Finding Right Work, Even When You Don't Need Money

Warren Hellman was far more than just a billionaire banjo player. He was also a major philanthropist and community leader, and a devoted family man.
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Warren Hellman died too young. He was 77 years old when he passed away just over two years ago.

July 25th will mark his 79th birthday.

I had always wanted to meet Warren Hellman because, in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, he was a living legend in his own time: a billionaire who found his right work, maybe even in spite of having so very much money. Eventually, I had the opportunity to interview him for my book, Finding Right Work: Five Steps to a Life You Love.

From a life perspective, Warren said that the best thing you can do for yourself is to choose a family to be born into that has some wealth. He called it the "lucky sperm club." He had managed to do that himself by picking both the Levi Strauss and Wells Fargo families to form his family tree.

In addition, he was wildly successful in his own right, generating personal wealth far beyond most of our wildest dreams. He became a billionaire.

Hellman received his undergraduate education at the University of California, Berkeley and an MBA from Harvard Business School. He co-founded Hellman & Friedman in 1984 with Tully Friedman and served as chairman of the firm. Before H&F, Hellman was a founding partner of Hellman, Ferri Investment Associates which would later be renamed Matrix Management Company. Today, Matrix is among the most prominent venture capital firms in the U.S. Hellman's list of business accomplishments is endless.

Many of us know wealthy people who are miserable. People think that if they get the car or the house it will buy them happiness. Once they have three cars and two houses, they think perhaps a few more homes and cars will do the trick. Money alone doesn't buy happiness.

What does buy happiness then, and did Warren Hellman find it?

The truth is, regardless of our wealth, we can only be happy when we have found our Right Work. Only when our values, our strongest talents and abilities, and our top life priorities are all aligned in our work will we be happy.

Warren Hellman was a billionaire, but even he still had to find his own right work if he was going to be happy. Warren found his right work far away from the financial community where he made his fortune.

Warren loved bluegrass and country music. He was a tenacious, modestly talented banjo player who started a band called "The Wronglers" when he was in his sixties. He gave millions of dollars to create, organize and sustain the largest free music festival in the world: The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, California. The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival grows bigger every year as hundreds of thousands of people come together in Golden Gate Park for three days of free music on seven stages around the park. The event has helped to rebirth Bluegrass and Western music, and, more generally, to resurrect the west coast music scene. Warren left a financial legacy to assure the continuation of the festival, and it is something we all look forward to every fall.

When I heard of Warren's death on December 18th, 2011, I thought back on our time together, and remembered that, as we closed our interview, Warren's eyes sparkled with light and happiness. I told him that his very being reminded me of a favorite quote from His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who was, in turn, quoting an ancient Indian sage, Shantideva: "All suffering is caused by thinking of oneself; all happiness is caused by thinking of others." Warren loved the quote -- and I wasn't at all surprised. He clearly had determined his values and priorities, and lived by them for many, many decades.

When I asked Warren how it felt to look out on hundreds of thousands of people at the festival, all of whom were experiencing such joy, he said: "Oh, wow. The festival was the most selfish thing I've ever done. It is such an indescribable feeling!"

Warren Hellman was far more than just a billionaire banjo player. He was also a major philanthropist and community leader, and a devoted family man. He was a donor and supporter of Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), a nonprofit organization that helps people transform their lives through work. He was a Director of D.N. & E. Walter & Co. and Sugar Bowl Corporation. He was also a member of the advisory board of the Walter A. Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. In 2005, Hellman was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was the Chairman of the Board of The Bay Citizen, a non-profit news organization focusing on the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Citizen was founded with a $5 million contribution from the Hellman Family Foundation. He was Chairman of the Board of Trustees for Mills College from 1982-1992, and as a result of protests, reversed the college's decision to go co-ed in 1990. He supported free clinics and public universities.

As a person, Warren was focused, humble and intensely passionate in whatever he engaged. He never stopped learning. He never stopped self-reflecting and he never took himself too seriously to exhibit compassion, generosity and a kind of very funny -- but many times self-deprecating -- sense of humor. Warren Hellman definitely found right work and it had everything to do with his personal priorities of contributing to the benefit of others.

In 2011, Speedway Meadow was renamed Hellman Hollow to honor Warren Hellman's history of philanthropy and civic involvement in San Francisco.

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