At the End of the Day, Do Personal Accomplishments Matter?

When I attended my 20th high school reunion, it looked as if status and appearance mattered greatly to the assembled throng. Friends came to an identical conclusion. It could have been called a “Festival to Impress.”

I wasn’t that impressed.

The 50th reunion was different. No one cared about what you’d done professionally or were still doing. Friends, old and new, were pleased to talk, get to know you in some depth, and share the light and dark sides of distant memories.

If you’d achieved something worthwhile, you were now at ease with yourself. Everyone seemed grateful they were still in decent health, pleased to laugh with each other, and happy most of those they cared about were alive.

Of course, some who didn’t attend felt ashamed of their place in the world or how they looked. Others, also absent, felt no large attachment to the school or their classmates. They moved on, as the saying goes. Nor did embittered souls want to remind themselves of longstanding anger or sadness. Perhaps they recalled their time at Mather High School as an accumulation of humiliating experiences.

All of this raises questions about what is of value in any life. I can’t offer you a personal prescription, but I can relate a little about myself and what I know of those closest to me. Here goes a short version of what is important to me now and what isn’t.

Having lived almost 10 years since retirement, I’ve become rather indifferent about the kinds of items you put on resumes. My ego is still helpful for taking a stand about things, but I don’t spend too much time pulled back by my history or driven to look far ahead.

That is not to say I have no idea what is ahead, though I’m not expecting to vanish soon if you get my meaning.

I have a minimal selection of regrets and recently reduced that number by apologizing to an old friend to whom I was unkind years ago. He said he’d been thinking about me and hoping I’d do just that.

I have very little in my life worth hiding, and I tend to talk about anything you want to hear from me.

I want to keep learning, which means reading and engaging with people. An instructor in a Shakespeare course I just began said he would not only question each of us orally during class but hoped to make us a bit uncomfortable when he required us to justify our conclusions; the better for our understanding to grow.

When I heard that, I felt like jumping for joy. Seriously.

I care deeply about the well-being of loved ones and friends. I am at the stage when the latter are swept away without fanfare.

Everyone I know my age must deal with one malady or another, and all with aches and pains. In general, these are uncomfortable conditions rather than mortal ones so far. We all adapt.

As an old, retired psychologist, I won’t tell the young what is ahead of them if they live as long as I have. They’d neither understand it nor believe it. Young people cannot imagine the physical changes ahead, and I don’t want to be the guy to tell them. Better they just assume it is all either magic or bad luck.

When I became a new father, I hoped my children would achieve something meaningful. But, you may discover for yourself that regardless of what they accomplish, in the end, you care about their health and happiness. Your approach to your grandchildren is much the same.

Woody Allen commented about the value of accomplishment in a conversation with Dick Cavett just after Groucho Marx died in 1977:

He had achieved everything I wanted to achieve as a comedian but he still got old and he still aged, and nothing special was going to happen because he had achieved this enormous artistic accomplishment.

What did it mean anyhow — that he was going to get a long obituary?

I tend to agree with Woody on this point.

I have little interest in what is said about me, and I don’t expect, need, or deserve anyone cutting down part of a tree to produce the paper needed to enhance my posthumous reputation in the printed news. All who survive me, whenever that happens, will be far better off with the tree.

One piece of advice I shall leave my kids is that it’s OK to tell jokes about me and to imagine I’m laughing with them. No hallucinations of me allowed, however.

Speaking of jokes, I laugh more than I ever have. If you must choose between viewing life as a tragedy or a comedy, I just told you how I prefer to vote. Not everything should be taken with grave severity.

Being a “good” person is not as easy as being kind, though kindness is necessary. It is also a matter of what you do to help repair the world. That means some combination of effort and giving away money unless you are down to your last dollar.

And yet, I don’t want you to think I would leave it at that upon “taking off.” Don’t assume the humans you care about know how you feel about them. Considering it is nice, repeat it to make sure, and keep doing so. Endlessly.

With my kids and grandchildren, the last thing I say on the way out the door after every weekly visit is, “I love you.” We hug at the same time, too. So it has been and will be.

What would be better than to offer those three final words and a hug?

OK, maybe a kiss, too.


Greg Williams drew and uploaded the caricature of comedian and movie star Groucho Marx to Wikimedia Commons. With her generous permission, the second image is Laura Hedien’s photograph of the Chicago River at the End of December 2022: Laura Hedien Official Website.

20 thoughts on “At the End of the Day, Do Personal Accomplishments Matter?

  1. An Audience of One

    You had me from this comment, regarding your 20TH HS reunion: “I wasn’t that impressed.” That, to me, speaks volumes about character.
    And I love that you apologized to an old friend you’d been rude to years before. Such a lesson there for all of us. (I found it interesting that he said he’d been hoping you would. Perhaps not the most gracious of responses, but you did what you felt you needed to, regardless).

    There’s really so much wisdom woven all throughout your essay, Dr. Stein, but I think my favorite part was hearing about you taking a Shakespeare class. And despite where you are in life, and the things you’ve accomplished, being happy to be challenged on understanding.

