My name is Ellie, and I’m a recovering achievement addict.
(Psssst. This is where you say, “Hi, Ellie.”)
My addiction to achievement began as early as first grade. The first time my weekly spelling test came back with a 9 instead of a perfect 10, I came home enraged. Ripping up my test paper, I shouted, “A 9 out of 10 is not good enough!”
My mother proceeded to tell me that I was being ridiculous, of course. But this particular incident was only one of many—the beginning of a pattern of perfectionistic tendencies that would stay with me through high school, particularly when it came to academics and achievement.
It may not surprise you that, eleven years later, that seven-year-old who ripped up her almost-but-not-quite-perfect spelling test ended up at a university with one of the most rigorous academic environments in the country, Johns Hopkins University. A university that happens to be chock-full of thousands of other go-getters and achievement-minded young people, in fact.
You would think that this type of environment would have only exasperated my perfectionistic tendencies and my drive to be successful according to society’s standards. The irony, though, is that it has been at Hopkins that I have been able to recognize the toxicity of our preoccupation with achievement and its inconsistency with the gospel.
Success Is a Good Thing, but . . .
Being successful in the eyes of society is obviously not bad in and of itself. In fact, it can put us in positions of influence, allowing us to impact more people for Christ. We know from Scripture that hard work and education are biblical virtues, and to say otherwise is, frankly, a misinterpretation of God’s Word. God values hard work (Colossians 3:23) and despises slothfulness (Proverbs 12:24; 2 Thessalonians 3:10).
He also wants us to learn about the world he’s created (Ecclesiastes 7:12). By educating ourselves through our academics, we learn more about the earth and people. We learn about the injustices that exist in this world and how we can embody Christ in fighting those injustices. Through our education, we gain a better understanding of who God is, what he loves, and what he has created.
So what’s the problem here?
Success Can Become an Idol
We’re missionaries first and students second. As students, we most certainly have a duty—especially if others are helping pay for our education—to do our best and work hard. Nevertheless, this duty does not and should never come before our relationship with and duty to God.
When our goals and desires, whether academic, career-related, or otherwise, take precedence over our desire for God and interfere with our ability and willingness to carry out his mission, we’re guilty of idolatry (Romans 1:25). We’re essentially telling Jesus that he is not enough, and that we need things apart from him in order to be fulfilled.
So, for example, when our motivations for doing well and our striving to achieve goals become selfish, that’s a problem (Philippians 2:3-4). When our “10-Year Plan” and life goals are ours and ours alone and we don’t give God a say, that’s a problem. When we rule out the possibility of going into ministry because it’s not a prestigious enough career (and I am guilty of this one), that’s a problem.
When we relentlessly pursue seemingly “good” things without God as our primary motivation, we are missing the point of the gospel, of our lives, and of who Jesus is. And we’re left unfulfilled and empty. When our lives and hopes are centered on what we can achieve, we are always going to be looking and striving for the next level of worldly success. We will yearn for fulfillment but never find it, because we’re looking for it where it simply doesn’t exist.
What Isn’t Eternal
In the Bible, John talks about working for “food that endures to eternal life”:
Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval. (John 6:27)
What is that food? Jesus and his mission. John contrasts this to working for “food that spoils,” or things that aren’t of eternal significance and will never bring us true fulfillment, such as grades, prestige, and society’s definition of success.
One of my freshman Bible study leaders once proposed to us the idea that “grades are not eternal.” This has become quite a catchphrase within our fellowship now; we use it constantly to remind each other to keep our focus on Jesus, the Bread of Life, and to hold each other accountable to pursuing things of eternal significance: loving sacrificially in our relationships with each other, strengthening our relationship with Christ, and doing his work, despite the temptation to put our focus primarily on our grades, our career, our future. After all, we’re not taking our transcripts with us to heaven (1 Timothy 6:7).
Only when our hearts and lives are totally centered on Jesus can we experience true satisfaction and freedom from society’s demand for success. This will certainly involve sacrifice on our part—and that might mean time, energy, career plans, and the pursuit of society’s definition of success. But that’s laughable compared to what Jesus sacrificed for us. Through Jesus, we gain all the success we could ever need (Philippians 4:19).
Ellie Roper is a sophomore studying Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. She serves as Vice President of Hopkins InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as well as a leader of the sophomore Bible study.