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From Great to Lasting—Redefining Success

Creating a life that matters is what most everybody wants. The real definition of success is a life and work that brings personal fulfillment and lasting relationships and makes a difference in the world in which they live. Learn how to build that life.
This chapter is from the book

“It was another sleepless night followed by another cruel morning. We were running out of money, and I worried constantly about all the people who had sacrificed to come to work for me. They came and they toiled through the night and struggled to make ends meet for their families. The pressure was overwhelming—sometimes, I had to stop and throw up in the gutter on the way to the office.”

Keeping his dream going was the hardest thing he had ever tried to do in this life. Ed Penhoet had been comfortable as a biochemist and a professor, then reinvented himself as an entrepreneur and found himself barely keeping a fledgling firm afloat. Things would get worse before they got better, and he seriously considered merging with another equally desperate competitor or giving up entirely.

“Famous executives out there fundamentally gild the lily. They don’t tell you the awful truth about the pain you will face. They want you to think they’re brilliant and that they had it figured all out at the beginning. That’s revision-ist history. They might have had a clue, but that’s barely all they had.” Penhoet was teetering on the edge of a humiliating collapse of everything he had worked 24/7 to achieve. He could lose it all. Success as traditionally defined was not even a concept at this point. What Ed faced was the opposite of success—had he looked up the word “success” in the dictionary, he would have scored zero.

Why did he persist? It was not just because he was stubborn. There was something bigger than success at stake. When his favorite uncle died from cancer, he had long ago launched a career in biochemistry, determined to find new ways to bring basic research to the marketplace. That was a lifelong cause that had meaning uniquely to him. It was the way Penhoet would create a life that matters.

Creating a life that matters is what most everybody wants. It’s the subtitle of this book because it’s exactly what we heard from enduringly successful people all over the world. Builders, as we call them, do things because they want to build a meaningful life. They want to create a life that matters, and one of the greatest tests of that conviction comes in those dark moments like those that Ed Penhoet suffered in the early days of his start-up. These are the times when Builders don’t feel successful—at least not in the traditionally defined terms of popularity, wealth, or influence. Yet they nevertheless choose to remain committed to what they care about despite success, not because of it. When faced with what they discover is so important to them, they summon the courage (or foolishness) to persist because it matters to them.

It’s Time to Redefine Success

In fact, we discovered that for most Builders, the culturally accepted measures of success that you find in the dictionary have never been what they were seeking. The standard description must have been written for budding sociopaths. It is defined as

  1. The achievement of something planned or attempted.
  2. Impressive achievement, especially the attainment of fame, wealth, or power.
  3. Something that turns out as planned or intended.
  4. Somebody who has a record of achievement, especially in gaining wealth, fame, or power.1

Notice that nowhere in the dictionary definitions do you find any reference to finding meaning, fulfillment, happiness, and lasting relationships. No mention of feeling fully alive while engaged and connected with a calling that matters to you. No thoughts about creating a legacy of service to the world. Yet those are all realities that people who have lasting success say they value most in life and work.

For Builders, the real definition of success is a life and work that brings personal fulfillment and lasting relationships and makes a difference in the world in which they live. The question is why the rest of us tolerate any other definition.

Folks who chase a fantastic but vain hope for fame, wealth, and power—for its own sake—may even achieve it, only to become miserable and pathetic people. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say, but we think that the current definition of success is a potentially toxic prescription for your life and work. It is a description that makes you feel more like a failure than a success if it’s the standard against which all meaning in your life is measured.

Sure, you might be a little strange if you did not enjoy the “impressive achievement” of something that you “planned or intended.” But when you talk with Builders, you will hear that wealth, fame, and power are not actually goals or accomplishments for most of them. Money and recognition are external factors—they are outcomes of passionately working often on an entirely different objective that is often a personal cause or calling, like Ed Penhoet’s drive to find successful treatments for cancer. He chose a way of life that embodied his passions, making a difference to him and the world.

It was not just service or ambition; it was both at the same time. Penhoet’s passion was also his service to the world. On his journey from academic life to entrepreneur, and now in his current role running a nonprofit, Penhoet channeled his passion and made it a business that changed the status quo in medical research.

And, yes, in case you’re wondering, Penhoet and his colleagues eventually enjoyed many of the traditional measures of success, too, such as becoming wealthy, but these measures weren’t his focus. Penhoet’s lifelong cause inspired the creation of Chiron, the company he cofounded in 1981 and where he ended up serving as CEO longer than any other person ever had in that industry. Chiron is a $1.9 billion biotech innovator, and today, Penhoet is well into his second career as director of his friend Gordon Moore’s $5 billion foundation, where he’s supporting the sciences, education, and the environment.

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