12 Sensible Ways to Realize Self-Responsibility

12 Sensible Ways to Realize Self-Responsibility

The French-American essayist Anais Nin (1903–77) wrote in her diary (from Diary of Anais Nin Vol. 5,) “We cannot always place responsibility outside of ourselves, on parents, nations, the world, society, race, religion. Long ago it was the gods. If we accepted a part of this responsibility we would simultaneously discover our strength.”

Self-responsibility is recognizing that you are responsible for your life—that you are the sole master of yourself. Responsible people take charge of themselves, their conduct, and the consequences. Here’s how to live self-responsibility and approach work and life proactively:

  1. Accept that no matter what happens, you’re not a victim. Never feel sorry for yourself or engage in self-pity. What’s important in life is not what happens to you but how you react to what happens to you.
  2. If something bad happens in your life, don’t let it define who you are. Don’t make it your excuse for not moving ahead. Don’t brood over it without end. Understand it, learn from it, and get on with life. Make it be a part of you without letting it being who you are.
  3. Don’t look back too often. Dwelling on the past deprives the present of its joy and prevents you from enjoying each day to the fullest. Open yourself up to today’s new opportunities. The ability to rebound quickly from failures and disappointments is one of the key differentiators between successful and unsuccessful people.
  4. Life is what you make of it. You are solely responsible for the choices in your life. You cannot blame others for the choices you have made. You alone are responsible for what you choose to think, feel, and act.
  5. Don’t engage in wishful thinking. Face reality and make the right choices based on that reality. Learn to play the hand you’ve been dealt. Anticipate and plan—the best time to change is when you want to, not when you have to.
  6. Be willing to let go of the life you’ve been hoping for. Challenge your beliefs about what you can and can’t do. Life the life that is waiting for you.
  7. Don’t operate life on the assumption that the world ought to be fair, just, and objective. You are neither entitled nor not entitled to good treatment. American comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said, “I tend to accept life as it is. … I’m not one of these ‘Life isn’t fair’ people. I tend to accept whatever the limits are, whatever the rules are.”
  8. You do not have as much control in life as you would like to have. You cannot influence or affect people and events. You have power over only your life and the choice of your attitudes and actions.
  9. Care less for what other people think. Listen to your friends and loved ones, but don’t become dependent on what they think of you.
  10. You are your best cheerleader. Surround yourself with kind people who love you and encourage you. However, do not depend on others to make you feel good about yourself. Protect and nurture your physical, mental, emotional, and social well-being.
  11. Take an honest inventory of your strengths, abilities, talents, virtues, and positive points. Pursuing your strengths is the key to becoming productive and happy. Identify the limits of your abilities and your time and say ‘no’ to things you know you can’t do well.
  12. When stuck, be grateful for everything that life has offered you. Turn your focus from something you don’t want to something you do want. Take a baby step forward—consistently acting in small ways toward your goals will give you a sense of possibility, power, and accomplishment.

Idea for Impact: Inefficacious People Can’t or Choose to Not Own Responsibility for the Choices They Make

In the words of the American martial artist Bruce Lee (1940–73) (from the essay “The Passionate State of Mind” in the compendium Bruce Lee: Artist of Life,) “We can see through others only when we see through ourselves. … There is a powerful craving in most of us to see ourselves as instruments in the hands of others and thus free ourselves from the responsibility for acts that are prompted by our own questionable inclinations and impulses.”

Take Responsibility for YourselfDespite everything you have to do in life to fulfill your obligations and discharge your responsibilities, anything and everything you do is your choice.

Notwithstanding pervasive external constraints and impositions, you are free to choose your action and carry out your ends.

You are the only one in control of your life. Take responsibility for yourself. This is a very powerful idea.

Lessons on Adversity from Charlie Munger: Be a Survivor, Not a Victim

Lessons on Adversity from Charlie Munger: Be a Survivor, Not a Victim

Munger: One of the Most Respected Business Thinkers in History

Berkshire Hathaway’s Vice-Chairman Charlie Munger (b. 1924) is a distinguished beacon of rationality, wisdom, and multi-disciplinary thinking. As Warren Buffett’s indispensable right-hand man, Munger has been a prominent behind-the-scenes intellectual who has created billions of shareholder wealth.

'Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger' by Peter Bevelin (ISBN 1578644283) The story of Charlie Munger’s life is an archetypal American Dream: a hardworking, principled young man overcomes life’s trials and tribulations, and builds a billion-dollar fortune through industry, diligence, candor, and an obsession with self-improvement. Munger is also a prominent philanthropist. He preferred to donate his money now rather than give it as a bequest with the intention of appreciating the results of his giving. After donating $110 million to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Munger said, “I’m soon going to be departed from all of my money, why not give more of it away while I get the fun of giving it?”

“Horrible Blows, Unfair Blows” on the Road to Success

Munger’s sharp mind, irreverent, outspoken outlook, and commonsense-thinking are legendary. For fans who flock to Omaha to witness him and Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting, the 92-year old Munger remains a cult figure.

At age 17, Munger attended the University of Michigan but dropped out to enlist in the military during World War II. After the war, he entered Harvard Law School without an undergraduate degree and graduated in 1948 with a J.D. magna cum laude. He started practicing law in Los Angeles, but gave up his practice at the urging of Warren Buffett to concentrate on managing investments and developing real estate. He never took a course in business, economics, or finance but became a billionaire. He ascribes most of his “worldly wisdom” to his zeal for self-improvement (identical to his idol Benjamin Franklin) and plenteous reading. He once said, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time—none, zero. … My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”

Even if Munger remains an inspiration for a life well lived, his life has not been entirely perfect. Consider some of the struggles he coped with on his pathway to success.

  • 'Damn Right - Charlie Munger' by Janet Lowe (ISBN 0471446912) At age 29, in 1954, Munger got divorced from his wife after eight years of marriage. Munger lost everything to his wife including his home in South Pasadena. According to Janet Lowe’s insightful biography Damn Right, Munger moved into “dreadful bachelor digs” at Pasadena’s University Club and drove an “awful” yellow Pontiac with a shoddy repaint job. That car made him “look as if he had not two pennies to say hello to each other.” When daughter Molly Munger probed, “Daddy, this car is just awful, a mess. Why do you drive it?” The impoverished Munger replied, “To discourage gold diggers.”
  • The financial pressure came at a testing time. A short time after the divorce, Munger’s 9-year old son Teddy was diagnosed with leukemia. At that time, cancer survival rates were insignificant and Munger had to pay for everything out-of-pocket because there was no health insurance. According to his friend Rick Guerin, Munger would visit the hospital when his son “was in bed and slowly dying, hold him for a while, then go out walking the streets of Pasadena crying.” Teddy died a year later in 1955.
  • Many years later, Munger had a horrific cataract surgery in his left eye that rendered him blind with pain so severe that he eventually had that eye removed. Recently, when doctors notified Munger that he had developed a condition that was causing his remaining eye to fill up with blood, he stood the risk of losing his vision in his other eye too. Being the obsessive reader that he is, the prospect of losing eyesight entirely made Munger comment, “Losing the ability to see would seem to be a prison sentence.” Undeterred, Munger was ready to brace himself for what life had to offer. He told a friend, “It’s time for me to learn braille” and started taking lessons. As luck would have it, the worrisome eye condition has since receded.

