The Definition of Success: Derek Snook on voluntary homelessness and humanitarianism

By: The Chatham Post

Derek Snook is a social entrepreneur based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the founder of Charleston-based labor agency In Every Story. His first book The Definition of Success made its official online release on November 14th, but it is a project that has been a long time in the making.

The story begins in 2009—the year of his “voluntary” homelessness. After graduating from college, Snook spent his summer in Kenya assisting with a humanitarian mission trip. Yet throughout this time he is dogged with frustration over a perceived “disconnect between those who want to help and those they are trying to help.” He comes to believe that meaningful societal change can only be possible when people work from a place of shared experience and mutual understanding. And so he resolves to move into a homeless shelter immediately after returning to the US.

In many ways The Definition of Success is a book about stories. In one sense it is Snook’s story of finding meaning and purpose through empathy—and a vision for social change that he builds from this. But crucially it is also about the many stories that fed into his. These are the stories of ordinary human beings that for one reason or another find themselves without a home or steady work. Some come from privileged backgrounds; some had successful careers before an injury or an illness set them back; others more predictably grew up within a system of constant hardship and oppression. Collectively, they revealed to Snook that he could just have easily found himself in their position.

The story of a man named Gerald captures this movingly. At a first glance, Gerald epitomizes irresponsibility. He has rattled up a large cell phone bill, owes money for an ensuing court hearing and yet chooses to spend the little cash he has on a new grill, declaring his old one “too dirty” for use. Snook responds with frustration and contempt as Gerald confides his anxiety over his unpaid debt as they ride back from Wal-Mart with the new grill. Gerald’s circumstances are clearly the result of his poor decision-making.

But the story changes as Gerald’s story is made known. Gerald had only become homeless in the past year during which he had a serious injury falling off his bike, suffered a mini-stroke, and lost his father. Gerald reveals he is tired and needs a break from an existence he feels powerless to change. Why shouldn’t he try to have some fun and raise the spirits of those around him?

Gerald assembles his grill and prepares a meal that for a brief moment brings the community together. Gerald was very close to his father, and it turns out grilling together was their favourite pass-time. The description of this middle-aged man laughing and smiling while he preps the coals and tenderizes the meat suggests that nothing in life brought him greater joy.

Gerald challenges both the author and reader to rethink assumptions about those at the margins of society. Not only do we find that the reasons for Gerald’s circumstances go far beyond poor decision-making, but more importantly his choices reveal what is probably true for all of us if we reflect hard enough—that desires for love, meaning and belonging run much deeper than the need for economic security.

Snook kindly agreed to answer some questions for The Chatham Post.

CP: What inspired you to write The Definition of Success?

Snook: I began writing it when I lived in The Good Samaritan Mission. I needed a way to process what was happening around me, what I was thinking and what I was feeling. I knew that after living there I would never look at the world the same again and that I was better for it. I felt a burden to share that experience with others.

CP: What do you think makes this book unique? What are you trying to achieve with it?

Snook: This book is unique because of its perspective. Success is something we all want but nobody can concretely define. Most people try to find success by keeping up with the Joneses, through education, wealth, or status. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those things, but too often the pursuit of them leads to misery defined by self-absorption, isolation, and the stress of society.

Rather than chasing those things, I gave them up entirely by living homeless for a year. I saw how they influence us in ways we can’t see while chasing them. I learned that success is a life of purpose characterized by self-abandonment and helping others, a community of love, and having a guide.I want to share a glimpse of what a better world can look like when we define success as a life of purpose and ask readers to join me.

CP: On the one hand you make disparaging statements against institutional American Christianity, and on the other you make it fairly clear that your faith in Christ plays a big part in your vision for social justice. Can you comment on this?

Snook: Jesus is hard on the religious of his time as a way to show them their need for him. If you think of those religious leaders as a group of people that wants to protect and prioritize its own power, tying its religious and nationalistic beliefs strangely together even at the expense of others, then you get a great picture of America’s version of Christianity. 

Jesus says in the parable of the Good Samaritan, that every beating heart is our neighbour—across racial, religious, socioeconomic, and every other line you can think of. He says that he is mysteriously in the weak, the poor, the outcast, the widows, and the imprisoned. He says that loving one another as one, demonstrates that he is real, and then he makes the bold claim that if you believe him you can give your entire life to loving and helping others.

CP: Your book presents a strong challenge to society to address the extent of injustice. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by this? Are you ultimately hopeful for future generations?

Snook: I’m a social entrepreneur. I ultimately started a company out of my experience living homeless to help the men I lived with. Through that experience I learned that the problem with insisting you’re doing good is that you can lie to yourself much longer, and cause a lot of damage along the way. And if you quit lying to yourself you can easily fall into a black hole of despair. I think going through that pit of existential despair has prepared me better for the challenge of sharing this message that we need to live lives of purpose over success.

I desire to see the society I believe exists in heaven to come to earth now, and the degree to which I believe that society exists is directly reflected in what I do today. Because I believe it exists and will happen there’s no need to grow on the one hand anxious or on the other hand apathetic. I think that with every step we take we realize there’s a million more steps to the finish line than we thought on the previous step—but we’re still taking steps. I just hope we can have the courage to keep taking steps.

CP: Finally, for our local readers, you spent some of the time you were writing the book in Pittsburgh. What was your experience here, and how did it feed into the ideas of your book?

I love Pittsburgh—its bridges and rivers and Steelers and Penguins. I love the compactness of the city and its neighborhoods. Pittsburgh gave me the space from the Deep South—Charleston, South Carolina–where I’m from to really think about the experiences I had growing up and the year I lived homeless.

 The Definition of Success is available to download for free or “pay-as-you-wish” at dereksnook.net

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