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HBS: Success 1, Happiness 0?

A few days ago, I went through the most frightening survey: out of 100 executives, only five say they are happy and fulfilled. I thought to myself, “that would be only four of my sectionmates, just as many as can fit in the center wormdeck!” I always wished I had one of those seats…
But why would we, successful HBS students, have statistically so few chances to live fulfilling lives?

Paradoxically, the main reason why we may be so susceptible to successful failures may well be the very basis of our HBS acceptance: our expertise in understanding, adopting and mastering external value systems. As children, we learned that if we shaved the cat and brought home bad grades, mommy would be very sad. So we got good grades and spared Felix.
Later, our social environment likely provided ready-to-use metrics-money, reputation, status, you name it-which we happily embraced as our definition of success. Eventually this led us to HBS, “the next logical step of a pretty successful path.” Great outcome! So, what’s wrong with that?

Well, nothing, except that it is likely that we became addicted to those very metrics that helped us reach our early successes. In that case we could end up basing our most important decisions on irrelevant values, therefore not doing the things that really matter to us…which is exactly what happened to the surveyed executives! As Robin Williams says in “What Dreams May Come”: sometimes when we win, we lose.

And indeed, how many of us are clear on our career goals, on the jobs we would like, and the reasons behind those choices? Do we want that I-banking job because it is socially cool to have money, or because this is really our passion, our dream job, what we would do even if we had enough wealth to retire now? What are we really following: our inner passions or some external lure?

The bad news is that using the wrong set of decision criteria is exactly what psychologists, psychiatrists, and eastern religious leaders warn us against. The reason is that unhappiness (and mental illness) usually results from the divergence between our internal universe and the external world, from the tensions between what we want and what we have, between who we are and who we think we should be. Everyone with the nostalgia of the other lives they could have chosen, or of the things they desire and do not have, can probably understand that.

The good news is that those thinkers also suggest a solution: self-understanding. But this is where it gets difficult, because most of us are lazy. I realize that writing this word in The Harbus is probably as provocative as asking Jack Welch about the merits of the European Union. After all, this place is full of bright and driven Type A over-achievers. How could we be anything but dedicated and hardworking?

It is true that all our lives, we have been actively doing plenty of things right, like good management of our careers. But did we ever spend the time to define the right things to do, as true leaders of our lives? Probably not. In the end, how many personal choices, painful decisions, or real sacrifices did we make? Probably very few.

Don’t get me wrong… it made full sense to delay the process of our self-understanding. It is an uncertain and painful struggle that could not compare with the short-term benefits of adopting others’ definitions of success. But now, at this very moment where we build the basis of our life-long career and personal successes, it may be worthwhile to spend some time defining our true objectives in life.

But what are the right things to do? I don’t know the answer, but I can suggest a process: Just ask ourselves. HBS is a wonderful place, full of resources, from the Baker Library to the Career Vision Workshop, from our classmates to the Career Teams. But we can only find the answer if we dare to ask the question and spend some “unproductive” time looking for it. After all, it always comes back to this ancient Greek wisdom, carved on Delphi’s Temple as an advice to those who wanted to master their future: “Know Thyself.”

The job market is difficult. It seems that most of us will not land our dream jobs. Well, we know all that-or maybe not. Understanding what our dream job is, or better, what our dream life is, can help us refine our search, discover new doors, and focus our energy and time on only those fights that we truly want to win. After all, there is no reason why, as lucky as we are to be here, we could not become happy and fulfilled individuals, just as we will be successful leaders. At least that’s what I wish for all of us.

December 10, 2001
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