Significance: A Philosophic Take on What Creates Happiness
You may have a great career, be happily married and healthy but still feel that something vital is missing. Here's what that something is and how to find it.
Last fall, I attended a gathering of entrepreneurs, artists, intellectuals, scholars and other movers and shakers from the United States and Canada. The gathering was private if not top secret, and I’m not at liberty to say who was hosting it or who was there. (I attended not because of my own moving or shaking, but through the largesse of a friend who works in national politics.) The attendee list was intriguing in its diversity—a variety consisting not so much of class or race, but of occupation. At each meal, fashion models would break bread with politicos, and Oscar-nominated filmmakers would share coffee with quantum physicists. Multimillionaires would chat with social justice pioneers who live among the extreme poor, and scribblers like me would talk to technologists who are shaping the future of media and business.
What held this disparate group together? Two things: Nearly everyone in attendance had achieved some measure of success—often a staggering measure—and each adhered to a common faith. Outsiders looking in would not have seen the gathering as religious in nature—I didn’t see a Bible all weekend or hear much prayer—but if they listened to enough conversations, they would have realized that everyone seemed to have arrived with a certain warning in mind, one delivered by a certain itinerant Middle Eastern prophet 2,000 years ago: What good is it to gain the whole world and lose your soul?
That’s what motivated this discreet gathering—the danger of soul forfeiture. All of these high-flying folks had gone out into the world and made stuff—music, films, clothing lines, businesses, ads, schools and in several cases, gobs of money. Most of them weren’t done making stuff, but they were far enough along to realize that unless their stuff served some greater purpose, it was just, well, stuff.
As we gathered in groups, I found that the liveliest conversations were the ones filled with practical ideas for serving and saving the world. From ambitious plans to provide clean water to developing nations to home grown small businesses that encouraged the rich to buy from the poor, these folks were creating world-changing mechanisms. They were determined to spend their lives doing lots and lots of good. Some of them regarded their careers as side projects. I learned that asking, “What do you do?” would ensure robotic responses, while asking, “What do you want to do for the world?” inspired precise, energetic discourse about the significant work being done on behalf of people and places in need.
I’d never experienced anything quite like it—a collection of people with enviable careers and incomes who got together to talk about how to avoid achieving everything you want in life only to realize that you have nothing you need. Success Without Soul—that was their primary fear, and the reason they were dreaming up powerful and practical ideas for renewing the world.
Success Without Soul is a common condition. An entire tabloid entertainment industry depends on it—from Charlie Sheen to Tiger Woods, Americans are familiar with characters who self-destruct, at least for a season, on the other side of fame and glory. And the problem is not unique to our era. The most notorious court case of the 19th century was the adultery trial of Henry Ward Beecher, a celebrity preacher in New York City who risked everything for a dalliance with a friend’s wife. Americans have always been captivated with the scandals of the successful.
But at the gathering I attended last fall, I saw how our culture is rethinking success. We are not questioning the basic pursuit of success—dreaming of a better future will remain a core American instinct—but we are asking anew what success is for. How can we be successful in ways that do no harm to ourselves or others? How can we make our success matter not just for us and our families, but for the world?
Since Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Inc., died in October 2011, much of the conversation about his legacy has concentrated on how his products reshaped commerce and culture. But commentators have also focused to a surprising degree on the quality of his personal life and character, which were viewed dimly in Walter Isaacson’s authoritative biography published in the wake of Jobs’ death. Jobs authorized the biography in part so his kids could get to know him—Apple’s success had so entirely consumed Jobs’ life that he needed a writer to introduce himself to his children.
Eric Karjaluoto, the prominent designer and founder of the digital agency smashLAB, has written that the Jobs biography inspired him to stop working evenings and weekends: “I admire Steve for the mountains he climbed. At the same time, I wonder if he missed the whole point, becoming the John Henry of our time. He won the race, but at what cost?” (John Henry, in case you don’t know, was a 19th century railroad steel-driver whose strength was legendary. He and his crew broke through miles of rock during construction of American railways. The story has it that when the railroad company introduced a steam-powered hammer, Henry challenged it to a race. He won, but then died on the spot with his hammer in his hand.)
People like Karjaluoto are not attempting simply to reduce their workload. They’re trying to avoid Success Without Soul.
In recent years, many of the nation’s largest sports radio hosts—Mike Greenberg of ESPN, Jim Rome of Clear Channel—have begun to leave room in their interviews with top athletes for the players to pitch their causes. Legendary quarterback and CBS football analyst Boomer Esiason may take to the airwaves to chat about the NFL season, but he’s also determined to use his clout to encourage fans to support his foundation that fights cystic fibrosis. He wants his success to translate into something significant for the world outside football.
Other celebrities and high-wealth individuals are finding ways to make their success soulful away from the limelight. Justin Mayo is the founder of Red Eye Inc., a nonprofit that connects cultural creatives with opportunities to serve others. When most nonprofits look at successful culture makers—actors, musicians, dancers and artists of all kind—they see money and a platform. They see the funds required to make a mission work, and they see a big, popular, public platform they can climb onto to spread their own message.
