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What Really Matters




Excerpted from
What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America
By Tony Schwartz

What does a life of total dedication to the truth meant It means, first of all, a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination. We know the world through our relationship to it... The life of wisdom must be a life of contemplation combined with action. - M. SCOTT PECK

One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. - CARL JUNG

The party in the pink marble atrium of Trump Tower began shortly after Ten on a cold Saturday evening in December 1987. Klieg lights illuminated the Fifth Avenue entrance as guests pulled up in stretch limousines, stepped out onto a red-carpeted sidewalk, and entered the lobby, where they were greeted by a dozen strolling violinists and scores of white-jacketed waiters serving champagne in fluted glasses. Crowds of everyday folks stood behind police barriers to gawk at the arriving celebrities. Although the party was being held in honor of a book I had written - ghostwritten, to be precise - I, too, felt like an outsider. After all, this was the sort of event I was used to attending solely as a reporter. Instead, dressed in a tuxedo, sporting a new haircut, and wearing an uncharacteristically social smile, I found myself standing with my wife on a receiving line, wedged between Donald Trump, Ivana Trump, and Si Newhouse, the owner of Random House.

Together, we were greeting guests who had come to help celebrate the publication of The Art of the Deal, which I'd written with Trump. Most people shaking our hands had no idea who we were, but that didn't bother us a bit. Instead, we reveled in this glamorous fairy tale. The book was about to reach number one on the New York Times best-seller list. Trump himself was fast emerging as the embodiment of 1980s success: an entrepreneurial deal-maker, an unabashed self-promoter, a very conspicuous consumer, and a high-voltage celebrity. Whether you loved or hated him, there was something fascinating and seductive about the life that he was leading.

Determined to make the most of this unique event, I'd invited every friend, family member, and acquaintance in my address book, including our baby-sitter, our accountant, and my tennis teacher - each with their spouse. My brother was in charge of videotaping. My sister handled the still photography, although it was our baby-sitter who managed to get the greatest number of pictures of herself alongside famous people - among them heavyweight boxing champion Leon Spinks and his manager Don King; New Jersey governor Tom Kean; model Cheryl Tiegs; socialite Anne Bass; former Miss America and CBS anchorwoman Phyllis George and her husband, ex-Kentucky governor John Y. Brown; writer Norman Mailer and the actor Michael Douglas - who had just appeared as a Trump-style billionaire in the movie Wall Street.

Shortly after midnight, with hundreds of guests hanging over the railings at each of the atrium's five levels, comedian Jackie Mason introduced Trump, who spoke rhapsodically about the book's success and even joked that part of his challenge had been to teach me how to make money. Afterward, an immense cake sculpted in the shape of Trump Tower was wheeled in, followed by a parade of men and women carrying red sparklers. As the cake was cut, hundreds of red balloons were released from the top of the atrium. I spent the next several hours dancing, drinking and laughing with my wife, family and friends. We didn't leave until shortly after three A.M.

It was a heady celebration of an extraordinary moment. I was thirty-five years old, and by many measures, I was riding the crest of the American Dream. I'd been a reporter for The New York Times, a writer for Newsweek, and a successful magazine journalist. Even so, I'd never earned much money, and like most people I knew, I spent a lot of time worrying about how to make ends meet.

Now, with Art of the Deal, I was about to earn more in a few weeks than I had in the whole of my working life, giving me a financial cushion that few people are ever lucky enough to enjoy. Publishers were eager to sign up whatever book I chose to do next. My marriage of ten years was strong and stable. My wife had her own challenging career, and our two young daughters, ages two and six, were healthy and mostly happy. I jogged several miles a day and played tennis at least twice a week. I had several close friends, and I felt I contributed usefully to my community.

Why, then, wasn't I happier?

In the weeks after the Trump party, as the book continued to command huge attention, I remained on a giddy high. But I also noticed that when a day went by without some new piece of exciting news about the book, I experienced a certain vague anxiety. I'd spent two years seeing the world through Trump's eyes, and I'd grown accustomed to living at his dizzying pace, cramming my days full of action and activity. But now suddenly, I wasn't under the same external pressures that had fueled me for so long. I didn't have to jump immediately into a new project in order to pay the next month's bills. Beyond that, something more subtle began to change. All my life, I'd been driven to achieve in my work and to be recognized and appreciated for my efforts. Now I'd written a book that was highly visible and undeniably successful - and yet something was still missing. It was a privilege even to have the time to consider these issues, but that didn't make them feel any less pressing or significant.

