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Dangers of the "Achievatron": How Success Fosters Bad Behavior

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Even before the ruinous prostitution scandal involving New York Governor Eliot Spitzer hit full force last week, pundits had churned out chapter and verse analyzing why this talented and high-achieving man would squander his political capital and leadership potential so recklessly. (Spitzer’s resignation is official today.)

Most of the explanations were trite: “naked hubris”; “power corrupts”; “just plain stupid,” and on.) But David Brooks of the New York Times takes a deeper consideration of why the most talented and successful among us, those who achieve “Bigness,” sometimes behave very badly.

…our social structure seems to produce significant numbers of people with rank-link imbalances. That is to say, they have all of the social skills required to improve their social rank, but none of the social skills that lead to genuine bonding. They are good at vertical relationships with mentors and bosses, but bad at horizontal relationships with friends and lovers.

Sure, being raised inside our societal Achieveatron (“the complex social machine that takes young children and molds them into Ivy League valedictorians”) is part of the problem. But Brooks’ theory is more subtle than the “Nerd gone wild” theory, and also more universal: It affects people who go “into one of those fields like law, medicine or politics, where a person’s identity is defined by career rank.”

Business belongs in Brooks list, especially entrepreneurship. Founders spend a lot of energy navigating the high-pressure social matrix of the startup industry, where (like it or not) “rank in the community” matters. So founders, like Brooks’ subjects …

develop the specific social skills that are useful on the climb up the greasy pole: the capacity to imply false intimacy; the ability to remember first names; the subtle skills of effective deference; the willingness to stand too close to other men while talking and touching them in a manly way.

Sound familiar? It’s called “working the room” — which Found|READ counsels you to do all the time!

…these people succeed and enjoy their success. When Bigness descends upon them, they dominate every room they enter and graciously share their company with those who are thrilled to meet them. They master the patois of globaloney — the ability to declaim for portentous minutes about the revolution in world affairs brought about by technological change/environmental degradation/the fundamental decline in moral values.

If you’ve ever attending a tech-networking event or conference where a successful founder is asked to stand up and speak, then you’ve no doubt experienced this.

But then, gradually, some cruel cosmic joke gets played on them. They realize in middle age that their grandeur is not enough and that they are lonely. The ordinariness of their intimate lives is made more painful by the exhilaration of their public success. If they were used to limits in public life, maybe it would be easier to accept the everydayness of middle-aged passion. But, of course, they are not.

And so the crisis comes.

And suddenly you have the new Eliot Spitzer.

It is necessary for your success as a founder that you become very good at transactional relationships, transactional politics, transactions (read: dealmaking) period. We all know this. We genuinely value such skills.

But do remember that life cannot be lived in transactional terms alone. This is what fosters the fragile sort of “Bigness” built upon a Rank Link Imbalance. And this definitely is not the sort of success or leadership we aspire to.

Anyway, I pulled some of his key thoughts, but read David Brooks’ whole piece. It’s very insightful.

6 Responses to “Dangers of the "Achievatron": How Success Fosters Bad Behavior”

  1. Around the time this came out, there was a piece on NPR which made the point that some of these guys spend so much of their emotional energy on maintaining the public persona that they want to escape from that. One might almost feel sorry for them (actually sometimes I do).

    It reminded me of some people who grow up under extremely thrifty (in their perception) circumstances, and feel they “have to” have nice things — with disastrous financial consequences upon them and their families. I sometimes feel sorry for these folks, too.

    In both cases, people feel trapped — whether they truly are or not is something I’ll leave to the philosophers — their problems are largely of their own making, but they feel/felt helpless to stop themselves.

    If you know me you know what I’m thinking, but here I’ll just say that Stephen “7 Habits” Covey and his ilk don’t have the solution; all they have is a “Do this, don’t do that.” They can tell you what to do (or not do) but can’t give you the power.

  2. Interesting theory and post Carleen! However, I am not sure I quite agree with the premise.

    Honestly, I don’t think that the demise of Elliot has anything to do with his success. As it turns out, lurking beneath every highly successful person is a human being, replete with all the highs and lows of humanity – the joys of sexuality and the sometimes-carnal pull of the underbelly. The only difference is: these people are on stage, so instead of the cops busting you and you going back to work the next day, you have to stand on a podium and resign in front of the world.

    This is not a double-standard. If you live at the podium, you die at the podium. And as an entrepreneur, you should know that your stage of honor may also be your stage of disgrace one day. Think about that before you call that escort again. :)

    In short, I just want to make the distinction that I don’t believe that success plays a factor into the biological pull that so overpowered Elliot and forced him into a serious of bad decisions. Rather, I believe this is the pull of being human, and Elliot just happens to be a guy we have heard of.

    The Feds could fill your inbox with stories about thousands of other men in this country — doing the same thing. The difference is just that that we haven’t heard of them. Therefore, I can’t quite accept the hypothesis that success played a role in his decisions.

    Keep up the great postings!

    Chris Lyman
    Fonality CEO & Janitor
    Janitor Blog: