Success Through the Eyes of a 90-Year-Old

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: July 6, 2012

Helen Johnson was a big success, though you’ve never heard her name. She was my mother-in-law and the beloved matriarch of a large, close Texas family. Like Nora Ephron, who we just lost, Helen believed in “being your own heroine.”

Helen passed away unexpectedly at 90 years old last week. You may ask how this can be unexpected for a 90 year old, but just two weeks ago she visited Disney World and cooked a family birthday dinner for 20 of us.

During this difficult week, I realized that this woman with no fame or wealth led the model of a successful life. In society today, we often define success based on a large net worth, an impressive title on your business card or how big your house is. Helen had none of this, but she did what she set out to do in life and touched the lives of too many to count.

Helen Johnson grew up in a large family made poor by the Depression, but with parents who loved her and valued education. As a young girl, she put herself through college and her siblings pitched in to help each other to ensure they all reached this goal too.

She married her high school sweetheart, Ed Johnson, and they were so proud of their three sons and their families. Family was everything to her and we counted on her for encouragement, straight talk and fun. Her life’s work was as an influential teacher to hundreds of sixth graders and later to those learning to care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. Ed passed away in 1999.

There is nothing like a death to stop you cold and reconsider the real definition of a successful life. Here are a few important lessons from a remarkable woman:

Bias for action. Helen was determined and persevered through the ups and downs of life. She worked two to three jobs to put herself through college and this determination continued. Throughout her life, she kept moving forward and never made excuses. ‘What can I do?’ and ‘How can I help?’ were her mantra as she had a bias for action and sheer hard work.

Planning and organization helps others as much as you. This was a woman with a plan. Even as a first time dinner guest, you had to draw from the chore bowl to learn if your job was serving drinks or setting the table. This kept everyone involved and a part of the gathering. Trips were planned well in advance to include more family and to enjoy the anticipation.

After she died, we found a detailed “Upon My Death” folder that included a ‘to do list’ – with key points highlighted & underlined.

Her sons laughed that even now Mom was still giving them directions. She knew planning would make a tough time easier for her family and it did. But, her planning was always more for others and less about her.

Find something good in life’s disappointments. She and Ed were heartbroken when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s upon his retirement. But, Helen vowed to care for him and this strong woman accepted help & guidance from those who had been through it before. She soon became an Alzheimer’s group leader and she supported countless others when their loved ones received this devastating diagnosis. She made the decision to help others in her darkest hours.

Know ‘what is the best use of my time right now.’ During Ed’s illness, she felt overwhelmed, yet she kept her focus. At an Alzheimer’s caregiver group, she encouraged them to ask, ‘What is the best use of my time right now? This reinforced the importance not only of prioritizing, but knowing what was most important at that moment.

Never stop being a student. In her 70’s and 80’s, she took college classes, water aerobics, signed up for Facebook, went to exercise class, started a senior singles group at her church and organized too many trips and gatherings to count. She was thrilled to visit new cities and countries, museums, movies, and met new people wherever she went. There was always so much more to learn and do. “Go on without me” or “I’ve already been there” were never spoken and it kept her vibrant and interesting.

Straight talk and encouragement aren’t mutually exclusive. Trust me – Helen was never shy about giving advice. She was honest and direct, yet she also showed incredible support for you as an individual. She’d write you a letter encouraging you to rethink your decision, but be there soon after to help you make it work. While this seems like a contradiction, it is a powerful combination of honesty and encouragement that I think has such relevance in the workplace too.

Make time for small things that are big for others. She was the first to bring you soup after surgery or host a lunch for your birthday. And, since she had a bias for action she decided what she could do to help or make you feel special. After she passed away, we heard countless stories of the kindness and support she had given to so many.

And, most of all, she knew that real success comes with the love and support of family. When each grandchild graduated from high school, she let them pick a place to visit. My son, Will, chose a large family trip to the beach – an idea that she loved. This week we found a joyful note she had written in her journal after that trip that summed up her view of success and life, “And to think that Ed and I started all of this!”

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times,NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at