Are you a “success addict”? Probably not, but it is okay if you are. In this episode, Peter McGraw discusses the good, bad, and ugly of a recent article in The Atlantic about “How to Build a Life.”
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Listen to Episode #43 here
Solo Thoughts 4 – Fitting Success Into A Remarkable Life
Our guest is, yes, I’m afraid so, it’s me again but I had to do it. Let me explain. During the Alternative Forms of Marriage episode, I talked about how the magazine, The Atlantic, has a family section, which is “a hub for coverage of American life, from the viewpoint of its most basic unit.” That is the family. I would think that the most basic unit is the single individual, but not according to The Atlantic. Keeping with the magazine’s family focus is an article by Arthur Brooks, a professor of Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. He writes How To Build A Life column. The goal of his column is as follows “to find what matters and how to hold on to it at any age. It’s about how to balance the competing demands of our time and build a life that feels whole. What can we do each day to increase our satisfaction and enjoyment of life? It will draw on social science philosophy, history, and the arts to devise strategies for how people can surpass ‘good enough’ and build a life that they truly want.”
An article called ‘Success Addicts’ Choose Being Special Over Being Happy, caught my attention and caused me to subsequently take this episode. Using the language of addiction, Brooks contends that the pursuit of success comes at the cost of relationships. His argument is best summarized with the following passage. This is quoted in the article, “But success also resembles addiction and its effect on human relationships. People sacrifice their links with others for their true love, success. They travel for business on anniversaries. They miss Little League games and recitals while working long hours. Some forego marriage for their careers, earning the appellation of being ‘married to their work,’ even though a good relationship is more satisfying than any job.”
What is there to respond to? First of all, I want to say that I’m disappointed with the premise of this article and that it’s focused on the family as demonstrated by that passage excludes millions of people, either those who are single, as I like to say for now or forever. To accept the arguments that Brooks makes is to accept the narrow range of values about, what’s important to do with your life and whom to do it with or not? I do think that Brooks’ intentions are good, but there are a lot of problems as I see it with this article, especially if you agree with me that the single individual, not the family is the most basic unit of society.
I’m going to go through each of these and talk about them in relation to the article but here are the major issues that I want to cover. The first one is more of a pet peeve, but it’s the misuse of the term addiction and use for persuasive purposes. The next is the presentation of a narrow path to a good life and that path involves marriage or near equivalent. Next is that there’s a shallow view of the pursuit of success. The trying to survive can look like the pursuit of success and the need to provide created by the patriarchy can also look like this selfish pursuit of success. Finally, the article ignores the way that success has a positive effect on the world and the pursuer of that success.
For our purposes, I’m going to use the word success and achievement interchangeably, henceforth. Before I begin, I want to acknowledge something that Brooks gets right, and that is, you can’t have it all. That is the tradeoff. They need to be made if you’re going to live a good life. Where we disagree is the particular type of trade-off that needs to be made. Brooks wants to decide for you and I want you to decide for yourself, my good Solos. Let’s jump into these. The first issue is that Brooks misuses the term addiction for persuasive purposes. This is a minor point, I agree, but it bugs me when people especially academics who know better or should know better misapplies the word ‘addiction.’
Brooks talks about success addiction, but the relentless pursuit of success or the appearance of it doesn’t meet the clinical criteria for addiction. Neither does cheese addiction, television addiction, or even I know this is controversial, pornography addiction. More importantly, the use of addiction in this way is insulting to people who have true addictions to smoking alcohol, heroin, and other substances. Behaviors that have profound dependence on people and people can’t quit and it comes at a great psychological, emotional, and physical cost. Notably, by his own definition, his use of the term addiction, not the clinical definition is that you could label someone, a family addict and no one seems to be wanting to do that.
