Success: The Art of Staying Closely Behind — Seven Magazine

The following article, written by Steve Bell, was originally published in Promise Keeper’s Seven Magazine, October 24, 2017.

Winner of the 2018 Word Award for Best Column — Single

I was taken aback after being asked to write on the meaning of success. My first reaction was incredulity. Do folks perceive me as successful? Enough to write on it?

I’m a singer/songwriter who, after decades of work, still only sells a pittance of recordings compared to the truly successful. Most of my concerts are performed to between two and three hundred people—not thousands, or tens of thousands. I still need to raise about half of my operational costs from patrons every year. I still set up and tear down my own PA because I can’t afford someone else to do it. And given the speed of change in the music industry, it’s not a given that I’ll be able to monetize my work enough to transition comfortably into retirement.

But there are other metrics for success of course. There is the metric of integrity and character. And here again, although I’m a relatively decent guy, I certainly wouldn’t be happy to see an accurate public posting of my vanities and vices. I could easily spend this entire article discussing personal deficiencies that can sometimes rob me of sleep.

But I suppose one can think of oneself as successful or not depending on whether one is looking up the ladder, or looking down. And so if we can allow that I have had some success, there are a few things I can say about it.

Friedrich Nietzsche, of all people, famously wrote that success comes to those committed to “a long obedience in the same direction.” I suppose I’ve done that. I’ve stuck at this vocation in a focused way for almost three decades, and from all indications, it’s been meaningful to many. And I have, for the most part, derived deep satisfaction from the work.

Early on, I developed the practice of asking for help when I needed it, which has served me well. Indeed, many have come alongside to help me do what I could not do by myself. Most notable is my business partner/manager Dave Zeglinski who shares equally in the successes and failings of this enterprise. It was a bit of a personal struggle to give power away in those early years, but it was one of the best decisions of my life, as Dave brings to the table a unique suite of skills and gifts that do not reside naturally in me, freeing me up to develop those things that do come more naturally to me.

Another thing that has served me well is the practice of surrounding myself with folks who are really good at what they do. In truth, whenever I put a touring band together, I quite consciously make sure I’m the weakest link in the band. I don’t mean that in an immodestly self-deprecating way. I know I have good skills. But surrounding yourself with greatness will never do you harm. Quite the opposite, it floats your own boat. Simply put, I’m a better musician because I surround myself with better musicians.

One other principle I would advocate is the discipline of always making sure that at some place in your life, you are tilling new soil. As early success comes, it’s tempting to spend a lot of one’s energy on what has worked in the past. But the boredom will kill you. I think it’s important to be a life-long learner, which means always, in some way, to be disquieted by the unfamiliarity and risk of new territory. This means you can’t always stay in the most flattering light. 

Okay, stop there. I’ve quickly listed four things that I think might be helpful to ponder from my own experience. If I took time to add a couple more, I might have the outline for the next best selling book: An Aging Songwriter’s Sure Steps to Moderate Success.

But given the ethos of this publication, and indeed of my own ministry, we would be remiss not to ask the question, is there a way to think Christianly about success? And as much as any good preacher might be able to glean several steps from Jesus’ teachings— enough to satisfy our insatiable need for fail-proof linear pathways to the good life—I’m not so sure Jesus himself would be impressed. Jesus simply said, “Follow me,” and then went on to conduct himself in a manner that got him rejected by his own kin, abandoned by his friends, and tortured to death by the Imperial state. Not that he didn’t offer helpful insights as to what it means to live into the fullness of our humanity, but you have to admit, in a modern context divorced from post-crucifixion theological reckonings of his life, he’d be about the last person one would ask to write this article.

Whenever I am asked to write about a particular topic, I always spend a bit of time researching key words. It can be somewhat revealing to discover archaic meanings and notice how words change over time under the press of history. So, before I wrote what I was going to write—which was to suggest that Jesus didn’t have anything to say whatsoever about success as we understand it in a modern context—I paused and simply looked it up.

It turns out that the word success belongs to a suite of words including succession and succeed, all derived from the Latin succedere, which means to “follow closely after.” My goodness, how words change! While modernity mostly conceives of success as the art of getting ahead, an archaic understanding would think of it as the art of staying closely behind. In this light, the more interesting questions isn’t how does one succeed, but rather who does one succeed. To echo Robert Frost, the distinction can make all the difference.

It seems to me that we all quite naturally succeed (follow closely after) someone, or some thing, whether it be a hero, an ideology, or a vision of the good life propagated by the surrounding culture or subculture. But Jesus here was pretty specific in his counsel. He didn’t say, “Choose carefully who or what you follow and then give a list of acceptable options.” He said, quite specifically, “Follow me.” And what can be clearly demonstrated by his life was a resolute commitment to the way of love defined a giving oneself away for the sake of the other. He said it in no uncertain terms: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for a friend.” Then he demonstrated that way as completely as a person can.

What is success? Perhaps the more significant question is, whom do we succeed? Jesus bids us to succeed (follow closely after) him. And given our present culture’s commitment to accumulation and self-preservation, a commitment to succeed Jesus is about as counter-intuitive as it can get. So how do we do it? I suspect we learn to do it like we learn to become successful in any other aspect of our life. Here we could again take time to list several sure steps to success, as we are wont to do. But in the end, nothing beats practice.

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