Charlie Munger on Confronting Adversity and Building Resilience

  • Adversity, hardship, and misfortune can cause people to conceive themselves as a victim of circumstances. Munger once remarked, “Whenever you think that some situation or some person is ruining your life, it’s actually you who are ruining your life. It’s such a simple idea. Feeling like a victim is a perfectly disastrous way to go through life. If you just take the attitude that however bad it is in anyway, it’s always your fault and you just fix it as best you can … I think that really works.”
  • People who choose to react as victims surrender themselves to feelings of being betrayed or taken advantage of. The resulting anger, repulsion, fear, guilt, and inadequacy are futile. Munger once said, “Generally speaking, envy, resentment, revenge, and self-pity are disastrous modes of thought; self-pity gets pretty close to paranoia, and paranoia is one of the very hardest things to reverse; you do not want to drift into self-pity.”
  • Feeling victimized and the ensuing negative thinking patterns are hard to break, but the recovery process encompasses disremembering and forgiving the past, regulating the flawed perspective of the routine ups and downs of life, and taking control and gaining power. In his 2007 commencement speech at University of Southern California’s Law School, Munger said, “Life will have terrible blows in it … horrible blows, unfair blows. And some people recover and others don’t. And there I think the attitude of Epictetus is the best. He said that every missed chance in life was an opportunity to behave well, every missed chance in life was an opportunity to learn something, and that your duty was not to be submerged in self-pity, but to utilize the terrible blow in constructive fashion. That is a very good idea.”
  • In a 2011 interview, CNN journalist Poppy Harlow asked if Munger felt betrayed by David Sokol, Buffett’s then heir-apparent who violated company standards during Berkshire Hathaway’s purchase of Lubrizol and was let go. Munger conceded that Sokol’s conduct left him sad, but not let down. “It’s not my nature … when you get little surprises as a result of human nature … to spend much time feeling betrayed. I always want to put my head down and adjust. I don’t allow myself to spend much time ever with any feelings of betrayal. If some flickering idea like that came to me, I’d get rid of it quickly. I don’t like any feeling of being victimized. I think that’s a counterproductive way to think as a human being. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.”

Playing a Victim is by No Means Beneficial or Adaptive

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) Even in the face of some of the worst misfortunes that could strike you, suffering the resentments and attempting to endure pain are far superior choices than getting absorbed in feeling victimized and powerless.

Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl described how his fellow captives in Nazi concentration camps survived by enduring their sufferings and refusing to give in to feeling victimized. Even when stripped of all their rights and possessions, they exercised their enduring freedom to choose their attitudes and harnessed this freedom to sustain their spirits.

In his inspiring Man’s Search for Meaning (which is one of Munger’s many recommended books,) Frankl wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. … Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Lessons on Adversity from Charlie Munger

Idea for Impact: Come what may, you’re not a victim. It is up to you to determine your response.

  • Don’t operate life on the assumption that the world ought to be fair, just, and objective. You are neither entitled nor unentitled to good treatment.
  • Recognize that you cannot control, influence, or affect in any way the inequities, injustices, discriminations, and biases that populate the world. You have power over only your life and the choice of your attitudes.
  • Never feel sorry for yourself or engage in self-pity. Don’t dwell on a “poor-me stance” and consider yourself unfortunate. Don’t become loath to taking responsibility for your actions and the consequences. Stop playing the victim by recognizing and challenging those negative voices in your head. As the Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, “Put from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged’, and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”
  • When life knocks you over, allow yourself a modest amount of grieving. Then, gather yourself back together, get up, dust yourself down, renegotiate your hopes and dreams, align yourself with reality, put yourself back in the saddle, and get on with life. The ability to rebound quickly from failures and disappointments is one of the key differentiators between successful and unsuccessful people.
  • What’s important in life is not what happens to you but how you react to what happens.

Learn from the Great Minds of the Past

Biographies let you to learn about the trials and tribulations in the lives of eminent people, the opportunities and the crises they faced, and the choices they made.

By providing a glimpse into their minds, biographies stimulate self-discovery by allowing you to find new ideas, methods, and mental models on your own through the stories of others.

Reading about the life experiences of someone from a different spatial, temporal, and thematic circumstance than your own can also help you see the world in new ways. This new perspective then allows you to appreciate their actions and accomplishments within the context, conventions, and limitations of their settings.

Idea for Impact: If you wish to succeed in your life, there is no better source of inspiration than in the lives of those who have changed our lives and our world for the better.

Charlie Munger on Reading Biographies and “Making Friends with the Eminent Dead”

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) Charlie Munger (b. 1924,) Berkshire Hathaway’s Vice-Chairman and a distinguished beacon of rationality, wisdom, and multi-disciplinary thinking, is a voracious reader and occupies himself with books on history, science, biography, and psychology.

From Poor Charlie’s Almanack, a compilation of Munger’s ideas and “latticework of mental models”,

In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time–none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads–and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.

I am a biography nut myself. And I think when you’re trying to teach the great concepts that work, it helps to tie them into the lives and personalities of the people who developed them. I think you learn economics better if you make Adam Smith your friend. That sounds funny, making friends among the eminent dead, but if you go through life making friends with the eminent dead who had the right ideas, I think it will work better in life and work better in education. It’s way better than just being given the basic concepts.

