SUCCESS IS NOT A LADDER
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 28, 2014; 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Psalm 25:1-9; Philippians 2:1-13

“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
Philippians 2:4

Walk into the self-help section of any bookstore. Go to iTunes and scan the selection of self-improvement podcasts. Channel-surf the infomercials on late-night TV. You’ll see one topic that comes up again and again: success.

There are motivational speakers out there who earn big bucks — really big bucks — making the rounds of hotel ballrooms and football stadiums. Their bodies are buff. Their teeth are pearly white. They wear designer clothes. They loop that little microphone around their ear and jog out onto the stage, to thunderous applause. Then, these sultans of success commence striding back and forth, gesturing with their arms, telling their listeners how to conquer their inner demons and be truly successful.

You know what I’m talking about. You’ve heard the spiel. Maybe you’ve even shelled out a few bucks to find out what one of these “life coaches” has to say.

The self-appointed experts who write those books, record those podcasts and deliver those motivational speeches are all pretty successful — no doubt about it. It’s a growth industry. There’s only one problem: they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Want to know how I know that? Simple mathematics. If those easy, sure-fire paths to success were truly either easy or sure-fire, then a much higher percentage of their fans would not have to buy tickets to their pep rallies. They would have already made it to the pinnacle of the American Dream.

But they haven’t. So, the fans keep ordering those books, downloading those podcasts and buying those stadium tickets — making the top-drawer motivational speakers even wealthier than they already are. The simple truth is this: success sells!

The Ladder

Most of us were taught, from a very early age, that our goal in life is to become successful. Success, of course, is nearly always defined in financial terms. We have this phrase in our society. Financial planners use it all the time. The phrase is: net worth.

Go into a financial planner or accountant, and they know exactly how to calculate it. Their tool is a balance sheet. List your assets on one side and your liabilities on the other, crunch the numbers, and what comes out at the bottom is your net worth. The single most important goal in life, many people believe, is to nudge that net worth figure as high as possible.

But, do you know something? It’s all a mirage. Here’s how I know it is.

Way back in the book of Genesis, as God makes the first humans — Adam and Eve — the scriptures tell us they’re created “in the image of God.” In the image of God — think of it! From the very first day of our lives, as we lie there helpless in the bassinet — doing little more than crying, eating and producing the inevitable outcome of eating — we are already in the image of God. And we’re not doing a thing of our own accord. The Lord said of our ancestors then, and says of each and every one of us now, “It’s good! They are good. They are created in my image.” Their net worth is already infinite!

Yet, how many of our parents actually taught us that Bible lesson, when we were young? How many of us who are parents today make sure we teach it to our own children? The answer is: “Not many.” No, we are far more likely to teach our kids a different narrative: that they are born unworthy, and remain so until they grow up, get out into the world and complete the long, slow climb up “the ladder of success.”

But, there’s a problem with that narrative. You and I start climbing those individual success-ladders — ever looking side to side, comparing ourselves with all those other people, perched on their own success-ladders. Then, we look up, hoping to glimpse the top of our ladder, to gauge how far we’ve got to go. But, the ladder just goes higher and higher, until it vanishes in the mists far above our heads.

There’s one characteristic of ladders I’d like to point out to you. On a ladder, there are only two directions you can go: up or down. (Most of us, if truth be told, don’t progress steadily upwards, anyway; there’s a lot of that two-steps-forward, one-step-back stuff.)

There’s one thing, though, that’s impossible to do on a ladder: and that’s to go sideways. Unlike a staircase, there’s never a landing. You can never stop and take a rest. You can’t say, “Maybe I’ll go this far and no farther.” No, on the ladder of success you’ve got two stark choices (or, so goes the prevailing narrative). You can climb upwards to the world’s adulation, or slip downwards to the world’s scorn and disgust.

The Interests of Others

There’s a lot about this ladder-of-success obsession that’s deeply selfish, at the root. One of the most important correctives the Bible offers is the little verse from Philippians 2 that’s our text today: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Often, we speak of “business interests.” What we typically mean by that is money-making opportunities. If investors say, “I have an interest in that company,” they’re saying they’ve put some money into it, that they’re part-owner. They’ve taken a small portion of their net worth, converted it into liquid form — cash — and have used it to buy a stake in that business. If the business succeeds, their net worth climbs a little higher. If it falls upon hard times, their net worth takes a hit.

