Early in the 1970s, I had the good fortune to
partner with Dr. Gay Luce in an innovative
holistic program known as the SAGE Project
in Berkeley, Calif. Our goal was to examine
how the bodies and minds of men and women
past the age of 65 might be refreshed so they could
remain sufficiently engaged to enjoy their later lives.
This pioneering project received global acclaim, and most
results were truly uplifting. However, a disturbing theme
emerged early in our research that has haunted me to this day.
In one assignment, our 20 initial subjects were asked to chart
the highs and lows of their life on a single sheet of graph paper.
We asked them to draw a line across the center and then map a
line above and below for all the years of their lives, much as you
might chart a stock price. Above the line were periods when
they enjoyed their lives; below the line were periods when
life didn’ t measure up to their expectations. (You might try this exercise!)
To our surprise, by their own judgment, several of them had lived vast
parts of their lives below what I’ll now call the success line. For
example, Herb, 81, told us, sure, there were great moments, but
overall his life had been a colossal disappointment. He hadn’t
loved his job, though he’d stayed with it for decades. His long
marriage was OK, but he felt he had let his true love get away
when he was a young man.
His life had been wasted in many ways, he realized, and it
was too late to do anything about it. Herb said that if he had it
to do over, he would have focused far more on the people who
mattered to him. He would have switched careers to something
that would have challenged and stimulated him more. He would
have taken more risks and pursued his passions.
Overall, the participants’ peak moments revealed a pattern.
They tended to cluster around three types of success—rich
personal relationships, accomplishment or personal growth of
almost any kind, and activities that transcended their own self-indulgences
and made them feel their lives had meaning.
Rather than waiting until we’re too old to do anything about
it, perhaps it’s time to rethink the rules of success. We need to be
feeling, talking and thinking again about what’s really important
in our lives. We’ve become so taken by the lifestyles of the rich
and famous (and often foolish) that we’ve lost a little bit of what
really matters and truly satisfies in life.
As a young adult, we generally begin to define success by
position, wealth or power. We are practically bred to embrace
the model of measuring success from the outside-in. The reality,
though, is that you must decide for yourself what defines success
for you. If you rate yourself against someone else’s definition, you
will never know the kind of success that truly matters.
More is not necessarily better when it comes to enjoying life
and feeling satisfied. More may be more, but it is never enough.
We’re caught up in the myth that by achieving and going up the
ladder and having more stuff, we’ll feel full inside. Yet it isn’t
Perhaps the concept of success needs an overhaul for the
next chapter of our lives. Maybe it shouldn’t be primarily
about money and advancement; maybe it should also be about
personal growth, loving relationships, genuine happiness,
purpose in work and a contribution to the greater good. S
Ken Dychtwald is a psychologist, gerontologist, successful entrepreneur,
business consultant and the author of 16 books, including With
Purpose: Going from Success to Significance in Work and Life by
Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D., and Daniel J. Kadlec (Collins Life, March 2009),
from which this column has been adapted.