Five years ago, in the midst of an existential crisis, I called Jack Bogle and asked if we could talk. Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, the Malvern-based mutual fund giant, who died in January at age 89, was a hero of mine. I had met and spoken to him before and I regarded him as a tribal elder.
I was impressed, of course, by his business success — titan of finance, sheriff of Wall Street — and his many accomplishments and contributions. But I admired him because of his character, because he was militantly honest, rigorously moral, unabashedly sentimental, ruthlessly self-examining. His knowledge and wisdom were rooted not only in life experience but also literature, poetry, philosophy, and the classics, and encompassed the whole sweep of human history and endeavor.
Ever obliging, Bogle invited me to breakfast and ordered his usual — scrambled eggs, scrapple burned, one slice of rye toast buttered.
Near the end of the meal, I said: Pretend I am your son. What advice would you give me about how to live a long, happy, honorable life?
He had a ready, and surprising, answer.
“I’m not sure I’d tell you, ‘Just do what I did.’ I think I’d tell you, ‘Don’t do what I did.’ I was probably too dedicated to business. We’re all very different human beings, and I tell this to our crew members when we meet, they have a lot of assets that I don’t have, and I have a lot of liabilities that they don’t have. We’re just plain different. They can’t live my life, and I can’t live theirs. So follow your own instincts, try to be yourself, and live your own life.
“Other than that, it comes down to some pretty simple things: First, don’t forget your family, because in the end, that’s all you really have. Next, be a decent human being, and don’t think you’re better than anybody else, no matter what your condition of wealth or importance.
“Never let things — the material possessions you may come to accumulate — become the measure of your life. It is an easy trap to fall into during these days of such material abundance in America, or at least in the privileged part of America that we see — with grander homes, bigger stores, more powerful cars, smarter phones, more exotic rock concerts, more sophisticated toys for children, and more elaborate toys for grown-ups, a cornucopia of things almost beyond measure.
“And never forget the important role of luck in your life. Never, never, never, never say, ‘I did it all myself.’ Nobody does it all themselves. And when somebody has the temerity to tell me they did, I say to them: ‘That’s wonderful. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anybody who did it all themselves, but could I ask you one question: How did you arrange to be born in the United States of America?’
“Above all, never give up your idealism. No matter how dark things get, keep your eye on the brighter side of things. Never let your determination falter.
“Even when the world turns against you and ridicules your ideas, ‘Press on, regardless.’ Try to make things happen, and treat everybody as an equal. I can’t stand it when somebody demeans somebody who’s doing the hard work. The world should work exactly the opposite. They should get much more credit than the big shots and suits.”
Bogle cited the observation of Thomas Hobbes that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” That is, a struggle, and he adored struggle, he said, which was why he was an admirer of the Greek god Antaeus. “Each time he got knocked down, he came back stronger,” Bogle explained. “The struggle is what it’s all about. People ask me about success. Success is a word I almost never use. Success sounds like you’ve achieved something, it’s done. But to be corny, though not inaccurate, success is a journey and not a destination. You don’t say, ‘I’ve arrived, I’m here.’ You say, ‘I’ll try to do a little better tomorrow, and all the tomorrows after that.’ ”
Bogle concluded by sharing something from a speech he’d recently given at Princeton, his alma mater. It was a quote by Frederick Buechner, the American writer and theologian:
“To live is to experience all sorts of things. It would be a shame to experience them — these rich experiences of sadness and happiness and success and failure — and then have it just all vanish, like a dream when you wake up. Pay attention to your life.”