One of my favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life. In addition to an ending that always makes me tear up, I love the theme of this film. George Bailey works at the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan in Bedford Falls and throughout his entire life, he longs for greater adventures. He wants to go to college, see the world, and succeed in business. However, after a series of events prevent any of his dreams from becoming a reality, he realizes he may never leave his hometown. At the end of the movie though, George realizes that even though he thought his life was uneventful, he had touched many other lives. In other words, he was successful at providing value to the people around him. To me, that’s significance.
I constantly struggle with the rub between success and significance. I’ve seen some very successful people who do not provide much value to the people around them while others who might not be seen as particularly successful make an incredible impact on others. And, of course, there are some who are both successful and significant.
In Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life, the author talks about the ways we compare ourselves to others. Often we look at more successful people and compare only one aspect of our lives to theirs. For instance, I might look at a very successful speaker and wish that I had the number of speaking engagements she has. Or I might read a book by a gifted writer and wish I could write like him…uh…he…uh…them (See what I mean?). Or I look at a friend who has a full head of hair and wonder why my head, although incredibly sexy, is bare. The problem, as Peterson describes it, is that I am comparing only one quality. The successful speaker may have sacrificed relationships at home due to the busy-ness of her business. And the writer may have addictive issues that prevent him from benefiting from his literary gifts. And the man with a full head of hair may not rock the chiseled body that I have. You see, the qualities we may admire don’t necessarily paint the entire picture.
As a kid, I use to tell my mom, “I won’t be happy until I’m famous.”
I had no particular talent which would suggest that I might one day become famous. But the idea seemed like a good one. Ironically, when my father got upset with me, he often would be so flustered, he would call me by my dog’s name. So, clearly, if my father couldn’t remember my name, I wasn’t even famous in my own house! But perhaps fame wasn’t the best target for my career path or my life.
Now, looking back at my work in hospice care and then as a professional speaker, I realize that the choices I made that led to so-called success were usually tied to the value I provided rather than success in and of itself. For instance, seeking a management position because it entailed more power and prestige did not interest me as much as learning to be good supervisor or mentor. Speaking for a huge sum of money did not excite me as much as working with non-profit groups who rarely had the opportunity to experience a funny and engaging presentation. And becoming the chair of a committee or the president of a national association was the result of doing valuable work on committees rather than seeking that top spot in the organization.
I have found that value will almost always lead to significance while success may not.
Many people will seek money, power, or fame as if achieving those benchmarks automatically lead to significance. I suppose a person who has achieved a high level of success does possess more ways to also become significant. They have financial resources, powerful connections, and the notoriety to touch a lot of people. But, sometimes, the very goal of success requires one to spend so much time focusing on continued success that value or significance may be sacrificed along the way.
I recently read about Alan Naiman, a social worker who worked for the state of Washington’s Department of Social Services. He was quite frugal and it appeared to his colleagues that he had limited financial resources. Yet, he had been saving money for years and when he died, he left $11 million to a variety of charities that support disadvantaged children. His focus was not on success but making a difference through his job and then ultimately, his generous gift. That was valuable, and ultimately significant.
In my community, I’m surrounded by people who provide value every single day. My wife delivers food to a woman who lost her sight. Several neighbors knit blankets and scarves for those who can’t afford them. And our local tree company donates wood to disadvantaged people rather than selling it for a profit.
Perhaps it is the value in what we do that leads to significance. So, as we go through our lives and our work, we should continually ask ourselves if what we are doing is leading to something of value. If so, then I would argue that we are achieving significance—even when we might not feel particularly successful.
I did not achieve fame as I told my mother I would. But, hopefully, along the way to being un-famous, I have provided value through the work I do and the life I lead. And that just might be more significant than fame.
Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value. —Albert Einstein