Forbes Lists and Success, The Challenge and Confusion of Ambition

Crossroads in life

We are in Miami on a family vacation.  The boys are down early (it was a long travel day yesterday), the pool is open late, and Maci is out for a swim.  I’m poolside, enjoying the sunset and sea breeze, Neil Young is playing in my headphones, and I feel inspired to write.

About as perfect a setting as I could imagine.  

Yesterday, on the flight here, having completed the book that I brought with me, and still having a couple hours left before we landed, I figured I’d peak in the seat-back pocket and see if I could find anything interesting (perhaps the ubiquitous Sky Mall magazine would actually tempt me to purchase something this time).

To my surprise I opened up the pocket and saw the following:


Cool.  Now I have something to read.

Truthfully I hadn’t read Forbes for years.   Lists of super rich people aren’t really my thing lately.

However, once upon a time, they were, and I was at that time, very briefly, an avid reader of the magazine and the list feature.

I crack it open and look at all the lists of the world’s billionaires.  There are lists that detail the residence of all the billionaires in every country in the world.  There are lists sorted by industry, and lists sorted by age. There are profiles of the “new entrants” to this rarified group, as well as a profile of the people who are now kicked out of the billionaires club.  There are stories on how people gained entrance to the club (the cover story I actually found quite interesting) and stories profiling the jet setting lifestyles of others (some of which I find kind of pretentious).

Reading the magazine brought back a very distinct memory:

At one time in my life, I wanted to be on that list, and I actually believed that it was possible. 

What changed?

I’m not sure.  At some point in my adult life I lost the desire to attain massive riches, and I don’t say this from a judgmental or negative perspective.

I’m actually really inspired by the stories of the people on that list.  I love the stories of people who take risks and create interesting things, especially when the odds are stacked against them and they have only their own confidence and hard work in their corner.

I’m not a rich hater.  I love the fact that I live in a country where it is possible to build something and the world will then pay you great sums of money because of how valuable it is.  I love that we have laws that encourage entrepreneurship and risk taking.  I feel like I won the birth lottery by being born where I was (and at times I feel quite guilty about how fortunate I am compared to many other people in the world).  I feel so terrible for people who, because of nothing they did, are born into circumstances far less fortunate than mine. As a result I frequently support social causes and give to charity.

I also am an entrepreneur.   I have been totally self-employed for the last 6 years of my life, and now am involved in multiple businesses.  I keep an eye on profit constantly, because if I don’t, I’ll have to give up the entrepreneur dream that I am living.  I am very conscious of my lifestyle, and I love the freedom that it provides me.  Our businesses have been successful.  We are able to provide our family with nice things (like this vacation).  Money provides that.  So I’d be completely lying if I didn’t say that money wasn’t important in my life.

It’s just that the desire to be on that list is now gone.  But here is the problem (and I’ll describe why it is a problem):

Even though I don’t really care about that list, I’m still ambitious.  I still want to do great things with my life. Even though my perspective of money has slightly changed, my desire to be the very best that I can, and absolutely maximize my output in life, is still as strong as it has ever been (if not stronger).

Why is that a problem?

Well I’ve heard people describe money as a “scorecard” for success.  I hate that metaphor because it de-values the creative energies of people who do things for reasons other than money.

It also completely disregards the success of people who work in fields that don’t provide monetary rewards, such as social work, education, and non-profit.  Are they not successful? To say they aren’t is ignorant, and just not true.  One of the greatest men I’ve ever known was an educator.

I think the idea that money is the scorecard for success is inaccurate and unfair.

So if money isn’t the scorecard – what is? Is there a scorecard?  Why am I searching for one?

This idea is what I have really struggled with in my adult life:

How do I value my own life’s contribution?  If money isn’ t the scorecard, then what is? Is it the number of people I positively influence?  Is it whether I can say that I lived my life with integrity and did what was in my heart?  Is it a peace of mind that comes from knowing that I did the very best to improve upon my abilities?  Is it whether or not I feel generally happy? 

When you really start to process this concept you realize that money, while it is a poor benchmark for success, is at least a quantifiable benchmark.  Hence the reason why many people adopt it as such.  They feel a genuine sense of well being, and self worth, knowing that they live in the top 10%, 5%, 1% (or 0.00001% if you are one of the billionaires) of the population in terms of their “net worth”.

This benchmark doesn’t work for me, but I’m not settled on an alternative  standard either.

I’ve discovered that I love writing – so should my standard be whether or not I am able to write a NY Times best selling book? And if, for some reason, I’m not able to pull it off then I’m a failure?  I like building businesses, does that mean that if I don’t earn millions (or billions) in business then I’m not successful?  What if I have enough to live the lifestyle I want? I like Jiu-Jitsu. So do I have to get a black belt for this pursuit to be worthwhile?  What if I keep training for the rest of my life and never get a black belt (this could actually happen)?

If happiness is life’s primary purpose (as Aristotle says it is) well I can say that I am happy right now, even though I have not yet written a NY Times best seller, am reasonably successful in business (but not crazy rich compared to many people in the world), and I generally suck at Jiu-Jitsu.

To say that I have to “achieve” to be happy, just isn’t true. Anyone who says as much probably isn’t happy, and really doesn’t understand happiness.   I am happiest when I am pursuing positive self-directed (and difficult) goals.  I’ve learned this about myself.  As a result, I’ve learned that I can actually control my happiness, and ensure that I am happy at all times.  For me happiness is found in the journey, not in the destination.

So the conflict that exists in my life is that I have happiness, I truly do, right now, right as I am typing these words, but I also have unmet ambition, lots of it, and I don’t know how to measure, quantify it, or determine whether or not I am “successful” (since I have rejected money as the standard).

I imagine that some of you can relate, and if you can’t, well that’s ok too.  I’m glad you took the time to read, and I hope my thoughts were positive.

We are all on a personal journey in life.  For the time being I consider my unmet ambition a blessing, not a curse.  It keeps me striving, and as I mentioned, at least for me, it is in the striving that I have found the most happiness.


One comment on “Forbes Lists and Success, The Challenge and Confusion of Ambition”
  1. Matthew Ottewell says:

    Shrug: You still can be. You just need to piece together your version of Scentsy(sp?) from the ground up. That’s how it is done. It isn’t that you need to be there. But the option…or at least the possibility…is still there.

    As in, you are still in the game. You might not get there “conventionally” or at all. But you participate. Truly. Cheers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s