The purpose of our success Featured

10:07am EDT July 22, 2002

The joy we derive from success can be nearly bottomless. To transform an idea into a profit-making venture is the goal of every business, and the process is not unlike watching your child change from helpless infant to crawling baby and finally to a toddler taking his first wobbly steps. Anyone who has been involved in starting a business and watching it grow into a vibrant enterprise can instantly relate to the deep sense of pleasure it brings.

But success can just as quickly become a sword with two edges. Money and power can transform the humble friend you grew up with into a ruthless cuthroat who will stop at nothing on the road to becoming an arrogant Master of the Universe. Like drugs, success when it’s attained is sweet; but we can never get enough, despite a spiraling search for ways to sustain the pleasure. The addict always needs a slightly larger dose to top that last high.

And yet we inevitably set goals to achieve ever greater success in a vain attempt to surpass ourselves; rarely do we take the time to enjoy the fruits of our labors. The paradox is that success demands a certain amount of discontent—healthy in proper doses, though never when that discontent turns destructive.

Hollywood is overflowing with examples of the excess that often comes wedded to success. The real-life soap operas of many of its leading figures are the stuff of Greek tragedy: After attaining fame and wealth, their lives begin to spiral out of control as they wander from one drug-rehab center to another—forever trying to one-up that initial high. Is there a purpose to all this seeking after success? Is the goal of success merely to build a bigger and brighter monument to ourselves before we die?

There are two other life questions we should ask ourselves as we go about growing our businesses. Why do I want to be successful and what will I do when I am? Only by first answering these two questions can we hope to begin charting our course.

One especially compelling figure from American business history provides us an intriguing role model.

This Scottish boy emigrated to America with his family in the middle of the 19th century, after the power loom erased his father’s job as a manual laborer. At the age of 12, he was working as a bobbin boy in a cotton factory, educating himself by reading, writing and attending night school. By age 14, he had become a messenger in a telegraph office, quickly advancing up the ranks. By just 24, he was superintendent of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad’s Pittsburgh division. He invested heavily in railroads and traveled to Europe to sell railroad securities. By the time he was 30, his annual income was $50,000. Still, that didn’t prevent him from leaving to manage one of his investments, the Keystone Bridge Co. By 38, he had founded a steel works. Using the best technology and accounting methods available at the time, he achieved the highest efficiencies in the industry, almost single-handedly helping the U.S. to surpass England in steel production in the opening years of this century. By 65, Andrew Carnegie was earning the then-almost-unfathomable sum of $25 million per year.

What utterly separated Carnegie from other “robber barons” of that era, though, was his philanthropy. He eventually sold his empire for $250 million and spent the rest of his life systematically giving away that and many additional millions. He saw being wealthy as a duty for “the improvement of mankind,” as he put it. His famous saying that “a man who dies rich dies disgraced” stands as a glowing testament to his life, along with the nationwide teacher pension system he founded and the hundreds of libraries still standing today which were built through his astonishing generosity. His wealth, you might say, achieved a larger purpose.

Those of us who search for happiness in our possessions are destined for disappointment. The rush is fleeting, the satisfaction short-lived.

Why not try an alternate path? And you need not practice philanthropy on so grand a scale as Carnegie’s in order to derive a full measure of psychic pleasure. The next time you feel down, try visiting a nursing home and talking to someone who has no one else in life. Or perhaps volunteer to cook dinner at a homeless shelter. See if life soon begins to take on a deeper meaning.

You’ll depart from this session of service with a great feeling, and it won’t have cost you anything but a modest investment in time. And you’ll receive in emotional satisfaction several times what you gave in time and effort.

The purpose of your success, once shrouded in impenetrable fog, may well come into sharp focus as you pursue goals more meaningful than the hunt for ever-greater love of self. And you won’t have to share your little secret with anyone. You alone will know about your good deed, and that’s more than enough.

Just for a test, try it and let us know about the results.

Fred Koury is CEO of Small Business News Inc. He can be reached via e-mail at