Path to success, happiness marked by big decisions

February 13, 2011
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A client recently asked me what purpose older people in the work force serve. There are the obvious financial rewards. Continuing the challenge of business is attractive. After some thought, I realized there is a major service that older businesspeople bring to the business community: We can have an impact on the younger people coming up behind us. So I thought a while about what my message would be to my grandchildren.

Do something with your life that you're good at and that you enjoy. It is not true that you will always be financially successful if you follow your dream. Sometimes doing what you want to do will have a cost. If your greatest desire in life is to be a thoracic surgeon, then you can make a lot of money while you enjoy your career. If you decide you want to be an artist, then your chances of making a lot of money are slimmer than the surgeon’s. If you want to be an artist but you become a surgeon, you will make a lot of money but will never be fulfilled.

You should be thinking of how you can be both financially successful and emotionally fulfilled in the same profession. This requires planning, thought and effort. Whatever you choose to do, someone has made an exceptional living at that profession previously.

Doing the right thing does not always pay off in the short run. Telling the boss or customer the truth will not always set you free in a way that you prefer. It may set you free by the loss of your job or of a large customer.

Recently, I was told a story about Gen. Douglas MacArthur. During the Korean War, Gen. MacArthur was pushing into North Korea. His advisers, trying to curry favor, told him that there were roughly 50,000 Chinese troops across the border to the north. One staff person told him that the Chinese had amassed more than 500,000 troops across the border. That person was fired. A short time later, our troops were driven back by a massive Chinese infantry attack.

The staff person who presented the general with the truth was fired. The staff people who told the general what he wanted to hear had been promoted.

In your career you will be faced with many situations that require an honest answer to a question that is loaded with danger. Even an innocent conversation can threaten your future — like when the partner in a large CPA firm asked me, as a young staffer, what I thought of nuns teaching grade-school boys. I expressed my view of how pent-up frustrations often led nuns to treat boys harshly. I then expressed my astonishment at his having three daughters who were nuns. That's why some people spend their career self-employed. When your boss asks you a question, think hard about the ramifications before you answer.

You can do everything right and have a project fail. I grow a variety of fruit on a small farm near Cheboygan. When you are involved in agriculture, anything can happen. I have fertilized, trimmed, irrigated and sprayed properly, only to have a late spring or early fall hard freeze ruin everything. Two years ago the temperature dropped to about 25 degrees the first week in June. The result was that all of the grapes, apples, berries, plums, currants and blueberries froze without maturing. I did not do anything wrong, and yet my hard work was rewarded with absolutely nothing.

This happens in business on a regular basis. There's an old saying that there is no point in crying over spilled milk. This is true in agriculture and business. Lift yourself up, brush yourself off and start all over again.

Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. A bad person can be very successful. There are people who felt the Pittsburgh quarterback in the Super Bowl was not deserving of his fame and fortune because he has been disrespectful of women. You have to understand that he is a football player. He is not a prom date for your daughter. As a quarterback, he is outstanding. As a person, he is repugnant. That does not affect his ability to quarterback.

Many very successful people have personality traits that we may find undesirable. That's just the way it is. There is nothing in the life rulebook that says only people you approve of will succeed.

Success is not a reward for goodness. It is a reward for doing the things that work, even if those methods sometimes lack moral characteristics. All you can do is do the right thing yourself and try your best to succeed while being consistently honest in your acts.

Success is not always a function of where you end up. There is an element to success that relates to how you got there.

Heads up. I don’t know how else to put this: Read, listen, ask and think. You must be aware of your immediate, local, state, industry, national and even international environment. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong capabilities does not bode well for the quality of your life. By being aware of what's going on around you, there is a high likelihood you will make better decisions than if you are unaware. You can't do anything about the past, but you can prepare for the future.

There were a lot of people who saw the auto industry’s collapse coming 10 years before it happened, and acted accordingly. Those who ignored the impending implosion paid a heavy price. Chances are they'll do it again. Try not to be there.

Experience can be gained by doing and by asking questions. If you're a young person beginning your career, go to someone you respect and ask them for the keys to their success. If you are a grizzled veteran, take time to listen and to answer questions. Think of what a mentor could have done for you. Then be one.

Paul A. Hense, CPA, is president of Hense & Associates, a local accounting firm. He also is past chairman of the National Small Business Association and the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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