how do you measure success?

Posted on Nov 5, 2010

On an ever-rising sea of email junk and advertising, I always welcome arrivals from CSRwire (The Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire). The latest, which I received yesterday, raised an excellent question, which got my attention. This question – “How do you measure success?” – was the theme of last week’s Business and Society Forum 2010, held at Bloomberg Television headquarters in New York City, and hosted by The Aspen Institute and the Stern School of Business NYU.

The two-day conference (October 26-27) brought together leaders from business, government, academia and the global community to evaluate our collective definitions of success. Bill McNabb, Chairman and CEO of The Vanguard Group, Inc., psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate in Economics, Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, and Army Lieutenant Paul Rieckoff were a few of those there to mull over questions like:

  • Is wealth alone a sufficient indicator of success?
  • Is the GDP a valid measure of a country’s well being?
  • What is the purpose of the firm? Should its measures of success extend beyond shareholder value?
  • How do personal criteria for success influence the way we do our jobs, participate in our communities and view our legacy?
  • What constitutes a healthy society?

I discovered the email an hour or so after entertaining Ronnie and Sheila Gibson, an 80 year-old English gentleman and his lovely wife, who were recounting stories from their youth, over tea. I observed how hardship shows us who we are inside, and how some of my most materially blessed friends struggle to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Ronnie and Sheila have lived through things on their home soil, which if I am lucky I shall never experience in my lifetime.

Ronnie told of his grandfather circa 1880, Granddad Sutton, who left his home in the dead of winter, in search of work in the coalmines up north. He, with his wife and baby, walked, walked the 50+ miles to Yorkshire, sleeping in hedges along the way. Upon arrival at the mines, they found there was no work there either.

In his own youth, in the late 1930s, Ronnie recalled the ‘pea suppers’ in his childhood village. These ‘pea suppers’ were held in communities about three times each winter, funded through the sale of handwritten 6-pence tickets to local amateur concerts. The menus featured saucers (not bowls) of runny peas, served with crusts of bread that bakers couldn’t sell. Sheila chimed in that the cooks added soda to the peas to make them greener.

Ronnie wanted to be sure I understood that there was a certain community etiquette to these suppers. “I must emphasize” he said, “that everybody went. That stopped people saying, ‘Oh, those people are poor; they have to go to the suppers.’ Nobody wanted to admit to poverty.” So the entire community showed up with them.

How then do we, who have so much, even in comparison to our own ancestors, measure success? Things we have long taken for granted are now uncertain. And measurements that have always fit for our culture, our country, our generation do not fit as well as they used to. As I think about this question today, with the uncertainty of the future headlining every news broadcast, I can’t help thinking of Ronnie’s suppers.

What if each of us simply asked, “What do I have to share?” It might be a Nobel-winning idea or a cost-saving recipe, an inspiring voice or a way with children. More than anything else, our success – personal and universal – depends on contributions from every member of our planetary society.

I have seen myself, through so many years of my life, fail to share myself because I held false measurements of success…

  1. I’m not good enough to do something
  2. I can’t make a living doing it
  3. No one seems to want what I have to give

Speaking with Ronnie and Sheila, I was reminded of a wise man I knew in my 20s, who very quietly reminded me one day, “Your only problem, Katherine, is that you don’t have a big enough problem. Go out and find someone with a bigger problem, and give what you have to give.” And so I write, in case this might be useful to anyone who reads. To me, this is the heart of creativity.

And you… how do you measure success? What do you have to share?

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