Late one evening in 1923, in the midst of a chilly winter storm, some of the world’s most successful businessmen crowded into an elite dining hall in the heart of downtown Chicago. In attendance was the head of the world's largest steel company, the president of the New York Stock Exchange, the chairman of the world's most expansive monopoly, and many others.
These tycoons had control over more assets than the entire United States Treasury at the time. They were the larger-than-life figures of old American business; the fat cats who belonged to exclusive, smoke-filled clubs and who often made multimillion-dollar deals bound simply by a gentleman’s handshake. They were frequently featured in newspapers and on the covers of magazines - they were seemingly on top of the world.
Twenty-five years after they met that night in Chicago, however, many of their lives had drastically changed.
Charles Schwab, then president of the world’s largest steel corporation, and the first person in U.S. history to receive an annual salary of $1 million, lived the last few years of his life on the financial support of others - he died absolutely broke.
The head of the Bank of International Settlement, Leon Fraser, died at the power of his own hands.
The president of one of the world's largest monopolies, Ivar Krueger, also ended his own life.
The former head of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Whitney, was serving time in prison. America's most thriving commodities speculator, Arthur Cutten, died in deplorable poverty.
Twenty-five years earlier and many people would have given anything to be in these men's shoes. And yet, despite their many accomplishments, they failed to achieve success where it mattered most – in their own lives.
For generations we have been sold on the philosophy of wealth and career success as the sole measures of our aptitude and as the true sources of our value. And yet, we are more unhappy, unhealthy, and unfulfilled than ever before.
As a society we claim to value health and vitality, but only 3% of Americans actually live a healthy lifestyle. And our doctors, who we look to as the stewards of good health and wellbeing, are in no better shape: as many as 60% of physicians consider themselves burned out and over 400 commit suicide every year. Read that again. That’s double the rate of the general population!
Over half of all Americans are unsatisfied with their jobs. And those CEOs at the top of the food chain? They’re suffering from major health risks and consider themselves, “lonely, overworked, overstressed, and exhausted.”
It’s time to rethink the way we are working. As we have transitioned into the information era, the traditional 9-5 boundaries have faded away. Instead, the stream of calls and emails follow us late into the night, looming like a specter of all the things that still remain to be done.
So many of these challenges we face stem from much deeper issues of identity. Too often we make the mistake of unconsciously tying our identity to our profession, our environment, or our financial status. We come to identify with the pressures and expectations of our field, and naturally, behave accordingly.
Identity plays a powerful and unique role in how we see the world and ultimately in the kinds of decisions we make. Decisions like how we will respond to stress, what kinds of foods we choose to eat, or whether we’ll attempt to achieve work/life balance.
Few people know more about the connection between identity and wellbeing than New York Times bestselling author, Dr. Wayne Scott Andersen. In his latest book, he explains how identity issues can become limiting factors for many people in building the meaningful lives that they actually want.
“Too often people are posing for their mental cameras…but in the creative process, especially when the subject is your life itself, there is no room for posing, no room for identity issues. You need to see everything exactly as it really is – warts and all.”
Identity by Robert Fritz and Dr. Wayne Scott Andersen
Seeing things as they really are means taking an honest look and asking if what we are doing actually makes sense. It means asking what your priorities are and what’s important to you – like your health, your family, and your wellbeing. It also means asking if your current work feeds into your larger life purpose and if it brings you satisfaction and a sense of meaning.
This is what Ryan did – a Managing Director and Partner of one of the largest and most prestigious management consulting firms in the world. In the process of getting his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering, he realized the long, solitary hours in the lab neither played to his strengths nor brought him any real sense of meaning or fulfillment.
So instead of limiting his options to the traditional roles of a chemical engineer, he looked elsewhere and found a rewarding career in the business world. He is now able to apply his analytical skills to a broad range of projects, work in an exciting team-based environment, and deliver meaningful results for his clients.
Meaning and purpose should define our work and how we spend our time. Everyone is busy these days, but it’s time to take a step back and ask, busy doing what? If we are not busy investing in our own wellness and in doing work that we consider meaningful and satisfactory, then we must reexamine the underlying philosophies that we have come to identify with.
As we can learn from the life stories of those early business tycoons, genuine success encompasses much more than just accumulating wealth or career accomplishments. It includes achieving success with our own wellbeing, and it extends to the legacies that come to define our lifetime of meaningful work. This is all within the grasp of each of us – if we will only slow down, breathe, and take the time to do what matters most.