I recall a time eight years ago when my then 74-year old father came to our house for a visit, which he typically does two or three times a year (when we are not dealing with a pandemic!). He loves to see his grandsons and we talk to him every week by phone, but because of his health it is sometimes difficult for him to travel from his Florida home to Atlanta. I have occasionally written about my dad over the years and the wise counsel and good example I have always received from him. This particular weekend visit was different because of a powerful lesson he helped me teach one of my children. On the Saturday afternoon of my dad’s visit, my son and I were throwing the football outside while my father was taking a short nap in his room. I can always tell when one of my boys has something on his mind so I probed and asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about. He responded with, “Dad, remember when we talked about what it means to be successful a few months ago? Is Papa successful?”
Wow! That was an interesting and mature question. He was referring to a conversation we had a few months before about being successful in business and what kind of career he wanted to have after college. I gave him a thoroughly modern version of what I thought success looked like in business and made sure we talked about having strong faith and the importance of starting and caring for a family someday as well. I kept it at a high level for him at that time, but his question about my father deserved a deeper answer.
I explained that my dad came from a different generation. He was in the army for six years after high school and then he completed two years of college before going to work full time. He met and married my mother who also worked for the same company in 1965 and I came along in 1966. We didn’t have a lot of extras when I was growing up, but we had what we needed. Both my parents worked, but we always had dinner together and my father frequently coached my sports teams. They were both active volunteers at their church and volunteered in the community where we lived. Even though my parents did not finish college, they both instilled in me a passion for learning when I was young and there was no question in their minds that I would be continuing my education after high school. The same was true for my younger sister.
Our father and mother taught us about faith, the importance of serving others and the value of hard work. We knew how to be self-sufficient at a young age. Strong values and great life-lessons were instilled in us from my earliest childhood memories. They also handled adversity in their lives with calmness and determination that inspires me to this day. So, is my father successful? By modern standards, a quick glance at his meager savings and lack of material possessions would merit a resounding “no.” But, in the areas that mattered most to him and also to my mother while she was alive, they were incredibly blessed all their lives with everything of consequence they truly desired.
You see, my parents never tried to “keep up with the Joneses”. Acquiring toys and accumulating wealth never mattered. They were focused on raising faith-filled children, helping as much as possible with furthering our education and teaching us how to be responsible. My father always wants to talk about his grandchildren when I call him or find out how my business is doing. He rarely talks about himself, and certainly never complains.
He comes from a generation that has much to teach us. We can deceive ourselves all we want that today’s world holds us to a different standard, but as I get older I recognize that we also have the ability to choose the lives we want to lead. The more I detach myself from modern society’s view of success, the happier and more fulfilled I feel. This detachment allows me to put the appropriate focus on serving God and living my faith, loving and spending time with my wife and children and giving back to others instead of accumulating unnecessary toys that can often become obstacles to true happiness. I learned these invaluable lessons from my parents—especially my father.
So, back to that question from my son: “Is Papa successful?” As I reflect on his life and write this post, I have to say my father is the most successful man I know. I hope I am half the man he is when I am his age.
The idea of success that many of us are taught at a young age is often an illusion that can create frustration, anxiety and years of wasted time as we wind up chasing things that may not be what we need or even important as we grow older. My father was wise enough to avoid this trap and he has done his best to convey the lesson to me, although I must admit I spent the early years of my career desperately trying to live up to the expectations the world placed before me.
My father, who is now 82, has spent most of his life disinterested in anything other than becoming the best husband, father, grandfather and selfless servant to others that he can be. He has never missed the illusion of worldly success that drives so many others and yet, he is the happiest and most fulfilled man I know.
This topic may seem like an odd one to include in my Simplify blog post series, but isn’t having clarity about why we do what we do and our goals in life incredibly fundamental and important? Consider what it is you are chasing in your life and ask yourself if you are fulfilled. As you reflect on this post and the example I shared about one person’s life, how will you know if you have been successful and is your current definition of success truly making you happy? This is a question we all have to answer for ourselves.
“Try not to become a man of success. Rather become a man of value.” – Albert Einstein
*Stay tuned for what’s next in the Simplify blog post series: “Authenticity Matters”