The True Meaning of Success

Last week, I wrote a couple columns for Investment U pointing out that things in these United States are not nearly as grim as they might seem when you turn on the evening news.

Alas, some readers were having none of it.

Many rushed to point out that the economy is stalled, the job market is weak, income inequality is high and household wages have been stagnant for a decade now.

If you’re out of work or struggling to pay your bills, clearly this is not the best of times for you personally, and perhaps through no fault of your own.

However, some are suffering for a different reason. They chased a blinkered image of success: the idea that status and self-worth are derived from flashy cars, expensive bling, or a five-bedroom McMansion in a gated community.

Now they have an economic hangover.

Look, if you can afford these things, great. Enjoy them. But if they are a stretch, a struggle… could they really be worth the long hours, strained relationships or your kids continually asking, “Where’s Dad?”

We all have overhead, of course. But it doesn’t take that much to meet our basic requirements. So it doesn’t hurt to occasionally ask what exactly you are trading your life for.

I once heard a customer in a jewelry shop ask the store manager whether the Rolex he was considering was really accurate enough to justify the cost.

Sir,” he replied, “I’m happy to tell you about the incredible Swiss craftsmanship that goes into each of these timepieces. But nothing under this counter keeps time better than the cellphone in your pocket.”

The man knew his business. He wasn’t selling watches. He was selling luxury, a certain image of success.

There’s nothing wrong with that. The world is full of desirable things. But sometimes we can forget that the important things in life aren’t things at all. And genuine success cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

What is success?” asked Ralph Waldo Emerson, “To laugh often and much. To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children. To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends. To appreciate beauty. To find the best in others. To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition. To know even one life breathed easier because you have lived; this is to have succeeded.”

Yet, in many ways, society today equates success with money and possessions. How else do you explain the Donald Trump phenomenon?

Consider him alongside two other well-known billionaires, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

If Gates were to suddenly lose his fortune, your image of him would hardly change. He’d still be the geeky technology nerd and wonky policy guy devoted to making the world a better place.

If Warren Buffett suddenly lost his fortune, he’d still be the grandfatherly type with an impish sense of humor who loves playing bridge and drinking Cherry Coke.

What would Donald Trump be without his money? Personally, I’m drawing a blank. The man is synonymous with his money. And he seems to prefer it that way, going on about his properties, his casinos and how his net worth is so much greater than we realize.

(Excuse me a moment while I wretch.)

This is not just a modern phenomenon, of course. There has always been fierce competition for resources. Citizens of ancient Greece and Rome hungered for wealth and power, too.

What has changed dramatically is today’s level of material prosperity. Yet the quest for more can quickly overtake your priorities.

Nearly 150 years ago, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in “The Wisdom of Life”:

It is manifestly a wiser course to aim at the maintenance of our health and the cultivation of our faculties, than at the amassing of wealth… Beyond the satisfaction of some real and natural necessities, all that the possession of wealth can achieve has a very small influence upon our happiness, in the proper sense of the word; indeed, wealth rather disturbs it, because the preservation of property entails a great many unavoidable anxieties.

And still men are a thousand times more intent on becoming rich than on acquiring culture, though it is quite certain that what a man is contributes much more to his happiness than what he has. So you may see many a man, as industrious as an ant, ceaselessly occupied from morning to night in the endeavor to increase his heap of gold…

And if he is lucky, his struggles result in his having a really great pile of gold, which he leaves to his heir, either to make it still larger, or to squander it in extravagance. A life like this, though pursued with a sense of earnestness and an air of importance, is just as silly as many another which has a fool’s cap for its symbol. What a man has in himself is, then, the chief element in his happiness.

The desire to have, to acquire and to possess is in principle insatiable; it cannot generate the fulfillment we imagine. By contrast, doing, creating or contributing does generate the sense of satisfaction we crave.

In setting our priorities, doing should precede having. After all, how can you do what you really want if you’re too busy working for what you already have?

Carpe Diem,


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About the Author

Alexander Green
Chief Investment Strategist

Alexander Green is the Chief Investment Strategist of The Oxford Club. A Wall Street veteran, he has more than 20 years' experience as a research analyst, investment advisor, financial writer and portfolio manager.

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