While much good may come from relationships between celebrities and nonprofits, Mayo’s model is different. First, he likes to befriend successful individuals, especially young, up-and-coming creatives, with no motive beyond friendship. If these individuals express a desire to give of their wealth or time, Mayo offers what he calls “private humanitarian settings”—he helps them find ways to give that don’t attract public attention to their giving. Mayo’s clients don’t serve his pet causes, and they aren’t celebrated for their generosity. The giving is an end in itself. That kind of giving, says Mayo, seems to heal these givers—to show them that they have a profound role to play in a world with limitless need.
Mayo says he grew up with a sharp sense of how isolating success can be because of his surname—he hails from the Mayos of Mayo Clinic fame. “People who never talked to me would suddenly act as if we were friends when we were at an event where my mom was speaking,” he recalls. People were affectionate toward him because they wanted access to the Mayos, not to Justin. He says that gave him a sliver of insight into what it must be like for people of notoriety, especially successful culture creators and families of influence.
Red Eye started in Hollywood but now has chapters in New York City, London, Paris and Sydney. When I spoke with Mayo, he was at John F. Kennedy Airport waiting for a flight to Saudi Arabia, where he would speak at an event hosted by a Saudi Arabian princess. The week before, he had attended a series of meetings in Washington, D.C., followed by 30 hours in Los Angeles—just long enough to host Skid Row Karaoke, a benefit where models, musicians and actors spent part of their weekend with the homeless, and to throw a big Super Bowl party. That combination of events captures the scattershot benevolence at the heart of the Red Eye mission—it requires sleeplessness on the part of Mayo and his team (thus “red eye”), and it combines posh, cozy social events with unusual humanitarian efforts.
For Mayo, the key to soulful success is being outwardly focused. He is skeptical of today’s spirituality and self-help practices that focus only on finding inner peace and self-renewal. “We believe that you won’t be truly happy until you’re living for something greater than yourself,” he says.
Of course, the threat of soulless success is not unique to the very famous or very young and talented. Brian Lockhart, the founder and chief investment officer at Colorado-based Peak Capital Management, manages financial portfolios for hundreds of high-wealth individuals. He works with people who are beyond what he calls “the accumulation phase” and are looking to protect and grow their wealth.
Lockhart says that his clients often run into the same problem: “People who succeed tend to be exceptional at some niche,” he says. “But once they’ve met that challenge and they transition from trying to be the best to defending what they’ve earned, they experience a lot of frustration.” Successful people are often well-built for identifying and embracing a challenge in the marketplace, but less prepared for how to handle life once the challenge has been met. And the crisis they experience is not simply emotional or psychological, but physical.
“Early in retirement,” says Lockhart, “many people get diagnosed with problems they’ve never had before. When people are finished with something that gave them significance, we see physiologically a deterioration in health that occurs almost immediately.”
Lockhart believes the secret to a healthy retirement is to find significance outside of whatever it is that has made you successful. He cites the example of Thomas Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza. In 1960, Monaghan and his brother, James, bought a tiny pizza joint named DomiNick’s for $500, most of it borrowed. James soon left the business behind, leaving Thomas as the sole owner. Monaghan opened his first franchise in 1967, and over the next decade, experienced rapid growth. The chain had 200 stores in 1978, and soon began to expand into Canada and beyond. By the mid-1990s, Domino’s was a worldwide pizza brand, and Thomas Monaghan was one of the wealthiest men alive.
Monaghan eventually sold his company to Bain Capital for $1 billion. By then, however, he had long been focused on giving away his fortune. Years earlier, he had lived the life of a self-made king—he owned a Gulfstream, a helicopter and a renowned collection of Frank Lloyd Wright furniture in addition to being principal owner of the Detroit Tigers. In the early 1990s, Monaghan read an essay by C.S. Lewis on the problem of pride and was inspired to give away his possessions.
Monaghan has been seen as a polarizing philanthropist because he has spent much of his fortune on conservative Catholic causes, but he has also donated much of his wealth to the poor in Central and South America. In 2010, he joined The Giving Pledge, a charity drive by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to inspire American billionaires to give away the majority of their wealth.
Lockhart sees Monaghan as a model of how to transition from success to significance. “His transition was easy because he found significance in what he was trying to do to help people in Latin America. The key to making that transition is to find something,” says Lockhart, that can help you avoid Success Without Soul.
So how do you find that something? Just as Monaghan had his conscience pricked by C.S. Lewis and Red Eye’s friends find inspiration in Justin Mayo, you may need to find someone to help you discover your path to significance within success. The private gathering I attended last fall is an event that grew from a group of friends who got together once a year to ask each other hard questions about the purpose of their lives. Your friends, if they know you well, may already know what you need to do.
If you don’t have a soul-saving companion close at hand, try some simple experiments—call your local food pantry or soup kitchen and ask what their most pressing need is, or read the daily paper for a couple of weeks with an eye toward local, national and global crises that need your help. And most importantly, listen to yourself. Chances are if you think about it for a few minutes, you’ll find that you already know how to avoid soulless success. You just need to say “yes” to that nudge that’s been inside you all along.
With that “yes,” you just may experience the happiness you always knew was on the other side of success.