Young fire-eaters in the business world flock to graduate school for MBAs. Their principal purpose is to learn how to better manage their own interests. Sure, as executives, their companies hire them to manage the interests of others — but everyone understands they’ll be given a lot of money if they do that well. So, it really is about their own interests, in the end. The very definition of a successful person, for much of our society, is to become really, really good at looking out for one’s own interests.

Young people pick up on this very early. A recent survey of U.S. college freshmen polled over two hundred thousand students at 279 colleges and universities. The pollsters asked them about their most important life goals. 77 percent checked the box that said “being very well off financially.” That’s more than three-quarters of them. It’s simply impossible for that many college students to go on to achieve that particular life goal.

So, what’s Paul talking about, here, advising the Philippians to “look…to the interests of others”? Clearly, the MBA degree awarded by the University of Paul is very different from all others!

As usual, it helps to look at the biblical context. Paul deeply loves that Philippian church, but even he knows they have some room to grow and improve. The advice he gives them is to complete his joy by “being of the same mind.”

It’s a deeply anti-individualist message. Our minds, to most of us, are our personal fortress of solitude, our private place where no one else is welcome. We may offer others “a piece of our mind” from time to time, but we keep the rest closely guarded. Our minds are, in many ways, synonymous with our selves — our essential, individual personhood.

Yet, Paul’s encouraging us to let down our guard and allow others to know us deeply. We’re used to the idea of marriage partners doing that: lots of golden-anniversary couples seem to intuitively know what the other is thinking. Sometimes they even complete each other’s sentences. But Paul’s not talking about marriages, here. He’s talking about life in the church. Paul yearns for the members of the Philippian church — brothers and sisters in Christ — to attain that same sort of deep unity. Be as close to one another as you are to yourselves, he’s saying.

The next thing he says is, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Not just “the same as,” but “better than!” A keystone of our democracy, as we well know, is that all men (and women) are created equal.” Yet, Paul’s arguing, here, for a sort of voluntary inequality: step back and give up a little of your own personal privilege, putting others first.

The only way to do this, as he points out, is through humility. In humility, regard others as better than yourselves.

It’s important to note, here, is that humility is not some abandonment of self-esteem, a means of beating ourselves up inside, a deep dive into guilt and shame. The word “humility” is related to the word humus — that rich, fertile soil, the stuff from which all vegetation springs. A truly humble person is of the earth, someone who’s literally grounded.

It’s an insight that’s in tune with the Creation story in Genesis. You know that, in one of those creation stories, God molds the first man and woman from a handful of wet clay from the riverside. That’s earth, humus. I think we can say that to be truly humble is to be truly human, to know the essential stuff from which we all spring.

It’s a Dirty Job, But…

This past week, I listened to a recorded TED talk from National Public Radio, one of those self-improvement lectures they run from time to time. The subject of the talk was “Success,” and one of the guests on the show was a man named Mike Rowe. For eight years Mike was the host of a reality show on the Discovery Channel called Dirty Jobs.

The premise of Dirty Jobs is simple. Mike goes out with a camera crew and interviews people who’ve got really dirty jobs. He works alongside the person for a day, to find out what the loathsome job is all about. He’s curious about how such people came to do that unpleasant thing for a living, and why they’ve stuck with it.

Mike’s been on some of the dirtiest, most disgusting job sites you could possibly imagine. He’s followed a person who picks up roadkill; a miner of bat dung, or guano; a man who harvests and sells giant bloodworms for fishing bait; and various species of garbage collectors and recyclers.

After eight years of getting to know all sorts of people with nasty jobs, Mike told the TED Talk audience he’s come to a surprising conclusion. The people who do the dirtiest jobs in our society, sticking with them over time, are — he has discovered — among the happiest, most satisfied people he’s ever encountered.

