When you move, you seem to find things you forgot you had. This was true for me in 2015 when I found my CPA certificates during the move to our current house. I was two years into a career change, and these relics reminded me how much I had accomplished and achieved as a CPA. They also reminded me that despite all my success, I had been miserable. I wondered how I could have achieved so much yet felt so empty. In searching for the answer, I rediscovered what success means to me.
Our society loves to measure and compare things. We love to judge. Accomplishment and achievement many times imply a comparison or a competition. To graduate best in your class, to get that promotion before a peer, to win the salesperson of the year award—these are competitions indicating success. They’re supposed to bring us joy. For me, success was passing all four parts of the CPA exam on my first attempt, which I did in 2009. I heard only 10-20% of all CPAs accomplish this. I should have been thrilled. But I wasn’t.
The longer I was as an accountant, the more miserable I became. I measured only numbers—tests passed, hours worked, dollars made, years until making partner. Being a CPA at most firms is a death match to see which loser can work the most hours during tax season. This is how you measure success, I was told. We must be wary of just adopting what this world tells us success should mean. Success means something different to each of us, and I began to understand I was measuring the wrong things. My pursuit of success was leading me away from who I was.
I listened to an Adventure Sports podcast recently featuring a guest who attempted an Everest climb. He encountered another climber overcome by exhaustion on his way down after summiting the day before. This climber asked for help from other climbers on their way up. They ignored him, and some just stepped over him. In their quest for the top, they intended to leave this other climber to die. But the podcast’s guest abandoned his summit attempt and helped the other climber down. His words resonated with me. “On your death bed, you want to be surrounded by friends, not trophies.”
Trophies are nice. They look good on a shelf and they’re great conversation starters. But for me, a life decorated with purpose and meaning, true to its values and principles, and packed with joy from the journey is far more fulfilling than one defined by a shelf of trophies.
Monuments and statues do more than memorialize a person. They send a silent message about what is important to us as a society.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam recently announced the state’s intent to remove the iconic statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the city of Richmond. The news sparked a court injunction and reignited last year’s debate over similar monuments throughout the former Confederacy.
As debate over monuments rages, let’s examine the cause those monuments represent and the people they memorialize.
We should consider with some skepticism the purpose of monuments honoring Confederate leaders. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and similar organizations put many of these monuments in place during the Jim Crow era or during the civil rights movement. The UDC’s portrayal of the Confederacy, and its sponsorship of monuments honoring the KKK, have led many historians to believe these monuments were placed only to provoke social tensions and harass an entire race.
“I think it wiser to not keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered,” Robert E. Lee himself once said. He opposed Confederate monuments. He never gave his support for any monuments, including one for his second in command, Stonewall Jackson, believing such monuments and other signs of conflict slowed a nation’s recovery from civil war. And he refused to allow the Confederate flag to fly above Washington College, where he was president after the war. The longer a symbol lasts, the longer division lasts.
Every historical figure in American history—including George Washington himself—had flaws. We should not be blind to their humanity. Celebrating their triumphs and accomplishments at the risk of ignoring their mistakes and failings is irresponsible. The Confederacy’s leaders were complex people, many of whom were brilliant, devoutly religious, and yet astonishingly racist. When honoring a person also offends an entire race and opens the divisions among us, it is right for us to question whether that honor is justified.
I admire Stonewall Jackson for his tenacity and drive. Many consider him the most brilliant military commander on either side of the Civil War, and the south might have won had he survived the early years of the war. I admire Robert E. Lee for his discipline and his dignity. But let us not forget they were also slaveholders who never renounced slavery though given every opportunity to do so. In fact, they risked their lives to preserve it. Perhaps their statues, and others like them, are best suited for Civil War museums, where we can preserve their memory without celebrating their cause.
The Confederacy is an American legacy that should never be forgotten or celebrated. It is part of our American story, and it is an ironic thread of the fabric that binds our union. Yet it is a dark time in our history when so many Americans died in an attempt to preserve something most of us today find unquestionably abhorrent. The fact the United States avoided tearing itself apart and eventually ended almost 200 years of institutional racism to correct the most glaring errors in its Constitution, are two of the great triumphs of American ideals. Let us build monuments to that.
If you want to really get to know someone, sit around a fire with them.
There’s something hypnotic about the dancing flames and the crackling wood. Fire is man’s oldest conversation starter. People will tell you stories they’ve never told. They’ll share their hopes and their dreams. And by the end of the night, you’ll seem to solve most of the world’s problems. After a hard day exploring, there’s no better way to relax than to crack a cold beer and gather around a fire with friends.
Even when I’m alone with a fire, I’ve noticed similar effects on my inner monologue. My mind begins to wander and before long I’m a philosopher and my own therapist. Some folks say they do their best thinking in the shower. I do my best thinking around a fire.
Watching a log slowly turn to ash gives us a moment’s perspective. It removes us from our hectic lives of nonstop phone notifications, overflowing email inboxes, and impossible deadlines. It connects us to simpler times when we didn’t spend every moment of every day reacting to some stimulus in our environment.
I struggled recently to organize a series of short pieces I was writing about life, society, current events, and an array of other random topics. Then I realized how similar they were to the randomness of campfire thoughts and conversations. I found my answer.
I can’t wait to share my experiences and thoughts with you. Check my website often. You are welcome to respond with your own thoughtful comments, and together we’ll get to know each other better. Maybe we’ll even solve some of the world’s problems.
So welcome to our campfire. Cheers, and as always, adventure on.