Onto the bigger issues, Brooks assumes a narrow path to a good life, a good life that involves marriage or its near equivalent. What am I about to say seems probably familiar to the regular reader and I’ve talked about these ideas in other places, including Solo Thoughts 2: Well-Being and we discuss it in the, What Makes a Life Remarkable episode. Let’s chat about the research on wellbeing and what we know about it and that is the original research has some clear limitations. It suggests that there are two paths to being satisfied with your life or as I like to say, living a good life. One is a pleasure and the other is meaning.
In this focus, meaning and relationship have the same path that is having a family is meaningful. I’m going to call this the pleasure meaning model. One thing that’s clear is this notion of tradeoffs that it’s difficult to walk these two paths simultaneously. What often happens is parents give up a lot of pleasure, good, healthy sleep, for example, in order to raise a family, which happens to create this meaningful, purposeful life. A good life goes something like this, enjoy your youth, have fun and then at some point settle down and forgo pleasures for a meaningful life of marriage and children. Perhaps when everyone’s out of the house and on your own, you can retire and you can go back to a more pleasurable life.
What’s implicit in this model is that work is a necessary evil to pursue more financial pursuits, that is you need to finance your life so you have to work and go do your work but be focused on raising this family. More emerging scholarly work spearheaded by Martin Seligman suggests that there are many more opportunities to live a good life than this pleasure meaning distinction. Seligman has what he calls the PERMA Model that highlights five paths to a good life with each path being related to a letter in the acronym, PERMA.
He acknowledges this Pleasurable path in the acronym with the P and this Meaning path in the acronym M but he has a separate path for Relationships, R. Frankly, in this model, relationships don’t have to be about marriage per se. It can be part of a broader community, having a friends’ network, and so on, but being connected to others, it doesn’t have to be romantically. The PERMA Model also adds Engagement, E the pursuit of flow that is the creative process of solving problems and the satisfaction that can come with that. Finally, the last letter of the acronym, A stands for Achievement what Brooks in the article calls the pursuit of success.
There’s a lot of excellent elements of this model. First of all, it fits the reality that is, it fits the data. When you look around the world at the many people who are deviating from the pleasure, meaning paths, there are lots of them. Marketers use this term heterogeneity to describe the vast differences in values, needs, and beliefs that exist in the population. Essentially, people are diverse in what they want, believe, and need. The original wellbeing models, they don’t fit this diversity well. For example, an athlete, entrepreneur, or artist who gives up a lot of pleasure to win gold medals, to build businesses and to make art. These are people who don’t fit that original meaning and pleasure model but work nicely with the PERMA Model, looking at either engagement, achievement, or some combination thereof. I would argue these people often are living good lives.
The next thing is that the model is value-free. It doesn’t suggest that one path is better than another. It happens to be that it works if the path that you’re walking happens to be the one that’s good for you, that it fits. If you asked an Olympian to start a family at the stage where he or she is training for a gold medal, he or she would be deeply unhappy. They’d be walking a meaning relationship path when they want to be walking an achievement path. Moreover, if you asked a loaner artist to get more involved in the community, he or she might be worse off leaning into the R and lamenting the time away and the discomfort when they would rather be engaged in E their artistic creative pursuits. They’d be worse off, not better off.
[bctt tweet=”People are diverse in what they want, what they believe, and what they need. ” via=”no”]
Another thing that the model acknowledges and I like a lot is that the path to a good life can change depending on your stage of development. As I talked about the youthful pleasures may be giving way transitioning into middle age meaning. There are multiple paths within the life, not simultaneously, but sequentially. Just because you start one doesn’t mean you can’t do another. For example, a change in circumstance becoming an empty nester or a widow might turn to the arts. George Bush became a painter after his presidential retirement whereas Obama still focuses on public service.
You can think about this as levers. There are these five levers, but you can’t pull all of them all at the same time. I’m guessing that Brooks did this himself, where he pulled hard on the achievement lever as a younger man now, he benefits from his success and he’s pulling on these relationship and meaning levers. Based on his examples, such as missing anniversaries and recitals due to work, it seems that people who are being criticized for pursuing success are people who are married with children. What is not clear is whether Brooks believes this to be the only path where he’s only writing for a particular group of people. People who get married, which tends to be at this point, most people and those people who then go on to have kids. In any case, there’s no discussion that a nonfamily-focused life can be a good one. Here’s that idea, marriage is not good or bad per se, in my opinion, it’s overprescribed.
