Your Net Worth is Better Than You Think

02/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What does it take to help you realize what you're worth? And, who determines what you're worth? Two simple questions, but they're so complex to answer.

Tragically, I'm not sure a Stanford MBA classmate of mine from 25 years ago, Erik, sat down and asked these questions. Erik ran a successful hedge fund and was caught in the downdraft of this treacherous economy. Around Thanksgiving, suffering from deep depression, he tried to commit suicide. After a brief hospital stay, he was allowed to rejoin his family only to take his own life a day later. This is my third friend to choose this path in the last year, including my close friend and insurance agent, Chip, who served as a mirror for me in many ways. Going to Chip's funeral, knowing our similarities, and hearing his name repeated over and over again was haunting.

As the New York Times recently reported, three prominent European businessmen took their lives in the past few weeks. A London financier threw himself in front of a train. A French aristocrat stabbed himself to death. And, the body of a German industrialist was found near the railroad tracks near his home. All three were distraught with how their net worth had been shattered. During the Great Depression, the suicide rate in the U.S. grew by 21%. There's no evidence that we're on the verge of this kind of mass existential crisis again, but there's no doubt this downturn has wreaked economic and psychological havoc with wild abandon. Hopefully, the two questions above can help add some sanity to the feverish financial nightmares that are racing through our minds too much of the time.

The world of busy-ness can delude us into thinking that our net worth is represented by our balance sheet and that our life is summed up by the narrow path of our career. If there's one essential lesson that comes from tragedy, it's that we have a capacity for survival and adaptation that might shock us. Most successful businesspeople are exceptionally adept at putting blinders on as a coping mechanism, but tragedy is the great equalizer. Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote of his experience about life in a prison in his book Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl found that those who didn't have hope or couldn't see some kind of future meaning coming from their current dreaded existence were more likely to die quickly in the wretched conditions of the prison.

What I took from Frankl's landmark book was the idea that despair = suffering - meaning. There was a constant for all those in the prison and that was suffering, but those who were able to see the meaning or lesson in their experience were able to decrease their sense of despair. Sometimes, our true worth -- not financially, necessarily -- but in how we impact others and the world becomes most apparent in the most troublesome of times. So, rather than ask the silent question of ourselves, "what am I getting from this job or work?" consider shifting that to "what am I becoming as a result of this experience?"

As for who determines what you're worth, it isn't necessarily your banker or CPA. It's you. There may be many contributing influences including your family and friends as well as your enemies and business competitors. But, at the end of the day, you're the one to determine how to define success in your world. It's easy to get caught up in someone else's metrics as I often do with my investors, but the reality is that you have the freedom to define how you want to calculate your net worth. Ironically, I started my company 22 years ago at a time when I had quickly got disillusioned with my first taste of the business world after getting my MBA.

I decided to call my company Joie de Vivre (meaning "joy of life" in French) because it was the mission statement for not just what I wanted to provide our employees and customers, but it was also what I was looking for myself. My definition of success was how much joy I was bringing into my life. This intangible metric is unconventional, but it's been a powerful reminder of what's important to me as my company has grown to a quarter billion dollar annual revenue enterprise.

So, on my worst days recently (and I've had my share of them), I just remind myself that I can determine my net worth. It's greater than the number of zeroes on my balance sheet. And, this recession is meant to teach me some healthy lessons and meaning that I can use the rest of my life. I used to hate that cliché "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," but I have a profound new sense of the wisdom behind that commonly used expression.

Chip Conley is the Founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality and the author of Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow.