Almost invariably, this exercise results in visuals of sports cars, attractive people, tailored suits, high-end electronics, golf clubs, jewelry, home décor and stainless kitchen appliances. Now please look past my stereotype-ing and recognize the one thing all of these have in common—they’re all material things, designed both to consciously give us pleasure and subconsciously increase our standing in the minds of our peers. Please don’t feel judged—I’m right there with you. But while most of us spend the bulk of our adult lives pursuing success (that is visibly recognizable) as the penultimate goal, I posit that it’s simply not what we really want in our hearts. But if not success, then, what is it that we really crave that leads us to a satisfying life?
This morning, I had a breakfast meeting with four men, each from the generation preceding mine. In their respective fields, each of them has reached the point where they are publicly recognized in the community as models of success. Actually, they each reached that point a decade or more ago. (No, I still haven’t figured out why I was invited.) But we were convening to discuss, among other things, the establishment of a non-profit entity to serve the weary hearts of people and businesses. People and businesses who, most often, are already recognized as successful. People and businesses who’ve grown weary striving for the success they thought was the goal.
So, if it’s not success that brings the satisfaction in life we crave, what then? It’s another “S” word—SIGNIFICANCE.
In all of us, there is a desire for significance. We want to be about something. And that’s why I start every financial planning discussion or speaking engagement by telling folks to clear their minds of all things financial for just a moment—forget about 401ks, IRAs, taxes and insurance—and focus first on what it is that you want to be about in this world. Franklin Covey calls them Values, Ben Franklin called them Virtues—and since each of those words has taken on a slightly different connotation since those wise men used them, I invite you to call them whatever you want—I call them Personal Principles. These are the collective essence that you want to mark your time on this earth.
It’s true that you can reach someone’s view of success by reading any number of financial and self-help books and periodicals telling you what to do with your life and money. The downfall is that they’re telling you what you should be doing based on their personal principles—not yours—and that means you could end up achieving these financial or life goals successfully while still feeling hollow because your path lacked significance or your personal purpose.
Is life planning with significance as a primary goal extra work? Could it mean leaving today’s success or money or influence or comfort on the table in pursuit of significance? Yes and yes. It will take some time and deliberation to articulate a defined set of personal principles and may well lead to an overhaul of that which you’ve come to know as life. But it is time, effort and money well spent, because it validates—or sometimes, even more helpfully—invalidates the steps that you’ve taken and are taking in money and life.