From before I can remember, my nightly prayers have included one final pitch to "please let me live a life of significance." I have seemed to always have a fear of finally meeting St. Peter for him to only say, "That's it? You went to all that trouble to get back down there for that?"
I, of course, have never known what a life of significance might hold, but possibly an email from my Air Force Academy buddy Paul after I had settled into Federal Prison provided some insight. Paul wrote, "Well, you always did seem to live life with a higher standard deviation than the rest of us." Now, I believe wisdom and maturity would urge me to continue to strive for upward deviation, but do a much better job controlling the falls from grace!
Perhaps this mission has always made me curious to read the obituaries posted in the Wall Street Journal. I have read these well-written narratives regularly in search of understanding and context for this tremendous challenge we call the human experience. The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, along with 863 other fine Americans last week, have brought this issue to the forefront, while almost as a paradox, Fox News's Charles Krauthammer also announced "my fight is over" after his cancer returned on top of his courageous and inspiring lifelong battle paralyzed from a diving accident. Life is incredibly unfair.
But, there are clues and wisdom wrapped inside these WSJ obituaries. Rarely are these overachievers born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Robert Campeau, a real estate and retail tycoon, quit school at 14, worked in factories and drove trucks until he began building modest homes one at a time. Dan Ohlmeyer, who produced Monday Night Football and oversaw NBC's "Seinfeld" and "Friends" success, used baseball to get into Notre Dame and made his money as a pool hustler, fortunately one late night reaching deep into the pocket of a visiting ABC Sports executive. Michael Novak, the well-known writer of "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania: the working class town of steel mills, coal mines, and immigrant Slovak families where my father also grew up. Edward Rowny fought the Nazis in Italy before becoming a Lieutenant General and later a consultant for President Nixon, Ford, and Carter working to control the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal expansion. David Tang arrived in Britain at age 13, not able to speak a word of English, before building Shanghai Tang global brand, making Cuban cigars cool in China, and being part of the British Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations. (Author's note: I have only included gentleman in this post since I regularly send the narratives of the amazing ladies to my beautiful bride-to-be, Ashleigh)
These interesting people have all of the human failings as the rest of us, if not more (standard deviation?). A critic of Spencer Johnson's books once wrote that his writings were a work of "stupefying banality," yet his "One Minute Manager" and "Who Moved My Cheese" later would sell 28 million copies in 44 languages. Don Ohlmeyer was brutal at times on his executives, smoked heavily in the office, and underwent treatment for alcoholism at the Betty Ford Center. Mr. Campeau battled his partners, periodically fell into spells of despair, and had numerous public battles with estranged ex-wives and bill collectors.
These A-Players have taken many great falls, but they always kept swinging, maybe getting up off the canvas just one more time than the next guy, or having that rare courage to make a radical change in their life. Vanu Bose chose not to join in his father's stereo-equipment business, instead earning engineering and computer science bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees at MIT before working to bring cellular service to underserved areas. He recently donated base stations to restore connections in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, saying, "That makes it all worthwhile, right there." He died at age 52 of a pulmonary embolism the day he was to play a violin recital with his daughter. Spencer Johnson gave up his career as a doctor to write children's books before meeting Ken Blanchard at a party and deciding to self-publish their first business advisory book. Michael Novak challenged his strong Roman Catholic upbringing and socialist ideology to embrace capitalism to help people, to urge religious leaders to focus on how wealth is created before redistributing it, and to push business leaders to think of their careers as a calling for the billions around the world still locked in poverty. Robert Campeau started in the factory, later bought Brooks Brothers and Ann Taylor for $3.7 billion and Federated Department Stores for $6.6 billion. At the end, he was living modestly in a rented townhouse, but with an enthralling story for St. Peter, I am sure.
With daily stories like these, how can we whine that our boss is a jerk, our spouse doesn't understand us, our back hurts, and "they" and "them" are unfairly sticking it to us? Turn off the TV, study interesting people, take a moment to truly think, and assess your station. Let's all set the alarm a little earlier tomorrow. So many opportunities. Such an amazing gift...
"Be worthy of your suffering." - Viktor Frankl