The next point, Brooks presents a shallow view of the pursuit of success. Attempts to survive can look like this pursuit. Moreover, the challenges baked into a marriage that’s fueled by the patriarchy can also masquerade as the selfish pursuit of success. What people see as the pursuit of success sometimes it’s to try to survive in a competitive world. In my own experience, I was trying to be successful in academia and some pursuits are terribly difficult. As I like to see anything worth doing is going to be difficult. This can be difficult, even if you have talent, which I didn’t. I made sacrifices in order to get through my PhD program, not because I wanted to be seen as special, not because I was addicted to success, but because that hard-working long hours and nearly every day was essential to survive and to achieve in a tremendously competitive environment.
One of the happy benefits of all of this was that I was happy to do the work, which is consistent with the E in the PERMA Model. As I got better and better, I was compelled to do the work because it featured creativity. It was engaging and thus became satisfying, not always, but those moments were special. If you look at the unemployment rate and see businesses collapsing around you, you’ll see many people working long hours, not because they’re addicted to success, but because they’re trying to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. In some communities, especially black communities in the United States, athletic or entertainment success is seen as one of the few viable ways to escape poverty. That is even what we see as a pursuit of entertainment or athletics can be a matter of trying to make your life better.
What ends up happening essentially is that these success addicts might be survival addicts. Moreover, the article, it’s not explicit, but implicitly seems focused on men, at least through stereotypical gender roles. As a gentle reminder, this is something I’ve talked about here and there is that, we know that the patriarchy is oppressive to women, but it’s oppressive to men also that the pressure to be the breadwinner is great. Oftentimes men do work that’s not rewarding, that’s risky. They sacrifice their health and so on because that’s what a good man, father, and husband are supposed to do. In the same way that women make sacrifices to a variety of things and are impressed into certain roles because that’s what good women are supposed to do. This is most evident in the pervasive and substantial age gap between men and women, and that men die younger in part because of the choices that they make with regard to their employment.
I’m going to give you one example of this that I encountered. This is a guy I know and at first, he might look like a candidate for this article. He’s up at 5:30 AM every day and he works long hours with his new consulting business. As you start to look more deeply at what this guy is doing, he clearly is not a success addict. Although I know he takes a great deal of pride in doing a good job and he’s ambitious but when you look at his life, he has five dependents. He has a wife, two teenagers, and two parents and he is more or less the only person bringing income into that world. He’s desperately trying to maintain his lifestyle and one that is a great benefit to his parents, kids, and wife.
I saw him and frankly, he looked exhausted. Is he pursuing success for himself, for his own reward or is he pursuing it for his family? My hunches, it’s nowadays more about the family than for him. What could he do? He could scale back his work. He could downsize, move into a smaller house maybe into a larger apartment. He could tell his kids, “You are going to have to pay for college but good news, Dad’s going to be at dinner more often.” I can’t help but wonder how that’s going to be perceived. Will that be welcomed? Either way, this guy is in a tough spot.
The last one, the perspective in the article ignores the success that has a positive effect on the world and the pursuer. My point is the pursuit of achievement, even if it’s done primarily for the person pursuing achievement is not wholly selfish. That is the success can make other people’s lives better. Entrepreneurs build businesses that on balance make people’s lives better. That’s why they’re willing to pay for those services, to pay for those products. Think what you want about Amazon, but the value that it creates is great. Think alone about how much time it saved customers from standing in line. We want people who have major endeavors trying to cure cancer, create a COVID vaccine, or even people who bring joy to the world in the form of books, poetry, and music. We want them to be able to work long hours in order to be successful because the fruits of their labor are tremendously beneficial.
