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

Chapter 5


If you knew then what you know now, would your regard for financial wealth as a yardstick of success be the same?

One of the inescapable news items of late 2011 was the Occupy Wall Street movement, a protest about economic inequality that spread to more than 95 cities across 82 countries. While criticized for its lack of a clear agenda, Occupy Wall Street at least knew how to galvanize media attention, and did so using the slogan, "We are the 99 percent."

So who were the other 1 percent? They are people not unlike the Harvard Business School Class of 1963. The Tax Policy Center says that the top 1 percent had a minimum income of $516,633 in 2010.  When the 1963 Harvard grads reported their annual income in 2013, 27 percent hit this threshold. Looking at net worth, the top 1 percent check in with an average of $14 million. More than one-third of the 1963 Harvard grads similarly claimed a net worth of more than $10 million. 

But, if you’d expect the Class of 1963 to wholeheartedly affirm the importance of wealth, you’d be mistaken. As a whole, the class has some doubts the value of using money as a measure of a life well lived. One grad put it all in perspective, saying, "Money ... cannot buy happiness or respect. I know many people who are living happy, satisfied lives on very little money. On the other hand, I have been poor and I have been rich, and it is a lot easier to be rich."

Bill Agee

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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Scott Spangler

Overall, money is not as important as I used to think. It cannot buy happiness or respect. I know many people who are living happy, satisfied lives on very little money.

On the other hand, I have been poor and I have been rich, and it is a lot easier to be rich.

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Thomas E. Reilly Jr.

Money to me is freedom. That is all I want of it. I don’t view it as a yardstick and do not measure myself or others by it. My greatest admiration is for non-financial accomplishment.

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Charley Ellis

Spend moderately, invest substantially, and be moderate in “helping” your kids. Do not give them a lot. You’ll mean well, but will be doing them harm.

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Mike Schoettle

When we graduated from the Harvard Business School, the priorities were Money, Power and Position. I had misgivings about this, and remember writing on the blackboard these words by William Wordsworth: Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

I think the most important idea of success is the contribution you make to others, and this cannot be quantified. What you give is much more important than what you get. Following your values will lead to a much “richer” life.

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Frederick M. O’Such

You need to accumulate enough wealth to provide a good life for your family, educate your children, support worthwhile causes, amply provide for your retirement years, and leave something for your heirs. But that’s not the litmus test for success.

The real test is how well you are respected by your family, colleagues, employees, and friends. That respect is earned by your actions over long periods of time — not your balance sheet.

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George Mosher

Financial wealth is a good measure of business success. But life is more than your career. To be truly successful, you need to build a good marriage, a good career, a good family, maintain good health, and have a sense of purpose to your life beyond both career and family.

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Eyk Van Otterloo

On inheriting: We have decided that a little inheritance is fine — a lot is a burden. Our kids all had a great education and the opportunity to go as far as they wanted to go, fully paid for, no debts. We consider that to be the greatest gift parents can give to their offspring.

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Is financial wealth a yardstick of success? Absolutely not! Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi, Churchill — not much money there.

Money is no longer the sine qua non it once was. I now appreciate that it can be used to make a better life on this planet for many who inhabit it. But I still like money. I still like counting it.

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Warren Batts

I was born in 1932 and grew up during the Depression. In the beginning, poverty was the level to which I aspired. When I reached it, my next goal was to get out of debt. That took several years. Then my goal was to become financially independent. After reaching independence, more money was not a great motivator for me. My interest became trying to make a difference — making the company I worked for successful, and working for my church and other volunteer organizations.

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Eugene C. Bell

I do not agree, although I did until I had worked many years. Find work that you love, as long as you can earn enough to provide for your family and a reasonably comfortable retirement. Those who persist in believing wealth brings happiness are to be pitied.

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Barbara Minto

Wealth is absolutely an important yardstick, but not the only one. The really successful people are those who love their work, make money from it, and manage to keep close friends.

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John A. Fabian

I do largely agree that financial wealth is a yardstick of success. However, I would add that in judging the degree of someone’s financial success, it is extremely important to know where one started.

