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

Chapter 8

Happiness & Success

If you knew then what you know now, would you have changed your definition of what success is and what makes you happy?

Since the first issue of the The New Yorker hit the newsstands on February 21, 1925, the magazine’s cartoonists have tackled (and ridiculed) the meaning of life and happiness from mountaintop gurus literally hundreds of times.

The gurus and cartoonists are no closer to an answer today than they were in 1999 when Bruce Eric Kaplan wrote this guru-delivered one-liner: “You do the hokey pokey and your turn yourself around — that’s what it’s all about.”

Defining happiness and success has been just as elusive for graduates from Harvard Business School's Class of 1963. The list of candidates includes good health, doing what you love, being in a happy marriage, raising successful children, and being totally honest.

What didn’t make their lists is, perhaps, even more significant. Not one saw wealth as the mark of a happy and fulfilled life. In fact, one grad took issue with anyone who would put too high a value on financial success, saying, “Those who persist in believing wealth brings happiness are to be pitied.”

Scott Spangler

Success is when you can spend 90 percent of your time doing the things you want to do and only 10 percent doing things you have to do.  Most people’s lives are just the opposite.

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Artie Buerk

Several years ago, a graduating class from a large, well-known business school was asked whether they had written goals, unwritten goals, or no goals. It turned out that 3 percent of the class had written goals, 13 percent had goals they had not written down, and 84 percent had no goals.

At the 10th reunion, the class was asked again about their goals and accomplishments. The results showed that the 3 percent who had written goals did 10 times as well as the others, and the 13 percent who had unwritten goals did twice as well as the other 84 percent.

The ability to set goals is very valuable in achieving success. Goals should be balanced in all areas of life — family, social, spiritual, business, health, wealth, education, etc.  The major rules of goal-setting are:

  1. Goals should be in writing.
  2. Goals should be measurable — if they can’t be measured, they’re not goals.
  3. Goals should be dated so you have a time frame to measure accomplishment.

People who have a clear picture of themselves and have set well-rounded goals tend to be much more successful than people who are vague in what they hope to accomplish in the future.

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Artie Buerk

When I entered Harvard Business School, I was staggered by the ability of classmates (especially Ivy-Leaguers) to talk. Everyone seemed trained to be very articulate. In my mind, people were given two ears and one mouth for a reason: one should listen many more times than one should talk.

Active listening requires understanding what you are hearing, asking follow-up questions, and watching body language. The better one listens, the better one learns.

As one ages, it seems that people tend to talk more about themselves and less about the people they are talking to. Listen more and talk less for success.

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Bill Agee

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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Jim Collins

Success is not about the accumulation of wealth and power. It is more about happiness, contentment, and satisfaction — for not only you but also your family. 

A great first step in this direction is to avoid “work.” Engage in what you really enjoy doing. Be persistent. If you have a great idea or vision that you really believe in, do not let up — just go for it. 

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Dave Puterbaugh

Happiness and success? Knowing who you are. Many people, when asked about themselves, start with saying, “I work for X company.” Then, if faced with a sudden job loss or company closure, they must determine how to define themselves independently of work. Many, if not most, will find themselves in this situation at some point.

If you are comfortable with who you are, have confidence in yourself, and don’t depend on your self-image coming from your job, I think you’ll be happy.

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Ralph Linsalata

Happiness and success are defined by the importance of:

  • Your family
  • A few true friends
  • Being one of the best in your field
  • Enjoying what you are doing and feeling a purpose beyond having a job
  • Focusing on your objectives and priorities
  • Giving back to others not as fortunate as you
  • Never forgetting who helped you get to where you are
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Donald P. Nielsen

Success can be fleeting. Don’t let it define you. 

Friends and family become increasingly important as you grow older. Make sure you cultivate them when you are young.

Happiness is the best measure of success.

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My definition of success is being where you want to be and doing what you want to do. I regret all the many, many times I did not follow my own advice. If you truly listen to your inner voice, I feel that you will end up doing something very meaningful and worthy of your best efforts. You will benefit not only yourself but also those around you.

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Lawrence D. Ackman

Success is:

  • Having created and led a successful business — with a good succession plan
  • Taking pride and pleasure from having a positive effect on the lives of many people
  • A reasonable degree of financial security and the lack of worry about having enough assets to live comfortably in old age
  • Children and grandchildren who are happy and healthy and making their own important contributions 
  • Living with the same wife for 49 years and sharing the joys of life with her

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Henry A. Gilbert

Success and wealth are being a lover and being loved.

Success is using your tools and powers to enhance the lives and success of others.

Success is capitalizing on economic opportunities yet treating others with over-reaching kindness.

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George Mosher

Success — business and otherwise — comes from setting goals and working steadily toward their achievement.

Be open to opportunities as they develop. Listen carefully, but always keep in mind what you’re trying to achieve and why. 

Remember that the world is always changing. Keep asking yourself what changes you must make to keep up with the world.

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James H. Schattinger

Be passionate in whatever you do, and focus on the outcomes of your efforts. From that, other things seem to follow: fulfillment, success — however you define it — and perhaps even money. Take time during the process to enjoy yourself and to care about others.

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Gary MacDougal

A number of years ago, a friend of mine was retiring from a board on which we both served, and I asked, “What are you going to do now, Jim?” He responded: “Happiness is having something to do, something to look forward to, and someone to love.” He was so right, and I am blessed with an abundance of all three.

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John H. Schwarz

Success can be simple. It’s feeling good about yourself and sleeping at night. It’s feeling good about your family and knowing how to work hard, but also how to enjoy yourself. It’s peace of mind and feeling like you have some control over most challenges.

At age 25, I probably placed a little too much stress on perception as a measure of success. I’ve learned it’s not what others think, but what you think.

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Paul G. Hines

At 25, I did not realize how important a happy life with a great partner is. I never thought anything would happen to end my first marriage — until it did. I expected our children to follow the same course in life, and have similar abilities and ambitions — most of which turned out not to be true. You must learn to adapt when your expectations are not realized, and take life for what it is and not what you dreamed.

My definition of success:

  • Enjoying what you do
  • Enjoying the people you do it with
  • Having a great relationship with your wife and family
  • Having reasonable but not excessive resources
  • The ability to give back through gifts and service
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Eyk Van Otterloo

The important ingredients of happiness are:

  • Health
  • A job you love
  • A wife/partner who helps makes things happen
  • A group of long-term friends to play with
  • Kids
  • Curiosity
  • Education

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I believe that being totally honest in your business is the key to satisfaction and success. Give an honest product or service for your compensation. Avoid greed. Dishonesty will come back to haunt you every time. 

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Judy Ley Allen

A happy marriage, great relationships with family members of all ages, wonderful friends, and enjoying giving back to one’s community are, to me, important successes. Being among the financially successful is nice, but being the most financially successful has fallen down on my list of accomplishments. To live a balanced life is a joy.

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Eugene C. Bell

At 25, I had no idea how much joy was possible in raising happy, successful children. I did not realize how difficult it would be, either.

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Bob Griffin

Life takes dedication to succeed. Just because someone competes, tries, earns a trophy, or gets a pat on the back merely for participating, as is so common in the younger generations today, that alone does not bring meaningful achievement or earn success. It takes integrity and hard work.

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Shann Turnbull

Do not be deterred from seeking to do the impossible, like applying for acceptance to Harvard with only an “ordinary degree.”

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Chapter 7:
Charity & Spirituality
Chapter 9:
Turning Points
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