Cut the crap, ING: The problem of measuring success with a “number”

What’s your number?

Not too long ago there was an ING Bank commercial in which people carried around with them a large-to-very-large orange number – representing the “money they need to retire.”

Cut the crap, ING.  You’re making our lives harder than they should be.

Over the last few weeks I’ve spoken with dozens of really smart guys and gals – all of whom have both the desire and the capability to live an “extraordinary” life. They are full of energy – a desire to change their life, and the lives of those around them, for the better. Amen! But, as I dig deeper, I see the problem: they want extraordinary if, and only if, it’s guaranteed.  They need to know that they can still hit their “number.”

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What is the “number” anyway?

Literally, your “number” is how much money you think you’ll need to retire and preserve a quality of life that you aspire to. Figuratively, your “number” has much more meaning: it symbolizes comfort, security and the certainty – that you will be free of money-related pain forever. Just as importantly, for many it symbolizes a “winning score” – a testament to how well you’ll have done in the game of life.

Back when I was a corporate sales executive, my colleagues and I used to joke that “you are your number” – implying that the measure of you as a person is proportionate to how close – or how far away – you are from your sales quota.

That sounds crazy, right?

I agree – it is – but it’s shockingly pervasive; as I sit down with the lawyers, consultants and Congressional staffers who tell me that they not “quite-ready-to-do-the-thing-I-want-to-do” it hits me: they all believe it too.

Here’s the deal: it’s not true.  You are not your number; unless, of course, you want to be.  My advice: measure your success another way.

Below, some smart 30-something’s advice on how to measure success.  Before we get to that, of course, here’s my two-cents: 

1. Success is not about being the first of your friends to retire

Retirement is my nightmare. It should scare you too. My dad recently helped me to understand this.

Now 73 years young, my father’s has been a heart doctor for over 40 years. When a change in hospital policy forced him to retire about a year ago, he spent 3 months fishing, golfing and traveling…and then decided to go back to work. Why?  Because he loves being a doctor.  As he shared with me, no amount of fishing could bring him the same level of satisfaction he felt in making the sick, well; and in sharing with a new generation of doctors the decades of real-world clinical experience that he has acquired, and they need.

All I know is that I want to love my job so much that I never want to stop doing it. Retirement, as author Tim Ferris (The 4 Hour Work Week) likes to say, is the “worst-case scenario” – based upon the assumption that you dislike what you have been doing (work-wise) for most of your adult life.  That is a losing life strategy.

2. Don’t use the cost of your child’s future education as an excuse for not living your life today

A lot of people will defend their pursuit of the “number” as a necessary evil – something they need to do to “provide for their children;” to give them an opportunity to grow up in conditions as good, if not better, than what they grew up with.

Admirable, certainly; but at what cost?

The most expensive piece of this “promise” is education.  In DC, New York, San Fran – and other metropolitan areas where sending your kid to public school has become tantamount to neglect, private school has become the standard. Unfortunately, according to the Council for American Private Education, the average cost of tuition in a K-12 private school is $10, 045.  And that’s the average.  The most expensive?  Lawrence Academy in Groton, CT – $50,325/year. No shit.

So, conservatively, 13 years (K-12) of private education will cost the average family $140,000/child.  College? Another $160K on top of that. All in, over $300,000.  The question is: to what end?

The end, of course, is to “advantage” our children – to “give them every opportunity to succeed.”  But what makes me “Tabasco sauce ill,” is the idea that young men and women are postponing their pursuit of dreams – because they worry they won’t be able to afford their child’s college bill in 20 years…   Guess what?  You probably won’t; even if you do work like a dog for the next two decades.

And, even if you can afford it, what have you really given your children?  You’ve given your them your money, but given someone else your time.  Another losing life strategy.

Measure your success as a parent not by the size of your son or daughter’s debt, but by the size of their character instead.

3. Your life is not a series of boxes to be checked.  Measure success by a new standard: vitality.

See if this sounds familiar…

  • do well in school
  • be a good athlete
  • volunteer
  • get into the “right” college
  • find a good job (nice title and health insurance required)
  • go to a top law/biz/grad school
  • work for the “right” firm/company
  • marry  
  • breed beautiful children
  • make sure that your kids can repeat the cycle…

Do you recognize this person?  I bet you do.  Question – is the person you hope to be; or the person you used to be?  For me, it’s the latter.

This life described above is a story of maturation… The problem, however, with this roadmap is that it leaves little room for vitality – excitement, zest, adventure, curiosity – to exist. For my 20 and 30-something friends, this age is our first great battleground – a critical first test: can we grow older and wiser, without losing steam? Our decisions today – to choose maturity, vitality, or some mixture of both – will have great impact on the long-term trajectory of our lives.

One of my favorite modern day philosophers, John Gardner, uses a wonderful metaphor to brings this point to life: “The barnacle” Gardner writes “is confronted with an existential decision about where it’s going to live.  Once it decides…it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock. For a good many [young men and women], it comes to that.”

Needless to say, you are better than that; aren’t you?

Below, some additional insights on success – and how to measure it – from a few of my many smart, 30-something friends:

  1. When it comes to success, keep your perspective. One of the best decisions I made after college was to move abroad and learn the world from a different point of view.  Seeing the world through a different lens taught me a lot about myself –  and what really matters.  That perspective still keeps me grounded; and makes bad days more bearable and good days more sweet.
  2. Don’t focus too much on only what you can “measure” – grades, money, weight – for it’s the softer stuff that really counts.
  3. Know why you are working and what you are working for. For too long I followed someone else’s plan; enduring an uninspiring, albeit well-paid, job because others before me had done the same. Know why you are working; your job/career is a means to what end?  Is it to meet a financial goal, personal achievement, what?  Outside of vocations such as artists, doctors and priests, most of us pursue careers that only provide financial rewards.  To be truly great; you need to be driven by something other than money.
  4. Success takes time and is comprised of difficult experiences.  On the pendulum of life, you may spend more time grinding it out than reveling in your success.  Find your happiness in the good days and the bad. Though not always easily quantified, it’s the measure that counts most in the end.
  5. To quote the ever-wise Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could just miss it.”  Spend your time wisely.
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