Musings on success

Traveling back to my native New Jersey usually casts me into a bit of melancholia, and this trip was no different. I guess it’s cliche, but visiting the place of my boyhood makes me want to mark my actual life against the plans I had for it back then. Unsurprisingly, they’re not very similar.

That caused me to further ponder my working definition of “success,” which, perhaps due to an extended soak in Silicon Valley, involves a lot of career advancement and lots of money (or at least a house with an upstairs), maybe inventing something appreciated by millions. However, I left SV because I wanted to work on energy policy be able to say that when it mattered I did something to measurably reduce climate change. So far at least, so much for any of that.

While doing this pondering, two people I knew while growing up kept persistently popping into mind. Both were Scoutmasters from my Boy Scouting days. David Millison was my Scoutmaster when I started Scouting in Troop 7 in Fairfield, NJ. George Berisso was my Scoutmaster in Troop 9 in Caldwell.

I met Dave when I was a wee one, just starting in Scouting. As he told the story, his initial involvement in Scouting leadership was pure coincidence. The local troop was looking to borrow a canoe and he had one. That somehow snowballed into running Troop 7 for 46 years and influencing the lives of hundreds of boys. Dave was the person who first planted in me the seeds of outdoor adventure. He talked in excited tones about Philmont, the scout ranch in the Sangre De Cristo mountains of New Mexico. One of the most profound things I learned from Dave is that discomfort can simply be set aside when necessary. You might be camping in the rain, your tent and sleeping bag soggy, eating cold oatmeal with no fire to warm you. No matter — you can still enjoy fellowship and adventure in such circumstances. You’ll be home to a hot shower in a day or two, so why not decide to carry on and have fun? I can’t say I always live that way, but I try to. Dave also was the master of situational ethics, encouraging us to carefully consider the ethical implications of the most trivial decisions. Are you going to tell the waiter he forgot to put your soda on the bill? Should you let your friend hold your place in line? I still wonder about some of these questions 30 years later.

Mr. Berisso taught AP Biology in my high school and sponsored our Environmental Protection Club. He also ran the troop I was in when I completed my Eagle. He was a demanding teacher and expected students to think carefully and to be skeptical and analytical. As an adult now, I am not quite certain how he could devote so much energy to his day job (science education) and still have energy left over for his family and extracurriculars like scouting. Mr. Berisso was the Scoutmaster who eventually took me to Philmont. Once, when was 17, I think, and rather advanced in Scouting, I did something that should have gotten me kicked out of Boy Scouts for good. Mr. Berisso did kick me out, but provided a path for me to be reinstated. He turned my stupidity into a character building lesson.

I don’t think either of these men were huge successes by the measures mentioned above. They didn’t have fancy cars or big houses or powerful positions. But they were exceedingly successful in other ways, which I now see are just as important, if not more so. They were well respected and appreciated by their communities and loved by their families. Furthermore, they both made indelible marks on hundreds, maybe thousands of young people. I don’t think anyone who knew either man will ever forget him.

It is very sad that both Dave and Mr. Berisso have passed away. I want to introduce them to my family, and to tell them what profound impacts they had on me as examples of character and service. It angers me that I cannot do this. Nevertheless, remembering them helps me to recalibrate my notion of success. I hope I can one day be half as successful as either of them.

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