Success & Happiness
“My brother, Maurice, never saw himself as a success, not for long. He always seemed to think happiness was right around the corner. Rather than enjoy the many successes he’d achieved, he focused on how things could have been, on the opportunities lost.” I set one hand on his coffin. “I loved my brother. I wish he could have seen himself through my eyes.”
We grew up in a nearly bankrupt mill town, in the poor section of Manchester, New Hampshire. Even so, Papa tried to make sure my older brother and I grew up with confidence in ourselves and unshakeable faith in a better future for our family.
But one evening, Papa came home from work, upset about something.
“What’s wrong, Dad?” asked Maurice.
After Mama kissed him, Papa set his lunchbox on the coffee table and dropped into his recliner. “The shoe factory fired me.”
“Not in front of the boys,” said Mama.
“Why not, Marge? They have to learn the cold hard facts of life sometime.”
“But Patrick, they’re only children.”
“Probably best they learn it now.”
“Why would they let you go? Out of twenty-thousand employees, they target you? Did you do something wrong?”
He glared at her. “No, I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Then why?” she asked.
“My manager said I was too old to do the job anymore.”
She pulled him into a hug. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I don’t want you to worry, Patrick. We’ll be okay.”
“After forty-two years of loyal service, you’d think I’d be treated better than this.”
“Maybe I can pick up some work cooking, sewing, or minding children,” she said.
He frowned, then kissed her on the forehead.
“I have to make dinner.” She went to the kitchen.
“Come out to the front porch with me, boys.”
As we sat on our steps, watching the sky darken with the setting sun, I prepared myself for another of Papa’s lectures.
“Never forget,” he said, “this world is out to get you. If you hope to survive, you have to know when to play it safe and when to take a chance. The key to a successful life is to know the difference. I never figured it out, but I’m counting on the two of you to succeed where I failed, at least for your mother’s sake. She would never admit it, but I’m afraid I’ve broken her heart, for being the failure I am. I think you boys could learn a lot from each other.”
Maurice looked upset. “You think I need my little brother to succeed in life?”
“It’s not a matter of need. I just think working together would be the smartest thing for you to do.”
“Why?” asked Maurice.
“Because each of you has strengths and each—weaknesses. As a team, you’re solid, and can do anything.”
“What weaknesses?” asked my brother.
“Well,” Papa said, “you are inventive and ambitious, but that often comes with recklessness and risk. Your brother, on the other hand, is less of a risk taker, more cautious and steadier in his approach, but, because of that, he could miss many amazing opportunities. Richard needs you as much as you need him. If you worked together, you’d have everything you need for success.”
“Thank you, Papa,” I said.
Maurice gave me a funny look, then smiled at our father. “I’ll try my best to teach Richard.”
That brought a grin to Papa’s face and lifted our mood for a moment, something badly needed to offset the news of his firing.
My brother was nineteen and probably didn’t think a fifteen-year-old kid could help him with anything, but Maurice winked at him and that brought another smile to Papa’s face. “Listen, boys. I’m going to go help your mother in the kitchen.”
After he left, I said, “I hope Papa will be alright.”
Maurice frowned and put a hand on my shoulder. “Richard, we can’t end up like our father—old, with nothing to show for long years of work.”
I lowered my head.
He lifted my face so our eyes met. “We should make a vow to each other.”
“What kind of vow?”
“To be millionaires before we turn fifty.”
“So we’ll have a cushion, something to retire with, should things take a turn for the worse, like they have for Papa.”
“I know he just got fired, Maurice, but he’s done pretty well all our lives.”
“We can do better.”
“Okay, but how?”
“I have an idea.”
We both loved the movies. Like me, Maurice fantasized about becoming a film star. With a distant relative on the Hollywood police force who knew a lot of movie people, we thought it might really be possible. Maurice decided, when he turned twenty, he’d leave for the West Coast. Neither of us were exactly leading man material, but not all the big stars had perfect looks.
One Saturday after doing yard work, Maurice and I sat on the freshly cut grass of our backyard, sipping water from the hose and talking about the future.
“By the time you turn eighteen,” he said, “I should be established in Hollywood. Then you can come out and join me.”
