How do you measure success?
I do not know when I made probably the most important decision in my life, but it may have been sometime around 1962, when General Douglas MacArthur gave a speech at West Point and told the cadets this:
Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be.
Yours is the profession of arms, the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory; that if you lose, the nation will be destroyed; that the very obsession of your public service must be: Duty, Honor, Country.
I do not remember if I heard that speech, bit I do remember the words. Even before I left High School, I had decided that I was going to serve my country as an Officer in the Armed Forces, specifically, in the United States Air Force. Now, I am wondering if I made the right choice, and if I am a success. I have been working at my profession (actually, professions) for 50 years, and it is time to take stock of the decisions I have made, and how I have done.
I grew up with with the children of the generation that went to war to defend freedom around the globe. It just seemed right to be part of all of that, and to put myself in that line of people who serve the country in a very real way. That generation knew that they were going to war, and that many would die for their country. Yet they went willingly and sacrificed much. How could we not do the same thing that our parents had done?
Even though I had spent a lot of time hanging around my mom's office in the Pentagon, among Army Generals, I knew I wanted to go Air Force. So, I applied to enter the ROTC program as soon as I got to Virginia Tech, and five years later, in 1969, standing on the Drill Field at Virginia Tech, with General William Westmoreland (then the Army Chief of Staff, and my mom's boss!) leading the way, I was sworn in as an Officer in the United States Air Force. (I had to do it again in the ROTC Department later that same day to make sure I really did it!) This was the oath I took that day:
I, Roie Black, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
Have you ever done anything like that? Taken an oath like that? It was an incredible moment. My mom, sitting in the stands, watching her boss swear in her son must have been pretty proud. I know I was.
I dedicated 20 years of my life to that profession, and had opportunities to work with people and systems I never would have come close to in any other field of work. I am very proud of what I accomplished in those 20 years, but can I say that I am a success?
I never made General, and I was disappointed not to get promoted above the rank of Major. But I was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal when I retired. I made the career decision not to focus on the politics of the Air Force, something I would have had to do to get promoted higher. Instead, I decided to focus my career on designing, building, and managing the defense systems that defend our country and keep the peace. I did my jobs well, and I always had the respect and trust of my superiors, something I always treasured. Still, was I a success?
When I retired from the Air Force, I again made a decision to keep trying to help others. I did some consulting in the non-profit world, but ended up back in the teaching profession. I really enjoy working with students, trying to explain all of these technological marvels we have crafted to make our lives better. I am hoping to prepare them for a life dedicated to making the world an even better place yet. I want them to be successes as well. So far, I seem to be doing pretty well at that. I have a lot of students who stop by after leaving school to tell me how much they enjoyed my classes, and that makes me feel pretty good! So, have I reached the point in that work where I can say that I am a success?
Is there a scale we can use to measure success? To some, unfortunately, there is, and it is in the things they possess. They measure their success by the fancy car they drive and the huge house they live in. They measure success by the money in their bank account, or in the number of people they control. They chase the almighty dollar and pick only those paths that lead to their own advancement. I hardly call that success, but they seem to.
I tell my students that I have never chased that dollar in my whole life. My childhood was very poor. We managed to survive, but we had no car, and lived in a tiny apartment. My dad was mostly unemployed, and my mom worked hard to support us. I had to struggle to get through college. Even so, as I worked my way through my career, whenever I looked behind me, there was enough money to keep me going. Maybe I did not drive a fancy car, but I seemed to be pretty happy. So, was I a success?
Cheryl asked me the other night if I thought we would ever reach a point where we just came home and sat in front of the TV and did nothing. That caught me off guard, because that is something I never do, and neither does she. We both spend most of our time working, not to get that dollar, but to do things that we feel will help others. Every once in a while we do take time off to enjoy life and travel a bit, but we seem busy all the time.
At the risk of offending those who like to spend their evenings watching TV, we are both caught up in that drive to help others, and we work hard at it. It seems to me that just sitting around doing nothing means we are focusing only on ourselves. Some would say we are workaholics, and I suppose that is true. But it seems like doing nothing is a waste when there are so many people "out there" who need help in their lives. We have been blessed to get to a point in our lives where we can help others, and we both feel a duty to do just that. I know that was in my mind when I decided to join the Air Force, and it was in Cheryl's mind when she decided to work in the non-profit world. So, if the TV is on, you can bet we are both still working and just occasionally glancing at the thing!
So, if I can do spend my time focusing on others, am I a success?
Next weekend, Cheryl and I will be back in Falls Church, Virginia at my 50th High School Reunion. I am sure all of my classmates will be comparing notes on how our lives turned out, and on how well we have done. We will be remembering our dreams from back then, and talking about the journeys we have been on these last 50 years. There will be stories of children raised, jobs won and lost, health issues we have fought, in short, stories of life. And, we will talk about success.
Of course, some will have done better than others, but I am sure not going to run around trying to see who is better than who! Maybe we might have done that 50 years ago, but we all know better now. From the conversations I have had with my classmates as we get ready for this reunion, I am betting that the class of 1964 did pretty well for itself. Us "Baby Boomers" have done our part to make this a better world, and most of us are still hard at it. I bet that, when the dust settles, we will all know that we succeeded in our lives.
And that brings me to this conclusion. I believe I am a success, and so is Cheryl. We are earning a good living, we love each other, we live in a nice house and I am driving a brand new pickup truck (hey, this is Texas, after all!). I am trying to help train the next generation of students who will drive our technological world, and Cheryl is helping the non-profit world in a very big way with her financial expertise. Yes, I am fighting some big health issues, but that hardly seems to matter. At my age, we have to expect some of that!
Do you want to know how we measure success? It is by going to bed at night with the sure knowledge that other folks lives are better for the work we have done each day. We do not measure success by anything we possess. Just by that feeling alone.
So, I am a success, and so is Cheryl! And that is all we could ask for.