Monthly Archives: January 2017

Live to Work or Work to Live?

Lately I have thought a lot about my career as a lawyer and about my life in general. Getting old(er) will make you do that. I have reminisced on my accomplishments, and yes, my failures, realizing I learned much more from my failures than my successes. But I have also thought a lot about the “what ifs” of my life. My becoming an in-house oil and gas lawyer, for example, was largely a matter of chance (actually two matters of chance) – or destiny, as Jamal from Slumdog Millionaire would say. In hindsight, becoming a lawyer was a great career move for me. I’m good at logic and analyzing problems and alternative solutions. I can see both sides of an issue. And I’m a decent writer. But I didn’t grow up dreaming of negotiating and drafting billion dollar deals. Like many of us, when I was young, I dreamt of what I saw as more exciting careers – first of being a professional athlete, then a star on Broadway, then a stand-up comic (you can stop laughing now). I should have been one of the people in this scene from Mr. Deeds[i]:

Perhaps that’s why the new movie, La La Land[ii], resonated with me. It’s the story of an aspiring actress and a jazz musician trying to make their dreams come true. The highlight for me was Mia’s (Emma Stone) audition where she sings:

  • A bit of madness is key
  • To give us new colors to see
  • Who knows where it will lead us?
  • And that’s why they need us
  • So bring on the rebels
  • The ripples from pebbles
  • The painters, and poets and plays
  • And here’s to the fools who dream
  • Crazy as they may seem
  • Here’s to the hearts that break
  • Here’s to the mess we make

One of my favorite movie scenes about dreaming to do something great is this clip from Dead Poet’s Society[iii] where Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) asks his students, “What will your verse be?”

I believe each of us hopes, either outwardly or secretly, that our own particular verse of life will be remembered by others and rewarding to ourselves.

A significant factor regarding our happiness in life is our work (and I include stay-at-home parents, in that term, as that might be one of the hardest jobs of all). Those people who love their jobs tend to be happier, which only makes sense since we spend so much time at it.

Jonathan Haidt, in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis[iv], notes that we have a basic desire to make things happen. Psychologists call this desire a need for competence, industry and mastery. This often results in getting more pleasure from making progress toward our goals than actually achieving them. In short, the journey can be more important than the destination. In 1964, two sociologists surveyed 3,100 American men about their jobs. The men most satisfied with their jobs were those who had more latitude in deciding how to do their jobs. In other words, if we are given a goal and then left to ourselves to determine how to reach that goal, we will be happier. Haidt summarizes recent research in this area, concluding that most people approach their work in one of three ways: as a job, as a career or as a calling. If you see your work as a job, you do it just for the money.  You constantly watch the clock and dream of the weekend. If you see your work as a career, you have larger goals of advancement, promotion and prestige. You sometimes even work late or take work home with you, yet at times you wonder why you work so hard. If your work is a calling, you find your work fulfilling, and contributing to a greater good. You would continue working, even without pay, if you suddenly became very wealthy.

So how do we find something to do that can become our calling? First, we need to determine what we like and what we are good at. Regardless of what stage in life you’re in, try taking a test or two that can help you determine your aptitudes. Then tailor your work in a way that allows you to use those strengths every day, in an environment that allows you to be self-directed. I realize a boss or two might stand in your way, but I think there are at least some subtle things we can do. As Barry Schwartz points out in one of his TED talks[v], hospital custodians, whose official job descriptions were lists of menial cleaning tasks, without any interaction with another person (at least according to the job descriptions), can find ways to make their jobs fulfilling. They did it by going beyond the formal job descriptions to do things that mattered to others.

I have found there are two equal factors that determine our happiness at work. We need to like what we do. But equally important is enjoying the people we work with. I have had jobs that I loved and jobs that I hated, where the nature of the work was the same. The difference? The jobs I loved were those where I loved the people I worked with. So if you are a boss, do what you can to make those working for you enjoy what they are doing. A happy employee is generally a more productive and creative one.

But all this sounds much easier than it is. Even if you find that thing you’re passionate about, how do you turn it into a career? For example, as a teenager, I loved basketball, but the odds of a high school basketball player making it to the NBA are roughly one in 30,000. And no matter how much I practiced (and I practiced a lot!), I am just not tall enough, quick enough, or athletic enough to make it.

