On Personal Success
Every year, Forbes lists the world’s richest men and women, and we – as meager individuals – imagine what it would be like to live among this elite group, but why do we hold these individuals to such high admiration? Does a sizeable bank account directly correlate with personal success? Are all of these men and women definitively the greatest human beings on the planet? Many of you are probably nodding your heads in disagreement and wondering why I’m stating something that is so widely known. All of us have learned through the course of our lives that true value comes from our contributions to society, our empathy towards others, our moral fiber, and even how much love exists in our lives. You all know this reality very well, and I’m not here to reinvent the wheel. Still, why do so many of us forget or disregard this statement on personal success? Is it a matter of conformity, sacrifice, greed, or something more?
Before I go any further, I want to share how the following thought process came about. Recently, I was watching one of my favorite dramatic movies, Dead Poets Society, and one particular motif caught me in a stranglehold. In the film, at the start of every meeting, the Dead Poets read an entry aloud from Henry David Thoreau – “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that was not life, and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.” Those of you who have read my first entry – “Sacrificing Your Brand” – can probably see why this theme catches me the way that it does. Personally, one of my greatest fears in life compliments that of Thoreau – to realize at my last breath that my life had not been lived. Whenever I contemplate this possibility, I recall the trap that so many of us fall into – the admiration of the world’s richest men and women. When we admire money, we seek it, and when we seek it, we sacrifice for it. Of course, everybody has a different definition of personal success, but my meaning is defined by how well I avoid Thoreau’s fear. Consider your definition. Regardless of what that may be, ask yourself if you are sacrificing true personal success by admiring extraneous goals.
Of course, some of us will live our lives having attained both substantial money and personal success, as I’m sure many wealthy individuals have done before, but so many of us will also sacrifice our lives in pursuit of other goals, such as a sizeable bank account. For example, about a year ago, I was speaking with a friend of mine about Donald Trump, and my friend had mentioned that Donald Trump was not making enough money with a certain deal, that he should have made x billion dollars instead of y (x>y). At first I thought this was a sarcastic comment, but it ended up being a serious statement. For the next half hour, my friend and I argued over Trump’s true value. As you can imagine, this friend was (and still is) completely driven by money – he is pursuing an MBA for the primary purpose of making stacks of cash post graduation. This is not to say that he won’t enjoy his business career, but personal success is not his primary motivation. As I listened to his rant, I pitied the life he was living. He was not looking deep within himself to uncover what would provide him with the greatest personal success. Does this make him a bad person? Of course it doesn’t. Nevertheless, I wish for his sake that he weren’t so motivated by the color green.
Still, wealth isn’t the only factor that drives us from our personal success. Sometimes, the ones we love can turn us away. For instance, I once was speaking to one of my at-the-time SAT students (whose identity will remain confidential) about his career ambitions. He told me that he wanted to be a doctor, and when I asked him why, he simply shrugged his shoulders. Then, after a pause, he told me that his dad was the one who gave him the idea. I asked if it was his wish as well to pursue this career, and he said it wasn’t his dream to be a doctor, that he wasn’t even happy about it. I was completely heartbroken by how miserable this kid looked. Not only was he unmotivated to be a doctor, he was disgusted by the thought of practicing medicine the rest of his life. [One thing that truly outrages me is a child who is victimized by his parents, but that’s a whole different story]. Recalling Dead Poets Society, I wanted to take the role of Mr. Keating and warn this student of the dangers of conformity. Unfortunately, even if I would’ve spoken up, there was little I could have done for him at the time. There are so many other cases of these sacrifices that we could write libraries about them.
Whether we surrender our personal success for wealth, conformity, the ones we love, or any other cause, why should we? I know there are plenty of arguments that rebut this theory, but I still can’t help but picture that last breath of every life and what must be going through those minds. Too many times I’ve heard of people regretting their choices because they pursued goals that sacrificed the lives they envisioned. I challenge you to think through this scenario: imagine you have one hour to live. That’s only sixty minutes to think about the choices you made. Would you have made the same decisions? Would you have done anything differently? For those decisions you would’ve kept, cherish them; for the decisions you would’ve changed, act upon them. Life’s timeline has no guarantees, but the course of your life can be changed at any moment when you take the time to pursue what you love. This idea is the source of so much inspiration in my life.
The next time you read about some of the wealthiest men and women, consider if wealth, conformity, or any similar distraction is the true mark of success. I implore you to live your life as you envision it, to “suck out all the marrow” from it so that you may truly live. So long as you stay true to morality, empathy, and love along the way, you will have lived a glorious life full of personal success.