From: The New York Times - David Brooks
The Life Report: Byron R. Wien
The following Life Report was submitted in response to my column of Oct. 28, in which I asked readers over 70 to write autobiographical essays evaluating their own lives.
My life has turned out so much better than I ever thought it would that I only wish it could go on forever. I am 78 years old and still working full time in a demanding job with considerable travel and I enjoy every minute of it. I have had a lot of bad breaks and good luck along the way. First, timing is everything, and I was born in Chicago during the Depression when fewer people had children, making it easier to get into a good college and get a good job. As for the first bad break, I was a teenage orphan. My father was a doctor, but he died when I was nine and my mother when I was fourteen. They both had weak hearts from childhood rheumatic fever. During the last two years of my mother’s life her unmarried sister came to live with us as a caregiver, and after my mother’s death the two of us moved to a smaller, less expensive apartment in the same neighborhood so I could continue at the same inner city high school. My father’s insurance provided enough money for rent and food, but at fifteen I went to work every day after school as an office boy for a company in downtown Chicago to earn some spending money so I could live a reasonably normal life.
In the fall of my senior year I was summoned to the principal’s office, which was never a good thing. The principal wasn’t there, but the guidance counselor was. He asked me if I owned a suit and I told him I did. He then asked me if I had ever heard of Harvard and I told him I did. He told me that Harvard was looking for smart kids from public high schools to balance the many private school kids in the student population. Harvard had written to my school asking them to send one student to talk to an admissions officer who would be traveling to Chicago. He then said, “You’re our pick, and when you go down there, don’t make a fool of yourself.”
I went to Harvard and it changed my life. I was interested in science and that was my area of concentration, but I never intended to pursue a career in the field. I wrote for The Harvard Crimson and liked that. In the beginning I felt like an outsider at Harvard. I was a nerdy middle class Jewish kid from a public school and not likely to be asked to join a final club. The Crimson during the 1950s was a true meritocracy, where any day you could find some future major journalist like Jack Rosenthal, David Halberstam or Tony Lukas. It was a pressured but stimulating refuge and I learned a lot there. When I was a senior I realized I wasn’t trained for anything and had to go to graduate school. I spent a few days at the Medical, Law and Business schools. Only the latter interested me. I fell asleep in a law school class, which I interpreted as a bad sign. I enrolled in the Business School and focused on marketing, thinking I would work in advertising where I could do some writing.
I got a job in an advertising agency, but didn’t like it. I went into the Army for two years and when I got out I took a job with a management consulting firm. They had a project in Nigeria that nobody wanted to do, but the idea of going to a relatively unknown African country appealed to me and I have been interested in the Third World ever since. My next job moved me to New York, where a Business School classmate remembered me as a smart kid and invited me to join his small but successful investment management firm. I was to be a security analyst but I had no training for this. Initially I did poorly and was almost fired. Eventually I developed the necessary skills and became a partner of the firm. The lesson here is that you shouldn’t try to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life when you are a teenager. Pursue your passion in college and the rest of your life will take care of itself.
In 1984 Morgan Stanley offered me a job as U.S. Strategist. The job involved writing a weekly essay and traveling around the world (at the time I had never been to Asia) to see clients. It was perfect for me, but I never thought about seeking it out. When they approached me they said that the research department, the firm management and the sales force had decided I would be perfect for the job; I later found out I was the seventh person they had wooed with that line. When giving career advice to young people, I tell them there is a perfect job out there for everyone, but most people never find it. Keep looking. I worked at Morgan Stanley for 21 years and now I have a similar role at Blackstone where I advise the firm and its clients on social, economic and political trends. I have been to China five times in the past two years, the Middle East twice, Latin America once, and Europe many times, as well as all over the United States.
My first marriage ended in divorce. I have been married for 33 years to Anita and we have many common interests. While I have had no children (a regret) I have eight godchildren and several nephews, many of whom I am close to. My first wife was a school teacher during the day and didn’t want to have to deal with kids at night as well. Anita had not been married before and felt she was too old and too involved in her successful career for motherhood.
I have had five jobs, two of which I took because they were attractive financially. Both of those turned out to be mistakes. The jobs I took because I thought they would be enjoyable turned out to be extremely rewarding financially as well. This is ironic because I took a pay cut in both cases when I joined the firms. I have made more money than I ever thought possible and now spend part of my time trying to give it away effectively.
I still ski, play tennis, sail and make love, although my skills at all of these have deteriorated. We have a home in the Hamptons where on weekends we cook and read. I am at an age when my friends are dying around me and that inspires me to make every remaining minute count. I still wake up each day with enthusiasm and hope that continues until the end of my life.
In my job I’m expected to understand what is happening in the world and to identify secular change. It seems clear that the United States and Europe are mature, overleveraged economies with dysfunctional governments. Since growth will be slow, unemployment will be high and the standard of living for many people will decline. Opportunities for young people will be fewer than the ones I could take advantage of. There will be more social unrest. I was born in the Depression and lived through the glorious years for America after World War II. The future for these born now is not so bright.
When my parents died, I decided God was not looking out for me and pulled away from organized religion. I had a reasonable amount of religious training in my youth. I do not attend church or synagogue and give little thought to spiritual matters. This does not seem to detract from my enjoyment of life.
Not having children is one regret, as I said. Another is that I am estranged from my older brother to whom I loaned a large amount of money when my financial circumstances were marginal. He never paid it back and lied to me throughout the process. We talk only on our birthdays.