June 2008

Friends on the Journey

How do you define success?  And perhaps as important, how do you know when you have achieved it?

Years back, I recall speaking with my White House boss and former Secretary of State and Treasury, James Baker, about this illusive matter of success and failure.  He proceeded to describe his very first day at the White House, settling into his spacious West Wing office once occupied by the likes of such nobles as that humble soul, Dr. Henry Kissinger. He recalled the excitement when the President's entourage of limousines, hovering staff, press and security details moved about Washington bringing all traffic to a halt since the power of that office trumps all else in this city of power. This was big...this was success; Baker had truly made it and it felt pretty darn good. As White House Chief of Staff, Baker would bask in the reflective glory of the most powerful man on earth...the President of the United States.

During a brief lull in this incredible day, Secretary Baker gazed out of his rarified digs onto Pennsylvania Avenue.  At that moment, he noticed a familiar face walking solemnly in front of the most important address in America. Indeed, it was someone he knew, a former chief of staff to a previous President. Baker recalled that moment for me.

"I gazed upon this well known man yet was amazed that this man who had wielded such power and influence was alone, a solitary figure...no entourage or press in his face. One man all alone with his thoughts and memories and a fleeting touch with fame. I took a breath and considered my puffed-up day. I thought to myself, 'Never forget that image. Remember who your real friends are and how very temporal is all of this. Now, everyone returns my calls from the White House but that will change once I leave. Remember who you are.'"

I never forgot that conversation. In fact, I wrote several speeches for Baker and worked this theme into them since I felt it a powerful reminder about the nature of success and its imitators. 

We all have our stories of the moment when our view of success was altered. It likely came for many of us when we actually achieved some major accomplishment and were puzzled by the sour aftertaste accompanied by a strange sadness.

In Man and Superman by playwright George Bernard Shaw, Shaw observes this strange phenomenon:

"There are two tragedies in life.
One is to lose your heart's
desire.  The other is to get it."

So, the question remains: what is success?

We only have clues, yet true success leaves fingerprints. I would suggest that a central ingredient of true success centers around relationships, having others in our life to share the journey with all of its wonders and heartaches. But the soft underbelly of success, at least the way in which our culture has defined it - power, prestige, notoriety, money and influence- can, ironically, isolate us from others. What a strange fruit from great achievement.  Yet it seems accurate, at least, from my own observation.

Good friend, philanthropist and financial wizard, Ray Chambers, despite his colossal success and influence, has remained quite normal. But how? One reason relates to his long connection to the members of his college rock and roll band. They gather, play music and hang out. Ordinary guys still being quite ordinary together. Another friend, Bill Harrison, former Chairman and CEO of JP Morgan/Chase in response to my probing question in anticipation of his retirement from a long distinguished career in banking, told me that he was so excited about the prospect of fixing screen doors and other mundane tasks. Then his eyes lit up as he told me of the sheer pleasure of driving a big semi-truck to deliver something for a friend.

What keeps you grounded? A personal illness or tragedy, some old books that you regularly re-read, an old sweater, a son with a tattoo, an old letter from a mother or father or grandparent,  a special place that has been in your life for decades, an old friend who wants nothing from you?  Reminders of your own history and what you value...

In an odd way, the truly ordinary and random things in our lives seem there for a purpose-- to remind us of our humanity and to slow us down. To remember to separate the important from the urgent.

Two days ago, I had lunch with an old friend who had been in a federal prison for over 11 years for financial fraud.  I was curious about many things but two particularly struck me that day with him.  First, him telling me of the number of 'uber' successful people that had visited him in prison to share a 'secret' , a fear, a dilemma, a crime they had committed, a profound worry or failure. And second, that he will never view success in quite the same way. Once you have suffered, you know what truly matters.

This illusive notion of success is a topic worth pondering over the summer. Perhaps it is a good time to re-calibrate your own notions on this subject. Jot down your own musings.

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Reflections on Success identifies his own formula for success.

How do you measure success?
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people,
and the heart affection of children.
To earn the appreciation of your honest critics,
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty,
and to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child,
a redeemed social condition,
or a job well done;
To know that even one other life has breathed;
This is to have succeeded!

So long for now, warmly,



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