I found the movie, Florence Foster Jenkins,[vi] not only funny but thought provoking. It’s the story of a wealthy New York socialite who loves to sing but can’t, and doesn’t realize it. As Florence’s (Meryl Streep) accompanist points out in this scene, sometimes practice is just not enough:

And what of Florence’s husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). When we love someone, how willing are we to tell the truth – at least directly enough so the person understands what we really are trying to say? How do we balance reality with not hurting someone’s feelings:

Even more offensive to me were the other people surrounding Florence who encouraged her, despite her lack of talent, merely because she was so generous to their various charities.

Let’s increase our happiness by finding ways to make our work more satisfying – even if that includes things not technically part of our job description. But let’s also show true love to those we care about, by encouraging them to realize their dreams, coupled with a healthy dose of reality.


[i] Mr. Deeds

  • Production Co.: Columbia Pictures, New Line Cinema, Happy Madison Productions
  • Director: Steven Brill
  • Writers: Clarence Budington Kelland, Robert Risken, and Tim Herlihy
  • Stars: Adam Sandler, Winona Ryder, and John Turturro
  • Release date: June 28, 2002

[ii] La La Land

  • Production Co.: Black Label Media, Gilbert Films, and Imposter Pictures
  • Director: Damien Chazelle
  • Writer: Damien Chazelle (Justin Hurwitz, music)
  • Stars: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
  • Release date: December 25, 2016

[iii] Dead Poets Society

  • Production Co.: Touchstone Pictures, Silver Screen Partners IV, A Steven Halt Production
  • Director: Peter Weir
  • Writer: Tom Schulman
  • Stars: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, and Ethan Hawke
  • Release date: June 9, 1989

[iv] Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, Basic Books, (2006)

[v] See, Barry Schwartz, “Our Loss of Wisdom,” TED Talk, February 16, 2009

[vi] Florence Foster Jenkins

  • Production Co.: Qerty Films, Pathé Pictures, and BBC Films
  • Director: Stephen Frears
  • Writer: Nicholas Martin
  • Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg
  • Release date: August 12, 2016



And So This is Christmas

I wonder what Jesus would think of Christmas in 2016 in America. We have gone from reverent worship by a handful of shepherds to a merchandising miracle. My family is no different than most America’s families (although I realize there are many who have little – at least on a material basis – to enjoy at Christmas). My wife and I say each year we are not going to do much for Christmas, but when we finally finish all the wrapping, there is not nearly enough room under the tree for all the presents. I have a large family (five kids with four spouses and 14 grandchildren), so it doesn’t take much for the presents to pile up. But I have learned over the years that the more we get, the less we appreciate each gift. This year especially I noticed that many of our grandkids (those four to six years old) had more fun unwrapping the presents than enjoying what was inside. I almost agree with the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas* that, with so many gifts soon ending up in the garbage, what we keep doing is stupid, stupid, stupid:

Seeing the haul everyone took home from our extended family celebration two days before Christmas, and then visiting our adult kids homes’ on Christmas day, reminded me of how fortunate we are to live in America with its wealth compared to most of the rest of the world – although prosperity brings its own set of problems. Several years back David J. Smith wrote a children’s book in which he took the world’s population and reduced it to 100 people, but kept all the demographic ratios in place. Various websites have taken that idea and tried to keep the statistics current. If the entire world’s population were reduced to only one hundred people, the demographics would look like this:

  • 61 of the villagers would be Asian (20 Chinese, 17 Indian and 24 other Asians), 13 would be African, 12 would be European, 9 would be Latin Americans, and five would be American and Canadian. None would be Australian.
  • 50 would be male and 50 would be female. 27 would be under 15 years of age and 7 would be over 64 years old.
  • 75 would be non-white.
  • 33 would be Christian, 20 would be Muslim, 13 would be Hindu, 6 would be Buddhists, 2 would be atheists, 12 would claim not religious affiliation, and 14 would be members of other religions.
  • 80 would live in substandard housing.
  • At least 18 would be unable to read or write, but 33 would have cell phones.
  • 50 would be malnourished and one would be dying of starvation.
  • 33 would be without access to a safe water supply.
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation
  • 24 would not have any electricity, and of the 76 who had electricity, most would use it only for a light at night.
  • Only 16 would have access to the Internet.
  • One would have a college education.
  • Two would be near birth; one would be near death.
  • Five would control 32 percent of the entire world’s wealth; all five of those would be US citizens. Only 18 would have cars.
  • One would have aids, 26 would smoke, and 14 would be obese.
  • 48 would live on less than $2 a day.
  • 20 would live on less than $1 a day.