“That’s three years away.”
“It will pass quickly.”
“You’ll probably be a big star by the time I join you.”
Maurice laughed and grinned.
Before he left for Hollywood, Mother told him, “Only hold on to what will serve you in the future. If you want to be happy, letting go of things that drag you down is key. You can’t obsessively latch onto your failures. I did that, and now I regret it. You must do better.”
I’m not sure he heard her words, but I did. They made sense to me and carried real weight through the rest of my life.
Three years after he left, I joined Maurice at Columbia Film Studios. He hadn’t yet broken into the movies as an actor. Instead, he worked as a flunky, pushing sets around, driving trucks, taking folks out on location, and handling lights. He got me a job like his.
“The work’s alright,” he said, “but it provides no real opportunities.”
He was right. It wasn’t as glamorous as I’d hoped, but occasionally I’d see a big star. And that sorta made it worth it. But they’d never show interest in talking to us. Some were downright rude, acting as if we were nothing and should rightfully be ignored. Even if we weren’t in the movies ourselves, the tasks they gave us were easy. Between the two of us, we worked quickly and efficiently, so offers of work became increasingly frequent.
Still, Maurice seemed unhappy.
We moved furniture while talking. “Richard, this is nothing like I hoped it would be. Now that I’ve seen behind the curtain, I don’t think I want to be an actor, even if I could be a star.”
“How much acting did you do before I showed up?” I asked.
“None, but it doesn’t matter. I still love the movies. I just don’t want to be involved in making them anymore.”
“I thought we were having a good time.”
“Richard, we can do better.”
“What would you rather do?”
“Well, I have an idea.”
That evening over dinner, Maurice explained his plan. He suggested, instead of trying to be in the movies, we pool our money and buy a movie theater. “We won’t be actors, but at least we’ll get to see whatever films we want, anytime. We won’t be stuck with just the ones made by studios offering us work.”
“You might be tired of this job,” I said, “but it’s still kinda fun for me.”
“Trust me, Richard. It gets old quickly. Another big reason to buy this theater with me is we can make a lot more money.”
“Maybe you should run the theater while I keep working for the studios. If it’s about the money, Maurice, you can put all my savings toward the purchase.”
He frowned. “More than your money, I need your help. Like Dad said, we’re best working together.”
I washed my food down with a beer. As much as I wanted to continue working for the studio, spending time with my big brother was more important to me. But I wasn’t fond of change, and I was still settling in from my big move to the West Coast. “Another change right now sounds overwhelming. I don’t have a handle on my life out here yet.”
“Richard, you’ll never be in control of your life, ‘til you’re captain of your own ship.”
I sighed. “Maybe you’re right.” Although he ultimately convinced me, I couldn’t help remembering my father’s words. Was my brother’s urge to move on to something new a sign of reckless ambition? If so, would the responsible thing have been for me to fight harder, to keep Maurice anchored with me to our current jobs—the sure thing versus the chance he wanted to take?
Purchasing a movie theater turned out to be more than we could afford, but that didn’t discourage Maurice. He found an old movie theater twenty miles outside of LA, in Glendora. The owner wanted to unload the lease.
We sat in the lobby on soft cushions near the entryway, deciding if we really wanted to take the plunge with an old theater like that. Finally, Maurice told the seller, “We don’t have any money, but we’ll take on the lease and if we make any money, we’ll sit down and talk about a financial arrangement.”
I thought there was no way in the world the old man would accept that. Who did business like that? But I was wrong. I wondered if it was Maurice’s charisma that allowed him to get his way in a situation like that. I went along with the venture despite being curious why the owner would want to sell if there were any profits to be had.
We dove into our new pursuit, installing a snack bar and renaming our theater The Beacon. After failing for six years, we finally made our theater profitable. It looked like we were going to be okay. However, one day, Maurice approached me while I was running the projector. He looked unhappy. “Richard, owning this theater hasn’t worked out like I thought it would.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t find it fulfilling. I can’t imagine doing this for the rest of my life.”
“But we’ve finally reached the point where we might make some real money.”
