“Not in the clamor of the crowded street, not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng, but in ourselves are triumph and defeat.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
One of the really great things about life, and a little known secret to happiness, is that we get to define our own success, our own happiness. What looks like success for me, might not look like it for you. You may choose to aim for a higher or lower target, or you may look completely elsewhere.
When I was a young employee at my job I considered going back to college for an MBA. I was in my 20s and I was making enough money that we could afford to have my wife stay home. I had dreams of one day being a captain of industry, and rising well up in my organization.
I remember in a previous job my boss asked me what my aspiration was for the long term. I told him that I wanted to one day run the company. That was a computer manufacturing company that soon went out of business, but at the time it was a lofty goal for someone mere months out of college.
So, there I was. It was 1986 and I was considering getting my MBA. I had brochures and applications, the campus was only a few minutes from my office, it was looking good. Then I was asked to be a Scoutmaster for a Boy Scout Troop. I had been a Scout as a boy, and had been in a leadership position while in college. My only son at the time was still an infant, but I had an interest in leading.
I remember having the debate in my head. I wasn’t sure I could return to school and be a Scoutmaster, and do both well. I had a discussion with my supervisor over coffee one day, and mentioned my dilemma. She was adamant that I should go to school. She told me that it would be the biggest mistake of my life if I chose being a Scoutmaster over an MBA.
I thought long and hard, and my wife and I discussed it at great length. Eventually we decided that I would be a Scoutmaster. I felt that I owed a debt to Scouting, in the names of all the men who had volunteered their time to help shape me into the man I was. I decided that, for the time being, graduate school could wait.
My boss was right about one thing. Because I didn’t go back to school at that time, I ended up never going. I have worked through my career with just a Bachelor’s degree. There just never seemed to be time. Soon we had a 3rd child, then a 4th. I found other opportunities to serve and lead in scouting, and later in my church. Always there was a reason not to go back to school, until there eventually seemed to be no reason TO go back to school.
Where that long ago boss was wrong, though, was in her assessment of whether or not it would prove to be a mistake for me. If I had gotten an MBA, there is a good chance that I might have had more promotions in my career. Those promotions would have meant more money for the family, and perhaps an earlier and more comfortable retirement. But that wasn’t how I defined success.
For me, success wasn’t about dollars and cents, the size of my house, or the number of toys in my box. For me, success would be measured by how well I served as a husband and father, and how well I gave back to the community around me. By choosing to serve, and choosing to spend more time with my children than my career, I was defining my own success.
There have been times since then that I have thought about whether things would have been different if I’d done the degree. There are times when I see people being promoted ahead of me, and I know that I am just as capable in management as they are. I know that one of the differentiators between they and I is that lack of an advanced degree. But, then I turn my head away from looking at my job, and toward my home life.
I have 4 amazing children, and when I am not being overly modest I know that I had a hand in making them who they are today. I know that by choosing to spend more time with my family, it had a positive effect on them. And, I have people I met in Scouting and in my volunteering at the Church who are lifelong friends. There are men and women whose lives I touched and had some influence on helping make them who they are today.
Recently I was sitting with a group of friends, and some of their children. One of the daughters, whom I have known since she was an adolescent, said that the examples provided by the men seated with her, myself included, had helped shape what she expected from strong men in life. That we, along with her father, shaped what kind of woman she was, and what kind of man she expected in her life. I was floored, and a little choked up by that statement.
There have been others who have talked to me as adults and told me that the time I spent with them when they were youths helped them be better people. To this day, some of them look at me as a role model and coach. I am completely honored and floored by that notion.
That manager was completely wrong about my future. She counseled me, and gave her thoughts about my future success through her own lens. For her, had she never gotten her MBA she wouldn’t have reached her definition of success. But my definition was different, my goals were on a different target.
I will never be rich in the way that Bill Gates, LeBron James, Warren Buffett or any of a host of other multi-millionaires and billionaires are. But I am rich in a very different way, and my richness cannot be bought or sold, it comes only from the decisions I made about how and where to spend my time and energy.
So, Longfellow had it right. The clamor of the streets and the plaudits of the throng may never celebrate my personal success, and that is ok. I celebrate my success within, and I am quite successful indeed.