Seneca on Learning from the Great Minds of the Past

'On the Shortness of Life' by Senaca (ISBN 0143036327) From the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca’s 2,000-year-old discourse On the Shortness of Life: Life Is Long if You Know (trans. C.D.N. Costa,)

…if it is our wish, by greatness of mind, to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness, there is a great stretch of time through which we may roam. We may argue with Socrates, we may doubt with Carneades, find peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, exceed it with the Cynics. … We may fairly say that they alone are engaged in the true duties of life who shall wish to have Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus, and all the other high priests of liberal studies, and Aristotle and Theophrastus, as their most intimate friends every day. No one of these will be ‘not at home,’ no one of these will fail to have his visitor leave more happy and more devoted to himself than when he came, no one of these will allow anyone to leave him with empty hands; all mortals can meet with them by night or by day.

…No one of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die; no one of these will wear out your years, but each will add his own years to yours; conversations with no one of these will bring you peril, the friendship of none will endanger your life, the courting of none will tax your purse. From them you will take whatever you wish; it will be no fault of theirs if you do not draw the utmost that you can desire. What happiness, what a fair old age awaits him who has offered himself as a client to these! He will have friends from whom he may seek counsel on matters great and small, whom he may consult every day about himself, from whom he may hear truth without insult, praise without flattery, and after whose likeness he may fashion himself.

Seneca on Gaining Wisdom from the Distinguished

'Moral letters to Lucilius' by Seneca (ISBN 1536965537) On a related note, here is a passage from Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius (Latin orig. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium):

For this reason, give over hoping that you can skim, by means of epitomes, the wisdom of distinguished men. Look into their wisdom as a whole; study it as a whole. They are working out a plan and weaving together, line upon line, a masterpiece, from which nothing can be taken away without injury to the whole. Examine the separate parts, if you like, provided you examine them as parts of the man himself. She is not a beautiful woman whose ankle or arm is praised, but she whose general appearance makes you forget to admire her single attributes.

Leadership Lessons from the Spectacular Rise and Fall of Avon’s Andrea Jung / Book Summary of “Beauty Queen” by Deborrah Himsel

When companies do well, their CEOs are often heralded as outstanding visionaries and brilliant innovators. In particular, when macroeconomic conditions are favorable, these CEOs are sheltered from scrutiny because the spoils of their success deflect attention from their leadership shortcomings (see my previous article on how success often conceals wickedness.) When the tide turns, however, the leadership deficiencies are exposed for all to see. The CEOs are the first to get the blame, even if they may not merit it.

Deborrah Himsel’s Beauty Queen offers an insightful tale of the spectacular rise to the top and the tumultuous fall from grace of Andrea Jung. Beauty Queen divides Jung’s tenure as the CEO of cosmetics company Avon from 1999 to 2012 into two halves: Jung led six consecutive years of double-digit growth initially and then presided over a series of operational missteps that led to her resignation. Alas, Avon has never since recovered—its numerous restructuring efforts have failed, and its strategic and financial performance has severely deteriorated.

The Rise of Andrea Jung and Avon (1999–2005)

'Beauty Queen: Inside the Reign of Avon's Andrea Jung' by Deborrah Himsel (ISBN 113727882X) Promoted at age 41, Andrea Jung brought glamour, charm, and personal style to her CEO’s role. She quickly reshaped Avon’s image and articulated a powerful purpose for the company. She injected energy into a decaying cosmetics brand and pushed Avon into new profitable markets in China, Russia, and other countries. When Jung became CEO, 60% of Avon’s sales were in the United States; by 2011, only 17% of sales were in the United States and 70% were in developing markets.

Jung’s revival of Avon’s fortune catapulted her fame; she became one of America’s most recognized chief executives. Fortune magazine named her one of the most powerful women in the world. Jack Welch recruited her to General Electric’s board of directors.

Beauty Queen attributes this initial success not only to Jung’s inherent strengths in marketing and branding, but also to her right-hand person Susan Kropf. Kropf was a brilliant operations person, who balanced Jung’s acute lack of skills in running the day-to-day operations of a global company.

