What Does it Mean to be Successful?

When I started researching famous home schoolers, my idea was to find out how they learned best and discover what their parents did or did not do that helped them. This quickly led me to the problem of what it means to be famous. Some people may be very successful in their careers, but not necessarily in other aspects of life. Thomas Edison is famous for his remarkable tenacity and innovation, but he was a lousy dad. General Douglas MacArthur was an effective leader, but excessively vain. Frank Lloyd Wright was a gifted architect, but also a gifted womanizer. I’m still interested in how these people realized their potential, but I wouldn’t hold up any of them as the perfect model for home schooling parents to follow.

With that in mind, I did find a few who were both successful in their profession and in their lives. Andrew Carnegie, John Burroughs, John Muir, Pearl Buck, Dave Thomas and others were not perfect, they were not deliriously happy, but they had acquired a certain amount of self knowledge and emotional intelligence that helped them make the most of life. I’ll be covering them more in future blogs, but for now I’d like to tell you about someone who was not home schooled.

I recently received the May 2009 issue of “The Costco Connection” (a magazine for Costco members). On the cover is a picture of Bill Gates Sr. and the headline, “Insights from the father of a famous son.” Editor Tim Talevich interviewed the elder Bill Gates about his new book Showing Up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime.

Gates claimed that he and his late wife Mary had no great method or philosophy in mind when raising their three remarkable children, but it is clear that the two set a wonderful example in their own lives. Gates was a prominent lawyer who regularly did pro bono law work and served on a number of community boards and committees. Mary Gates was also heavily involved with their Seattle community, volunteering for political campaigns, the local children’s hospital, and especially the United Way.

If the Gates family had any philosophy, it was simply to “show up.” They dedicated their time and energy to the family, community, school and work. The younger Bill remembers his mother always asking him at the dinner table how much of his allowance money he would be giving to the Salvation Army at Christmas. The children remember standing on street corners with their mother on election day, holding signs supporting a school levy.

Bill Gates, Sr. said, “A fair amount of what we did was based on the conviction that, as the expression says, ‘We’re all in this together’ – that we had something to contribute.”

The family had their own rituals and traditions that the grown children continue to this day. They enjoyed reading aloud to each other, playing all types of games, having family dinners on Sunday and wearing matching pajamas on Christmas. On vacations they joined family friends in cabins at a favorite waterfront resort.

Older sister Kristi said, “I don’t think anything that was done can explain my brother in his exceptional success. I think what was done can explain all of our understanding of our place in society and our role in giving back that was modeled a lot through our childhood.”

She remembers Bill Jr. as a bookworm, “He spent a lot of time reading; he spent a lot of time in his room. He was very opinionated about a lot of issues when he was a kid. He was sort of geeky.”

Bill’s younger sister Libby agreed, “I would definitely characterize him as a computer nerd.” As a teenager, Bill and his friend Paul Allen became so obsessed with computers that they would sneak out at night to work on them at the nearby University of Washington campus.

In the magazine’s interview with the younger Bill Gates, he said: “I learned so much from both my parents growing up. My parents were constantly exposing us to new ideas and encouraging us to learn, and, of course, they showed by example a deep commitment to family, work and friends, while giving back in ways that were effective and could make a difference.”

Besides putting their values to work, making volunteerism a family affair taught the kids about their wider world. In the words of Bill Gates: “I’m also very thankful that my parents exposed us to the world of adults from a very early age. This became especially important when I started my first business, and then again with Microsoft, because I was never intimidated. Even if someone was much older or had more experience, I felt comfortable discussing and debating important ideas, and, especially from my dad, learned to look at things from every angle.”

Bill and Mary Gates put their hearts into the things that mattered most to them: family, community, school and work. Their children learned from their example and have continued the family tradition. Kristi and Libby both have been very involved in a variety of philanthropic and civic activities, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which Bill Gates Sr. helped to found) is now the largest private philanthropy in the world.

It is not necessary to become wealthy to be a success. As Henry Ward Beecher said, “No man can tell whether he is rich or poor by turning to his ledger. It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich according to what he is, not according to what he has.” I would consider a strong character the best measure of success, because good character is fundamental to all of life’s pursuits: career, family, friends, community and personal fulfillment.

Building character is a subject for another day, but in the meantime Winston Churchill gives us something to think about: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Perhaps, as home schooling parents, we should be thinking more about what we give – whether in money, time or attention – and the example we set, than worrying about curriculum or test scores.

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