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Saturday, April 14, 2012

What is life for?

“Your career is what you do to fill your time until you die." He has told me this a few times. I have asked my friend what he meant. He always tells me that he can’t see what else there is to life, that we are all just killing our time until we leave. I guess I always find his concept depressing. Is that all there is? We are all just occupying ourselves until we pass away? I think a lot of people feel this way.

My parents are early retirees. They left the work force at 55. Soon, they had joined every club in their area. My dad became president of the Jazz Society. They became active in their synagogue. Cruises, vacations, hobbies, Mahjong, endless ways of occupying their time. My mom told me she needed to stay busy. So they are. They never have a free moment.  I ask them sometimes if they miss work. They both tell me they hated it and their lives are much better without the punishment and difficulties their jobs provided. I can’t say whether they are happy or not. They seem to focus their retired lives on doing the things that make them happy. I am not trying to find fault in that. But I when I see their fervor for filling every moment, I have to wonder if they are afraid to sit idle. I think when it really comes down to it, all the crafts,  travel, and dinners don’t really make them happy. They just need those things to keep them occupied.

I had a client that was very, very wealthy. He was not a very bright man. Years ago, when no one had heard of Kentucky Fried Chicken, he had purchased a franchise on the recommendation of a friend. His single store turned into 5 then 10. Soon he found himself owning 52 franchises. He admitted he knew nothing about the fried chicken business. “That’s what the franchise is for, teaching you what to do!”  So he followed all their advice. He made sure everything they suggested was carried out in his locations. Turns out, a lot of people with KFC franchises were not doing this. Many sold home made food alongside the standard Kentucky Fried Chicken. Most other franchises were not doing well. Customers like consistency and cleanliness. My client made this his priority. All his restaurants followed the same rules and served only the company menu.

He ran these stores for over 18 years. One day, KFC said they wanted to buy them back. It’s a little known secret that the real way to make money in franchising is to run the franchise so well that the company buys it back. They made my client an offer he could not refuse. He told me the amount, it was staggering. It was an amount of money you could not ever run through. Not in three lifetimes. So he must have been pretty happy! He was one of the most miserable people I have ever met. His two children were constantly conspiring against each other to get his assets. He was painfully aware of their deceit. His third wife had recently passed away. The first two were still alive but out of his life. He spent a large part of each day worrying about his investments and speaking to his three advisers. He told me one day that mutual funds were for suckers. I asked him why. “Just take my advice, I lost millions on those things.”

I felt kind of sorry for him. He really had no one to be close to. No one to love or even care for. His only two children looked at him as a retirement ticket. He sold his business. He had nothing to fill his time. I could see his life draining out of him slowly. He was a large man, a World War II veteran. I could picture him young and healthy, running up the beach in Normandy, a rifle in his hand. I could also see the young man returned from war, looking at the franchise agreements. I could easily picture the sum of his life. But now it was all over; he was just waiting for it to end. I wanted more than anything not to be this man. He was the epitome of what my friend suggested, just a man filling up his days and hours waiting for the eventual last breath.

I have met many people like this man. People whose life only meant dollar signs, conquests, and just biding your time. I doubt any of them saw the worth in being available for others. I know this KFC man only viewed his children as leeches. He never talked about their lives or dreams. To him, they were not humans, just responsibilities. This fellow had lived his entire life for himself.

They were all about the family.
I have also seen the polar opposite. I meet people all the time who live their lives for their children. Some have no children, but they live for others, friends, strangers, the needy. Their focus is not their own enjoyment or victory. They truly care that they are helping others. For many of them, the entire thrust of their lives has been geared toward positioning themselves so others can benefit from them. I have often thought about this. So many clients have created a life that welcomes others into it. Often, these clients are victims of scam artists or their own family. That’s the danger of being that available. But the majority are fine; their generosity and kindness seem to protect them. What kind of people are these? They are the grandparents who move closer to their adult children so they can be full time sitters. They are the aunts who stay in contact with all their siblings children through email. They volunteer at community centers to teach kids basketball. They are everywhere!

