The greatest thing a man can possibly do in this world is make the most possible out of the stuff that has been given him. This is success, and there is no other. It is not a question of what someone else can do or become which every youth should ask himself, but what can I do? How can I develop myself into the best possible manhood?
(Orison Swett Marden)
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about a man leaving on a trip.
Before he goes, he gives money to each of his three servants. The original 1611 King James Bible translated the unit of money as “talent,” an ancient measure of silver. To the first servant he gave five talents; to the second, he gave three; and to the last, he gave one.
This was a nice gift: at today’s prices, each talent was worth around $14,000.
Much later, the man returns and inquires about the talents he has given each servant. The first two servants had doubled their money. Although they had been given different amounts of silver, they had performed equally well (in terms of percentages), and so the man rewards them equally. But the third servant literally buried his talent in a hole, so the master takes away his silver and throws him out.
The story’s message is clear: do your best with what you have, even if it’s not the same as what the next guy has, or you’ll be much worse off.
In a literal sense, the story referred to finances, and this is clarified by modern Bible translations that substitute “bag of silver” for “talent.” But because of the universality of the message, and thanks to King James, the English language now uses the word “talent” to describe an ability or aptitude given to us.
The modern notion of talent is powerful, so it’s easy to get stuck the “aptitude” interpretation of the story. I don’t think we should stop there. It’s not universal enough. Whether you believe they are gifts from God or from the universe, your life has various qualities that can be plugged into this story:
- “To one servant he gave five friends….
- “To one servant he gave five children….
- “To one servant he gave five responsibilities….
- “To one servant he gave five opportunities….
…to the second, he gave three; to the last, he gave one.”
These are the $14,000 questions: What do you have today? What are you doing with it? Are you working with what you have, or not caring for it?
One way or another, questions like these apply to long-range multi-year goals, as well as your plan for tomorrow morning.
As a man, the greatest thing I can do for the world is take a hard, clear look at who I am and what I have in life. Then I need to figure out how to make it better. I now realize that knowing myself objectively, without hype or puffery, is insanely difficult. It has taken me a long time to recognize that I wasn’t honest with myself, and am often too positive or too negative. The servants in Jesus’ story only had to count their money; I have to count all kinds of things about my life.
Every man is different, so all our outcomes are different. I can’t measure my results by what others have. I can only measure my results by how much I do with what I have. The next guy may have more than me, but is doing less with it. So am I better or worse? But, it probably isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. If it is so hard to know myself, then how can I know the next guy well enough to compare the two of us? I do not know his hidden stories.
Norman Vincent Peale wrote, “Never compare yourself or your achievements with others, but make your comparisons only with yourself. Maintain a constant competition with yourself.” Steven Furtick pointed out that “we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel” — a false comparison at every level.
Our success in life, therefore, is not based on mere comparisons, but measuring against ourselves. It’s a steady rechecking of our intent and effort. This cannot be measured by outward appearance, and it applies to everything, even religious faith.
As C.S. Lewis wrote, “a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.” Though the prig may be outwardly religious, you can’t see all that has gone on inside either person.
Jesus pointed this out when Peter asked him about another apostle, John. “What about him?” asked Peter. Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” In other words: don’t compare yourself to the next guy, Peter, but keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing.
And it does not work with intent alone, but intent plus effort. As James wrote, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Good intent is not enough. It needs follow-through.
So, when Marden asks, “How can I develop myself into the best possible manhood?” I believe this is the answer: I need a clear view of self, an honest desire to improve what I have control over, and sincere effort to make it happen.
For $14,000 or anything else of value, that’s the only answer that works.
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