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Let me tell you! William Bengen knows how to define success

Mr. Bengen is a bit of legend in financial circles. He created the ubiquitous 4% retirement rule: that people can withdraw 4% of their savings every year in retirement and still support themselves financially. I have written about this rule several times in my “How much do you need to retire” posts.

Bengen defines success  

Podcast hosts Benjamin Felix and Cameron Passmore typically ask all guests the same last question: “How do you define success in your life?” I found Mr. Bengen’s answer fascinating.

“That's a wonderful question for everyone, I guess," he said. "Before I go to bed each night, I've done this for a number of years, I ask myself three questions.

"And the first question is, today, did I learn anything new, or did I create something? The second question is, did I do anything to help anybody, particularly people I love, but even if for a stranger, maybe helping an old lady across the street, or helping a child understand a math problem? And the last point is, have I given proper attention to this, the mystery and wonder of the world in the universe, and being alive and being able to experience all this? If I can answer yes to all those three questions during the day, I felt I've had a successful day.”

While the above quote has nothing to do with Mr. Bengen’s brilliant financial planning, it shows a truly insightful mind that looks at success as more than just fame and financial success. As I wrote two fairly popular blog posts on money and success in 2012 (see here and here), his comments intrigued me. Today I break down his thoughts.

"Did I learn anything new ... or did I create something?"

Wow, did this answer strike a chord. In 2018 I wrote a post making the case that if you are not learning, you are forgetting. My father-in-law has espoused this mantra all his life, and his children and grandchildren live by it. A hunger for learning has so many positive aspects. It keeps your mind active, allows you to pass knowledge down to your family and friends, helps you in your day-to-day business interactions and opens your mind to concepts and thoughts you may have previously dismissed. I do not want to dismiss the second part of Mr. Bengen’s question - “did I create something” - but that would be a more limited question in most cases.

"Did I do anything to help anybody today?"

While Mr. Bengen initially spoke about helping family, he expanded that to helping anyone. As I think most of us tend to help our family as a given, I will veer off into the topic of helping anyone.

While helping an old person across the street or holding a door open is quick and simple (is it me, or is holding the door open a lost courtesy? I do this all the time but constantly have doors slammed in my face when walking behind other people), I personally appreciate those who give time to causes.

Time is precious and to give to others is incredibly special. I have a good volunteering track record compared to the average person: being a Big Brother, granting wishes under the Make-A-Wish Foundation framework, and sitting on a couple charity boards. But when I see how much more others do, I am often humbled. Coming out of COVID, I suggest you consider giving of yourself whenever and wherever.

One can also help financially. One can argue this is an easy way out, but I disagree. Organizations need volunteers, but they also need money. I recently wrote a post explaining why donating marketable securities provides an altruistic benefit and a tax benefit.

"Have I given proper attention to this, the mystery and wonder of the world in the universe?"

I really like this last question. We are often startled by nature and the general wonders of the world; however, I would suggest this happens far too little. My only comment here is that COVID took many of us to negative places, mentally and physically (offset by some heroic front line and other efforts by special people). It would probably do us some good as we start moving back to a “new normal” to appreciate some of the mystery and wonders of the world, to recharge our positive selves.

My concern with any of my “Let me tell you!” posts is they become preachy. But I hope today’s post on Mr. Bengen’s nighttime routine provides you some helpful thoughts for reflection.

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