The more they invest themselves in others, the happier they appear to be. I have  met people who are scientists and writers that fit the same bill. They are frantically working to finish their final book or research. Not for money or fame, but for what their ideas will mean for the world. I met a man once who wanted to live just a few more years so he could finish a report for the UN. He was researching child labor across the globe. He told me he owed it to the children to finish this. He wept when he told me about Jakarta and Indonesia.  I knew a inventor once that was desperately trying to bring a product to market he invented. It was an analgesic gel to help people with arthritis. I asked him why at 86 he was so desperate to accomplish this. He said, “Just think of all the people it could help!”

I am not saying there is anything wrong with owning 52 franchises or selling them for a king’s ransom. Having money and making money are perfectly fine. But living your life for that goal alone is the recipe for misery. As well, living your life to prove something to others is an empty existence. Are you working hard just to show your parents and high school friends that you really weren’t a screw-up? Maybe this is why people hate their jobs. They can't see who they help. I may dislike the business side of my job, but I love being in a position to help people. It will be hard for me to ever leave that behind without finding an even better way to accomplish the same thing. 

In America, there is a religion called wealth. Devotees worship demigods like Warren Buffet, hanging on his every word.   So many people I meet are driven to amass fortunes. The book “The Millionaire Next Door” makes being wealthy seem like the only smart thing to do. It even devotes several chapters to why you shouldn’t help your children financially or give to family members. That book makes wealth sound like a divine gift. Wealth for wealth’s sake.  Nowhere in that book is an indication of what will actually make a person happy or satisfied beyond simply accumulating money. I have heard people say, “With ten million, you will never need money again!” That number changes all the time. Next week I expect the amount will climb to twelve. Is that number really worth your life? Does having it mean you are better than a person who doesn't?

I think it’s the wrong path.  America has gone the wrong route in making wealth itself the ultimate goal. Want to find real happiness? Live your life so other people can be helped by it. Want to feel like your life’s work is more than just killing time? Do things that leave a positive change in people. I think anyone who feels they are just filling their time until they die is living a life for themselves and their own satisfaction.

 I challenge anyone who feels that their life means nothing more than filling the minutes to try and do one thing for someone or something other than themselves. Maybe it's teaching a nephew to read or volunteering for a charity group. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, in fact it's better if only you know your motives. I know there is a belief out there that there is no such thing as a selfless act. I have always silently disagreed with this concept. I suppose it depends on your definition of ‘selfless’.  To me, a selfless act is anything you do to attempt to ensure that other people improve themselves. That’s my test. It doesn’t have to actually result in an improvement, just make the effort.

Ayn believed there were no selfless acts.
Let me give you the following example. Three people I  know are deliberating over  buying a home for their family members. In each case, the home is not for them.  In my opinion, you shouldn’t feel obligated to buy your family a home. If you do it out of obligation, you will end up resenting them. You will never feel fully compensated for your gift to them, and that will eventually put a wall between you and them. That’s because the focus of your gift is to satisfy something within yourself, your sense of obligation. Instead, buy them a home because it will improve their life. Watch over time to see how it helps them. Looking for thanks or gratitude equivalent to your gift is a fools game. Enjoying how your gift benefits others is the only reward. But the only way to feel good about it, is not to look for a return from them but instead to look for a change in them. Focus on what that change is.

That’s how I am trying to live my life. Not for my satisfaction, but for the effect I have on others. I try to treat each client as I would want my own mother to be treated. I try and hear each persons desires and then I do anything in my power to make it happen. You would be surprised where that has led me. I have installed ramps and shower bars. I even once cleaned someone’s oven and then bought her a thanksgiving dinner. Please don’t get the wrong idea,  I am no saint!  I love going on vacations and trips. But the real fun in them is seeing my children’s reactions. The real joy in life is making other happy. My charity begins in the home.  I never take from my family to give to others. But I have tried my best for my children and wife to make their lives better. I strive to make anyone I know feel like improvement is possible.

My friend is not a selfish person. In fact, as long as I have known him, I think he is one of the nicest people I have met. But when I look at his life and all its accomplishments, I see very little that has occurred outside his own dream of doing his own thing. That dream he has accomplished in spades. He travels the world and lives in foreign places. He lives a life that most only dream of.  But I think there must be something missing. I am saddened when I hear him saying his work and career is nothing more than just occupying his time. That’s not a life!  Your work, no matter what it is, is what you do to help mankind.  Your life is meaningless unless it's lived for others.


1 comment:

  1. So to summerize, the meaning of life is to help others to live a happier life and in so doing we feel better about ourselves ?