But even in America, the inequality of wealth can be alarming. For example, in 2010, the top 400 richest people in America owned more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans put together. To learn more about wealth in America, I recommend Inequality for All** which discusses in detail the inequality of wealth in America, and Happy*** which discusses, it part, how wealth affects (or does not affect) our levels of happiness.

Christmas was especially hard for me this year, as I spent long hours, including many weekends during the last three months of the year, working on a large transaction for my employer. It has reminded me once again that, even on my best days at work, my greatest accomplishment is to help the corporation make more money. That is not necessarily bad. I realize it’s the pursuit of money that makes the economy (and therefore the world) go ‘round, or as Gordon Gecko would say in Wall Street****, “Greed is good.

But how many Christmas presents are enough? Is greed really good when it destroys relationships and even lives? As we learned from the documentary, Happy, we need enough money to cover our basic needs, but after that, adding to our collection of things really doesn’t increase our happiness – although most of us think otherwise. Despite what Gordon Gecko says, it’s not all about bucks.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I am grateful for a secure job that provides me more than enough income to satisfy my family’s needs. But with a good income, comes a responsibility. What can we, who have so much, do to instigate change in the inequality of wealth? I don’t believe the redistribution of wealth through taxation is the ultimate answer. Here are some of my New Year’s resolutions for the coming year:

  • I will increase my charitable giving, and make it more effective. In reviewing my charitable donations this past year, I discovered that a large share of my contributions (about half) went to cultural arts organizations. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, as I believe good music, art and theater greatly adds to our quality of life. But unfortunately, many people can’t afford to enjoy them (e.g. Hamilton tickets costing over $600+ per ticket). This year, I intend to give more to organizations that help families meet their basic needs.
  • I will focus my giving (both time and money) on organizations designed to help people help themselves. As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him a meal; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a life time.”
  • I will give away old clothes, cars and furniture rather than sell them on Craig’s List.
  • I will take care of my own first, by teaching my children (and grandchildren) the value of work and the importance of a good education that teaches practical skills.
  • I will distribute wealth among my immediate and extended family by subsidizing housing, and making educational grants and low interest car and other loans, to those that need the help.
  • Most importantly, I will not judge others based on their economic status. It is not my place to determine whether someone “deserves” to go hungry.

There are many other things we can do as well. And step one is to realize what we have, and what many others do not.

In closing, I hope we all can realize, like the Grinch, that Christmas doesn’t come from a store.

As we start this new year, let’s remember that people are more important than things, and that no one should have to go to bed hungry. And also like the Grinch, if we can do that, maybe our hearts will grow three sizes as well.


*How the Grinch Stole Christmas

  • Production: Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment
  • Directed: Ron Howard
  • Screenplay: Jeffrey Price (based on the book by Dr. Seuss)
  • Starring: Jim Carrey and Taylor Momsen
  • Release Date: November 17, 2000

**Inequality for All

  • Production: 72 Productions
  • Directed: Jacob Kornbluth
  • Screenplay: Documentary
  • Starring: Robert Reich
  • Release Date: September 27, 2013


  • Production: Emotional Content, Iris Films and Wadi Rum Films, Inc.
  • Directed: Roko Bellic
  • Screenplay: Roko Bellic
  • Starring: Anne Blechsgaard, Gregory Burns and Roy Blanchard
  • Release Date: July 3, 2013

****Wall Street

  • Production: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, American Entertainment Partners, L.P.
  • Directed: Oliver Stone
  • Screenplay: Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone
  • Starring: Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, and Tamara Tunie
  • Release Date: December 11, 1987