15 years ago, I quit law school to pursue one overarching question: “Why do capable people fail to break through to the next level?” The answer to the question, to my great surprise, is success.
I first noticed the phenomenon while working with executive teams in some of Silicon Valley’s most innovative companies. When they were focused on the right few things, it led to success. But the success bred options and opportunities which undermined the very focus that led to success in the first place. In other words, I found that success can be a catalyst for failure. If we are not careful, it leads to what Jim Collins described as “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” It is true for companies; it is true for people.
I recently met with a capable and driven executive and asked him, “How are you?” He gave me a rapid-fire answer of all of the things he was doing: traveling, business updates, career changes and his children’s innumerable activities. It sounded like an intense but satisfying life.
Then I asked him again, “How are you really?” And the moment I did, he became emotional, and the reality of his life flooded out of him: his stress, his frustration of trying to juggle it all, his sense that he had no time to really think, or play with his children, or enjoy any of it.
The (cute) summary is this: his schedule was always filled but his life wasn’t fulfilled. What’s less cute is that, for most of us, living in this way is one of the surest paths to a life of regrets.
An Australian nurse, Bronnie Ware, has written about the regrets of the dying, drawn from conversations with people in palliative care. At the top of that list is “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Second on the list was “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”
What fascinates me about this list is that no one tells themselves, “My goal is to live a life that others expect of me that isn’t true to myself.” The question that should grab us by the lapels, is, “Why do otherwise intelligent, driven, successful, capable people end up where they didn’t intend to be?”