If I Knew Then Advice on careers, finance, and life from Harvard Business School's Class of 1963

Bill Agee

Wealth

It may seem too easy for someone who has achieved relative financial success and a significant degree of material comfort to say in retrospect that this no longer really matters. It does matter, in that this form of success provides for safety and security, comfort and freedom.

However, I believe that each person must define an optimal amount of financial success. This is the point at which money is no longer a great motivator.

Once our economic needs have been fulfilled, it is time to give back — to seek out those whose basic needs have not been met, whose human rights to shelter, food, and safety have not been satisfied.

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Careers

Be willing to take risks when a learning experience is worth it. Don’t be afraid to test your skills in an assignment that may be unfamiliar or unpleasant. No matter what adversity may arise, remain focused on achieving your goal of performing to the best of your ability. The rewards will naturally follow.

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Happiness & Success

Based on my current definition of success, I was not “successful” at age 25. While I had a resume that included many significant accomplishments, I had lost touch with what I now know is essential to finding true happiness. Money, fame, and power are not the essence of either success or happiness. The satisfaction each provides is fleeting and often results in an insatiable need for more.

The only purpose or goal in life that does not lose its value once achieved is love. And since the origin of all love is God, I am speaking as well of faith. With faith and love, of course, follows hope. These three virtues make for a happy life and are the only form of success worth living for.

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Life's Lessons

It has been said, “Happiness is achieved not by having what we want — but by wanting what we have.” This is precisely where I find myself at this time in my life.

Certain practical lessons I have learned could possibly be helpful to others:

First, I would recommend postponing marriage and children until later in life. In my view, there is no more important decision any of us will ever make. Despite all the statistics that confirm the unlikelihood of marriage succeeding in the teen years, I somehow missed that lesson and caused myself and others a lot of unnecessary anguish. While I was fortunate enough to have been given a second chance at finding happiness, not everyone is that blessed, and the process of beginning again is anything but easy.

Second, I learned the hard way how important it is to maintain a healthy balance in life — between career and family, work and relaxation in particular. Achieving and maintaining this balance requires regular soul-searching as well as self-discipline. It is all too easy to rationalize when promotions, bonuses, and perks are being waved in your direction. The consequences of imbalance are easy to recognize: poor physical health, broken relationships, and spiritual poverty.

Third, I would advise anyone with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism to be wary about using this recreational drug. While treated as almost a social requirement in some settings, it is nothing less than toxic for anyone with this weakness. Having been sober for almost 20 years, I can attest to the freedom and joy that overcoming this illness can provide.

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Marriage & Family

Everyone knows that we allocate time to whatever we value most. Don’t kid yourself into accepting the “quality time is good enough” myth. The gift of actual time — and a lot of it — is essential to nurturing healthy family relationships.

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Charity & Spirituality

All three are central to living a full and meaningful life. Genuine faith leads to deeper spirituality, which leads to authentic charity.

Too often “faith” is nothing more than a codified list of beliefs, when its truest form resides in the silence of a believer’s heart. Too often “spirituality” is watered down into something that means everything and nothing. And too often “charity” is little more than a pragmatic, well-timed transfer of funds that has no connection at all to generosity or caring.

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Growing Older

My advice is to never fully “retire” in the traditional sense of that word. I would replace “retire” with “re-orient,” as this is what I have found keeps me feeling healthy, optimistic, and actively engaged as a positive force in this world.

With modern medicine, we have the opportunity to live and work many years longer than our parents did. The key is to make good use of this gift of additional time. To allow our minds and bodies to atrophy is to squander life’s most precious gift. As long as we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we can discover people in need of our talent, compassion, and caring. Reaching out to others is a life force that not only benefits the most vulnerable, but keeps us healthier and happier, too.

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Leadership

A leader must have a charismatic energy that empowers him or her to convince others to follow a particular vision. This includes having excellent communication skills and a warmth of personality that makes people want to please the leader and fulfill his or her expectations.

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