How do you measure success in life?
When I was a kid my best friend lived kitty-corner from me. Johny and I played basketball every day in his driveway. We rode our Dyno GT bikes all around the neighborhood. His mom made the best peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a “secret” recipe.
Butter the bread before adding the peanut butter and jelly and then warm it up in the oven.
Jonny’s father was a trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
He made a lot of money. He was a success.
Their family had two beautiful homes. They had a phone in their car before everyone else. Johnny always had the latest Jordans (I bought my first pair of Jordans as a first-year teacher when I finally had enough disposable income to my name — a success!).
Johnny’s father was a success in terms of wealth and material things. He had a great family. I wanted to be like him.
So I asked him what I should be when I grow up?
And what Johnny’s dad said surprised me. I’ll never forget it.
He said, “Danny, if I can do it all over again, I would be a teacher.”
“A teacher?” I thought … “are you f — ing kidding me?”
As Johnny’s dad explained his rationale he must have known that I equated success with financial rewards and material things.
He cited two reasons he would do it differently, if he had the chance, and would choose to be a teacher.
Reason one: “Mo Money, Mo Problems”
Years before P-Diddy, Mase and The Notorious B.I.G. recorded “Mo Money, Mo Problems,” Johnny’s dad told me that having more stuff means you have more stuff to worry about. More things to upkeep, buy insurance for, more things to manage.
And you don’t get to take any of it with you when you die. The dying regret a lot of things. The top regrets have nothing to do with having more stuff or wealth.
Huh. I never had thought of that.
Reason two: Do something that makes the world better
Johnny’s dad taught me the importance of giving back through meaningful work. Whatever route I chose for work, I was encouraged to find purpose in it. Teaching is a selfless endeavor. It’s about nurturing children and developing a community. It’s a noble profession and educators are lucky to have the privilege of teaching. Not every job provides immediate feedback that shows the positive impact you’re having.
So that’s why I became a teacher and served as one for nearly two decades.
Teaching isn’t the only profession with purpose. But what I learned from Johnny’s dad is to find the meaning in the work you do.
Memories and relationships are more important than material things
Johnny’s dad knew something that I did not. As a kid, it’s easy to endlessly want more of everything. Kids compare each other non-stop and that this can lead to only one result — disappointment.
What Johnny’s dad knew is that at some level, “more stuff,” isn’t satisfying at all. With the experience of age, he knew that we don’t take anything with us when we die. Gold watches, fancy cars … the beautiful summer home. It all stays here when you kick the bucket.
I predict what I’ll care about when I die is this:
- How did I treat others?
- Did I do my best to make the world a better place?
- Did I love my family and friends as fully as I could?
- Did I appreciate all the wonderful experiences, opportunities, and privileges that were available to me?
- Did I do everything I wanted to do?
Learn from others that have lived a successful life
There are two blog posts that I have set as a reminder to read every month.