THE FRAGILITY OF “SUCCESS”

by Matt Thomas

A mentor of mine recently hit his 80th birthday. In a recent small gathering of friends, he took some time to talk about what he has learned along the way. For decades this individual was a high profile leader of large organizations. He has written dozens of books, mostly on leadership, traveled all over the world speaking to groups of up to 100,000 people, and counseled both Presidents and foreign dignitaries. The scale of his influence would be difficult to quantify. He has aged gracefully but has not escaped without his fair share of wounds and the scars to prove it.

He reflected on a season in which he made a very public mistake and the subsequent fall out for him and his family. In some circles, his reputation was forever tarnished. He experienced, first hand, the fragility of success.

We asked him what his plan was for the next 20 years. Would he write another book? Would he continue to travel? He paused for a moment and then replied, “Now I begin the descent into obscurity, and truth be told, I wish I had got started much sooner.”

“Now I begin the descent into obscurity, and truth be told, I wish I had got started much sooner.”

Even with the blemish on his otherwise sterling reputation, this man had accomplished more in 80 years than the combined efforts of thousands of high-quality leaders. Yet, in looking back on his life, he did not long for more notoriety. He longed for obscurity, and ultimately for peace.

It seems that almost weekly I sit down with an entrepreneur ready to take over the world. Leaders young and old with an idea so original, so unique (at least in their minds) it’s destined to be a tremendous success. The stories are often the same. What started as a passion turned into a business, which turned into a desire to succeed at all costs, which turned into cutting corners, which turned into carnage or a lonely life at the top.

The stories are often the same. What started as a passion turned into a business, which turned into a desire to succeed at all costs, which turned into cutting corners, which turned into carnage or a lonely life at the top.

A former client of ours was one such man. Inordinately intelligent, high capacity, and possessed with an otherworldly drive, he had risen to the top of his industry. Unfortunately, he destroyed the lives of his co-workers and lost most of his friends along the way. It is one of the few contracts that we have had to terminate due to a client’s questionable character and business practices. I picture him sitting on top of a mountain. Alone. That image grieves me.

You see, it does not matter how successful you or your organization are. How many awards you win, or how much public recognition you receive. The mob is fickle. Make one mistake and they’ll bury you. There is something to be said for living an ordinary life in an age where everyone is fighting to be perceived as extraordinary.

There is something to be said for living an ordinary life in an age where everyone is fighting to be perceived as extraordinary.

At the end of the day, worldly success is not worth the pursuit. The winds of culture change quickly and the praise of men and institutions are anxiously waiting for the next hero to follow. We should desire to build great organizations. It is good and right to pursue excellence in all things. But if we sacrifice our most intimate relationships; our spouses, our children, our friends, our business partners, even our direct reports at the altar of success then my friend we have been anything but successful. We should do good work for the sake of those whose lives the good work will enrich. Even if it means that by all appearances, we live ordinary lives.

My favorite movie of 2019 was Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life”. At the end of the film a quote from George Eliot appears on the screen:

“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”