‘If you were as smart as I am …’

Every so often, certain ideas and stories pop up from my memory and come to my attention, and sometimes these ideas seem more profound, more true, now than they did when I first heard them.

One of these is a story my former boss at WILL-AM radio, Charles Lindy, told me. A smart, and also wise, man, Charlie told me that he had first gone to college to get an engineering degree, but he left that path and pursued other things — including doing theater for children and eventually becoming a reporter, jobs that may not have paid as well as engineering jobs, but things that Charlie really enjoyed doing.

Charlie said that a relative had questioned his decision to quit engineering by saying, “If I were as smart as you, I’d have become an engineer and made a lot of money,” to which Charlie answered, “If you were as smart as I am, you’d see how little money matters.” (Or maybe the line was: “If you were as smart as I am, you’d see how little money has to do with happiness.”)

He told this to me as if it were an anecdote about a snappy comeback, but I think Charlie really did believe the value choice there. He also said this as a person whose family sometimes did struggle to get by on the modest salary of a public radio reporter/editor (a rough comparison: I knew teachers with the same years of experience as Charlie who had salaries twice as large as the one he earned).

And every so often, especially after reading news stories about people getting paid very well for jobs that I myself probably could have chosen to do, I’ll think that maybe I should have taken a different job in order to have made more money. But then I’ll think that I would not have been happy in most of those high-paying jobs, and that the life I’m living is probably the one I would be happiest living — that what I have become, and what I routinely do in my life, are things that fit me very well. Not having a plan for what I should become, I became who I am anyway. What I was doing — even before I knew it was right for me — was right for me all along.

And at these times, I’ll remember Charlie’s story and think that my life experience bears it out as well — true wisdom lies not in using one’s intelligence to amass a pile of currency but in using one’s intelligence to figure out how to live.

P.S.: Charlie passed away almost 12 years ago, at age 50, of cancer. He’s someone from whom I learned a lot — I was lucky to get a mentor like Charlie when I was so early into my own adult life. We were colleagues and friends, and knowing him was an honor. (I’m tempted to praise him more, but that’s kinda beside the point. Somehow it seems easier to say wonderful things about a person once that person has died, which always seems weird to me — why not tell people how great they are when they can still hear it?)

I have had lots of great people in my life, and I don’t mean to short-change any of them by praising one of them here. I tell the story above because sometimes there are stories that resonate in my mind — and maybe these stories resonate because they are important.

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