the responsibility for our own work and feel keenly the need to develop our talents. Thus, it may seem paradoxical to talk about the danger of success unless we are careful to separate “eternal success,” based on the development of character, from “temporal success,” based on temporal symbols of success—such as influence, privilege, and status.

The distinctions between the two aren’t always easy to make. Many times the qualities that make a man a good executive vice-president also help to make him a good stake president.

Problems with Success

One of the problems that can develop for high-achievers in the world is that they can become too temporal goal-oriented. For instance, I know a sales manager who reached his position by setting high personal goals and working hard to achieve them. By themselves, his efforts were admirable. But they had negative side-effects. He began to use the same methods in other circumstances. Life itself—in all its aspects—became competitive. Now he gets a little uneasy if anyone else seems to be infringing on his “territory.” He can’t see anyone else’s point of view. It has become hard for him to work with a team. Sometimes he sees friendship as a means to achieving his own ends, and so people feel he is manipulating them.

All these methods may bring him the rewards of achievement in his business, but they can cause disastrous problems in marriage, and may make him a difficult partner to work with on a Church assignment.

In contrast, in the gospel the means are as important as the ends, just as it is for many persons with high ethical standards.

A second problem for anyone seeking success on the world’s terms is deciding the price he’s willing to pay. Some overachievers pay with damaged health, a narrow range of interests, lost contact with wife and children, and even divorce. It’s hard to see these “price-tags” since it always looks like “I have to work just one more weekend,” instead of “I have to stop seeing you and the children.” One demand may be reasonable; the other is not.

Third, the inappropriate use of time is critical for all of us—not just for the professionals. If we become so consumed in our desire for professional advancement that we neglect our spouse, children, individual scripture study, exercise program, and general well-being in other areas of life, we are likely to become unbalanced and neglect some important part of our eternal progression.

Latter-day Saints trying to decide what kind of price they’re willing to pay for worldly success may find themselves caught in several binds, trapped by conflicting messages from their culture and the Church.

One of these binds is the “superman syndrome.” As a young father looks at his stake president or Regional Representative, he may see a wonderful husband and father, totally dedicated to the Church, spectacularly successful in his business, and personally well adjusted and happy. Faced with such a seemingly perfect example, the young man may determinedly set out to match those achievements, only to find out that “success” must be measured in different terms for every individual.

One way of working through the syndrome is to look closer. Many individuals really are competent at everything they try. Others have skimped in one area to be successful in another, and we’re noticing the success but not the skimping. It’s more important for a young Latter-day Saint to discover what will make him happy rather than to try to imitate someone else.

A second bind is that of “second-class citizen.” Some observers have pointed out that many Latter-day Saints become vice-presidents or third-level executives, but not presidents. What’s “wrong” with them?

It may not be a question of competence at all, but the rather more difficult question of choice. Equally competent, ambitious, and creative as their colleagues, they may have been unwilling to be equally single-minded in some of the ways that reaching the top demands. These Latter-day Saints may have chosen to remain in the second slot simply because their commitments to Church service and to their families have won out over their ambitions—and they felt they could not do both.

A third bind is the “flight” phenomenon. Some high-achievers, seeing that their business ambitions are close to materializing, are also keenly aware that this will invite temptations to “cut corners” in other aspects of their lives. They “flee temptation” by fleeing the opportunity for advancement. This puts them in the equally uncomfortable position of knowing that they aren’t developing their talents as much as they might.

Succeeding at Success

What can be done to avoid the pitfalls of success? There are no easy solutions, but here are some general questions that may be helpful.

Ask yourself: (1) What are the specific problems characteristic of my profession? (2) Where do these “professional” problems start pinching me personally? (3) What are my priorities in dealing with them?

Let’s take each question individually and look at what’s involved. If we look at the “professions” (medicine, law, education, science, etc.), we see three distinguishing characteristics: the worker can usually arrange his work as he likes, since the emphasis is on how well he does it rather than on “putting in time”; a lot of the job is “keeping up” on what his colleagues are doing by means of journals, conferences, societies, seminars, etc.; and finally, these people are usually so specialized that only their colleagues can really judge their competence.

Naturally, this makes some issues immediately apparent for young Latter-day Saints entering the fields. Product-oriented work usually requires enormous amounts of concentrated time, “whatever it takes” rather than a steady eight-to-five schedule. This kind of job demands a loyalty that can compete fiercely with Church commitments or family claims. A young Mormon father who is trying to raise young children and keep building his relationship with his wife may find himself so squeezed between work, Church, and family that he has no time for his own scripture study, hobbies, exercise, or relaxation.

In addition to time squeezes, young Latter-day Saint professionals face the issue of integrity. Usually, they are working with an older, more experienced professional whose sponsorship is vital to anticipated success. This relationship may seem to demand extra hours, extra travel, and extra favors—some of which may compromise gospel standards.

