When I think of a life well lived, I often think back to the ending scene of the movie Saving Private Ryan. James Ryan, now an elderly man, visits the grave of Captain John Miller. He asks his wife if he was worthy of Miller’s sacrifice in saving him. Although this is a movie, it’s quite a powerful moment. Sometimes I’ll think of this ending, and wonder if at the end of my life, I’ll be able to ask if I did well. Did I make a difference? Did I leave things better? Did I live well?
I think of achievements and sometimes there is an asterisk placed next to it. Whether this is in a record book, or just when people think of your actions. In baseball, stats are sacred. Growing up, I played the game, and still love it. There are numbers that always come to mind. The 56 game consecutive hitting streak by Joe DiMaggio. The 61 home runs hit by Roger Maris in 1961. The 714 home runs hit by Babe Ruth, later eclipsed by Hank Aaron’s 755.
As baseball endured a dark period with performance enhancing scandals over the past couple of decades, some of these numbers have been surpassed. However, there’ll always be a taint with some of the new records. A dreaded asterisk is applied (maybe not in the record book itself, but in the minds of the fans). The record may be considered illegitimate. They may have won or set the record, but they may not have done it fairly.
Lance Armstrong comes to mind. After a heroic battle with cancer, he actually put professional cycling on the map here in the United States, which is quite impressive feat. After his streak of Tour de France wins, his cheating came to light. In an instant, his reputation was permanently stained. After a quick check for the career winners of this prestigious race, I see his name there for the years he won, but are crossed out. A winner at one time, stripped of his title after the fact. In the record book, but there as a placeholder for the years that he won, but was later stripped of the title and record.
It’s tempting to look at the end goal, and then take whatever measures to get there. This is not just an issue with professional sports, but also in life. People in the professional world may decide to undermine others to promote themselves. They may be tempted to cheat and claw their way up the organizational chart at the expense of others. They may be tempted to lie to get positions of influence or power. They may cheat the system to maximize their profit. In their minds, they may be playing the “game” and succeeding. But are they really succeeding in life? Will they be remembered well? Just the other day, I read a short bio of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Even after his death in the later 1800s, and regardless of his philanthropic actions, his reputation as an aggressive, cut-throat business man is vivid. He’s still considered a classic example of the nineteenth century “robber baron”, even after all these years after his death.
You may not be an organizational leader, elected politician, or elite athlete with notable achievements. You may have the memory of the award ceremony, the big promotion, and they acclaim of winning the race or championship. But in the end, you’ll have an asterisk next to your name. There’ll always be a “but” when talking about you. “He won the championship, but he used performance enhancing drugs.” Or, “She built a company from the ground, but, she used cooked books to not pay taxes.” Or, “They were successful, but, was just a bad person, who treated others poorly.”
The little things do make a difference. When you lie and cheat your way to success, you undermine your accomplishments. It’s far easier to build up a company, performance record, or personal and professional experience with good planning and hard work than it is to rebuild a tarnished reputation. Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds could be saintly figures today, but will always be associated with their past transgressions. The costs for a tarnished reputation can be quite high.
Keep your eyes open for learning opportunities. Keep focused on the long term. Be visionary. Lying and cheating may bring about a short term reward, but what about your long term reputation. I see examples every day.
Give some thought to your life. Think of the scene at the end. Think of your final thoughts of the life you lived. It doesn’t have to be heroic or full of thriller novel content. It doesn’t matter if you ran a business, set records, climbed mountains, or what your bank account is. It doesn’t matter the job title, or how much power you had. You can have none of these, and still have a life well lived. One full of love and goodness. To make the world just a little better than you found it. That’s all you can ask. No asterisks on your life ledger. Live well.