The Fall of Andrea Jung and Avon (2005–2012)

Avon’s sales started to slow down in 2005. And, Susan Kropf’s exit in 2006 corresponded with the dawn of Avon’s misfortunes. Andrea Jung never replaced Kropf; Avon was left without a chief operating officer.

As Avon started to struggle, Jung’s inadequate operations experience became a serious liability. A streak of self-inflicted problems resulted in strategic and operational disasters that took a huge financial toll and resulted in a flight of Avon’s top talent. Jung failed to deal effectively with failures of computer systems in Brazil, inadequate inventory and supply-chain management, poor management of working capital, and a staggering bribery scandal in China.

Jung’s lack of expertise to deliver results went up against her bold projections about the business’s future. Straying from Avon’s door-to-door direct selling roots, Jung experimented with a direct-selling channel, but quickly abandoned her strategy of running Avon retail stores. Her attempts to start baby-goods and other new product lines foundered after just two years. Avon’s many acquisitions failed; a silver jewelry company (Silpada) that Jung bought for $650 million had to be sold back to the original owners for $85 million.

Avon never recovered from the blunders that Andrea Jung presided over

Avon Beauty Products After Jung’s several turnaround efforts had failed to take hold, she resigned in 2011. Her replacement, former Johnson & Johnson executive Sheri McCoy, has since struggled to turn the company around.

The bribery scandal in China impaired Avon. In 2014, Avon settled the case with the Justice Department and the SEC for $135 million. To boot, Avon not only spent $350 million on legal fees, but also lost ground in the burgeoning cosmetics market in China.

Avon’s market value fell from $21 billion (1-Mar-2004) at the height of Jung’s success to $1.1 billion (15-Jan-2016). The company’s stock price fell from $44.33 to $2.50.

Lessons from Andrea Jung’s Leadership Style at Avon

Some of the most instructive leadership lessons from Beauty Queen are,

  • “Studying the trajectory of the Avon CEO is a great way to learn leadership. Andrea’s career … offers invaluable lessons about finding the right balance between substance and style.”
  • “Her story is a cautionary tale, one that suggests the critical importance of being aware of your weaknesses and how they can sabotage you.”
  • Leaders should know when to go. “If Andrea had departed in 2008, she would have left with her reputation and halo fully intact … CEOs that are successful early on often err on the side of staying too long.” [See my previous article on why leaders better quit while they’re ahead.]
  • Companies should pair up their leaders with deputies who have complementary skills to offset the Achilles’ heels of the leaders.

Recommendation: Skim through the first six chapters of Beauty Queen for an informative quick read on Andrea Jung’s rise and fall at Avon. Thumb through the next five chapters for an uninteresting discussion of broad leadership lessons and action lists in dry PowerPoint style.

Lessons from Sam Walton: Learning from Failure

Sam Walton (1918–1992) experienced failures and setbacks. And, like all successful people, the iconic founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club prided himself on learning from those experiences.

Lessons from Sam Walton's Autobiography: Learning from Failure

Walton’s Initial Success … and Then, in a Heartbeat, Failure

By 1950, a 32-year-old Sam Walton had established himself as a successful retailer in Newport, Arkansas. In 1945, Walton had purchased a Ben Franklin variety store and set up a five-year personal goal to make it the most profitable variety store in the region. By 1950, Walton had a record $250,000 in sales and $30,000 to $40,000 in profit (some $2.5 million in sales and $300,000 to $400,000 in profits in today’s dollars.) His success had attracted a lot of attention.

Not only that, the young Walton family—Sam, his wife Helen, and four young children—had firmly established itself in Newport. Sam and Helen were very active in the community and had taken up prominent civic and church duties.

An innocuous legal oversight cost him this success. When he had signed the lease on the property rental for his Ben Franklin variety store in 1945, thanks to inexperience and excitement at becoming a merchant, Walton had agreed to give back the landlord 5% of sales. He later discovered this was the highest any retailer had paid for rental.

