How do you measure success? By your worldly possessions? By your position of power? By the number of your friends on Facebook? Success means different things to different people.
While in Austin at the Austin Film Festival, we saw The Current War,[i] the true story about the electrification of America. Who knew a movie about direct current versus alternating current could capture my attention for two hours? But capture my attention it did, and that was because of the fascinating characters involved. At the heart of the movie is Thomas Edison, considered America’s greatest inventor. His inventions include the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the incandescent light bulb. In all, Edison held 1,093 U.S. patents. He founded 14 companies, including General Electric, still one of America’s largest corporations. By most measures, Edison would be considered a success. But he didn’t have much of a family life, as he much preferred spending time in his laboratory rather than with his wife and children. Perhaps he didn’t realize that when a person is so busy building a successful business, they might be busy making a failure of themselves.
And some may question how he obtained some of his accomplishments. Edison was not generous to his employees. He generally did not compensate his employees particularly well, and at least two of his more famous employees left because Edison would not listen to their ideas. Frank J. Sprague left Edison’s employ when he realized that any invention he came up with would belong to Edison. After leaving Edison, Sprague invented an electric motor that became the standard for motorizing cable cars and subways in America. Edison later bought out Sprague, including his patents, and removed Sprague’s name on all his motors and replaced it with Edison General Electric.
As illustrated by this scene from The Current War, Nikoli Tesla was a brilliant scientist who told Edison repeatedly that Edison’s system of direct current was an inferior system to George Westinghouse’s method of alternating current:
Tesla ultimately left Edison’s employment, and Edison continued to argue that alternating current was the more dangerous system. He demonstrated his point by repeatedly electrocuting various farm animals and helping to develop the electric chair as a means of executing convicted felons. He did this even though direct current could also be life-threatening at high voltages. Here is one of my favorite scenes from the film:
Perhaps George Westinghouse gives us an insightful measure of success: Did I leave this world better than how I found it? If I could say that, in some small way, I improved the world around me, I would consider my life a success.
As I watched The Current War, I thought of The Founder,[ii] which tells the story of the rise of McDonald’s by Ray Kroc. Like Edison, Kroc didn’t invent the efficient system that McDonald’s used to revolutionize the fast-food industry. Here is a scene from the film:
In some people’s minds, the result justifies the means of getting there. Ray Kroc took the McDonald brother’s system and became a billionaire. Kroc left the McDonald brothers only their original restaurant and the satisfaction that they, not Kroc, had developed the art of making fast food fast. So, who was the most successful? Ray Kroc or the McDonald brothers? It depends on how one measures success.
Another possible measure of success is this: Did we use our talents to solve a problem in a way that no one ever thought of before? Moneyball[iii] is a perfect example of this. In 2002, the Oakland A’s had little budget and few players after the departure of its stars to free agency that were good enough to turn the A’s into a competitive team. But General Manager, Billy Beane, put together a group of undervalued players—at least undervalued when evaluated by traditional scouting methods. Using a sophisticated system of sabermetrics (focusing on things such as on-base percentages and ignoring other weaknesses), Beane fielded a team of mostly “no-name” or “over-the-hill” players that went on to win 20 consecutive games near the end of the season and win their division. Two years later, the Oakland A’s won the World Series with a similar group of “misfit toys.” Here is one of my favorite scenes from the film:
This clip also illustrates another critical point about success. We rarely can achieve it on our own. Billy Beane did not come up with the mathematical analysis used by the A’s. Instead, he retained the help of Peter Brand, a young economist out of Yale, who refined the formulas the A’s relied on. And this quote deserves repeating: “People are overlooked for a number of biased reasons and perceived flaws: age, appearance, and personality.” Almost all of us can find success in some way if someone gives us the right opportunity.
