Success, failure, management, me

Indo col 68 –

Malcolm Gladwell understands success. Growing up with a mother who was a psychotherapist and a father who was a professor, Gladwell wanted to become an academic, but soon realised he lacked the discipline. So he decided to be the least disciplined creature of all – a writer. Aged 20 he took a job at a magazine in Indiana, but after two months of showing up late for work, he was fired. Undeterred, he took a job with the Washington Post, then with the New Yorker, and then wrote two bestsellers, Tipping Point and Blink, which packaged his big ideas into easily digestible soundbites. He became a sort of pop-intellectual, a man who broke down big theories into the plain speech we all use. He was soon more successful than either of his parents, so naturally he started to examine what makes people successful.

In Outliers, Gladwell used case studies to break down the unique environment that create the highest achievers in a range of spheres. He came up with variables that need to align for people like Bill Gates, The Beatles or Steve Jobs to break the mold as they did – opportunity, timing, upbringing, effort, and finding meaning in work all contribute to the creation of an outlier, not to mention the small matter of ten thousand hours spent working at the thing they succeeded in. In short, there were no shortcuts. But there were other factors in the favour of the outlier.

Gladwell’s book is a comfort to us also-rans in life – it’s not that we lack the brilliance or the talent to take on the world, but rather that we weren’t born in the right place, at the right time. Outliers shows that the myth of the self-made man is just that – a narrative built up around a profoundly capitalist cult of personality, where the rich are special and the rest of us are not. Gladwell said he wrote it as an anti-self help book, a counterpoint to all those books telling you that you can be whatever you want to be. Gladwell bluntly told New York magazine “Well, actually, you can’t be whatever you want to be. The world decides what you can and can’t be. And the appropriate place to provide opportunities is at the world level, not the individual level.”

Of course, the greater the success, the greater the failure. Here in Ireland we had our own reckoning with the fluid concept of success back in 2008 when the economy collapsed and suddenly all the beautiful, wealthy people who were lighting up our social and business pages came undone. Like Cnut The Great, they screeched at the incoming tide as their papier mache empires dissolved, and we asked ourselves – who were they, after all? What soon became apparent about so many of them was not that they were the smartest, nor the best, but rather that they were just in the right place at the right time, and that they were cruelly burdened with an unhealthy amount of self belief, one that blinded them to their own limitations and – more importantly for those of us left to pick up the tab – to risk.

A while back I met an old friend. He is one of the most successful people I know, and in the opening five minutes of our chat he managed to ask if I had all my children with the same woman, and then if my wife and I were still together. He then went on to bemoan that he was never asked to speak at his old school, as he had so much to teach the children about how to be successful like him. When I pointed out that he happened to be blessed with a very wealthy family, who paid for him to be privately educated and then sent to university, he said that in reality, he did it all on his own, and if anything, they stood in his way. I was terribly impressed by all this, as it was like meeting the ghost of Shelley’s mythical buffoon Ozymandias. It struck me not just that my friend thought he was great, but that he thought that I was not, and that my life was an extended episode of the Maury Povich show, having paternity tests read out and jumping up and down in delight at various points in the proceedings. As we parted, I breathed a sigh of relief that I will never be successful, as I quite like having simple things like gratitude, self-awareness and humility.

Back in the 1990s and 2000s, founder of the Irish Management Institute Ivor Kenny wrote a series of books about successful people. Out On Their Own, Achievers, Leaders, and In Good Company all featured extended interviews with business leaders and successful people from Ireland. Some are still in business, some have gone the way of Ozymandias, and some simply turned their great success into even greater failure. But all those featured in Kenny’s books had something in common – work. They worked so hard that they often sacrificed their personal lives, echoing what Monty Burns told the children of Springfield: “Family, religion, friendship: These are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business. When opportunity knocks, you don’t want to be driving to a maternity hospital or sitting in some phony-baloney church.”  

I didn’t work for the Leaving Cert, and pay the price for it now, a thought that comes to me as I pay for milk and bread with a credit card once a month. However, I would say that my failures, mishaps and mistakes have been my greatest education – that, and the value of hard work. I tend to sound like a Soviet-era poster glorifying toil when I talk about work, but can be a tonic for the soul in times of distress. Professional success these days is to have a home, your health, and a job you enjoy. To quote Gladwell: “Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig.”

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