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Is your ladder leaning against the wrong wall?

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Sam Walton was the founder of Wal-Mart, the largest retail store in the US, also operating globally under names such as ASDA in the UK and GAME in Malawi. From 1982 to 1988, Walton was ranked the richest man in the United States by Forbes. In 1992, President George Bush awarded Walton the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In the same year Walton was inducted into Junior Achievement’s US Business Hall of Fame.

Walton died in 1992 but even after death he was included in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century in 1998. Wal-Mart continues to grow today. According to the 2014 Fortune Global 500 list, the company is the world’s largest public corporation and private employer with over two million employees worldwide. If Wal- Mart were a country, it would be the 26th largest economy in the world.

Yet despite all this apparent success, on his death bed Sam Walton cried, “I blew it.” He had messed up with his family. Walton barely knew his youngest son, he had neglected his grandchildren and his wife had simply stayed with him out of commitment. Extremely successful in business, Walton had not been as successful with his family.

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For many of us, our annual goals usually include financial goals. We all dream of having more money. Money gives us options. We can choose where to send our children to school, the type of house and neighbourhood we live in, the car we drive, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the people we associate with. With more money we can help more people and contribute more to our community.

Having money is a good thing, but money in itself should never be our ultimate goal. When we think having money is the endpoint we run into trouble. We work all hours on our jobs and in our businesses getting insufficient rest, paying little attention to our health, enduring high levels of stress and not spending enough time with our family. We resort to any means to increase our bank account – cheating, stealing and engaging in all sorts of dishonesty. We become so focussed on getting more money, we lose sight of the big picture.

In the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey writes, “People often find themselves achieving victories that are empty; successes that have come at the expense of things that were far more valuable to them. People from every walk of life often struggle to achieve a higher degree of income, more recognition of a certain degree of professional competence, only to find that their drive to achieve their goal blinded them to the things that really matter most and are now gone.”

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Goals have to be set in a meaningful context. They have to be part of a wider vision; something greater you want to achieve with your life. You have to have worthwhile reasons for wanting more money. Ask yourself: Why do I want more money? What will I do with it? Why do I want to succeed in business or in my career?

Honest answers to these questions will reveal whether you’re pursuing vision or are wrapped up in personal ambition. Vision is your big picture of a brighter future. It’s how you imagine making the world a better place, not just for you and your family, but for entire communities. Personal ambition is selfish. It only benefits you and disregards the effect your actions are having on others.

When you pursue personal ambition other people always get hurt. Like Sam Walton felt he had hurt his family. Or like a certain lady who made a large donation to her church. The church held a huge celebration to receive the gift and to thank the lady for her generosity. Soon afterwards the lady was implicated in a financial scandal. She had embezzled millions from her employer. She was charged and sentenced to prison for her crime. Her generous donation to the church had been acquired using stolen funds.

Habit 2 of The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People is: Begin With The End In Mind. Covey writes, “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you are going so you better understand where you are now, so the steps you take are always in the right direction. By keeping the end clearly in mind you can make certain that whatever you do on any particular day does not violate the criteria you have defined as supremely important, and that each day contributes in a meaningful way to the vision you have of your life as a whole.”

Catholic monk Thomas Merton said, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” Covey echoes this sentiment, “It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busyness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover that it’s leaning against the wrong wall. If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”

Is your ladder leaning against the right wall?

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