“I guess that depends on what you consider real money. At our current pace, we’ll never reach the million apiece we pledged to make by the time we were fifty.”
“Is that really so important?”
“It is to me, Richard. I feel like we’re wasting away here.”
I tried to resist asking the obvious question. “I thought we were doing okay.”
“We can do better,” he said.
The question seemed to pop out on its own. “What do you want to do now?”
“Well, I have an idea.”
My big brother’s next scheme was for us to open a hot dog stand.
“That’s some serious scaling back, Maurice. It doesn’t sound like we’d get any closer to reaching our millionaire goals.”
“But we’d eliminate all the endless overhead of running the theater. If everything goes the way I think it will, we could expand quickly. And I have some ideas about key locations we could…”
He went on like that for a while. For the first time I wondered if Maurice had a problem. Would he eventually grow bored with any pursuit?
This time I resisted his urge to change directions. I insisted he give us more time with the theater and talked him into it.
But, after another year, he returned to his hot dog stand idea. “We can make a killing selling orange juice and dogs.”
Although the idea sounded crazy to me, I relented and joined his new pursuit. We sold the theater and bought a stand near the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia. To my surprise, he was right about how fast we could make money with a stand. And it was nice not to have to worry about all the overhead. Best of all, Maurice seemed happy again, in his element, with the speedy interaction of customer service on a personal level. He was a natural at that. And I couldn’t say why, but working with food appealed to me. I thought we’d finally hit our stride and would happily sell dogs and orange juice until we decided to retire.
Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me when, three years later, Maurice approached me, once more unhappy.
Late in the day, he sat me down on a concrete bench near our stand, where we could keep an eye on it, should someone want to order something. “Don’t misunderstand me, Richard. I think we’ve got a hold of something good with food and customer service, but maybe we could do it a little differently.”
“Come on, Maurice. We’ve been here before. It seems like you’re never going to be satisfied, no matter how successful we are.”
“That isn’t true.”
I picked up a pebble and tossed it into the distance. “I enjoyed working for the film studio; I liked owning a movie theater; and I’ve had a great time running a hot dog stand. I really didn’t think I would. But now you want to leave this behind, too?”
“I like what we’re doing; I just want to do it in a different way.”
“Well, we’re getting older, I mean, I’m getting older. I think we need to be owners and managers of our business. That means a bigger venue, like a drive-in restaurant. It means employees. I want us to steer the ship but, at our age, we shouldn’t be working the oars.”
I shook my head. “What do we know about taking on employees? I understand that comes with lots of headaches. Starting a drive-in restaurant would mean numerous decisions like location, for example. Then we’d have to decide to build ourselves or convert an existing building, or maybe take over an existing business. Sounds like mountains of headaches to me.”
“We can figure out all that.”
“But aren’t we happy right now?” I asked.
“Richard, we can do better.”
“Really?” I asked. “I don’t know. Sounds awfully risky.”
He laughed. “Don’t worry. I have an idea.”
Maurice found a barbecue drive-in for sale in San Bernardino, California—a community unlike the big city, but not exactly the sticks. As a blue-collar town, it appealed to both of us. Maybe it reminded us of the town where we grew up.
We sold our hot dog stand to once more focus on this new gamble. By now I knew better than to fight my big brother. After all we’d been through, we always landed on our feet. I would still be the anchor he needed, but I’d no longer worry every time we lost sight of the shore.
We had reasonable success with the barbeque drive-in. It wasn’t as fast-paced as the hot dog stand, but I was okay with that. And Maurice seemed happy… of course, that only lasted another few years. I suppose his change of mood was inevitable. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. “We have a good thing going, Maurice. Why would you want to shake things up again?”
“Because we can do better, Richard.”
“Even if we can, we don’t need to.”
“There are a hundred other drive-in restaurants in Southern California exactly like ours. I don’t want us to be just like all the others.”
“But we’re making good money, Maurice.”
“This isn’t about money. It’s about making something better.”
I took a deep breath, shaking my head from side-to-side. “Alright. I won’t fight you on it. And I won’t bother asking what you want to do because I’m sure you have an idea.”