More significantly, Walton had also neglected to add a clause in his lease that would give him the option to renew the lease after five years. Therefore, in 1950, when the lease on Walton’s Ben Franklin store expired, his sneaky landlord knew there was nowhere else in town for Walton to relocate his store. The landlord refused to renew Walton’s lease at any price! The landlord bought Walton’s well-established store along with its fixtures and inventory and transferred the store to his son. Walton was devastated; he had no choice but to give up his successful store. In his best-selling autobiography Made in America, Walton recalled this as the lowest point of his business life:

I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. It really was like a nightmare. I had built the best variety store in the whole region and worked hard in the community, done everything right, and now I was being kicked out of town. It didn’t seem fair. I blamed myself for ever getting suckered into such an awful lease, and I was furious at the landlord. Helen, just settling in with a brand-new family of four, was heartsick at the prospect of leaving Newport. But that’s what we were going to do.

Walton family: Sam Walton, his wife Helen Walton, and four young children

Sam Walton Was Not One to Dwell on Disasters

All the hard work he had put in to build a successful store and the earning power he had established over five years had become worthless because of an innocuous mistake. Nevertheless, Walton didn’t let this disaster get him down.

I’ve never been one to dwell on reverses, and I didn’t do so then. It’s just a corny saying that you can make a positive out of most any negative if you work at it hard enough. I’ve always thought of problems as challenges, and this one wasn’t any different. I don’t know if that experience changed me or not. I know I read my leases a lot more carefully after that, and may be I because a little wary of just how tough the world can be. Also, it may have been about then that I began encouraging our eldest boy—six-year-old Bob—to become a lawyer. But I didn’t dwell on my disappointment. The challenge at hand was simple enough to figure out. I had to pick myself up and get on with it, do it all over again, only even better this time.

This Newport experience turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Walton. His family relocated to the relatively obscure Bentonville, Arkansas, for a brand-new start. Walton started over and established himself as a retailer again—only in even bigger and better ways. In 1962, Walton decided that the future of retailing lay in discounting. His strategy of buying low, selling at a discount, and making up for low margins by moving vast amounts of inventory, made Walmart the most successful retailer ever. From 1985 until his death in 1992, he was the richest man in the world.

Successful People Learn from Failure and Get On

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) Walton’s was a typical entrepreneurial response to failure—successful people take risks, fail sometimes, but pick themselves up, ask what they can learn from the experience, and try again, even harder the next time.

On a related note, Bill Gates, the most successful entrepreneur of his generation, once said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Complement this lesson on failure with J.K. Rowling’s reflections on the benefits of failure in her famous 2008 commencement address at Harvard: “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me…The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.”

Success Conceals Wickedness

Biographies of Steve Jobs (by Walter Isaacson,) Jeff Bezos (by Brad Stone,) and Elon Musk (by Ashlee Vance)

Two common themes in the biographies of Steve Jobs (by Walter Isaacson,) Jeff Bezos (by Brad Stone,) and Elon Musk (by Ashley Vance) are these entrepreneurs’ extreme personalities and the costs of their extraordinary successes.

The world mostly regards Musk, Jobs, and Bezos as passionate, inspiring, visionary, and charismatic leaders who’ve transformed their industries. Yet their biographies paint a vivid picture of how ill-mannered these innovators are (or were, in the case of Jobs). They exercise ruthless control over every aspect of their companies’ products but have little tolerance for underperformers. They are extremely demanding of employees and unnecessarily demeaning to people who help them succeed.

  • Steve Jobs was renowned for his cranky, rude, spiteful, and controlling outlook. Biographer Isaacson recalls, “Nasty was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him.” Jobs famously drove his Mercedes around without a license and frequently parked in handicapped spots. For years, he denied paternity of his first daughter Lisa and forced her and her mother to live on welfare. He often threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way and publicly humiliated employees.
  • In a 2010 commencement address at Princeton, Jeff Bezos recalled his grandfather counseling, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.” Still, according to Brad Stone’s biography, Bezos often imparts insulting rebukes and criticisms to employees: “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?” “Are you lazy or just incompetent?” “Why are you wasting my life?” and “Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”
  • According to Ashlee Vance’s biography, when an executive assistant asked for a raise, Elon Musk asked her to take a two-week vacation while he contemplated her request. When the assistant returned from vacation, Musk fired her.

“Success covers a multitude of blunders”

The great Irish playwright Oscar Wilde once remarked, “No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.”

