La Joie de Vivre
Graduation is a beautiful moment, a major marker in your life. A day when the road stretches out before you. Time dilates. Possibilities seem endless. Everyone wishes you success.
But what is success? Who defines it? How do you achieve it?
Let me start by saying that I don’t view myself as the paragon of what successful looks like. I share my views not as someone who thinks you should become like me, but rather as someone who wants you to find your unique path in this world.
What is Success?
We live in a success-crazed society. We measure it. Pick your favorite: grades, wins, championships, money, title, ranking, likes or followers on social media.
We chase the chimera. For some of you, it may have looked something like this: Study hard to get good grades and get into honors. Get top marks in honors courses to get into a great college. Then get top honors to get into a great graduate school. Get honors at graduate school. And then land a top job with a great company and get promoted as fast as possible to make bank. Sound familiar?
Success is more complicated than racking up wins.
Arguably the greatest basketball coach of all time — John Wooden of UCLA — said success is very different than winning. Winning can be read off the scoreboard. “Success,” he said, “is the peace of mind attained only through the self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.”
Terry Francona, the first Boston Red Sox manager to win the World Series since the franchise traded Babe Ruth warned, “You’ve got to remember, don’t chase wins. If you start chasing wins on a daily basis then you’re going to pay the price later on.”
Since you are not always going to win, to be successful, you have to get good at losing. Think about a tennis tournament. 128 enter. 127 lose. A winner learns from the losses, while a loser takes nothing away from victories or defeats. Or think about a child learning to speak a language. How many mistakes need to be made on the path to mastery? Kobe Bryant has the NBA record for most missed shots, yet he is remembered as a great.
I believe that success is a journey, not a destination. Success is a process to find your full potential — to maximize self-improvement in something that gives you deep meaning. It is contextual and a moving target.
Let me illustrate. My brother Andy, who is a teacher here in Charlottesville at St. Anne’s Belfield, is an outstanding runner. He has won many races. In the Chicago Marathon, he won the 45-plus age category in 2:37 in a field of over 40,000 runners. Eight years later, he qualified for the Boston Marathon in Richmond, Virginia, with a much slower time of 3:16. And a few weeks ago, he ran the Boston Marathon, finishing in 3:40 in the middle of the pack, albeit in the worst weather conditions the Boston marathon has ever known: near gale-force headwinds, 2.5 inches of rain, and ice rain forced 2,300 runners to seek medical treatment for hypothermia. But the race statistics don’t lie. In Boston, Andy ran an hour slower than his winning time in Chicago just a few years ago. Why is he failing?
You see, there is a contextual element. He had a dream. One of his — and my —childhood friends, Larsen Klingel of rural Homer, Alaska, was born crippled with cerebral palsy and has never been able to run. Andy wanted Larsen to know what it would feel like to run for the first time in his life, so he chose a marathon. Andy bought a racing wheelchair bike, and pushed Larsen and all 255 pounds in the Richmond and Boston marathons. Larsen’s 91-year-old mother flew from Alaska to see her son complete the Boston Marathon. My brother tells me it was the hardest thing he has ever done athletically — and the most meaningful. Although they didn’t win, they sure were successful.
Who Defines Success?
I would like to ask you to reflect on the following: Who defines success in your life? Do you, or do you let someone or something else define it for you?
When we are younger, we usually let others do it for us. Too often, we continue the pattern and let others — our employer, parents or society — define success for us.
Yet, it is your individual right to pursue success as you define it, or as Jefferson put it, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The great English philosopher John Stuart Mill in his book On Liberty said human liberty means framing the plan of your life to suit your own character.
Remember: Your work is not who you are. Work is what you do. Companies have every right to define what they value, and how they will measure promotion. Equally, you have the liberty to define what success is for yourself.
As Ben Zander says in his book The Art of Possibility, “It's all just a game.” The criteria for success that society has ginned up is just a human construct. When you enter a company, you need to be able to stand up on the balcony and look down and see yourself on the treadmill — in the game, in the rat race — defined by the company you have joined. You make the choice to play the game, and why you are playing it. You set the frame in which you view your life. Are your company’s values aligned with your own?
My point is: Don’t outsource the definition of your life’s success to your employer or someone else and let them yo-yo your happiness at each performance review.
What are the Keys to Unlocking the Doors of Success?
Success is highly individualistic, but there are four keys I believe dramatically increase the chances for a successful life: First, do something meaningful; second, build strong relationships; third, dream big and small; and fourth, have the right habits to provide the energy and patience to stay the course.
Key 1: Something Meaningful to Do
The French call it raison d’être, the reason for being; the Japanese, ikigai — a reason to get up in the morning. Others call it their why, their purpose.
In Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, it says: “He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how.” So why you are doing what you are doing matters a lot.
Having an active life pursuing something you care about lets you deploy the character values you cherish most. For example, intellectual curiosity, problem solving, giving advice or generosity. From values stem strength and motivation.
Being industrious and hardworking is a key to success. Success rarely comes from laziness.
For balance, you must find meaning away from work — by exploring passions, whether goodness, nature, sport, truth, beauty, culture or music. For me, it is seeing beautiful trees like Japanese maples, the majestic plains of the Serengeti, listening to Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour play a guitar solo of “Comfortably Numb,” or seeing my family.
Remember that the why of your work may come from the ability it gives to pursue a nonwork-related passion.
Key 2: Building Relationships
As much as you may want to separate your private life from your work life, they are interrelated. Having someone to love or care about — whether colleagues, a partner, parent, friends, children or pet — brings meaning to everyone.
The higher you rise as a leader, the more you are only as good as the people who work with you. Their success becomes your success. At McKinsey, I initially focused on client activity. But soon, I came to realize that my best performance came when focused on relationships. Building strong teams and working with great people, I could help achieve their full potential.
Whom you choose to spend your time with — and equally importantly, whom you choose NOT to spend your time with — may be among the most important decisions you make. For example, my wife, Claire, and our boys have been critical pillars in my life. In each area of your lives, think about who you are spending your time with. Are their values and philosophy of success aligned with yours? Do they lift your game?
Having people you love and care about at work and in your private life is a key to success.
Key 3: Dream
I believe that having goals — dreams — both big and small, short term and long term, is critical to success. Have a telescope and a microscope. As you set goals, focus on excellence and stretching yourself to new heights. Put your performance under the microscope, with a goal of regular improvement. Use the telescope to shoot for the stars.
When your goals connect to your values and give you meaning, they may bring out amazing performance.
For example, take a woman I met who was just completing her dream of earning a doctorate at age 91; she told me she was a lifelong learner. Or take Chuck Feeney, who founded the outstanding private-equity firm General Atlantic with a goal to advance philanthropy. In his life, he has given away almost all of the more than $8 billion he has earned. He has found meaning in helping others.
As you pursue your dreams, some may turn into nightmares — life is not always fair and does present us with adversity. Sickness, addiction, injury to a loved one or ourselves, death, financial stress, war — the list goes on. But Viktor Frankl points out that every brush with adversity is an opportunity for success — it’s all in the attitude.
In our search for meaning, we must open new doors and try new things. We must take risks and sometimes overcome adversity or what many call failure. There is no success without failure. Just as there is no life without death. They are two sides of the same coin.
Key 4: Having the Energy and Habits to Stay the Course
Aristotle said that we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
What are your habits? What are your defaults? We are all crunched for time. Yet, how much time do you spend on your smartphone and social media?
We all face a dilemma. You all want to do well at your job, but work is demanding and will expand to fill the time you give it. We all know that we only have a certain number of minutes to live on this earth, but we don’t know how many. And we know that when our time comes that we will not be wishing we would have worked more; unless our work was the love of our life.
Our agenda runs our lives. Some of you will be billed by the hour — or even 15-minute intervals. And it all takes energy. A lesson I learned is that managing energy is more important than managing time. James Loehr’s fantastic book the The Power of Full Engagement describes four types of energy: physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. Each type of energy has sources and drains. Much of what you will do will demand huge energy. But what are you doing to replenish your energy and staunch major drains? What makes your energy surge? Do you sleep enough or do you have both ends burning?
Energy is a good barometer for meaning. Things that give you meaning give you energy. Make one of your habits managing your energy over reasonable periods of time. Schedule your passions. If I didn’t book regular tennis lessons, I would rarely play. Be patient, too. It is not possible to live every day in energy balance.
Let me summarize. At the end of the day, success is knowing that you did the best you could with the cards you were dealt in the pursuit of your full potential.
Is success mutually exclusive with material wealth? I think not. Beyond meeting Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs, success means neither taking vows of poverty, nor aspiring to be Midas.
Tywin Lannister of Game of Thrones, corporate titans and heads of state exemplify, for many, wealth and success. But are they the kind of leader YOU want to be?
Success is individualistic and can only be defined — and redefined — by you. Success comes from meaning, and the search for meaning is meaningful itself.
The keys to success are in essence: something meaningful to do, someone to love, something to hope for, and the habits and energy for the journey.
Class of 2018, I wish you success by your own definition. I wish you what we call in French la joie de vivre — the exuberant enjoyment of life.
Mark Twain said, “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” May this day, and your two years at Darden, be the start of something amazing.