The Catastrophe of Success

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Andreas Kluth for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Something odd and interesting happens to a lot of people who become very successful. Once the initial thrill wears off, they come to perceive their success as “a catastrophe” and even as “a kind of death,” as the playwright Tennessee Williams famously put it, after The Glass Menagerie became a smash hit in 1944. Athletes, scientists, generals, entrepreneurs, executives, performers, and politicians have expressed this paradox in different words. Paul Samuelson, an economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1970, later concluded that, “After winners receive the award and adulation, they wither away into vainglorious sterility.”

Understanding this bizarre inversion, or perversion, of success is one of the things that I set out to do in my book, Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure, inspired by a famous line in a Rudyard Kipling poem: “Meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two Impostors just the same.”

The idea that disaster, or failure, can be an impostor is in some ways more intuitive. In places such as Silicon Valley, it has become almost fashionable to fail fast, early, and often — in a sense, to fail into success and call it innovation. Even in our wider society, a lot of people are discovering that their personal disasters paradoxically liberated them to start anew, to live the life they actually wanted but needed an excuse to start living.

The other impostor — triumph, or success — can be the more sinister and cunning of the pair. Success adjusts its weapon to its victim. Some people succumb to hubris, the arrogant overconfidence that often follows success (think Tiger Woods or Eliot Spitzer). Others fall prey to less spectacular but more insidious manifestations of the impostor, such as distraction or paranoia.

But perhaps the subtlest ruse of success, and the one I will focus on in this post, is its way of imprisoning its owner. Specifically, it seems to be the successful person’s imagination that is taken captive.

Success often comes from a feat of freedom by somebody’s “impudent” imagination (Albert Einstein’s word). Consider Pablo Picasso circa 1907. How did this young man (in his twenties) have the outrageous idea to draw a group of prostitutes in a brothel as though their faces were primitive African masks and their limbs disembodied cubes? Nothing of the sort had ever been done before. It was a leap of the imagination, a shocking transgression, an idea that required his imagination to burst out of all restrictions. And then it became a painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which was Picasso’s triumph.

Or take a similar feat of free imagination in a military context. In 218 BCE, the Carthaginian general Hannibal decided to attack the Roman empire. Hannibal was also in his twenties, and he too had an outrageous idea. He would invade Italy by marching a huge army, including war elephants, through Spain and France and then across the uncharted and terrifying Alps in the snow of winter. This was considered physically impossible. Reasonable people, such as the Romans, did not “allow” it as a strategy, and thus did not plan for it. But that’s what Hannibal did. And then, in Italy, he routed and slaughtered the much larger Roman armies three times, killing about a quarter of Italian men in the process.

In the field of physics, Albert Einstein is an example of this intellectual freedom. “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” he said. And what sorts of things did he imagine? All sorts of silly things, including what it would be like to ride alongside a beam of light at the same speed, how elevators would accelerate through space and how painters would fall downward through them, or how blind beetles would crawl on curved benches. This is the mental state whence, in the miracle year of 1905 (when he, too, was in his late twenties), sprang the series of short papers that changed forever how we think about time, space, light, energy and the universe.

But the question is what happens next to these triumphant heroes. What is it like to be successful, what is the equivalent of what Tennessee Williams called a “storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills”?

Often, nothing much happens at first. Many successful people do not crash and burn. In Hannibal’s case, he stayed in Italy for sixteen years in total, undefeated the entire time. Well into his middle age, he was still considered invincible. Nor, however, was he able to produce more triumphs to build on his early ones to achieve the end toward which his successes were supposed to be means, that end being the defeat of Rome. As we know today (just by looking around at the Roman columns on our government buildings), Rome would eventually win this war.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Andreas Kluth has been writing for The Economist since 1997. He is currently the magazine’s U.S. West Coast correspondent, covering politics, society, and economy in California and the western states. A dual citizen of Germany and America, Kluth is a graduate of Williams College and the London School of Economics.


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