How Will You Measure Your Life?

This is the kind of post that I usually avoid writing. I'm happy to share my opinions, but am ultimately a private person. I like my circle of friends small and my gatherings intimate. I enjoy quiet nights at home and the comfort of a good book, a fine American microbrew, and the soothing sounds of progressive rock. (Don't laugh.)  I also don't like sharing what goes on inside my head. It bothers me when people use the relative anonymity the Internet provides to lay bare their souls or unleash their unfiltered thoughts. I try very hard not to do that. But I've been turning some things over in my head lately, and have reached the point where I think it's worthwhile to get them out.

I am in what will likely be my last year of school. I'm twenty-six years old. Next May, I'll have earned my MBA and been set loose on the world to create and destroy. Between now and then, I should be having fun. I should be losing myself in wild world of higher education. I should be indulging those youthful impulses that are about to become unacceptable. But I'm not and I won't.

Patterns repeat. In high school, I was focused only on college. In college, I was focused only on grad school. I had fun, but I never took my eye off the ball, never let myself get completely lost in the moment. I was always trying to figure out how to make the impact that someone like me should make, and how to live the life someone like me should live. I was always facing forward, always trying to plot my next move. And now I find that there is no next move, no obvious step forward. Now there is only life.


Life. I'm reading a book by Clayton Christensen called How Will You Measure Your Life?. It's a question that's been on my mind over the last few months. I've paid a significant amount of money for this education. It's a risk, and one that I hope will pay off. I knew it was a risk when I applied. What I didn't think about then, and what I'm thinking about obsessively now, is what the payoff will be - but not in dollars.

How will I measure my life? I've got maybe fifty years left. If I died tomorrow, the world wouldn't notice, so what do I have to do in the time I have left to make my dent in the universe? How many people would I impact? How many lives would I change? When you're young, these are the terms you think in. You try to figure out how to single-handedly alter the course of humanity. You try to figure out how to get your name written in the history books or put up on a marquee; how to craft the stories others will tell about you long after you're gone. I'm still writing, and there's part of me that still hopes to see a book that I write climb to the top of the bestseller list; a book that changes the lives of the people who read it. That would be great, but I'm not sure anymore if it would matter that much to me. The question isn't "How will your life be measured?" The question is, "How will you measure your life?"

Two things got me thinking about this. The first is that the beginning of this month marked the fourth anniversary of my relationship with my amazing girlfriend. The second takes a bit longer to explain. You see, I've got a classmate with a wife and three kids. He's one of the brightest folks I know, but I look at him and can't conceive of doing what he's doing right now. How do you manage to take two years out of your life, forego two years of income, and devote countless hours to academics when you've got that kind of family? How exhausting must that be? What kind of effect does it have on you? What kind of strength does it take? How much harder must it be for him? For the longest time, I didn't get it. Then I saw a picture of he and his wife with their third child, a newborn, saw the smiles on their faces, and it clicked: the family doesn't make it harder for him. It makes it easier, because he knows definitively why he's doing it. He has so much more riding on this education than I do, so much more invested in this than I can possibly understand right now. And he knows that what he's doing now, the sacrifices he's making now, are going to build a better future for his wife and kids. He knows what matters, and he knows why.

It makes me think of my own dad. My dad grew up poor. I didn't know it at the time, but I was born poor. My family isn't poor anymore, and that required a huge sacrifice from both of my parents. I got to go to an incredible undergraduate school, got to travel around the world, to see things and have experiences that he never dreamed anyone in his family would have. The work that my dad does - the work that paid for the wonderful childhood I had and set me up for many of the successes I've experienced since - has had a positive effect on the lives of a lot of people. In the end, though, I think our relationship and the relationship he has with my mother and my sister are more important measures of the impact he's had. Nothing can diminish for a second the impact of the lessons he taught me when I was a child, or the thrill of training for and running a marathon with him as a teen, or the joy of sharing a beer with him as an adult. To me, that's how you measure a life - not in dollars or headlines, but in the life that you make with your spouse and your children.

I've always imagined myself getting married and having kids one day, but what's been difficult to deal with these last few months is that "one day" is getting closer. And when it gets here, it will demand that I have the maturity to organize my priorities so that the lives others share with me are enhanced by what I do, not diminished.

None of this changes the objective. The objective is still to make a dent in the universe. But it's also to one day be a good husband and father. And day by day, year by year, that seems more important than bright lights and history books, than bestselling novels and breakthrough products.

It's the balance between being a great man and being a good one. More and more, the latter seems the more important of the two.