American poet Christopher Morley once said, "There is only one success - to be able to spend your
life in your own way." But George Bernard Shaw had a different view. "I dread success. To have succeeded is to have finished one's business on earth." The definition of success is a personal thing. Here, five successful people give us their perspective.
|Photography by Paul Thomas/Getty Images
Walking away from one of the only guaranteed-for-life jobs in the country. Learning to think like a player, then a coach, then a manager. Changing the world through public service. Having the money to splurge without regret. Running a major entertainment company. Success can come in many forms, and the happiness it can inspire isn’t necessarily only about being the richest or most famous. We asked five people from different industries about how they gauge success, how they achieved it and how it’s changed for them over the years.
Tom Morris — Philosopher
Michelle Nunn — CEO, the Hands On Network
Jim Lefebvre — Baseball Legend
Gail Ludewig — CEO and president, TotalWorks
Debra Lee — CEO, BET
When Tom Morris reached what could arguably be called the high point of his career — serving for 15 years as one of the most popular professors at the University of Notre Dame, teaching one-eighth of the student body each year — he did what few academics who had spent a lifetime working their way up the educational ladder would do: He quit.
For roughly five years, Morris had been splitting his time between his Notre Dame job and his part-time lecturing profession, traveling to corporations and businesses around the world to share his take on philosophy and modern life.
“I was living two lives at the same time — the business talks just by word of mouth were generating a huge amount of activity,” he says.
So Morris, whose 18th book, “If Harry Potter Ran GE,” is due out next year, retired from teaching 10 years ago to become what he calls a “public philosopher,” speaking to factory workers, CEOs and other audiences ranging from 10 people to 1,000.
“I really wanted to bring practical wisdom to people of every age,” he says. “It’s been a completely unexpected adventure to serve as a philosopher in this way.”
It was also a huge risk — but to Morris, that’s part of the process. “If you’re not willing to take risks, you’re not going to get the kind of rewards you want in your life,” he says. “I gave up the only job in America that is guaranteed for life, my kids’ education being paid for … so to speak. I had a couple of nights when I thought, ‘Gee, am I doing the right thing? What if six months from now the business world isn’t interested in philosophy?’”
But it was. Morris’ second-year speaking salary was nearly equal to 20 years of his former teaching salary, and, he says, had a greater payoff. “All I could do while teaching was give my time and energy,” says Morris, relaxing just a few hours after taking a walk on the beach outside his Wilmington, N.C. home. “Serving as a pipeline to the wisdom of the ages for people of all ages — it’s such a noble endeavor, and I have so much fun doing it that I’ve always felt successful at it.”
As a philosopher Morris doesn’t measure his success by a dollar amount. “Feeling successful is not the same thing as feeling so utterly content you don’t want to accomplish more,” he says. “We all need to feel fulfillment in what we’re doing now and build a better future as well. Success should be more tied to happiness, contentment and fulfillment than the money, fame and status that we’ve tied it to for the past 50 years. Sometimes those are side effects of success, but not always.”
With some of his clients inviting him back as many as 16 times a year for talks, Morris has achieved a considerable level of success.
“It’s all about discovering our talents, developing them, and deploying them into the world for the good of other people and ourselves,” he says. “I think of success as evolving — setting goals that are right for you and building great relationships. Aristotle believed that without friendships, life isn’t worth living. Too much of the success literature in the past 60 years has been only about individual goal setting.”
Morris rarely finds himself alone these days — and he couldn’t be happier about it. “You grow up at least subliminally equating success with income, but I’ve really come to understand that what’s important is your personal impact on the world,” Morris says. “Will you leave the world better than it was when you got here? Stuff like income, that’s just ancillary — it’s almost inconsequential. It’s just another tool for doing good.”