Living a Worthwhile Life

“Hmm, you’re one of those people,” sneered my neighbor. “A do-gooder.”

That wasn’t the first—and it won’t be the last—time that someone, usually a man, had mocked my efforts to do good and do well. That used to upset me. Hurt my feelings, too. It doesn’t anymore.

The very first time I wasn’t troubled by someone’s condescension about doing good and well was a liberating moment. A moment that was a long time in the making. A moment that required learning that success is more than money, status, and things.

Tangible vs. Intangible

That learning process was triggered when a long-ago boss had a temper tantrum during a staff meeting. He had recapped the financials and was deeply concerned that last quarter’s gross profit margin had dropped to 58 percent. He was livid. His claim to fame was delivering margins that exceeded 60 percent. He wanted things fixed, and fixed fast.

Today, in looking back at that moment, I shake my head in disbelief at the brouhaha created by not making enough money. Back then, I scrambled, just like all my colleagues did, to rework my department’s expenses. Department heads had to assure our operating areas weren’t a drag on profits. Contributing in any way to keeping the gross profit margin below 60 percent would be a failure. A big one, probably a career-ending one.

Oh. My. Goodness.

Success measured by money, status, and things is good; but if that’s all that’s measured, that success is also hollow.

Tangible, quantifiable measures of success may feed your ego—but do they feed your soul?

For me, that was the leap of learning that so long to achieve. I’d been steeped in KPIs and hadn’t given any thought to other measurements of success.

Think about what’s talked about in the endless meetings that happen at work. Participants talk about stock price, earnings per share, revenue, gross margins, sales, operating cash flow, working capital, and the like. Those numbers can be off-the-charts good, yet some employees are miserable.

Why are they miserable?

Because, to them, success is more than something tangible or measurable. More than a KPI to be monitored each month.


Some years ago, a wise friend told me about eudaimonia—an ancient Greek philosophy advanced by Aristotle, which was about living a worthwhile life. An eudaimonic approach to life “focuses on meaning and self-realization and defines well-being in terms of the degree to which a person is fully functioning.”

Aristotle contended that the pursuit of virtue, excellence, and the best within us is what’s worthwhile in life. Big jobs, houses, salaries, and KPIs don’t make the list. He believed that the pursuit of political power, material wealth, even fun and leisure, to be “laughable things” that were inferior to “serious things” like virtue, justice, wisdom, temperance, and other forms of eudaimonic well-being, such as:

  • “Knowing who you really are. Examples of this self-discovery might include the self-identity knowledge that comes from meditating on your core beliefs. Or, it could be a good understanding of your personal character strengths and qualities. It could even be the self-knowledge that comes from reflecting on your personal development or the values that you hold important.
  • Developing your unique potentials. Someone who scores high on eudaimonia makes a persistent, committed effort to building on self-knowledge.
  • Using those potentials to fulfill your life goals. Someone who is committed to building on self-knowledge over the long term would be a prime example.”

An individual into the intangibles of meaning, self-realization, well-being, growth, and authenticity may not be drawing much personal satisfaction from the normal business success definitions of tangibles—items like stock price, earnings per share, and revenue.

However, both intangible and tangible outcomes are ways in which success can be measured. One approach isn’t more right or wrong than the other. What is wrong, though, is sneering at the person who’s into self-realization if you’re an operating cash flow devotee, and vice versa.

"‘Doing good’ is a short way of saying ‘doing good deeds,’ ‘doing things that are good for others,’ and ‘performing actions that benefit people other than oneself.’ ‘Doing well’ means achieving a healthy equilibrium for oneself in life, reaching personal goals, and attaining a good measure of worldly happiness." ~ Frank Dauenhauer, former technical writer

In an ideal world, we’d measure both doing good and doing well. 

Until that day arrives, leaders can bridge the tangible/intangible success definition gap, provided they’re willing to:

  • Help those on their team define what success means to them AND be open and accepting of teammates who define success differently.
  • Acknowledge, recognize, and reward both tangible and intangible evidence of success.
  • Not position success as a zero-sum game. No one has to lose for someone to win.
  • Encourage employees to stretch their potential to make a positive impact on the people and environment around them. That impact could be economic or eudaimonic.
  • Inspire people to use the best in themselves to develop a skill, learn, or gain insight into something.
  • Persevere at achieving valued goals whether economic or eudaimonic despite obstacles and maintain balance between confidence and humility in the process.

In the past, when colleagues and others criticized or mocked my do good/do well intentions, I’d let myself feel inferior. Like somehow I wasn’t measuring up to the standard business norm.

I don’t do that anymore. Why not? Because I now know that I have nothing to be defensive about.

My hope for the future? That more business people come to share the view that doing good and doing well are equally valuable for business success. What do you think?

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