Are We a Nation of Failures, or Are We Keeping the Wrong Score?

By Tom Gilson Published on January 21, 2018

We’re a nation of failures. According to a recent Discover Card survey, Americans just won’t feel successful until they’ve doubled their standard of living. 

Americans want (on average) a home with four bedrooms and three baths, valued at over $408,000. That’s about double what we own now, on average. The car that would let us feel successful is worth $53,276. More than half of Americans want a housekeeper. We also want to take fancy vacations, own the best electronics, and eat at expensive restaurants.

And we’re only halfway there.

Halfway Houses

We’re only halfway there, even though new homes are twice the size they were 40 years ago. The median size of a single family house today is just over 2,400 square feet. The home I grew up in, with four siblings, and even an exchange student “sister” for one school year (plus a three-legged beagle), was only about 1,300 square feet. We didn’t know how cramped we should have felt in such a tiny space — it felt just fine!

Americans just won’t feel successful until they’ve doubled their standard of living.

We’re only halfway there, even though we’ve already doubled the cost values of our new cars since 1975 (in constant dollars). That’s measured by purchase price, but consider also the vast increase in vehicle reliability, safety, efficiency. The average car’s real value now is much more than double than it used to be. But it needs to double again. Or we won’t feel successful.

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We’re only halfway there, even though our electronics are the stuff of mid-twentieth century dreams. My dad’s company bought him a 4-function calculator around 1970. It cost Dow Corning $300.  Today you could get it for under $3. Adjusted for inflation, the price of that calculator dropped by more than a factor of 650! And you don’t need it anyway — it’s on your smart phone.

Here’s my point: By mid-20th century standards, Americans live a true financial dream.

Success For Them

Of course this is a national average. Poverty and hunger still plague many. I could absolutely understand if they want twice the home or twice the car they own now. But this survey sample’s current median home price was over $200,000. 

Success for these people isn’t about having enough food or scraping funds together to stay warm during this cold winter. This “success” has very little to do with that. It has to do with beating the competition.

Godliness with contentment is great gain.

So here we are, many of us living way better than our parents or grandparents ever dreamed, yet still only halfway there to the success we ourselves dream of. And the cold fact is, we never will be more than halfway there. If success is about keeping score and staying ahead, the only way for all Americans to succeed is if we all do better than average — a mathematical, social and spiritual absurdity if ever there was one.

There’s a famous phrase in 1 Tim. 6:6-10. You’ll recognize it when you see it. The lesson from this Discover survey is that the rest of the passage should be better known.  Especially its first sentence: “Now godliness with contentment is great gain,” Paul says.

For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

Our Biggest Failure Is In Scoring Success the Wrong Way

If I’d been one of the 1,000 people polled for Discover’s survey, I’d have said, “I reject the premise of your question. You seem to be suggesting that my sense of successfulness might grow if I had more stuff. Where’d you come up with a crazy idea like that?” For me, success has everything to do with a stable, loving, spiritually strong family, and with competently fulfilling my mission in life. With that I am most content.

Oh, I’ll admit to some score-keeping of my own. It has more to do with getting this writing opportunity or that speaking gig. I understand the temptation to try to out-do the “competition.” But I also know that kind of score-keeping fails from the start, just like score-keeping with the stuff we own.

If Americans are falling short on “feeling successful,” that’s where our failure mostly lies: scoring success the wrong way.

The best measure is godliness. With contentment. Now, that’s success.

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