At first, I wondered if the answer might simply be in the nature of the success I'd achieved. After all, The Art of the Deal wasn't truly my book. And even as it climbed the best-seller list, it prompted some backlash. Trump himself was criticized as a symbol of the acquisitive, self-promoting spirit of the times, and I was sometimes judged guilty by association. I was accused of selling out. I told myself that I'd done a good, honest job on the book and that the proof was not just in its popularity but in the mostly positive reviews it received. Still, I cringed when I found myself characterized in terms so at odds with the way I longed to be seen - and to see myself.

I wanted not just recognition but respect. My journalistic heroes had been writers such as David Halberstam, Gay Talese, and Tom Wolfe. I'd always wanted to write books like theirs: ambitious, resourceful reporting on large, visible topics of the day. Perhaps by turning now to that dream, I thought, I'd find a way to fill the gnawing emptiness I felt inside. But even as I began to cast about for the perfect book, I sensed that the answers I was after weren't going to be found simply by achieving a more prestigious success. I'd done a lot of good journalistic work over the years, yet somehow it hadn't translated into a sense of depth, or richness, or passion in my life. Above all, I lacked the experience of meaning - that I was here for some reason beyond succeeding in work and building a comfortable, close-knit life with my family and my friends. Both of these were honorable, important goals. They simply felt insufficient. What I longed for was to feel more at home with myself, more deeply comfortable in my own skin, more connected to something timeless and essential, more real.

For all my outer focus, I'd always been a seeker. Beneath the veneer of my smooth-sounding success story and the tough, confident persona I often presented to the world, I'd long felt an inner turbulence and discontent, a muted but chronic sense of anxiety. I sought acceptance and love but easily became angry, impatient, and judgmental. I was often deeply drawn to people, yet I felt myself holding them at a distance or even pushing them away. I had enormous energy but frequently had to struggle to focus my attention.

I was torn between a drive to succeed and the sense that this intense desire often prevented me from simply enjoying my life day to day. I gave endless thought to resolving my conflicts yet felt best when I simply became absorbed in an activity or got engaged with another person. And while I often experienced turmoil in the present, I was expansively hopeful about the future. I felt certain that there was more to life than I'd experienced so far. I sensed that I was living only a piece of the life I'd been given, a pale reflection of my potential. I was searching for a more complete life, an experience of my own essence, something I came to call wisdom.

Unlike many Americans, I was never drawn to organized religion as a route to meaning. Born Jewish, I was raised by parents with virtually no religious beliefs themselves. Instead, values such as honesty, rationality, objectivity, and hard-headed skepticism were prized above all. We never discussed the possibility that there might be a God, or a higher power, or even a form of deeper, unseen intelligence in the universe. My limited experiences in synagogues left me unmoved, even numb. When I attended Sunday school classes, services at the Jewish high holidays, or Passover celebrations at my grandmother's apartment, I was unable to connect to the rituals and traditions in any heartfelt way. As I grew older, I became increasingly mistrustful of the dogma, hierarchy, and rigidity that seemed to characterize most organized religions. I also viscerally resisted any absolute authority - something I viewed, through the prism of my own experience growing up, as often abusive, narrow-minded, and hypocritical. Looking back, I realize that I longed for faith - but not at the cost of blindly accepting beliefs that didn't resonate for me in my own experience.

The one route to meaning that was accorded value in my family was service to others. My mother spent her life as a social activist and made it clear that she considered this work the highest calling. Dutifully - and sometimes even enthusiastically - I spent time in my teenage years volunteering in political campaigns, tutoring disadvantaged kids, and working in opposition to the war in Vietnam. In my early twenties, I turned my activism to writing about causes that interested me. But as I grew older, got married, and had children, my focus shifted to advancing my career and my family's well-being. Only later did I begin to recognize that this was also a way of rebelling against my mother. Her obsessive commitment to causes had occurred, I felt, at considerable expense to me and my siblings. In reaction, I became determined to take a different route.

To a large extent, I placed my faith in two modern American paths to a better life. The first was success. If only I had enough, I told myself - enough achievement, recognition, and money, a sufficiently comfortable home, more exciting vacations, a good marriage, beaming kids, a wide circle of friends - then eventually I'd feel satisfied. Ironically, it was by finally realizing this dream that I ran up against its limitations. In the aftermath of the Trump experience, I couldn't say for sure what role external success played in a complete life, but I felt certain that at most, it was only one piece in a much larger puzzle.

I also invested considerable faith in psychotherapy. Toward the end of college, the woman I'd been involved with for three years left me. She had been my first true love, and I felt devastated. I turned to therapy for answers and ended up in a long and traditional Freudian psychoanalysis. Over time, I began to understand better the conflicts from my childhood that still deeply troubled me in the present, and to see the defensive patterns that I'd developed to protect myself from pain. After several years, fell in love with the woman I eventually married, and my difficulties in bringing focus and discipline to my work began to ease. I never knew, however, whether these changes would have occurred by themselves, in the natural course of growing up.



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