It’s hard to do this, that you might have to have a more of a singular focus. Moreover, a focus on achievement can be connected to engagement. In the article Brooks reference Sisyphus by arguing that most people never feel successful enough, that the high only lasts a day or two and then it’s onto the next goal. He describes this as a hedonic treadmill where the pleasure of achievement gets adapted to, and then you’re off to the next big task and a big goal. If you’re not familiar with the story of Sisyphus, he’s a mythological character punished by the gods by having to push a boulder up a hill, and yet when he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down. He’d walk back down and have to start over again. The common parlance is to refer to a Sisyphean task, essentially one that is pointless or fruitless.
[bctt tweet=”The path to a good life can change depending on your stage of development.” via=”no”]
I’m glad that Brooks talks about the Sisyphean task because I’ve been rather obsessed with Sisyphus and highly influenced by Albert Camus, who has written about this. Camus has this wonderful quote where he says, “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” In Camus’ quote, my interpretation of this at least is, it’s not the achievement of the goal that matters, but rather it’s the engaging process of achieving it. That is, we have to imagine Sisyphus finding a way to make pushing the boulder up the hill, the process, the thing that matters.
I talked about this in-depth in my book, Shtick to Business about having a craftsperson mentality and the act of banging on a piece of metal in order to create a sword. It’s great when you’re finished and you have a sword, but true craftspeople take pleasure in the banging. The process is the reward and the outcome, as we like to say is the icing. Brooks concludes the article with three pieces of advice and here they are and let me deconstruct them with a more balanced focus that some people may be benefited from focusing on a family and other paths focused on something else, success is one of them.
He writes, “As you can tell, I deeply disagree with this idea. Sure, it works if you value family more than work, but if you’re compelled by achievement and engagement, forgoing those things for a family doesn’t make you happier. It’s going to make you less happy. It might even make you resentful, but valuing achievement or engagement over family is still a taboo idea.” We should return to the PERMA Model here, reminding you about the concepts I brought up and frame it, not much as an either-or between success and family, but the idea is that individual people can have different focuses depending on the path that’s right for them.
In the second step, he says, “The second step is to make amends for any relationship you’ve compromised in the name of success.” I find this a fair point if a person is trying to make those tradeoffs. I’d go further, however, and suggest that you talk with your family about what they want. Is it okay to move into a smaller house in exchange for more family time? Is it okay for dad or mom to take jobs that give them more time and less pay and the kids pay for college on their own? This is about tradeoffs. The last step, I’ll read it fully is, “The last step is to find the right metrics of success. In business, people often say, ‘You are what you measure.’ If you measure yourself only by the worldly rewards and money, power, and prestige, you’ll spend your life running on the hedonic treadmill and comparing yourself to others. I suggest better metrics in the inaugural, How to Build a Life column among them, faith, family, and friendship. I also included work, but not work for the sake of outward achievement, rather it should be work that serves others and gives you a sense of personal meaning.”
I can let that step stand because by now you can tell this advice is incomplete for the typical solo reader. To summarize, this article, especially given this large platform is a missed opportunity. It was a chance to provide a lesson about living a good life that is inclusive, both for partner people and for singles. There’s not one narrow path to a good life. One that involves marriage or it’s near equivalent instead, that is one path, but there are many including solo ones. There are millions of you out there and you shouldn’t think that non-married life is somehow less than.
Let’s not mistake what looks like the pursuit of success might be trying to survive in a tough world or the challenges that the patriarchy presents within a marital structure, one reinforced by the family itself. Finally, achievement is not bad per se. You can create a rich, compelling life and it can have a profound effect and benefit to society. It can save lives, it can provide millions of people joy. It can make the world a better place, often more so than adding a couple of kids to billions of people on the planet. With that, I want to say I welcome your feedback. I want to say thank you for reading Solo Thoughts. Cheers and onwards.
- Alternative Forms of Marriage – previous episode
- ‘Success Addicts’ Choose Being Special Over Being Happy
- Solo Thoughts 2: Well-Being – previous episode
- What Makes a Life Remarkable – previous episode
- Shtick to Business
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