Success is when you are owed what can be repaid. Significance is when you are owed what cannot be repaid. Everyone can choose to aim for significance in some aspects of their lives.
Everyone who comes to my financial planning practice has reached some level of success. They have enough money that they now feel they have choices and seek someone to partner with to help them choose wisely.
At the level of survival, there is not a lot of choice; we buy essential food, shelter, clothing, transportation and communications. Even poor people have mobile phones these days because they need them to live. And what we would think of today as merely subsistence, was, a couple hundred years ago, a standard of wealth and comfort only available to few.
There comes a stage at which we have all the essentials and realize the need to make bigger plans. Our car will need to be replaced, we want to buy a home, or a bigger home, or ensure that we have enough future income for a time when we no longer can work, or no longer want to work. Our children will need vast sums for college. For most of us, choices will have to be made. There is not enough money to achieve every goal. I remember at one of my early employers, it was said, “the company pays us enough that we can have anything! Any one thing! If your child needs braces and wants to go to college, you need to pick which one thing you can afford.” That might have been excessively cynical, but the necessity of tradeoffs was real.
If life is kind to us, and nothing bad happens (see the prior post in this series), there can come a stage when we realize we will have enough money to sustain us for the rest of our lives. We are more successful and can see broader vistas. People reach this point have developed skills and work habits that keep them striving. There are ever more accomplishments to strive for, ever greater plateaus of success.
Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Apple, was one such striver. He gave the world countless innovations and kept at it until close to his death. At the end of his life, he was surrounded by his loved ones. His sister related that, after looking at each of his loved ones intently, he seemed to look past them, saying “Oh, wow!” three times. We will not know what he saw, but at that moment, he was seeing more.
Being successful is something we all want. It is a worthy thing to strive for. Significance is orthogonal to success and is a state we can strive for at any level of success, whatever choices we may be facing. In a wonderful post at “Becoming Minimalist,” Joshua Becker puts it very well: Success ebbs and flows with the economy. Success ends on the day you die. Success is never enough in that it always leaves us wanting more.
Significance always lasts. Significance carries on. Significance satisfies our soul.
This post began with working definitions: Success is when you are owed what can be repaid. Significance is when you are owed what cannot be repaid. Everyone can choose to aim for significance in some aspects of their lives.
What will be your Significance? Let that guide your choices.