Writing in the Dec. 10, 2007 issue of Forbes magazine, Paul Johnson, eminent British historian and author, explored the relationship between success and happiness in an article titled “Pursuing Success Is Not Enough.”
He cited as an example Somerset Maugham, who once wrote, “When I was 18, I desperately wanted to be rich, successful and famous. Now I am all three, but I am not sure I am any happier.” Johnson also observed, “When I look at the Forbes 400, the billionaire and celebrity rich lists, I wonder how many of the people on them are actually happy.”
The foregoing, and a bit more, was a prelude to his thoughts on how one could be successful and truly happy. But first, a few of my own experiences with policyholders who had difficulty balancing that equation.
As I read Johnson’s article my first thought was of a policyholder who was facing the end of life. He called me to go over his insurance to be sure his affairs were in order. A very successful businessman, he had accumulated a substantial estate including a significant insurance program. He lived in a beautiful home atop one of the small mountains surrounding our valley.
As he and I looked over his assets he became very nostalgic and talked about his life today and yesterday. Among other things, he said that without question his happiest days were when he and his wife operated a truck stop in a small town. He said they struggled, but it was a happy and rewarding time. He went on to say that in recent years he lived comfortably, but not happily. He did not explain why.
When he died a few weeks later his son (also a policyholder of mine) took over the business. If ever there was a person driven by the desire to become wealthy it was the son. He went on to become one of the wealthiest men in our city. But I never had the impression that he was at all happy, and the turmoil in his marriages would seem to bear that out. He died young and as near as I could tell, his only accomplishment was that he made a lot of money.
Another couple also came to mind; they owned a very prosperous business and numerous commercial buildings in the area. When I would call on them, I would first make a presentation to the wife; then she would lead me into the husband’s office where I reviewed the proposal again. While I was making my presentation he never looked up, never stopped pricing invoices and never uttered a word. He did make a series of grunts which she was able to interpret as yes or no and she made the purchase based upon his grunts. They were difficult to deal with, but when you are selling you have to take the bad with the good. Eventually they retired, sold the business for cash, and took a trip back east. On the trip he contracted meningitis and died in a Midwestern hospital. When I called on the wife to settle the death claim she said, “What was it all for? We were retired three weeks after a lifetime of work.” They were unhappy before, but now bitterness compounded her condition.
I also thought about a rancher and his wife, who, in addition to being worth millions, had the good fortune to have an interstate highway pass through their land adding additional millions to their net worth. But they were totally consumed with political hatred of Democrats. The wife, sitting in my office one day, said, “This country will never be right again until someone kills that madman in the White House.” Several months later someone did just that. Though I continued to do business with them I lost all respect for them and I noticed that they quickly redirected their hatred towards their grandchildren. They both died rich and unhappy.
Fortunately, most of my policyholders were wonderful people and I loved doing business with them. Thankfully, we are in a business that enables a marriage between success and happiness, if we follow Johnson’s suggestions.
His first rule is to combine the pursuit of wealth with creativity. That is the agent’s meat and potatoes. We create plans to ease the pain of premature death in a wide variety of situations. Often this is routine, but more often than not our plans require a great deal of creativity to conform to the needs of our people. Then we fund those plans with life or health insurance!
Johnson’s second suggestion is to produce something useful. A well-planned insurance program is one of the most useful things a person can own.
His third rule is to create happiness and satisfaction by creating jobs. In a previous column I cited examples of businesses that were created by the availability of policy cash values. But we also save jobs when insurance proceeds prop up a business when the owner dies or becomes disabled.
His final word is that the business should have a moral basis. The family is the basic unit of society and the building block of democracy. What more noble cause could one have, as a profession, than offering a product and a means to preserve a family in times of distress and later in retirement?
We are indeed fortunate to be in a business where our success is not at the expense of someone else. The happiest people I know are those who have served others and where everyone benefits. Johnson may not have been thinking about the insurance business when he set forth his rules for success with happiness–but they are a perfect fit.