I recently came across an interesting take on character and success from John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard. In Bogle’s book Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life, he laments that we’ve created a culture where greed is good and our heroes are people who have achieved outsized success (notably measured by the size of their salary/house/cars, etc). He raises an interesting question in the “life” section of the book – “what are the things by which we should measure our lives?” Bogle goes on to write: “we focus too much on things and not enough on the intangibles that make the things worthwhile: too much on success, and not enough on character, without which success is meaningless.” Wow, now that’s a quote to file away for a future teachable moment!
All of which got me to thinking about the relationship between success and character, and how things have changed down through the years. In my grandfather’s day, you couldn’t be considered a success if you didn’t have character; no matter how much money you had or how big your farm was… if you weren’t a “good man” (my grandfather’s simple assessment of character), it didn’t mean squat. No character, no success – at least in grandpa’s eyes.
Today, it seems we celebrate success in all kinds of ways, and plenty of people who have questionable character still get to climb the pedestal of success. Think of sports stars who have a rap sheet as long as your arm – as long as they’re still on the court or the field, a lot of people still consider them “successful”. How about captains of industry who lead from a questionable strong set of ethics and values? Plenty of people would consider them “successful” even as they pull the rip cord on a lucrative severance package.
Since ultimately we all decide for ourselves what success looks like, I think I’m going back to grandpa’s way of measuring success. If you’re honest, thoughtful, kind, trustworthy, hard-working and values driven, I’m going to call that success. I don’t care what you’re doing for a living, how much money you make, or what size house you live in… if you’ve got strong character, I’m going to start overweighting that in my personal assessment of success. Sure, it’s great to have both… but I’d rather have character than all the money and possessions that represent the modern definition of success. After all, you can’t buy character…