A success worth having

Written by Jeff Dennis

Twenty-five years ago, I graduated from an Ivy League college and set off in search of fortune. This past spring, I was forced to think long and hard about whether I’d found it.

The impetus for this introspection was an invitation from my alma mater, Brown University, to moderate a panel discussion among others from the Class of 1980. The topic was success: what it is, how we measure it and whether we’d achieved it. At first, I felt nervous and a little intimidated. Was I “successful” enough to guide this discussion? How did I stack up to the panellists? One of them of would be Jon Klein, the former executive vice-president of CBS News who now runs CNN/USA. I’ve built and sold some good businesses, but this guy has won Emmy awards.

But the more I thought about the topic and interviewed people in preparation for the panel, the more I felt at ease. I concluded that I have achieved not only success but the best kind of success. That makes me very fortunate, because many entrepreneurs discover true success too late to enjoy it-if they discover it at all.

Coincidentally, PROFIT’s March 2005 issue contained a story, “What success means to me,” in which eight entrepreneurs shared their definitions of success. The most intriguing came from Jay Hennick, president and CEO of Toronto-based FirstService Corp.: “Success is something that you always strive for and, hopefully, never achieve, at least not until you finally pass away. And hopefully somebody else will determine whether you’ve been successful in retrospect. If you start thinking that you’re successful, you lose your edge.” His comments remind me of what Bette Davis, the Hollywood diva, wrote in her first autobiography, The Lonely Life: “I am doomed to an eternity of compulsive work. No set goal achieved satisfies. Success only breeds a new goal. The golden apple devoured has seeds. It is endless.”

This is what I call the “linear” concept of success. Pursue it, and your life will look something like this: set a goal, achieve the goal; set a new goal, achieve that goal; set goal, achieve goal… If you believe for a moment that you are successful, then you lose the drive to be successful. The day you have no goal is the day you fail.

If you lead a public company, as Jay Hennick does, you want to define success in a way that instills confidence in your shareholders and drives your employees forward, never resting on their laurels. I’ve applied this in my businesses, and even in my personal life: getting into an Ivy League college (check), going to law school (check), practising law (check), marriage (check), kids (check), starting a business (check, check, check), achieving certain financial goals (check), etc. This approach was driven by my personality: the classic Type A entrepreneur.

But is this all there is to success? Can you achieve it only on a treadmill? Thankfully, no. You do, however, have to change how you measure the products of your work and your life.

I came to this conclusion during preparations for the panel discussion, but confirmed it on my trip to Brown. There I learned how much my peers have accomplished. One of my classmates is a well-regarded psychiatrist who married one of the Kennedys. The panellists included a blue-chip lawyer turned minister, a trained scientist who became a popular artist, and CNN’s Jon Klein. The key learning from the discussion was that although all of us had pursued success in linear terms, some of us had discovered-whether suddenly or progressively, lately or ages ago-a different kind of success. I call it “holistic” success.

Here’s how it plays out in my life: I am in business with people I want to spend time with; I tackle business opportunities that I consider fun and stimulating (and, of course, profitable); I write this column and regularly speak to business groups around the world; and I’ve designed my business to allow me to spend time with my family and be involved in various community service projects. In each example, success is the contentment I derive while pursuing business goals rather than attaining them. In other words, holistic success is in the journey rather than the destination.

It sounds clichéd, but it’s an important revelation that many entrepreneurs, so focused on the next target, never make. They never get off the treadmill; any success they enjoy is fleeting and, to a large degree, hollow. These are not the rewards we have in mind when we make the sacrifices and take the risks we do as business owners.

Don’t get me wrong: I still watch the bottom line, but primarily because it affords me the luxury of pursuing other activities. And linear success continues to play a complementary role in motivating employees and pushing my company forward. But I’m extremely thankful for the happiness I get from a holistic approach.

Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “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 little better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is the meaning of success.” Don’t wait till your next reunion to be truly successful.

© 2005 Jeff Dennis

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com