A related problem is the peer pressure to adopt the profession’s “folklore”—to learn the professional jargon, values, and point of view. Sometimes the professional is pressured to fit into the traditional and stereotypical view of his field. And that emphasis can distort. For instance, a valuable part of a lawyer’s training is to argue points objectively—but what happens if the debate becomes more important than what’s right? Artists and architects develop refined aesthetic criticisms; but what happens if the most important value is always the aesthetic? What if a professor values his autonomy so much that he fails to function as a productive member of a group? And so on. Each profession has its own characteristics and values, and some of them—especially when exaggerated—may conflict with Latter-day Saint values. Developing a sensitivity that maintains a clear distinction between the two is very important.

A young Latter-day Saint in business and management feels pressure at slightly different points. Usually, one rule for success is how well he “fits” into the organization. Some of the qualifications are formal, such as having a set of useful skills. Other qualifying aspects are informal, such as conforming to the company image of dress and speech. Sometimes these situations may present temptations to compromise personal standards.

Another real temptation in many businesses shows up in repeated opportunities to play “organizational politics.” A skillful player has a whole bag of tricks that will let him win at another’s expense: manipulating others, controlling scarce information, sabotaging somebody else’s plans, exchanging favors for personal gain, and subverting authority. Don’t underestimate the kinds of conflicts that these temptations can provide—even for Latter-day Saints. Businesses often seem to be motivated by survival, not by morality; and many organizational scientists see power struggles as normal and even healthy.

These are some of the dangers in the professional and business world. Naturally, each Latter-day Saint must decide for himself the answer to a second question: “Where do these problems pinch me personally?” Here are some points to consider.

Learning how to play office politics and power games may end up teaching skills that actually make it harder to serve effectively in a Church calling. The hostility and mistrust that result from power-plays frequently shut off communication, distort the information necessary to make good decisions, and are so devious and secretive that it’s almost impossible to confront issues openly and improve from experience. No sense of common mission exists in power-plays, since everybody is trying to win for himself. Furthermore, power-plays sometimes absorb so much energy that there’s none left over for working toward a productive goal.

Getting to the top through ruthless power struggles is inappropriate behavior for anyone—but especially for Church members. The Lord’s warning against pride, selfishness, aspiring after honors, and unrighteous dominion is an indication that we need to beware of such tendencies. Even within the Church, we may discover ourselves seeking for recognition and status rather than the joys of service.

Finally, our personal life-style may conflict with our employment demands. For example, what may be best for us at any one stage of our life may not always lead to business/professional achievement. Of course, each individual is different, but usually there seem to be about four main development stages in adult life:

1. In their twenties, individuals affirm their identity by investing heavily in their work and other outside activities.

2. In their thirties, individuals question what they have become and start thinking about balancing forces. For instance, a work-oriented person may discover that he needs more time for himself, for nurturing his children, and developing his “gentler” side.

3. During the forties, typically, a real crisis comes as a decision between the “hard” (business) and “soft” (personal) sides demands to be made. An individual has to face the reality of his own physical aging and the fact that he will die without having accomplished all that he might once have hoped to.

4. In his fifties, typically, a person usually accepts himself as he is, mellows, and turns with real appreciation to his family and friends.

These stages, typical of the adult life cycle, generally apply to all working people, although people in the professions may have more flexibility. (For example, a professor can sometimes take a sabbatical leave and “find himself” either professionally or personally.)

In the business and managerial fields, however, the professional and personal patterns start to conflict. In a worker’s thirties, when he begins to question and balance his values, comes intense professional pressure to sink his best efforts into achieving middle management status.

I think that the conflict is especially acute for Latter-day Saints, because they are so keenly aware of the importance of being good husbands, fathers, and Church stewards; yet employment demands usually won’t let them “stop and take stock.” Postponing the “questioning” period seems to create a more explosive crisis in the forties, too.

But the bind gets tighter then. By the time an employee is in his mid-forties, he is probably a second-echelon manager with a chance of making senior executive rank. How can he afford to vary his attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors? Typically, he feels trapped, and some men have been known to respond to these feelings by leaving their families, divorcing their wives, or burying themselves so deeply in their work that they re-emerge at retirement with few friendships and only shallow family relationships.

This is not a condemnation of the business world; it simply provides a summary of some recent research into causes of pressures among businessmen, managers, and entrepreneurs that may help someone locate where he is in his own personal development.

A second issue that might pinch us personally is when the desire for achievement becomes so compelling that it is almost a sickness, similar in some ways to alcoholism or gambling addiction. I became especially aware of this problem while serving in the presidency of the University Branch in Boston.

Students from both Harvard and MIT attended—many of them unusually achievement-oriented—and we could almost always divide them into two groups. The first group, about thirty percent, resolved to put their families and the Church first; they usually did quite well at their studies and usually felt satisfied with their lives.

