Column: Lessons of Life

Burt Ross

Now that you are graduating, I’d like to share with you some of the lessons I have learned in my life. You will learn most of these lessons yourselves the hard way, just the way most humans learn most things—by trial and error. You touch the flame and pretty soon you figure out that the fire is hot.  

Lesson 1: You, and I mean each and every one of you, will have setbacks in your life. You will be rejected and neglected. You will drop a pass in the metaphorical end zone of life, strike out with the bases loaded and so forth. As Mick Jagger sings, “You [will not] always get what you want.” The quality and happiness of your life will not depend on how often you are knocked down, but on how quickly you get back up. We all make mistakes and will suffer failures. That’s what humans do, so don’t be too tough on yourselves. And don’t be too tough on those around you. They are human, also. I have had more than my share of failures. Anybody who tells you they’ve had a life filled with nothing but success is probably delusional.

Lesson 2: Since we’re all going to have setbacks, then why not take some risks in life and seek what makes you happy and fulfilled? When I ran for mayor of Fort Lee, NJ, against a corrupt entrenched machine that never lost an election, people thought I was crazy. I took a risk and ran anyway. The worst that could have happened was I lost the election. History is written about people who take risks, not about people who choose to play it safe. There is an expression: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Well, perhaps there is another way of putting it: “Nothing ventured, everything lost.” You don’t want to look back at your life and see you settled for a boring job or an unsatisfactory relationship. Follow your passion; do what you enjoy so long as it doesn’t hurt others. And don’t spend your life chasing the almighty dollar. Once you achieve enough financial security to provide yourself and your family with the basics like food and shelter, there is little relationship between increased wealth and increased happiness. 

Lesson 3: Don’t spend all your time thinking of the past or planning for the future, or else you will miss the present. You need to savor what is good in each day today, not just when you look back on it. There is a Yiddish expression: “Man plans and God laughs.” Most of my life has turned out differently from how I planned it. I never thought I would be happily married to somebody who had eight siblings and whose parents went to Catholic Mass regularly, that I would have a 6’4” son in the fashion business, that I would end up in Malibu, Calif. Much of the time I spent obsessing about my future turned out to be a complete waste of time. 

Lesson 4: This is perhaps my favorite lesson—take responsibility for your own actions and stop blaming others when bad things happen. I had polio when I was seven years old. It was nobody’s fault. Terrible things happen. Everything bad in the world is not somebody else’s fault. You reach adulthood not when you get a Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation, or when you have an intimate relationship with somebody else, but when you avoid blaming others and take responsibility for your own actions. I have never gotten anywhere by blaming other people. It doesn’t work in relationships and it doesn’t work in business. Look in the mirror, examine how you can change and what you can do, but stop wasting your time trying to change other people. Accept them for who they are. 

Lesson 5: Learn the serenity prayer. I learned it late in life, and it is more valuable than anything I ever learned at Harvard. It is so simple and yet so deep:

God, grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change; 

courage to change the things I can; 

and the wisdom to know the difference.

It’s not always easy to know the difference. As I have gotten older, I am more aware of all the things I cannot control. The realization you cannot control everything, including when somebody you love dies—that realization can be more than excruciatingly painful. It can also be a relief to understand you are not responsible for everything that happens in life. When you truly understand that, it can feel like the burden of the world has been lifted from your shoulders.

Lesson 6: When you have a setback, a loss, a sickness, be it physical or mental, an addiction or whatever, reach out to a friend, a relative, a teacher, or anybody who cares about you. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings. Don’t think that appearing strong to the world makes you strong. If you are vulnerable, share your vulnerability. That’s what friends are for. I have seen people helped only because they sought help from others, and I have seen people who have suffered because they kept things to themselves, because they thought they could fix things all by themselves. When you are able to share your vulnerability, your relationships will become more intimate and stronger. 

Lesson 7: Count your blessings. So much of life has to do with attitude. I once saw a “60 Minutes” interview with the late Senator John McCain, who had been diagnosed with a most aggressive form of brain cancer. Decades ago, McCain was shot down and captured while flying a plane over Hanoi, Vietnam. He broke his two arms and a leg and was tortured. He was a prisoner of war for five years. Yet, he said that he goes to bed each night grateful for all his blessings. All of us have reasons to be grateful, no matter who we are and what we are going through. We live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth and in a free country. We have food on our table and a roof over our head. And, of course, we have cell phones and social media, without which we would most assuredly perish—all this and more are reasons for us to count our blessings at the close of each day. 

Lesson 8: Two Latin expressions say it all—Carpe Diem means “seize the day,” and “Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus” means “Let us rejoice while we are young.” In other words, don’t wait to enjoy life. You are young. Don’t postpone things you want to do now and then find out it is too late to do them later. Despite all the problems that accompany growing up—the not fitting in, the worrying about how you appear to others,  the need to seek acceptance—despite all this, youth is a great time to explore, to learn, to see the world, to grow, to run and dance and sing, to develop your talents, to feel passion. And so, do it all because before you know it, you will slow down and your hair will turn gray.