Warren Bennis Has a Surprising Message for You About How to Achieve Satisfaction in Life

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Yoda famously said, “Do or do not — there is no try.” But for those of us who are not Jedi, we know that’s not always the case. In life, in investing, in business, in art…sometimes you do give it the old college try, and totally whiff it. But if you’re trying for something that really matters, success might not be the most important result.

As Warren Bennis — a trailblazing early scholar in the field of leadership studies — points out in his classic book, On Becoming a Leader, a key determinant of happiness later in life is the degree to which you pursued your youthful goals. But as Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner points out in this segment of the Rule Breaker Investing “Great Quotes” episode, if you haven’t done that yet, it may not be too late.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Oct. 24, 2018.

David Gardner: Great Quotation No. 4: And I’m going back to one of my favorite business authors. He’s really an author as much, I should say, on leadership and that’s Warren Bennis. In fact, I featured Warren Bennis, one of his quotes, in my last Great Quotes, Volume VIII in May of 2018. Back then it was, “People are not interchangeable,” Bennis wrote, “and unique, gifted talent needs to be well-managed.” That’s another good thought for entrepreneurs. If you have some odd, idiosyncratically brilliant, and helpful person, recognize their uniqueness. Really, we’re all unique and the most gifted leaders will recognize their gifted talents and well manage them. That was Bennis then. This is Bennis now.

Same book: On Becoming a Leader. Here’s what I wanted to share with you this week. “What determines the level of satisfaction in post-middle-aged men is the degree to which they acted upon their youthful dreams.” “What determines the level of satisfaction in post-middle aged men — I suspect it’s not just true of post-middle-aged men — is the degree to which they acted upon their youthful dreams.”

Now the reason that Bennis said that is because in the book he’s talking about a study, so he’s reflecting on a study that was done. But I suspect it’s true of women as well as men, and I suspect it’s true of people of all ages. Now, to act on your youthful dreams you probably need to be a little older than a youth but that might be true of you if you’re 28 or 32 right now, just as well as if you’re 48 or 62.

I think it’s a reminder to all of us that we should think about what really drives us and motivates us in life, and often they’re visions that we had or desires we had as young people. And to the extent that you have acted on that for better or for worse — to the extent that you pursued that dream — you’re much more likely, I think, to be a happy listener of this podcast this week than if you did not. And in fact, Bennis goes on in the very next sentence of the book to say, “It’s not so much whether they were successful in achieving their dreams as the honest pursuit of them.”

So I guess Quotation No. 4 is just here to challenge you; to invite you to ask that question of yourself. Maybe pick up an old photograph back before there were computers and digital photographs. Maybe you have a photograph of yourself, as a younger person, printed out in some shoebox somewhere. A Kodachrome special. Look yourself in the eye and remember what you were dreaming about in that picture and then I ask you to ask yourself whether you have done it. Have you acted on it?

And the good news is whatever age you are as you hear me this week, you have an opportunity to act on those things if they’re good things to act on starting tomorrow. There’s no reason, I don’t think, other than some of the natural constraints we might have, like the job that you’re trying to hold down, or you only have three vacation days left in 2018. I realize there are natural constraints.

But really what I’m speaking to, here, are the constraints that we often throw up in our own paths. Not somebody else’s rules but, in fact, how we think about ourselves and how we often limit ourselves. One of my favorite quotations [in fact I included this in our May Great Quotations, Volume VIII podcast as well] is, “Don’t be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.” So sometimes we create a box around ourselves based on what other people tell us about ourselves. But bad news — sometimes we even just do it to ourselves.

So I’m here with Great Quotation No. 4 to prick you a bit. To poke at you and encourage you to do that for yourself and realize that even if it doesn’t work out you’ll probably, post-middle-age, feel more satisfaction that you’ve tried. Or, as my friend Jeff Bezos has said, he calls it the “regret minimization framework.” Bezos says, “When you’re 80 years old, look back to the decisions that you’re making now and try to minimize the regret that you’re going to feel at the age of 80.”

And I realize some of my listeners are over 80, so you’re probably knowingly nodding along with me and thinking about when you’re 90 or 95; looking back to today and trying to make good decisions. But sometimes that means you should do something that you haven’t been doing. Other times it means you should not do something. I’ll leave it up to you to decide when you should or shouldn’t act on youthful dreams.

But with Jeff Bezos and Warren Bennis, I encourage you to examine from the future your present self and think about what’s going to lead to your greatest satisfaction because we here, at The Motley Fool, as I’ve mentioned before, are here to help make you smarter, happier, and richer; and this one is kind of about the happy.

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