On Measuring Success

There is a *Native American legend about a young boy who has a dream in which he is instructed to find a large boulder outside of the village and move it.

Upon waking, the boy obediently locates the boulder and surveys its enormity. He begins to push his entire body weight against the rock, but to no avail. He tries using his feet and legs, then his arms, then his back. He pushes against the boulder all day, completely exhausting himself.

Discouraged, he returns to the village, knowing that he still needs to complete his task of moving the boulder.

The next morning, the boy grabs a sturdy stick to wedge beneath the rock and use leverage to move the boulder. He works with his new tactic for most of the day, but again, to no avail.

The boy’s friends occasionally come to taunt him and ask why he’s wasting his time trying to move a rock bigger than a wigwam. The determined boy grits his teeth and says that he was told to move it. For days that stretch into weeks, he continues to exert all his might against the boulder.

After many weeks of trying, he steps back in anger and sees that the boulder remains in the exact same spot as the first day he struggled against it. Feeling lower than low, he meets with the village chief and asks, “Why was I told to move the boulder? Why would I be told to work all summer on a worthless project? There is no fruit to show for my effort. The rock hasn’t moved at all.”

The chief kindly says, “You are right that the rock hasn’t moved, but you are wrong that you have no fruit to show. By pushing against the rock all summer, your hands are callused and tough. Your legs are as strong as tree trunks, and your arms are muscular enough to easily control the bows that the warriors use. Moving the rock was not worthless, because now you are ready to be a warrior. Look at your friends – they still play childish games and do not know perseverance. But you have prepared yourself for a great task.”


How do you measure success? What do you consider failure?

We humans put lots of stock into tangible data, chartable numbers, and physical evidence of success. And why wouldn’t we? We rely on our 5 senses to give us information about the world around us. When we can hold the medal, see the spreadsheet, hear the applause, taste the unburned supper (for some of us, an unburned meal is a win!), and smell the dollar bills, we have proof of the fruit of our labor.

But what do we do when our tangible goal isn’t met? Do we throw in the towel and consider it a failure? Or, like the chief in the story, do we look at the situation from a different viewpoint to see the victory?

If you ace the test, beat the time, land the job, sell out the concert hall, summit the peak, sell the book, have a bountiful garden, or fill in the blank with the success currency that rings true in your life, then great! You’re probably delighted with your success and proud of the effort you put into it.

But what about the times when we bomb it, succumb to the pain, give into nerves, realize our fanbase consists of Great Aunt Lucy, trip on a rock and get injured, acquire a whopping 2 reader reviews, or harvest 1 rabbit-gnawed green bean? Well, if we have narrow vision like the young boy in the story, we would see ourselves as a big, hairy failure.

Rather than settling with that, let’s push on. Dear readers, let’s take a step back from the situation, and strive to see positive growth. Maybe focusing on “success” missed the point.

Maybe in failing the test, you were forced to finally learn how to memorize, a skill that will benefit you forever. So you sweated and bled and ran your heart out but your time makes you look like a slacker? Your endurance is better than it was before your training, and now you have compassion for the last runner to finish. Didn’t get the dream job? While interviewing, you made a valuable connection with a potential colleague in another outlet. The stadium isn’t filled with fans? You’re learning patience and how to show gratitude to the few precious fans you have. You didn’t make it to the top of the mountain? As Ben Rector sings, “Life is not the mountain tops, It’s the walking in between.” Think of all the other incredible memories of your hike. You’re breaking in your hiking boots and building up your body’s ability to acclimatize. Your book isn’t a bestseller yet? The downtime gives you a chance to keep building your author platform, and the new author friends you’re finding have a wealth of knowledge to share. Maybe the vegetables in your garden didn’t grow, but your time digging in the dirt lowered your stress.

See where I’m going with this? Especially in this social-media-driven world, we tend to think of success as these Facebook-worthy moments. But success has so many more byproducts than a picture. And failure, or the journey to success, has just as many valuable byproducts. Look at your hands, your muscles, your level of bedside manner, your priceless ability to listen and care about the underdog (because you’ve been there or are there, too!), your newly acquired skills. You are being prepared for a great work.


*I heard this legend orally. I have been unable to locate a written copy of the legend. If you know of one, feel free to post a link in the comments below.

So, readers, how do you measure success? Post your comments below 🙂

2 thoughts on “On Measuring Success

  1. jpcallenwrites says:

    When authors write stories, we have to think of conclusions to the plot points. Readers want tidy endings. But it real life, it may take years to figure out why we failed at something or to realize how the failure benefited us.

    Liked by 2 people

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