Warren Buffett is one of the world’s richest men. He’s widely considered to be among the world’s most successful investors.
But what does Buffett consider to be success? Is it your net worth? Is it some measure of cash liquidity? Is success found in being one of the top 1 percent of earners? Or something else?
In her biography of Buffett, writer Alice Schroeder tells the story about a time when Buffett was asked that question. He had given a presentation at the University of Georgia and was answering student questions at the end.
“What’s your definition of success?” one of the students asked.
Buffett’s answer said nothing about money or land or stocks or comparisons to other people. He was concerned only about who loved him. He told the student that when you reached the point at which you faced death, your only measure of success should be whether the “people you want to have love you actually do love you.”
“I know people who have a lot of money, and they get testimonial dinners and they get hospital wings named after them,” Buffett said. “But the truth is that nobody in the world loves them. If you get to my age in life and nobody thinks well of you, I don’t care how big your bank account is, your life is a disaster.”
If you’re living your life in the service of building your wealth — and the way you’re living isn’t bringing you the love and support of those whose love and support you want — you’re doing something wrong. No matter how much money you make, it will never be enough to substitute for the love you want when you’re on your deathbed.
In a 1987 song called “What Is the Measure of Your Success,” Steve Taylor contemplated a rich man on his deathbed. The man speaks of learning that you can’t buy more time with money. And he says, “I’d watch it all burn to buy another sunrise.”
When I read Buffett’s comments about success, I thought about my father dying alone nearly a year ago. He had alienated almost everybody he had known. The women he had loved had angrily cut ties with him. His children had been burned and hurt by him over and over.
He wanted love from a lot of people, but the people who would once have run to his side had been burned too badly to be there. That’s not an end anybody wants.
I’ve love to end my life as wealthy as Warren Buffett, but that’s not likely. Still, I’d like to have even a fraction of his wealth, enough that I’m happy to leave something for my family to continue building a future with.
But whether I’m lucky enough to leave them a million dollars or a billion dollars or nothing at all, I want to live the rest of my life in such a way that I’m loved by certain people when I die.
Wealth is a great thing to have, but on the day I die, wealth will mean nothing to me. Being loved — or not loved — by a very small group of people will tell me clearly whether I’ve succeeded or failed in how I’ve lived my life.