Iâ€™m not certain when it started. Sometime maybe ten years ago my wife, Jennie, and I were asked the question, â€œWhat do we aspire for our children?â€ At that time we had only my son, Bryson; Marie had not yet appeared on the scene. Without much hesitation, we responded that we hoped for him to be happy, healthy, self-sustaining, and a productive citizen. Jen and I hadnâ€™t discussed it in detail. We hadnâ€™t used any sort of analytical process to clarify priorities. I donâ€™t even remember if I came up with some of the ideas, and Jen others. What I do know is that for the last ten years or so we have shared those four simple priorities numerous times and our conviction around them continues to grow.
Interestingly, as our children have grown, the questions from family and friends about our views of their future have become more and more pointed. Someone will hear Marie at the piano and ask whether we hope for her a musical future and career. Another person will see Bryson pitch at a little league game and ponder about his potential as a left-handed big league pitcher. Regardless of the vector of the question, we always respond with our four wishes, that whatever they choose to pursue, we aspire for them to be happy, healthy, self-sustaining, and productive citizens.
As often happens with parents who actually listen to things they say to/about their kids, I started to reflect on these four simple aspirations and wonder how they apply to me. Over the past 20+ years of my professional life, I have aspired to and achieved numerous goals. I have had the chance to lead large organizations, be accountable for large P&Ls, travel professionally all across the globe, and attend amazing world events. Additionally I have had the chance to work closely with a range of well-known individuals including numerous corporate CEOs and a former U.S. President. Regardless of the achievement associated with these experiences, did they drive me to be happy, healthy, self-sustaining, and a good citizen?
As I reflect not only on my life, but also on the world at large, I am reminded of the dangers and limits of certain definitions of success. In a recent conversation with an old friend, we compared notes on a worrisome phenomenon. Both of us had worked for major, publicly traded, Fortune 50 companies. In both, there was a tendency inside the culture to view senior executives in a different light than all other employees. My friend commented that in his company, â€œit seemed that if you were a Vice President or above, you werenâ€™t just in a higher position than others, you were a better person than others.â€ When did the title of a job, define the character of a person? When did professional promotions recognize core human values? I have known numerous senior executives across my career whose characters couldnâ€™t hold a candle to the associates within their organizations.
The past few years, with the worldwide economic challenges, must remind us that material achievement is not the highest calling of humanity. When did materialism and consumerism become the ultimate aspirations of humanity or America? We cannot allow ourselves to be tempted to think that oneâ€™s purchasing power actually defines oneâ€™s character. We must aspire for more, or maybe actually less. The following are a few touchstones that may make better aspirations for all of us than Gordon Gekkoâ€™s simplistic admonition that â€œgreed is good.â€
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
— Declaration of Independence
â€œI have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!â€
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., â€œI Have a Dreamâ€ Speech
While these two points of inspiration may seem a challenge in the day-to-day routine of life, maybe we can all start by considering our own â€œlensâ€ of success, and by aspiring for our kids, ourselves, our countries and our world to be:
happy, healthy, self-sustaining and good citizens.