Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines success as “the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.” It’s the first part of this description – wealth, being the operative word – that caught my attention back in the 1960s, which is ironic considering that it was a time of mounting rebellion against money and material possessions. But while the times, no doubt, were a changing, as Bob Dylan noted, they were far simpler and average working Americans were much more innocent.
I grew up in provincial south-central Connecticut where my daily life with a mother, father and two older sisters was largely shielded from the counterculture movement, though the family’s first-born child provided a sense of what was happening beyond our unlocked front doors. Also, living in the suburbs meant that we were just as isolated from affluence and extreme poverty, which actually gifted us with a pretty even-handed view.
My parents taught us to embrace old-fashioned virtues and values above everything else in life. And while our successful businessman father instilled in his three kids the importance of having enough money, his point was that it’s a means to an end and it’s important to pursue a career for which you have talent and passion. We had one of the nicest homes in a nondescript, middle-class neighborhood, and my dad liked to drive nice cars, but we never worshipped the almighty dollar. That’s an important distinction that needs to be made.
As a child, I thought that people who earned a lot of money were the ones in life who made it to the top. But my view thankfully evolved as I gained knowledge and saw first hand how money could corrupt people.
I remember a friend from overnight camp around the age of 10 whose family had a boatload of money and lovely home in a tony part of my home state, but every time I visited him there was chaos in the air marked by many heated arguments. I suppose this was my introduction to the notion of family dysfunction. Those disturbing memories stayed with me for years and helped shape my thoughts about money – a powerful cautionary tale that I’m trying to teach my own kids.
Little did I realize that many years later, the topic of workplace compensation would be an area of focus for me as a journalist – an issue addressed at great length in a previous blog entry of mine. I never begrudge people for making lots of money, nor do I frown upon free markets. But I do have a serious problem with extreme wealth that fosters bourgeois tendencies at the expense of love, compassion and all the other things in life that truly matter.
One of my newest heroes in recent years is Bill Gates – not because he helped revolutionize our lives and ushered in the Information Age (truth be told: his product is subpar compared with the one his rival Steve Jobs eventually licensed). What makes America’s most famous computer geek so worthy of our respect is that after becoming filthy rich he decided to give away most of his money through a foundation whose chief cause holds unbelievable promise in helping make the world a better place.
To me, this is the ultimate model of success: an entrepreneurial spirit blended with philanthropy. The problem, of course, is that we can’t force rich people to open their hearts and wallets, nor should we even think about doing this other than mandating the occasional tax increase to help lift ourselves out of desperate times. But we certainly can attempt to instill in future generations the same sort of values I grew up with and shame the most fortunate souls into striking a better balance between selfishness and selflessness.
So what is success?
Annual income is only part of the equation. I think there are multiple layers of meaning that get lost in all the white noise of modern society.
One pillar or foundation involves human relationships. Anyone who’s seriously estranged from immediate family members or friends, or has a difficult time getting along with others or made his or her share of enemies through the years, has some major soul searching to do. As a corollary, it’s hard to muster any respect or sympathy for people who repeatedly play the victim card and cannot take responsibility for their own actions. I marvel at people who verbalize their love on a daily basis when it’s so easy to get caught up in the day’s events and lose sight of our connection to one another.
Another point to consider is volunteerism. I think it’s so important to give back to the community – something that all parents should teach their children so that they can transcend the inherent narcissism of youth and develop early on a sense that there’s so much more to life than worldly possessions.
Other areas include being honest and doing our best at work. The sum of all these moving parts to modern life certainly spells success with a capital S.