The larger group seemed to be caught up in achievement for its own sake. Competition ruled their lives. Some told me that they wanted to make plenty of money so that they could help the Church; others so that they could help humanity. But one confessed, “I can’t help myself. I feel like an alcoholic: I have to beat my peers or I can’t go on.”

For this group, achievement was more important than anything else, even eternal salvation.

Now we can discuss the third question: “What are my priorities in dealing with the demands of my profession and my own personal capabilities?” Throwing out the ideal of success is not the basis of a solution. The virtues of hard work, honesty, loyalty, and excellence are essential to our eternal progression.

Instead, the solution lies in defining guidelines so that the outcome of all this striving will be a righteous one. Again, each individual’s solution is different, but here are some suggestions for determining priorities:

1. Engage in personal introspection. Each individual needs to know himself—his abilities, limitations, temptations, life stages, and long-term plans for growth. Self-knowledge is a continual process, not a sudden discovery; but inspiration from the Holy Ghost is a great aid, especially during those times when honesty becomes painful. A new house by the lake may be a worthy goal for one family but wrong for another, and we need to be able to discern what’s right for us.

Part of honesty is examining our motivations each time we feel “success.” For example, do we accept a new and prestigious position because we want to make a contribution or because it’s such a status symbol? Are we buying a snowmobile or trampoline because our family will enjoy it or because everyone else is doing it? Can we give up a promotion if our teenage children need more of our time for the next three years?

2. Do nothing which conflicts with righteous principles. If we cannot feel a real sense of integrity in balancing eternal progress and worldly success, then we should correct our course of action.

From personal experience, I’m convinced that eternal progression and worldly success are not synonymous; but they can be complementary. When I was a boy growing up in a Latter-day Saint community in southeastern Idaho, I heard people talk admiringly about a person who had a prestigious position, a lavish life-style, lots of money, or a new house in an expensive area. Yet some of these much-admired people, I noticed, did not live Church standards, or did not respect the Sabbath day, or did not give much time or affection to their families. The discrepancy confused me. I wanted people to admire me, too, yet I wanted to do what was right.

I needed to understand that praise for accomplishments is valid for those accomplishments, but does not necessarily spill over into other areas. I needed someone to point out the ultimate wisdom of doing what is right, regardless of the temporal consequences. In the eternal plan, the process of achieving is as important as the achievement itself.

3. Set righteous priorities. I was once called to serve in a bishopric by Elder L. Tom Perry, who outlined for me a helpful set of priorities. He told me to (1) spend individual time working on my relationship with my Father in heaven, (2) continue to build my relationship with my wife, (3) relate to my family, (4) become an effective home teacher, (5) magnify my other Church callings, (6) meet the demands of my occupation, and (7) pursue hobbies and individual projects.

Following his counsel hasn’t been easy, but balancing all of the demands on my time has been easier with this priority checklist. Putting my Heavenly Father first has been especially important: it’s helped me test my other priorities and receive revelation on the decisions I have to make.

4. Control time commitments and use proper timing. This is a critical issue. We hear a lot about making “quality” time, but the inescapable fact is that we need an ample quantity of time in order to have any effective moments. We can’t always control our time perfectly. Sometimes we get sick. Sometimes we need to be spontaneous. And sometimes we are simply “spread too thin.”

I’ve talked to many Latter-day Saint men—good fathers, executives, and Church leaders—who are frustrated because they feel that they’re not performing any of their tasks as well as they can. When a new promotion comes up at the office, their frustration increases. If they take it, can they do it well? If they don’t, what will that do to their professional future?

It’s not an easy decision, but the question of time and timing has to be faced realistically. After we’ve asked about our motivations for desiring a new “success,” whether it would jeopardize a gospel standard, and whether it fits our priorities, we should then ask ourselves whether the experience comes at the right time and season for our family. What are the long- and short-term implications? What are the trade-offs? Will they be worth it?

Thoughtful and prayerful answers to these questions will help us avoid many of the traps we’ve discussed. We can become righteous achievers instead of frustrated (and perhaps unrighteous) over-achievers. Our Heavenly Father desires us to be high achievers—but high achievers in character and soul-development.

In fact, his long-term goals for us may be higher than we would dare set for ourselves without his help. But with his help, our achievements can bring us eternal success.


  1. See David C. McClelland’s The Achieving Society (New York: The Free Press, 1967).

  2. Conversation with David C. McClelland at the Achievement Behavior Science Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 1975.

  3. Speech by Eric Hoffer, Boalt Hall Law School, University of California at Los Angeles, October 1966.

  • C. Brooklyn Derr, a visiting professor of educational administration at the University of Utah and an adjunct professor of organizational behavior at Brigham Young University, is the gospel doctrine instructor in the Alpine Third Ward, Alpine Utah Stake.

Photo by Jed Clark