There is a trite saying — you can be right or you can be happy. A variation of this might be: you can be successful or you can be happy. Many high achievers I have known are not conventionally happy. Being content with their lot is simply not part of their character. They possess a relentless urge to do better, no matter their existing accomplishments. Striving is in their nature. Indeed, the struggle for victory is partly what drives them — the exertion is how they derive satisfaction. Easy wins are no fun.
Arthur Brooks last month wrote a thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic entitled “ ‘Success addicts’ choose being special over being happy”. He described how ambitious people sacrifice relationships for work, because they are hooked on the pursuit of glory rather than the simple things that often deliver the most pleasure. They are on a hedonic treadmill.
Performance coach Brad Stulberg has written about the concept of a hungry ghost — forever ravenous, never full, chasing prestige, material goods, a bigger job and so forth. For good or ill, lots of entrepreneurs have hungry ghosts. Almost invariably, they are highly competitive individuals — but this rivalry, which acts as a spur, can also lead to frustration, because there is always someone else richer, more powerful, more famous. Never good enough, as they say.
History is infested with tycoons, inventors, writers, performers and politicians who led unfortunate personal lives but changed the world. Many suffered from broken marriages, neglected their children and destroyed their friendships, yet they created giant companies, discovered remarkable technologies, produced magnificent works of art or served their countries as inspirational leaders.
Perhaps we prefer it when such triumphant individuals have wretched private lives — it obviates the need for envy. But the single-minded focus on their creations is what delivered results for the benefit of everyone. Would they have realised such enduring feats if they had sought a more meaningful work/life balance?
I don’t think an overwhelming obsession with one’s work is a necessary requirement, but I suspect that those who are now choosing to give up the rat race to concentrate on other priorities — as many have during this surreal period — will fail to secure the glittering prizes.
A variation of this restlessness is an inability to remain passive. Business-builders feel an intense desire to be active. They have a strong determination to control their own destinies — they believe in individual agency above all.
Unfortunately, the current crisis has largely foiled that urge: lockdown means that many businesses have been shut, their owners unable to trade. Generally, citizens have quietly complied with the government diktats, no matter how incoherent, arbitrary and irrational they appear. But I have felt compelled to resist publicly — as have quite a few entrepreneurs.
Perhaps it is our experience of risk-taking, which rejects the overcautious approach adopted by the authorities. Possibly it is our willingness to be contrarians — to take the minority view rather than falling for groupthink. Or it may be a tendency among entrepreneurs to devise workarounds for regulations: starting and developing companies would be impossible if founders followed every single rule, because there are no rules about how you create a successful enterprise.
Entrepreneurs are troublemakers — the sort of people who upset the status quo by providing new solutions to problems. Rebelling against the Establishment is in their genes.
Being a vocal opponent of lockdown is not a recipe for a relaxed life. It leads to plenty of arguments and accusations of greed, lack of empathy and so forth from virtue-signallers. But we all have to follow our consciences, and be prepared to protest if we feel the state is doing something manifestly wrong and harmful to the citizenry.
Moreover, I believe it is essential that the opposing view on such draconian withdrawals of our basic freedoms is properly heard. The vast majority of the media — broadcast news in particular — have meekly toed the government’s line over this unprecedented disruption.
Yet it appears that more people are becoming fed up with the chaos, thanks to sudden quarantine restrictions, exam havoc, rapidly rising unemployment and collateral damage for patients suffering from afflictions other than Covid-19. Of course, we lockdown sceptics could be wrong: perhaps the extra protection was worth the very significant collateral damage?
The next six months will deliver the definitive verdict. Either governments overreacted wildly to Covid-19 and caused huge unnecessary damage, or the fear was justified.