The Elusive Concept of Success

What is success? Is success about money, a sense of purpose, seeing the smiling faces of one’s children, or a flash career? Seems the further we travel on the road of life and career, the more this question occupies our minds, having a nagging doubt in the back of our minds that all the vestiges of success we have been striving to acquire are essentially hollow. We want something more, but struggle to understand what that something could be.

“The basic problem with the flow of success is that life can look very good when it really isn’t,” writes Harvard Business School’s Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. His new book, Questions of Character, uses literature to look closely at issues of leadership. Below is an excerpt of an article on the book:

In his novel I Come as a Thief, Louis Auchincloss introduces us to Tony Lowder, a lawyer in his early forties. Tony has a promising political career ahead of him—in a recent election, he almost beat a heavily entrenched incumbent. Tony makes two extraordinary decisions. First, he commits a serious but brilliantly undetectable crime. Next, despite the advice and pleas of everyone around him, Tony goes to the authorities and confesses, which destroys his professional life, throws his family into chaos, and puts them in physical danger.

This story confronts us with one of the oldest and most perplexing themes in literature—the hazards of success. The basic problem with the flow of success is that life can look very good when it really isn’t. In Tony’s case, he is making money, building a business, and establishing a reputation. He also treats others with respect, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness. To understand why Tony is impelled to commit a serious crime, we have to look beyond external signs of success and try to understand his mind and heart. Tony is living the life of a wind-up toy, going through the motions of being a good father, a loving son, a good husband, a charming politician, and a resolute friend. He can say just the right things in just the right way, but he often doesn’t grasp what he is actually saying.

First, Tony is chronically busy. In a world of smart, competitive people, success takes long hours and unremitting effort, and Tony is trying to succeed in a wide range of activities. As a result, his life resembles the vaudeville act in which a juggler has a large number of sticks standing upright on a stage and tries to keep a plate spinning on top of each. While the performer is spinning one plate,some of the others get wobbly, so the juggler has to run over and spin them again—but then other plates start wobbling. The juggler has no time to reflect on what he is doing, and neither does Tony, as he hurries from one commitment to another.

Another problem, perversely, originates in the fact that Tony’s life is full of purpose and progress. His calendar is filled with meetings, and there are usually urgent phone calls to return. Tony is also accomplishing a lot, and success brings its own elation, satisfaction, and rewards. He doesn’t seem to have any problems—at least, none that his very bright future couldn’t take care of. But, by staying in perpetual motion, he is able to substitute a stream of successes and satisfactions for the hard work of grappling with bigger questions about his life. Of course, Tony isn’t a robot, and he senses, semiconsciously, that something is wrong, but he never has the time or impetus to find out what it is. To some degree, Tony is afraid of the answers, and his frenetic activity is a way to avoid them. He is the kind of person the painter Edward Degas had in mind when he said, “There is a kind of success that is indistinguishable from panic.” Almost everyone has colleagues who seem to fit this description: their energy, focus, and productivity are extraordinary—they are the first in the building and the last out—but even their admirers sometimes wonder if they are running from something.

Tony’s third problem is his steadily eroding autonomy. To others, he looks like an extraordinarily independent, active man, but his own experience of day-by-day life is very different. He feels he has few degrees of freedom because so many other people have a big stake in Tony being Tony and need him to fill certain roles. The needs of almost everyone around him help keep Tony in his world of busy, helpful, but emotionally empty achievement. Tony has become a virtuoso performer in a role created by the people and society around him. In this respect, he resembles an increasing number of talented people today. After his crime and confession, Tony describes the problem by saying, “there had always been a noisy grandstand of friends and family to applaud success, or the appearance of it, or even boo in a friendly way at failure.”

Auchincloss shows us that despite all the busy, purposeful activity, Tony feels dead inside. Tony’s crime is a self-administered shock treatment. It wakes him up and makes him feel alive. The prospect of living two lives—as the dutiful Tony and as a crook—thrills him. In an odd way Tony’s decision to commit a crime is his first moral act. The physicist Wolfgang Pauli once derided a colleague’s idea by saying that it wasn’t even wrong. Similarly, Tony’s previous life was neither good nor bad. It was submoral because it was on autopilot. The bribe is wrong, of course, but by taking it Tony finally does something that has moral standing. He chooses and commits, and this gives him the sense that his life has finally begun. Most people who have just committed a serious crime would feel guilty and fearful of getting caught, but Tony is exhilarated. He had been living as if everything were just fine, but his was an “as if” life, not a genuinely or deeply satisfying one. One test of the seriousness of an illness is the severity of the treatment it requires. For Tony, the bribe, with all its dangerous risks, is strong, self-prescribed medication. The flow of success had masked and exacerbated his illness and, to some degree, even caused it. Tony has a deep need to start acting and stop reacting, to feel he is alive, and to end his “as if” existence. The right answer, he concludes, is not more success, but risking everything.