Now, it doesn’t hurt that people who do jobs like these are typically paid very well. But, it’s more than just the money. In taking on such a job, most of them have intentionally stepped off the ladder of success — at least, as society commonly defines that word. What parents, after all, raise their children to become garbage-sorters or roadkill-collectors? For whatever reason, Mike says, the people who make a career of dirty jobs have taken careful notice of where all the other people are headed and have intentionally decided to go where they are not.

One worker he talked to was a guy named Les Swanson from Wisconsin. Les cleans out septic tanks for a living. Here’s what Mike recalls about his day with him:

One afternoon, we were up to our chest in the most unspeakable filth there is — in a pumping station, knocking huge hunks of coagulated cholesterol off the wall. And I look at him at one point and I say, Les, you know, what are you doing here? And he said, well, what do you mean? You know, I’m — this is what I do. And I said, well, what did you do before this? He said, honestly? I said, yeah. He said, I was a guidance counselor and a psychiatrist….

And I said, you’ve got to be kidding me. Why did you leave? And without missing a beat he said, I got tired of dealing with other people’s crap. And that’s how so many of these people did it. They didn’t start by going, what am I passionate about? What do I love? People on Dirty Jobs, they say no, no, no. You don’t follow your passion. You always bring it with you, but you never follow it.

Now, that last comment may sound a bit strange, even counter-intuitive. It contradicts the conventional bromides commencement speakers dispense to young graduates on the subject of work. What advice do so many of these speakers offer to the graduating class? “Follow your passion.” But, not everyone can. And not everyone’s passion can be readily converted into a paying job.

Sadly, some of those graduates will spend their entire working lives struggling to climb a very crowded ladder, and at the end of their careers they will feel like failures. Better for some of these people to step off the ladder altogether, take a dirty job, and perform it with good humor and even zest — knowing it’s not the job that defines them, but they who define the job.

It’s Not About the Money

There’s one other element of dirty jobs Mike Rowe didn’t identify in his TED Talk, but that seems abundantly clear to me. There’s no question that the dirty jobs on his reality show are essential jobs. Society has a deep need for people to stand chest-deep in sewage sludge, or remove deer carcasses from the roadside, or pick through the garbage we heedlessly toss into our single-stream recycling bins. Without conscientious workers like these, we’d all be in a very bad way.

Such people, whether they are conscious of it or not, are fulfilling Paul’s advice from Philippians 2: “Look to the interests of others.”

I think most of them are aware of it, actually: because knowing we’re in a position to be useful to other people can be a source of honest pride. It may be that their unpleasant work even makes them happy.

There have been a number of studies done, in recent years, of the relationship between money and happiness. We’ve all heard the saying, “Money can’t buy happiness.” What the researchers have discovered is that it actually can — but only up to a point.

Desperately poor people — those who struggle mightily just to obtain food to eat, or a safe place to live — are often unhappy. When they earn enough money to cover their basic needs, they understandably do feel happier. They no longer have worries about basic survival hanging over their heads.

Yet, the researchers have discovered the effect doesn’t continue as people climb higher up the ladder of success. They learned there’s a whole lot of difference in happiness between a person earning $10,000 a year and one earning, say, $25,000. But the higher you climb up the income scale, there’s no longer such a stark difference. People earning $50,000 a year are just about as happy, on the average, as those earning $100,000. As for millionaires, they don’t do any better.

There was a famous Lexus ad that proclaimed: “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness isn’t spending it right” — implying, of course, that buying the right luxury car will make you happy. All the scientific evidence shows this is a blatant lie: a bit of advertising sleight-of-hand, that’s all. While there may be a yearning for an expensive car, once the yearning is fulfilled and the car’s actually sitting in the driveway, happiness doesn’t take a huge leap.

Now, here’s the really fascinating insight from those research studies: you’d actually do better, in the happiness department, if you bought a modest car for reliable transportation and donated the difference to a church or charity that’s making other people’s lives demonstrably better. “Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Who knew Paul’s advice is not only a solemn command, but a recipe for happiness as well?

My friends, the witness of our faith is this: success is not a ladder. Success comes not from advancing ourselves ever higher, in income or social position, but rather from making ourselves truly useful to others.