I found Malcolm Gladwell’s new book on the nature of success, “Outliers” to be a particularly interesting read. I’ve already written about some of my thoughts about the book elsewhere in this blog. But a conversation last night with a former roomate from business school brought up what I think might a weakness of Gladwell’s book.
The Roommate, (as an aside, I’ve decided that any friends who have shared information in an unguarded way with me during a conversation should be anonymous, hence the extensive use of nicknames. I wouldn’t want any of my friends to feel that they had to go off the record, or on “deep” background in order to have a conversation and not feel like they were potential fodder for this little blog), who is orginally from Quebec, told me that when she first move to Ontario fifteen years ago, thought that people from Toronto were incredibly materialistic. And, now, after fifteen years, a couple of kids and a huge mortgage, she feels like she has caught the bug, “keeping up with the Joneses”. We were talking about the success that many of our B-School colleagues have had in the past fifteeen years.
So is success a function of how much we make? How do you measure success? Gladwell’s book assumes a very common definition of success, that is career success that leads to fortune, or fame, or both. Is success really just having more than the other guy? The pursuit of more — more success, more money, more stuff, more food, just more — probably made sense in times of scarcity. This desire for more ensured the survival of the species. But during times of prosperity, the pursuit of more appears to be killing us. We work too hard, we’re too stressed at work, we’re stressed about not having enough money to pay the bills, and now that the economy is in the tank, we stress about keeping our jobs.
Does success make us happy? The jury is out on that one. According to Sonja Lubermirsky, author of “The Hows of Happiness”, it turns out that more money does not necessarily make us happier. We become happier when whe earn enough money to provide the basic necessities of life. But beyond that amount, money has diminishing marginal returns. This is because of “huristic adaptation”, or in plain English, we get used to having more money, so it doesn’t make us happy any more.
But I suspect some forms of success, the kind that happens because we are personally engaged, because we have dreams that we work towards, that we can create meaning for ourselves, I suspect that that kind of success just might make us happy.