Where do you want to be in 10 years’ time? Do you want to be a managing director at a ‘top tier’ bank, bringing home million dollar bonuses? If so, making this your explicit aim may not be the best way of achieving it.
For many of the most successful business leaders, the explicit aim is not making money: the thrill lies in the job itself. Bill Gates was driven by passion for computers, Sam Walton wanted to create a great business, Warren Buffett is simply in love with the process of investment. Even the egregious Donald Trump begins his autobiography, ‘Trump: The Art of the Deal,’ with, ‘I don’t do it for the money. I’ve got enough, much more money than I’ll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form.’
What applies on an individual level applies equally at the organisational level. As banks like Lehman, Bear Stearns found out to their detriment, a corporate culture that extols greed is, in the end, unable to protect itself against its own employees. Nor does the business with such a culture attract much sympathy when things go wrong.
The direct pursuit of wealth and success may not only backfire. Happiness is not best achieved by its pursuit.
The psychologist Daniel Nettle suggests there are three broad senses of the term happiness. The lowest – the basic level – comprises momentary feelings that make us happy – the joy of sex, the pleasure of a beautiful sunset. The intermediate level is typically a state of mind rather than a physical response, a sense of satisfaction and well-being. The higher, and ultimate level, is akin to Aristotle’s ‘eudaimonia’ – a measure of quality of life, of flourishing, of fulfilling one’s potential.
That vague but nonetheless meaningful concept is what most of us aim for in our lives and careers. The pursuit of a bigger bonus or a better job title, are intermediate objectives. They are not ends in themselves. That is why there are so many unhappy millionaires, and business leaders who learn, too late, that they have sacrificed personal satisfaction for the sake of their careers.
If you set out simply to attain a specific job title, or a substantial bonus, you are ignoring the fact that the environment isn’t fixed. The modern investment bank did not exist thirty years ago: will it exist thirty years from now?
Real success is about taking pleasure in the process. It is about admitting that there are environmental factors beyond our control. And it is about accepting that some goals are in fact subsidiary achievements, resulting from a job well done.
If you want to be a top tier MD earning millions, you are therefore better off focusing on doing as well as you can in your next trade or your next deal, on doing your best for your client. It is this, rather than explicitly looking for money and status, that will bring you fulfilment in the long term.
John Kay is a journalist, author and academic. He has also written a book on the virtues of obliquity.