    And of course, all of the humor, which made it even more delightful! Trust me when I say my face brightens when I see you’ve made a post, and this one was as just lovely and uplifting as all of the rest. 🤍

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Maybe, on your deathbed, your personal accomplishments don’t mean a heck of a lot to YOU. They won’t bring you back to life and once you’re gone, they surely won’t matter to you.

    But, “What did it mean anyhow?” It meant a lot!

    During your lifetime, it’s those accomplishments that give you a sense of satisfaction about who you are and all that you are capable of doing and being. Further, those accomplishments are not just limited to you personally, they also have an effect on many of those friends, family, colleagues, and, in your case for instance, clients whom you served. Other’s lives were helped by your accomplishments. Your accomplishments created the opportunity for others to attain their own accomplishments and so on down the line.

    Like a chain, what one person accomplishes in their lifetime helps the next person to build on that and take it a step farther. And even in death, your accomplishments remain as a roadmap and legacy to your children and grandchildren. They are a part of who you are/were and are all wrapped up in how you are remembered and thought of once you’re gone.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Brewdun. Well said. My essay was nuanced, I hope, in trying to say that what is gone with respect to my accomplishments, are the elements of pride and the desire for notice, status, and things like that. I am satisfied with the good I did as a clinical psychologist, but do not carry it as a banner to be seen by strangers. Those who knew me and the work I did will know better than I how I helped, if I did indeed help them. My work is part of me, but it is also behind me. That is sufficient. Thanks again!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. My heart is full. Full, full, full. Thank you, Dr. Stein for all that you shared but especially this, “Being a “good” person is not as easy as being kind, though kindness is necessary. It is also a matter of what you do to help repair the world.”
    I don’t know if it’s vocation-related or empath-related or both, but there are days…when I believe ‘repair of the world’ is possible, even when it seems insurmountable on so many levels. Wonderful, inspirational folks like you lift me up and inspire me to keep at it…one moment at a time…leading with kindness. Thank you! 🤍🤍🤍

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad to know you too believe in the necessity of taking some responsibility for the world we will leave behind to our children and grandchildren. Thank you for your own inspiring words, Vicki.

      We all get discouraged. I learned from my dad, who survived the discouragment of finding lasting work during much of the Great Depression, that one must figure out a way to say to yourself “every knock is a boost, ” as he did. All the best.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you for sharing that lovely affirmation from your father — every knock is a boost? What a terrific attitude adjustment in the face of disappointment or adversity. That’s a keeper! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

    • It took me quite a while to understand both the phrase’s meaning and the context. My dad was an admirable man, to the good fortune of all who knew him. Feel free to use his words without attribution. I’m sure he didn’t invent them!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. What a wonderful, perspective-giving, kindness-affirming, laughter-inducing list of what’s important. When I get the honor of reading something you’ve written, I know I’ll carry away something of a bigger view and a better sense of who I want to be. This post has done that and more. Thank you, Dr. Stein!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Tamara Kulish from

    The things I am very proud of having accomplished such as writing books, having a blog and even creating art to some extent, aren’t things I can share with work colleagues, for I have learned the hard way that most people aren’t happy for another person’s success if it reminds them of the things they wish to do but have not yet done. There is a jealousy that I have somehow carved out the time in my life to do those things, while they haven’t.

    I have learned that the accomplishments that bring me the greatest joy are things I keep to myself and a few close friends and family. Perhaps that will change after I retire and no longer need to “fit in” to the work culture to keep my job!

    Liked by 1 person

    • An interesting observation, Tamara. I do not doubt what you say. I think it fits with the difference I mentioned between the two reunions. Not only were those at the 50th seemingly more satisfied with themselves, but they were 30 years older. The competitive juices were flowing with less force. To my way of thinking, we must change with time if we are to learn what is necessary. Thank you for your thoughtful observation.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Tamara Kulish from

        My pleasure Dr. Stein. We are indeed a complicated species, and I think we get simpler and embrace simplicity as we age.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree that for the majority of us, myself included, our accomplishments mean nothing after we’re gone. But there are a few among us whose contributions to human society in diverse fields of knowledge will be remembered for centuries to come. As you point out, what matters most is letting our loved ones know that we care for them.


  7. No doubt you are correct, Rosaliene. Shakespeare, Beethoven, Seneca, and many others earned our thanks but have long been unable to hear it. As for myself, I shall be a footnote on top of a footnote in a book that will never be written. I am comfortable with being remembered only by those who knew me, guaranteeing my disappearance. Love and kindness, nonetheless, are still essential to impart, not because anyone will know in 150 years. Thank you, Rosaliene.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr. Stein, perhaps we sell ourselves short in not acknowledging that the countless acts of courage and kindness, we each make throughout our lives, make it possible for our communities/society to survive, thrive, and move forward into the future.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I don’t doubt this, Rosaliene. Thank you for saying so.

    Liked by 1 person

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