The other great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Success covers a multitude of blunders.”

British politician and historian Lord John Dalberg-Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which … the end learns to justify the means.”

Ethics Violations by NBC News Anchor Brian Williams

Ethics Violations by NBC News Anchor Brian Williams In 2015, NBC suspended prominent news anchor Brian Williams after internal investigations revealed no less than 11 instances where he either embellished facts or bent the truth. Members of his team and NBC staffers who knew about these ethics violations chose to overlook because he was powerful. According to The New York Times,

Mr. Williams has been drawing 9.3 million viewers a night, and his position seemed unassailable. Even as the stature of the nightly newscast faded in the face of real-time digital news, Mr. Williams was one of the most trusted names in America … He was powerful. Williams had the ear of NBC boss Steve Burke. He was a ratings powerhouse. And he spent years overseeing TV’s most watched newscast. He was a winner, for himself, those around him and those above him—until it became clear the man who is supposed be among the most trusted in America had issues with telling the truth.

Power Corrupts the Mind

Brilliant men and women engage in morally wrong conduct simply because they can. They can get away with extreme pride, temper, abuse, and other disruptive behaviors because their spectacular success can and does cover many of their sins, even in the eyes of those at the receiving end of their crudeness.

Our high-achieving culture adores the successful, the powerful, and the rich. And part of this adoration is the exemption we grant these celebrities from the ordinary rules of professional civility.

Idea for Impact: The more people possess power and the more successful they get, the more they focus on their own egocentric perspectives and ignore others’ interests.

Fear of Failure is an Obstacle to Growth

The fear of failure—atychiphobia—is such a significant psychological threat to motivation that it can instinctively cause you to sabotage your likelihood of success. If you fear failure and limit your activities, you are acutely impeding the knowledge and wisdom that comes from opening yourselves up to the new and the unfamiliar.

In “Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society”, John Gardner (1912–2002,) an activist and a member of Lyndon Johnson‘s cabinet, reminds us that openness to new experience is vital to learning and self-renewal:

'Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society' by John W. Gardner (ISBN 039331295X) One of the reasons why mature people are apt to learn less than young people is that they are willing to risk less. Learning is a risky business, and they do not like failure. … By middle age, most of us carry in our heads a tremendous catalogue of things we have no intention of trying again because we tried them once and failed. … We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure—all your life.

Don’t Aim at Success

To complement my recent articles on the futility of attachment to results and the need to focus on effort not on outcomes, here’s practical instruction from the highly-recommended “Man’s Search for Meaning”, the memoir of Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl:

'Man's Search For Meaning' by Viktor Frankl (ISBN 0671023373) Again and again I therefore admonish my students in Europe and America: Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.

Lessons from the Biography of Tesla’s Elon Musk

I recently finished reading Ashlee Vance’s riveting portrait of Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, CEO of SpaceX, chairman of SolarCity, and previously the founder of PayPal and other companies.

Musk has emerged as the foremost superstar/visionary-entrepreneur of Silicon Valley since Apple’s Steve Jobs passed away in 2011.

'Elon Musk' by Ashlee Vance (ISBN 0062301233) Vance’s biography reveals how Musk’s “willingness to tackle impossible things” has “turned him into a deity in Silicon Valley.”

Vance’s biography portrays Musk as an obsessively focused and a remarkably driven entrepreneur, but one who is almost unbearably difficult to work with. Musk is tirelessly demanding of employees, has low tolerance for underperformers, and does not like to share credit for successful ventures.

The book’s key takeaway is actually an admonitory lesson: Elon Musk may well be one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time—if your characterization of success is rather narrow. However, having an extreme personality and attaining great success come at the cost of many other things. In his drive to win, Musk sacrifices friends, business associates, and even his family to get what he wants. The story of Elon Musk exemplifies what happens when an overachieving leader regards individuals as tools and attaches more importance to his projects than to his people.

Complement Ashlee Vance’s “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” with biographies of two other entrepreneur-visionaries with aggressively competitive personalities: Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” and Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store” Like Elon Musk, both Jobs and Bezos are reputed for their personal influence on every aspect of Apple and Amazon’s products and services. They are described as being demanding and demeaning to people who helped them realize their visionary aspirations.