Defining Success

What does it mean to be successful? 

Is it determined by our bank accounts? Our intelligence? The friends we make? Our job status? The size of our home? The college we attend? 

The longer I am in Kenya I struggle with these concepts. Every signal of “success” I’ve known from America fails to exist here. If we were to judge Kenyans on “American standards of success,” nearly everyone would be considered failures. 

  • The Kenyan dollar falls to the US dollar nearly 110 to 1.
  • Educational standards and practices value rote memorization more than conceptional thinking. 
  • Jobs and career paths are determined by a national exam taken at the end of high school. Thus, individuals are limited to paths based on their test performance as teenagers. 

So what does it mean to be successful? 

As I slog my way through classes and find myself frustrated by the curriculum, its limitations on student performance, and the immense weight that is placed on an antiquated exam (that will soon be replaced in a few years), I wonder what “successful” future awaits these students. Reading each student’s publicly posted grades and rankings, I worry that few students will even be allowed to advance to further studies. (The practice of publicly posting the grades is a concept that I struggle to comprehend its pedagogical reasoning. There are enough educational physiologists who could argue that the practice demoralizes those at the bottom and creates unhealthy attachments to the grades for those at the top – especially since students are literally caned when they drop a position. Furthermore, when I ask the teachers about the practice, they simply respond, “This is how it’s always been.”)

Recently, I had an experience using the internet and computers with some Brothers here that I found surprising. While teaching a spirituality course for some of the Xaverian Brothers in formation, I had them take an online enneagram quiz. Given that I had used this quiz multiple times with high school students, I simply sent them the link, asked them to complete the quiz, and gave no further instructions. It soon became apparent that some of the Brothers struggled to answer the questions and complete the quiz. Stepping in, I instructed these men, all in their mid-to-late 20s, how to answer the questions. The Xaverian Brothers have access to education and resources that most other Kenyans do not. Yet, their knowledge and exposure to the internet, computers, and technology are incomparable to even elementary-aged children in the United States. This is by no fault of the Brothers. In fact, I am confident that their time with the Brothers has advanced their knowledge and skills much faster than it would have been otherwise. This experience is not limited to the Brothers in formation. In the high school, Form 1 students (freshmen) often get their first interaction with a computer, and lessons include how to turn the computer on and how to use a mouse and keyboard. By Form 4 (senior year), tests include basic word processing skills and the ability to reproduce a printed document in a digital format.  

Again, the Xaverian Brothers and Saint Xavier High School deserve much credit for having a dozen or so computers with internet access available to the students for classes and free time. But, at the same time, I wonder if it is enough for them to catch up and compete with the rest of the world. For the students who dream of attending college in other countries, I wonder if they have the skills to navigate learning platforms like Canvas or Schoology, send and share digital documents with classmates and professors, and create dynamic PowerPoint presentations expected of university students.  

This is the difference between under-developed, developing, and developed countries. In an increasingly digital world, how can countries like Kenya possibly achieve success when the skills of a 30-year-old Kenyan are outmatched by a 5-year-old child in the developed world? Is there any way for them to compete? Is there any way for them to be successful? 

So again, what does it mean to be successful? How do we define success? In a country struggling to escape the enslavement of poverty, can we make such statements that it’s determined by the friends we make or the happiness we find in life? Or is that the voice of a privileged American who doesn’t have to worry about his next meal or career path? 

As my weeks here transform into a month, my definition of success wavers. The labels for success that I learned from American culture fail to stick here in Kenya. As a Xaverian- and Jesuit-educated individual, I wonder how the values of Xaverian Education — humility, simplicity, compassion, zeal, and trust — might instill new indicators of success.

  • Humility – Humility “inspires a sense of connectedness, not only within the community, but beyond.” It offers the opportunity to “accept and affirm [one’s] giftedness as well as to acknowledge the giftedness of others.” With the limited resources available to the students, perhaps success is determined by the collaborative relationships and dynamic growth at the school. 
  • Simplicity – Simplicity offers “a way of thinking, feeling and acting in order to offset the modern tendencies of materialism and consumerism.” While this was written within an American and European context, the prophetic wisdom of simplicity reminds us that success isn’t determined by the size of our homes or the number of digits in our bank account but by our “outreach to the poor and marginalized.”
  • Compassion – Compassion “impels those to look at life with the eyes of Christ, to suffer with those who suffer, to accompany them and to seek appropriate action to eliminate the sources of suffering.” In a world and context of great suffering, compassion might get lost in the pain. Yet, the true success of compassion is determined by a “lifestyle rooted in mercy and forgiveness.” 
  • Zeal – Zeal is the “ardent enthusiasm for the Christian formation of young people to increase a person’s desire for personal growth and learning.” As the fields fill with students playing sports, the hall crowds with students for Mass, and the classrooms cram with students studying well into the night, success resembles the individual drive alive in each student willing to maximize their potential. 
  • Trust – Trust is “the meeting place of mind and heart, faith and courage.” In Xaverian Education, success resembles the commitment and belief that every little action in the work of the mission is directing us to “fix our gaze on the transcendent in order to grow in faith in spite of life’s difficulties.”

In truth, I do not know if my time here is being well spent. I often fear that my presence intimidates. I worry that my different style of pedagogy will not adequately prepare the students for their consequential exams. I struggle to see how this summer is worth my time. I know that I will gain little to no success from being here. 

And perhaps, that is the point. To humbly trust that our simple actions will direct the world to zealously live a more compassionate life. To unsuccessfully succeed.

3 Comments

  1. Wow, you are making a difference for the students and brothers with your presence Bobby. You are the sacred spark of the divine and being present will be your success. Keep on shining your light Bobby. With much admiration and compassion, Susan

    Like

  2. Wow, Bobby, it pains me to see you doubting yourself and yet it makes me so proud of your humility. Your efforts are not in vain. I love you!
    ❤️MOM

    Like

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