While in Austin, we also watched Ford vs. Ferrari.[iv] If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and don’t know the story, stop reading if you don’t like spoilers. The film, another true story, depicts how Ford set out to develop a Formula 1 race car to challenge perennial champion, Ferrari, at the 24-hour race at Le Mans in 1966. Here is the scene where the challenge got started:
Led by automotive visionary, Carroll Shelby, and his British driver, Ken Miles, the Ford team built the legendary GT40, the perfect racecar, which swept the competition at Le Mans in 1966. As the race neared its conclusion, Ken Miles was laps ahead of the other cars, including the two other Ford entries, who were in second and third. A Ford executive ordered Miles to slow down so the other two Fords could catch up for a photo opportunity—all three Fords crossing the finish line together. In the end, the photo finish shows that Bruce McLaren, not Miles, crossed the finish line first, making McLaren as the winner. Was Miles, though, any less of a success because he slowed down to let other drivers catch up? Success can be measured not just in the result (the destination) but what it takes to get there (the process).
In preparing this blog post, I asked my extended family about how they measured success. A nephew sent me this link to a Ted talk given by John Wooden:
A niece came up with this checklist of questions we always should be asking ourselves. If we can answer “yes” to each of these, we could consider ourselves a success:
Did I do my very best under the circumstances? (John Wooden’s definition)
Did I do the right thing for me and my family?
Did I help others?
Did I get back up when I fell?
Did I learn something new?
Did I endure when the going got tough?
Did I maintain a healthy balance in the different aspects of my life?
I love that checklist, and I agree with John Wooden about success being measured by doing our best—but only up to a point. How do we know when we have done our best? In sports, for example, could I have practiced a little more, or practiced more perfectly? Could I have worked out a little more so I would have greater endurance, strength, or whatever else I could potentially improve upon? We can ask those same questions in life as we try to succeed. We can always second-guess ourselves as professionals, spouses, parents, friends, teachers, and every other aspect of our lives. Can’t we always say we could have done a little bit more? And if so, did we do our best?
So, how do I measure success? In short, I consider myself successful when I am experiencing true happiness. Similar to Gene Miles and Carroll Shelby in Ford vs. Ferrari, or the McDonald brothers in The Founder, I find more joy in the journey than in the destination. The term in vogue these days is when we get in or find “flow.” When I get in a flow, I experience joy. I become focused on the moment, the task at hand, and that is all that matters. I am not worried about past mistakes, or accolades I might receive in the future. As a lawyer, there were times when I became so focused on researching an issue, drafting a contract, or writing an article for publication that time seemed to stand still. I found that process exhilarating. Those were the experiences that told me I was a successful lawyer. It was not my title, my salary, or how many people reported to me. I had similar experiences in my glory days (using that term very loosely) of my basketball career (also using that term very loosely). The game became a joy to me when I focused on the moment and blocked out the outside world and all its distractions. During those times, I played the game for the pure joy of the game. I was not playing to hear the roar of fans or to get “atta boys” from my coach. And not surprisingly, it was during those moments of “flow” on the court that I played my best—or as John Wooden would tell me, those were the times I was the greatest success as a basketball player.
Trying to broaden those experiences into life in general, I am finding when I can “get into” whatever I’m doing, when I can experience that flow, that’s when I am the happiest and, therefore, the most successful. That is my measure of success. It works for me.
Your measure is probably different. That’s not just okay; that is the way it should be. I hope each of us can consider ourselves successful, however we individually determine it.
[i] The Current War:
Production Companies: Bazelevs Production, Film Rites, and FlightAV.com
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Screenwriter: Michael Nitmick
Starring: Tom Holland, Benedict Cumberbach, and Michael Shannon
Release Date: October 25, 2019
[ii] The Founder:
Production Companies: The Weinstein Company, FilmNation Entertainment, and Faliro House Productions
Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenwriter: Roert Siegel
Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, and John Carroll Lynch
Release Date: January 20, 2017
Production Companies: Columbia Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, and Michael De Luca Productions
Director: Bennett Miller
Screenwriters: Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Brad Pitt, Robert Wright, and Jonah Hill,
Release Date: September 23, 2011
[iv] Ford vs. Ferrari:
Production Companies: Cherin Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox
Director: James Mangold
Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth
Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, and Jon Bernthal
Release Date: November 15, 2019