John Maxwell: Success or Significance

UPDATED: September 1, 2010
PUBLISHED: September 1, 2010

Do you know the difference between success and significance? I know a lot of people who believe they are successful because they have everything they want. They have added value to themselves. But I believe significance comes when you add value to others—and you can’t have true success without significance. I came to this conclusion while working on my book Your Road Map for Success, in which I wanted to define success. I habitually file good quotes and stories I come across, and then reference them when writing a book. In preparation for the book, I pulled out every quote I ever filed—137 quotes to be exact—on the topic of success. I laid them out on the table and carefully thought through them. After six months I came to understand that success is:

knowing your purpose in life, growing to your maximum potential sowing seeds that benefit others.

The big question is: Once you’ve learned something, do you have a heart to share it with others, or do you hold it for yourself? Success is indeed a journey, but if you stop at adding value to yourself, you miss the reward of significance. Here are a few of my observations about the journey to significance. This journey takes time. It is a process that requires patience and commitment. Success is usually the steppingstone to significance. There has to be a certain amount of success in people’s lives before they are willing to take the step to significance, where they ask themselves, “What else is there in life beyond professional and monetary success?” Pursuing significance takes us out of our comfort zone. Significance is not attainable in a natural way. Let me describe to you the difference of what I think natural and unnatural is: I don’t think you glide or fall into significance. You don’t wake up one day and say to yourself, “I’m significant.” Significance takes us out of comfortable territory into uncomfortable territory. Rusty Rustenbach, in his pastoral article Giving Yourself Away, hits this topic out of the park. He writes, “You and I live in an age when only a rare minority of individuals desire to spend their lives in pursuit of objectives which are bigger than they are. In our age, for most people, when they die it will be as though they never lived.” Once significance is sensed, nothing else will satisfy. I think Katherine Graham put it best: “To love what you do and feel that it matters—how could anything be more fun?” I know a lot of people who love what they do but don’t feel it matters much. And I know some people who don’t love what they do but do feel it matters. But when you can love what you do and feel that it is making a difference in the lives of others, now you have the right combination.  

Five Differences Between Success and Significance   1. Motives

With success, my motives may be selfish; with significance, my motives cannot be selfish. Significance and selfishness are incompatible. When I was a young pastor, I would go to a church and look at my laypeople, and my first thought—as wrong as it was—was, What can they do to help me? As I matured, it turned around where I would think, What can I do to help them? In my experience, motives matter because: •    Selfish people seldom find significance. •    When you help others, you help yourself. When you help yourself, you may not help others. •    As Solomon wrote in Proverbs 23:7, “As [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

2. Influence

With success, my influence is limited; with significance, my influence is unlimited. Here’s an anonymous quote I found that will help illustrate: “When you influence a child, you influence a life. When you influence a father, you influence a family. When you influence a leader, you influence all who look to him or her for leadership.”

3. Time

Success can last a lifetime; significance can last several lifetimes. People who desire significance value time. They evaluate what they do with their time, and they invest their time wisely. M. Scott Peck said, “Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.”

4. Focus

Success asks, “How can I add value to myself?” Significance asks, “How can I add value to others?” My evolution from selfishness to significance went something like this: What can others do for me? → What can I do for myself? → What can I do for others? → What can I do with others, for others?

5. Reward

If I pursue success, my joy is the result of my success; if I pursue significance, my joy is the result of others’ success. Very frequently I’m asked what motivates me. And I tell you, I crossed the line a few years ago where the success of other people is a higher reward to me than my own success. Why is it so rewarding for me to add value to others? First, it’s my calling. Second, it’s so productive to get beyond myself and to help people grow and develop. And third, it’s rewarding for me because it pleases God.