Thoughts While Reading Classmate Entries In My Alma Mater’s Anniversary Report, #2

This one is complicated.

A classmate wrote an anniversary report that was exactly as I would have predicted. I know him well; we roomed together for three years. It was virtually a parody of what people think Harvard grads sound and think like in the autumn of their years. And it bothered me.

My old roomie wrote about how the pandemic had adversely affected his life. He and his wife were used to going to fine restaurants, the Met, the ballet, the Philharmonic and Broadways shows. In retirement, he was still on several corporate boards. Things got so bad when New York City was shut down that his family had to flee their Park Avenue penthouse apartment for their other apartment in Newport, Rhode Island. The compensating aspect of this hardship was that he was able to take his large sailboat out frequently, as sailing has always been his passion.

The funny thing about this entry was that there was no sense that my old friend was boasting or trying to impress anyone, though I have read similar prose in dreaded Christmas letters that made me want to upchuck, so obvious it was that the writer desperately wanted readers to turn forest green with envy. My friend is not like that: as a student “Walter” (not his real name) was always very matter-of-fact about his goal of graduating, getting a business degree, working on Wall Street, and making as much money as possible so he could retire before he was 60. And so he did; every choice he made, every course he took, every organization he joined was calculated to accomplish that goal.

I always assumed he would succeed. His priorities and values could hardly have been more different from mine, but I admired him for many of those differences. While I was impulsive and easily drawn to new pursuits, he was disciplined and constant. While I was (and am) a dilettante who would rather do ten different things simultaneously and sort of well, Walt abhorred distractions and diversions, and stuck to the course he had charted. I’ve never charted a course. He was always careful and calculating; I have always taken risks.

As I read his report, I thought, “This is everything you ever wanted, my freind. You’re a success; not only that, you epitomize what the public considers a typical Harvard grad’s concept of success. Good for you.”

And yet his casual, unadorned (because he didn’t need to adorn it) description of a privileged and fortunate (and well-earned: Walt worked for what he achieved) life seemed so empty and pointless to me. I’m not envious in the least. It is because my definition of success is the same as Winston Churchill’s and was before I ever read his famous quote: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

For better or worse, that’s me, and has always been me. Like my room mate, I haven’t changed a bit.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts While Reading Classmate Entries In My Alma Mater’s Anniversary Report, #2

  1. Although I often joke that I have lived to regret my youthful decision to not become a millionaire, I really don’t envy the “Walters” that I know and have known over the years. I have always lived a life of far too many interests than my income would allow me to pursue, but I have managed to cram a lot of varied experiences and pastimes into my 69 years. I never had a master plan, other than (1) trying to seek the will of God in my life, and (2) being a life-long learner trying to fulfill the “Specialization is for insects” quote by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein. He famously wrote. “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.”
    I have not met all these standards (no invasions planned, no programming skills beyond Basic, and have not yet needed to die, gallantly or otherwise) but the rest has been checked off and much, much more besides. A goal of wide-ranging competency has always seemed to me to be an admirable objective. Having knowledge and skills that most others don’t, whether exoteric or arcane, has prepared me to address many challenges and opportunities in my personal life and career over the years. (Not to mention saving me a ton of money by being able to do many things myself rather than having to pay someone to do them.)
    My life thus far has been amazingly rich in most everything other than money. No, I don’t envy my more materially successful friends. As a matter of fact, I’m told that some of them envy me.

  2. Speaking of success…

    How we define success is usually a very personal thing. My life choices had one thing as my priority and it wasn’t making loads of money or early retirement but it was focused in my own way. I learned long ago that life is all about “mostly” simple choices one after another, goals focus effort, and success requires goals.

    I had many choices available to me years ago that would have put me in a far, far better financial position than I am right now but I chose family as the top-most priority in my life and my choices reflect that. I also was blessed with a wife that had the same kind of life goals as I did but as it turned out she was the one that had the very rigid 40 hour/week job that was about 20-30 minutes away, my work needed to be more flexible to help achieve our goals. I chose to work for someone else instead of starting my own business, I picked a small family owned company that also saw family as a high priority, I chose flexible hours to take time off for children when needed, I chose a company within reasonable walking/biking distance from my home. My wife an I chose a modest home that didn’t make us house poor, we chose making memories with our family instead of furthering careers and lining our pockets with cash. All these things put our family comfortably in the middle of the middle class, able to take memorable family vacations annually, able to do the things for our children that we thought were beneficial to their future. We were able to help pay for college, raised our children to be goal orientated responsible productive adults, help them through some rough times like starting a business or having a military spouse over seas. We’re not financially rich by any stretch of the imagination but we’ve almost always had what we needed when we needed it. Life is all about choices.

    My wife retired a few years ago from her very rigid 40 hour/week hospital laboratory job and I’ve cut back from my post empty-nest increase to roughly 55 hours a week to a mere thirty-two hours a week giving me three day weekends. Everything has been paid off for some years now and we don’t owe a dime, we have decent retirement accounts that will hopefully last us for many, many years to come (inflation the past couple of years is a bit concerning) and our focus on family remains the same. We still enjoy very regular family time with children and six grandchildren, we have regular family dinners, babysit some of the grandchildren weekly or bi-weekly, and we’re able to put away annual dollars for each of our grandchildren’s future college funds. My wife and I are also trying to enjoy some new things together and take a couple of vacations every year to see some of the cool things in every state in the USA, plus we’re taking some regular local day trips on my days off to see some area wineries, museums, botanical gardens or just cruise the countryside to see some picturesque things in our area like…

    We stop, relax, get out and walk around, absorb the surroundings, and smell the roses. There really are plenty or beautiful things to see across the United States and many of them are right in your neck of the woods. These little road trips really aren’t something exceptionally “special” but we’re spending some time doing something new together, creating a new memory that can become special. Remember, sometimes it’s the trip itself that becomes the special memory not the destination. Life is all about choices.

    Nope, we’re not rich, we don’t have what would be considered a wealthy family home in our area, no cottage on a lake in the north woods for summer or winter home in a warm southern state and we don’t buy a new car every year, but based on our life goals, we are a success, we enjoy life and we’re truly blessed to have a close family. We’re rich in a different way. Life is all about choices.

    Success requires goals and goals focus effort.

    Make wise choices.

  3. “Success is te ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

    Success is the ability to let go of one satisfying success and risk building another. You’ve done it several times. My vote of course, is that you keep on with this one; I’m not ethical enough. Yet.

    Thank you, and a Happy, Healthy, Prosperous and Satisfying New Year.

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