What David Brenner Taught Us About Defining Success

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Former Editorial Director at Entrepreneur Media
5 min read

David Brenner had a problem.

In the 1980s, at the height of his career prospects, the comedian was in the midst of a personal battle. He and his ex-girlfriend were fighting over custody of their son. Brenner was in danger of being accused of abandoning the son because of his busy work schedule. Brenner, after all, was a stand-up comedian, and that means months on the road. It was a tricky time for Brenner: The 80s brought a slew of new talk shows, and Brenner's name was almost always floated as a potential host. If he left town more than 50 nights a year, though, his girlfriend would have the upper hand in the fight for his son.

So, he cut back on the comedy, turned down the opportunities and defined himself as a father first.

Did Brenner, who died this weeked at age 78, have regrets?

"I didn't even think about it," Brenner told the Associated Press in 2000. "How could you not do it? I don't mean to sound noble.

"Besides, I come from the slums of Philadelphia and everything in my life is profit. My downside is what most people would strive a lifetime to get to."

Everything in my life is profit. More than a lesson in the ever-elusive work-life balance for which entrepreneurs constantly strive, Brenner's decision was an example of how we can define the parameters for our own success. No one can define our own success metrics except for ourselves. For some, that is wealth beyond dreams. The line I stole from Brenner and still use liberally is: "I don't know what I'm going to die of, but I hope my obituary starts with, 'The world's oldest and richest man died today.'" For others, success is winning Father of the Year award.

Related: The Myth of the Have-Nots

For most of us, success is somewhere in between. We build or manage businesses, and salary and wealth are part of that calculus, but not the only way we define success. Entrepreneurs want to create, want to solve problems, want to mentor and want to give. Brenner's understanding that everything in life is profit, based on where we started, and that even our worst moments are better than the best of others, resonates so strongly with people with an entrepreneurial mindset. Some would look at Brenner's life and see a man who never achieved the fame some had seen for him, who never got the host's chair on The Tonight Show, nor starred in a successful sitcom. That looks like a failed career.

But it isn't -- because Brenner never saw it that way. He defined how he would judge the success he achieved, and achieved it. He mentored so many comedians, many of whom enjoyed more wealth and fame than he did, but he viewed their successes as his own. No one would dare say he had a failed career. Hell, we would not have talked and written about his death so much if he failed so miserably, right?

Defining success is often lost in both the personal and policy debates we see daily. Take the recent contretemps over the word "bossy." Sheryl Sandberg and others think the word "bossy" holds back young women, and therefore kills their self esteem and is the reason we don't have more women CEOs. But who says achieving power and authority in the corporate world is the best highway to success? What is lost in some of the gender debate about pay and position is that women -- and men -- make choices about life. The fact that there is a gender gap in business owners is more that women choose not to start businesses to the same degree as men. Does that mean women have not achieved success? Sandberg, by wanting to ban words, seems to think so.

Related: A Bronx Cheer for Silent Cheering

Sandberg is part of a broader societal and economic problem, which is the impulse to create movements, regulations and policies built on an assumption that the deck is stacked against the individual. Little girls can't succeed because little boys call them bossy in the schoolyard. Employees can't rise up in jobs because business owners are greedy and put profits over people. The precious few own all the world's assets, and they want to deny anyone else access to wealth and prosperity.

All of that is bunk, because it discounts the power of the individual who believes he is capable of achieving success. Individuals can set metrics for their own success -- becoming the 1 percent, building a company that saves the snail darter, paying all his bills on time, coaching her daughter's field hockey team -- and come up with a game plan, based on their abilities and the opportunities around them. Success and achievement are never out of reach. There is equality in ability. That power is dishonored when we focus on equal outcome over equal opportunity. The countless stories of how the path of entrepreneurship led to success in the free markets should be a guide in these divisive policy debates, but they are often too often discounted or ignored.

David Brenner never achieved the fame nor the wealth some predicted he would. But his success is loud and noteworthy. Celebrate that, before someone tells you "success" is a word worth banning, too. 

Related: Preaching the Morality of Capitalism

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