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Success vs. Significance in the Movies

I am surprised by how often the theme of success vs. significance shows up in movies, that is, that significance is more important than success, or that relationships are more important than career.

The basic storyline usually involves a main character who becomes so focused on success that they eventually alienate those around them, usually a significant other.

A few movies quickly come to mind (please add others in the comments below), including Family Man, Liar, Liar, The Devil Wears Prada, and even the holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, which we wrote about last year.

“The Devil Wears Prada” is interesting from a leadership standpoint. It’s a movie about a young aspiring journalist, Andrea (Anne Hathaway), who takes on a job at a fashion magazine as an assistant to the editor. The editor, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is a demanding, hard-nosed leader. She personifies success-at-any-cost. As the culture of Runway magazine begins to shape her and becomes more and more wrapped up in her job, her personal life begins to fall apart.

Upon hitting a low point at work, Andrea talks to a co-worker, Nigel (Stanley Tucci), who tells her …

Let me know when your whole life goes up in smoke. Means it’s time for a promotion.

Ultimately, Andrea, like the main characters of similar movies, chooses the path of significance over success-at-any-cost.

In the classic movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey (James Stewart), spends all of his adult life searching for success (starting with getting out of Bedford Falls) but never finds it. When he reaches the lowest point of his life, he encounters an angel named Clarence who gives him a glimpse of what life in Bedford Falls (and beyond) would’ve looked like had he not been born. In the process, George discovers that he had indeed lived a life of significance, even though it didn’t go the way he wanted it to.

The last time we watched the movie, Joleen noticed a sign on wall in Uncle Billy’s office just below a picture of Peter Bailey (George’s father) that read …

All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.

Significance is more important than success-at-any-cost.

At the end of the movie, George receives a book with a note from Clarence that says,

Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.

Again, significance is the the goal. Relationships matter.

Of course, like many things, it’s not really either/or. You can, and should, seek to be successful, to make the most of the life God has given you. But you may need to adjust your understanding of success. The point is, don’t let success and personal ambition destroy you or the people close to you. Relationships matter; they determine your significance. Success, especially success-at-any-cost, has little value if it alienates you from others.

When push comes to shove, choose significance over success, because, in reality, that’s what real success is.

Can you think of other movies that have a similar theme promoting significance over success?