At the Harvard Business School, many if not most graduates started from a high base. Moreover, it is important to know how one handled his or her financial success and how much he or she gave back to society.

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John H. Schwarz

Money is one of a number of ingredients that help to make for a good life. When money becomes a scorecard, it can corrupt and compromise people’s judgment. Money should be a byproduct — not a target. The target should be honest achievement.

I was not someone who made getting the highest offer out of HBS a goal, and have maintained that perspective throughout. It’s led to having enough money to never feel a need, but it also has forced some limits on how we live. We don’t buy the most expensive car or house, and my wife worked to help pay for college educations. We have never felt the worse for it.

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Bob Griffin

Perhaps the most significant dimension of change with experience has been a shift in the meaning of “worth” to me. As I look back, I recognize that many of my Harvard Business School associates have accumulated more material value in the last 50 years than I have.

While I am grateful that I have been provided with sufficient funds to support my family, it has been in bringing pure water to indigenous Miskito Indians in Honduras, starting a literacy school for adults, participating with my wife in her founding of two teen courts for young people, and having a positive impact on our children and grandchildren that define my sense of wealth and worth.

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Charles Hale

Financial wealth is only one yardstick of success. There are many others — among the greatest are respect and admiration from one’s peers and family, and few, if any, regrets about roads not taken or opportunities lost.

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Richard Holliday

For some, financial wealth comes by chance — the lucky, sperm group with large financial inheritance, and even lottery winners. Others don’t seriously pursue a path to wealth. They commit to service roles, such as teaching, preaching, and nursing, and don’t do it for the money. They measure success in terms of the number of people they’ve helped or perhaps their ranking in their field. Still others choose careers in the military or civil service. 

So, while it’s certainly true that many people regard financial wealth as a yardstick of success, I do not. My own opinions about money have changed little over the past half-century. When at the Harvard Business School, one of our professors asked us to write what we wanted out of our careers. I recall vividly that my response was to be successful enough financially to enjoy a good life, to provide my prospective family with financial security, and to have the time to enjoy my family and personal time.

Certainly I’ve not ranked in the top of our class in terms of financial wealth, but I take great satisfaction from achieving my defined goals.

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Perry R. Pero

Many years ago, my father told me, “Never judge a man by the balance in his bank book, but by the quality of his life.”

Financial wealth is a small measure in the yardstick of success. The major portion is what you have done with your life — what you have done to make a difference, large or small.

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Shann Turnbull

I agree with my mother, who said that money provides a comfortable way of being unhappy. The nature of money and my view of money have changed over the last half-century. Money has become a dysfunctional belief system. The financial system is illogically back-to-front, inside out, and upside down.

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I am glad to be financially secure, but I regard money as a means — not an end. I know a lot of people who have more money than I have, but I would not exchange places with them.

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Judy Ley Allen

I think we are all hopeful of adequate material success — but in the real world, there are those who are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and accomplish great wealth. This doesn’t always equate to being the smartest or hardest worker. 

Over time, one must be comfortable with one’s financial success and not judge it by the material wealth of another. There are so many other ways to measure a worthwhile and accomplished life.

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Donald P. Nielsen

Money is important to provide the lifestyle you seek, but being driven by money makes for a shallow life. Family and friends are far more important.

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Richard L. Peterson

My belief about money evolved in my 40s (a dramatic change) to put fulfilling work ahead of the pursuit of money. Money is necessary to support you and your family’s life needs. The very difficult questions are: What are needs versus wants? How much is enough for me? I still live with these questions.

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Dick Resch

As an entrepreneur, financial wealth is certainly a measure of success — but not the entire measure. In business, dollars are how we keep score. For me, it’s a scorecard and not a driving factor.

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Ralph Linsalata

In our society, it is difficult to not consider wealth as a yardstick of success. However, never consider wealth as your number one-measure of success. Achieving outstanding knowledge and performance should be your primary goal. If you achieve this, the wealth will come either financially or through respect and recognition by others.

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