Knowing what you want is the beginning of wisdom and of old age
At the end of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant and his friend William Tecumseh Sherman were two of the most respected and important men in America. Essentially the dual architects of the Union's victory, a grateful country, with a snap of its fingers, said: Whatever you like, as long as you live, is yours.
With this freedom at their disposal, Sherman and Grant took different paths. Sherman, whose track we followed earlier, abhorred politics and repeatedly declined entreaties to run for office. "I have all the rank I want," he told them. Having seemingly mastered his ego, he would later retire to New York Qty where he lived in what was, by all appearances, happiness and contentment.
Grant, who had expressed almost no prior interest in politics, and, in fact, had succeeded as a general precisely because he didn't know how to play politics, chose instead to pursue the highest office in the land: the presidency. Elected by a landslide, he then presided over one of the most corrupt, contentious, and least effective administrations in American history. A genuinely good and loyal individual, he was not cut out for the dirty world of Washington, and it made quick work of him. He left office a maligned and controversial figure after two exhausting terms, almost surprised by how poorly it had gone.
After the presidency, Grant invested almost every penny he had to create a financial brokerage house with a controversial investor named Ferdinand Ward. Ward, a Bernie Madoff of his day, turned it into a Ponzi scheme, and publicly bankrupted Grant. As Sherman wrote with sympathy and understanding of his friend, Grant had "aimed to rival the millionaires, who would have given their all to have won any of his battles." Grant had accomplished so much, but to him, it wasn't enough. He couldn't decide what was important—what actually mattered—to him.
That's how it seems to go: we're never happy with what we have, we want what others have too. We want to have more than everyone else. We start out knowing what is important to us, but once we've achieved it, we lose sight of our priorities. Ego sways us, and can ruin us.
Compelled by his sense of honor to cover the debts of the firm, Grant took out a loan using his priceless war mementos as collateral. Broken in mind, spirit, and body, the last years of his life found him baffling painful throat cancer, and racing to finish his memoirs so that he might leave his family with something to live on. He made it, just barely.
One shudders to think of the vital forces drained from this hero, who died at just sixty-three in agony and defeat, this straightforward, honest man who just couldn’t help himself, who couldn’t manage to focus, and ended up far outside the bounds of his ample genius. What could he have done with those years
instead? How might have America looked otherwise? How much more could he have done and accomplished?
Happiness consists in frequent repetition of pleasure.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
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