The first change we made was to limit our menu to only the most-basic, best-selling items. We shut down the drive-in for a while and redesigned our kitchen to make it more efficient, so we could fill orders more quickly.
Our collaboration made me happy enough to quell concerns over how well the new system would work. We worked so hard on it, I began to expect success.
After some problems with fry cooks dating carhops and creating drama, we got rid of the carhops completely, a choice that proved unpopular with people accustomed to having meals delivered to their cars. They would have to walk up to a window and place orders, then wait for their food.
When we reopened, we didn’t expect business to take off. And it didn’t. Our customers did not understand our new concept. Their confusion grew when they learned we no longer provided real glasses, plates and utensils. Instead, we served food in disposable wrappings and containers.
On the positive side, the customers who tried our new system found the quality food and reasonable price they expected, but what surprised them was our speed. No other drive-in restaurant offered such speedy service.
Still, that didn’t mean success in business. Sales sharply declined. Since I feared the empty parking lot wasn’t helping, I asked employees to park in front so we’d look busy. But that didn’t work, either.
It took months, but when customers finally understood what we were trying to do, how we were better than other drive-in restaurants, our business increased. Best of all, my brother and I reinvented our restaurant together.
Unfortunately, Maurice’s fiftieth birthday came and went. He hadn’t made the millionaire cut we’d promised ourselves, and it looked like I’d miss the mark, too. We kept expanding as our customer base grew. Others noticed our success and tried to duplicate our business model. We weren’t millionaires, but we were happier than ever.
Then we met a man even more ambitious than my brother. Inevitably, he came to want everything we’d developed for his own—our ideas, our methods, even our name. But Maurice and I liked where we were, what we were doing and we refused to sell. Still, he never stopped trying to change our minds.
Then, Maurice got an idea. “We should offer to give him what he wants, but only for a price so ridiculously high he’ll refuse to pay it. Then he might finally leave us alone.”
If he accepted the deal, after taxes we’d receive one million dollars each, catapulting us into the position of each making our million before reaching age fifty. Well, technically Maurice was a little over fifty, but I still had a few years to go.
To our shock, things didn’t go as we expected. The fool paid us what we asked, and we were out of the big picture.
Maurice was definitely unhappy.
I saw it as the achievement of a goal we’d set long ago. This was a victory for us. But no matter how hard I tried to convince Maurice, he couldn’t let go of his alternating melancholy and anger.
Although we wrote the contract so we could continue running our San Bernardino restaurant, the buyer was ruthless and set up a competing restaurant across the street. He used our name and system to drive us out of business for good.
When the buyer eventually took our ideas worldwide and we saw the millions we’d missed out on, my brother’s anger and misery grew.
“I have an idea… my brother, on his death, released the rage and sadness he held onto for so long. I believe… he finally realized he’d led a successful life—one he could be proud of. I loved my brother and I will miss him.”
My words brought me dangerously close to tears. I took a deep breath and steadied my voice.
“As I look out over this Inland Valley sky, I think of our mother and father. Each had valuable advice for us–keys for success and happiness. My dad wanted us to work together because he believed we were strongest that way. And he was right. My brother and I were always better together. I can’t imagine being successful without him.”
I thought back to those three years from fifteen to eighteen, anticipating my move to join Maurice in California. The day I arrived was one of the best in my life because I knew we’d be working together. Then I remembered the ups and downs since.
“Mom was also right. She worried we might be too hard on ourselves. She knew the value of learning from mistakes, but also tried to impress upon us the importance of letting go of the past if it only brings negative feelings. She wanted us to focus on what is rather than what could have been. I think Maurice’s last days might have been happier if he’d followed that advice. Or maybe it took this for him to release his disappointments. Maybe now he can rest happily.”
The rapidly rising temperature made the crowd fidget, so I wrapped up the eulogy.
“No matter what happens to our ideas, we know the truth. And that’s what really matters. We had nothing to do with the phenomenal success that came after we no longer played a part, but none of that could have happened without us. And knowing that…is enough. Close friends may remember us for what we did as Maurice and Richard, Mac and Dick, or just as the brothers, but the world will always know us as the McDonalds.”