07/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

No Wonder It Hurts So Much

I stumbled into my 25th Stanford Business School reunion over the weekend somewhat chagrined by the fact that my pockets are relatively empty a quarter of a century after I graduated from this august institution. I expected to feel small relative to the corporate titans who were my former classmates because while many of the alums have experienced the "once in a lifetime" downturn that we're all living through, few could match my misfortune of experiencing it twice in the same decade -- as my Bay Area hotel company was pummeled in the dot-com bust and the 9/11 era.

But I was surprised to discover that misery truly does love company. This collection of venture capitalists, investment bankers, high-tech execs, management consultants, non-profit leaders, and entrepreneurs had one thing in common. Every one of them had a current net worth lower than it was at the 20th reunion five years earlier. And many of these folks had come back out of early retirement due to financial necessity.

One of my favorite panel discussions was a "View from the Bottom" (in each previous reunion, this had been a "View from the Top") where we learned that the past decade has been more severe than even the 1930s. Professor Jack McDonald told us that in the 1930s (after the big drop in stock prices in late 1929), the stock market showed basically flat growth -- although with lots of up-and-down swings -- along with an average two percent annual deflation. So there was two percent real growth in the stock market during that time. Given the wreckage we associate with the Depression, this was a bit of a shock to me. Yet, in the past 10 years from January, 1999, to January, 2009, we've experienced a three percent average annual drop in the stock market and have had three percent annual inflation along the way, which registers a six percent negative net growth for the decade. So, when we say "at least it's not as bad as the Depression," that's certainly true when it comes to unemployment and soup kitchen lines. But for those whose nest egg has shrunk six percent annually in real terms compared to two percent growth in the 1930s, it's understandable why you're feeling a little blue.

And this is for the monied class. Think about what the average middle class family has faced in the past 30 years in order to try and assure that their income was keeping up with their expenditures. Many families became two-income households in order to pay the bills. They started working longer hours, or, at least commuting longer distances because they could only afford a home further out in the sticks. They mortgaged their home up to the hilt (or maxed out their credit cards) in order to keep the bill collectors at bay. Financial engineering isn't just a Wall Street phenomenon as the CFO of any middle-class family will tell you. Their balance sheets have been sorely out of balance for years, especially when you factor in the scarcity of time in our lives. Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "The cost of something is measured by how much life you have to give for it." Based on this premise, our modern lives are very, very expensive!

So I left my Stanford reunion feeling a surprising dose of gratitude. I didn't feel "lesser than" like I thought I would; instead I felt "at one with" so many of my humbled classmates. One of my classmates who has worked with the same investment banking firm for decades pulled me aside at one of the luncheons. He said he needed to have a private moment with me, so we ducked behind a potted palm and he whispered in the kind of tones one uses when talking about infidelity or curiosity about Viagra. He said, "I made a bundle and lost half of it. For a few months, I felt like half a man. Then I read your book Peak and realized that you have a different 'scorecard' for success. I love that the name of your company is also your mission statement and your strategic goal for what you produce: joy. Now, I realize how far off my path I am. I realize I've been climbing the wrong 'peak.' "

The world is chaotic and unfair. And, certainly, it isn't controllable. One thing you can control is your definition of your scorecard. Just as my Grandpa Potka told me years ago when, as a young teenager, I threw a tantrum on the golf course because I was hitting divots further than golf balls: "When you're having a bad golfing day, stop counting your strokes and start counting squirrels, or how many different cloud formations you see in the sky, or how many times you've made your grandpa smile with one of your silly jokes." What scorecard are you using to define success in your life?

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.