Tuesday, October 14, 2014

All the Money In the World

Now that I've entered my third decade in the business world the time occasionally comes for me to pause and reflect.  I was pondering the question of what makes one life "better lived" than another.  I know, pretty heavy stuff.  From there I started to think about what makes one job, one career more desirable than another.

I have to admit that my thoughts were starting to go in circles.  After all, there isn't an obvious true universal definition of "better" because personal perspective is always the final arbiter.

Then I saw an article about the richest people in the world for the current year - 2014.  It will come as no surprise that Bill Gates remains at the top of the (Forbes) list with a net worth of $81 Billion.  Thinking about that amount of money, which is truly staggering, I wondered if being (or becoming) rich was the ultimate measure of having a great life or a great career.  For many people that I know, money is the ultimate, intrinsic measure of success and worth.  In my life I've seen people do just about anything to get it, keep it, and grow it.  So is wealth the ultimate measure of success, the thing for which we should all strive?

Let's take a look at several pictures of Bill Gates.  I'm guessing that they were taken more than three decades apart.  Do the two pictures look different?  Of course they do!  In one, Gates is a young man and in the other is approximately 35 years later.  What do you see?

In case you haven't guessed, in the lower picture Gates looks like an old man.  While it's no crime to be old or "older", it's apparent that having $81 Billion does not seem to slow down the aging process.  No, even though the axiom "It's better to be rich than poor" still holds true,  money won't buy a longer life.  It will buy comfort but it's not even guaranteed to buy happiness.  Even though it's coincidental (or not), who looks happier in the photos - young Gates or old(er) Gates?

We could explore a lot of other avenues to investigate different things that would make for a better life and career.  However, in the interests of time I will get directly to my point.  What is it that makes a person's life and career rewarding and worth living?  Almost universally, the answer is MEANINGFUL WORK.

From my own perspective and those of my close friends and family, the best way to be fulfilled is to do things that make a difference.  In watching people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, I've noticed that those people who stay busy and do things that have meaning to others tend to enjoy benefits that range from better health and mobility to greater peace of mind.  Conversely, people who worked at jobs they hated for 30 (40?) years and then retired to the couch always to seem to fare much more poorly.

As a case in point, during the last decade I worked for seven years at a company that prided itself on having long tenured employees.  (Let me make a disclaimer here that I think having the ability or "luxury" to work at one company for an entire career is a noble, albeit fading privilege.)  The problem with the people at this company was that many of them were not happy in their work.  Yes, they had job security but in many cases they were just bored.  I actually had people in my organization that had spent over 30 years in the same job as data center operators.  In other words, these people had sat in the same chair, in the same cold data center, for over 30 years watching screens on which almost nothing ever happened.  Few of them could be classified as cheerful.  This company put out a monthly newsletter that showed employees, their years of service if an anniversary was pending, who had just joined, and who was just about to retire.  Very, very often I would see a person retire after 30+ years at the company and then see their death announcement 6-18 months later. 

Yes, everyone needs good pay, respect, and a clear definition of their work.  But if you want to be a truly great leader, the best thing you can do is constantly strive to give people meaningful work.  Doing something that makes a difference will generate more employee satisfaction than anything else for which you can imagine.

The same thing holds true for you.  You should strive to constantly put yourself in places where you are surrounded by opportunities to do interesting things with unique and stimulating people.  If you can do that for yourself, you will have found the secret to a great career and long life.  If you can do the same for your people, you will never want for talented resources.