Why an advantaged life can be a disadvantage for success


If life is thoroughly agreeable as it is, why should anyone lift a finger to change it? asks LUCY KELLAWAY

THERE IS a teenage boy I know who worries me quite a lot. He was born to a good family with plenty of money. He is extroverted and optimistic; people appear to like him. He’s relatively easy on the eye and reasonably bright.

His health is good and he can kick, hit and catch balls of various shapes and sizes. He does not smoke, or take drugs, or do any more binge drinking than the next person.

The problem with this boy is that he has never in his entire life made an effort at anything.

He has spent his first 16 years having a jolly nice time on the path of least resistance and even though he has often been told that the path of greater resistance is the one that leads to success and fulfilment, he takes no notice.

Why would anyone, he asks, slog their guts out to get an A, when for a tiny fraction of the effort they can get a B, which is surely the next best thing?

This teenager suffers from a syndrome that is increasingly common among boys who have been blessed by fortune. I have named it EHS, or Excess Happiness Syndrome, and its motto is CBA, a phrase never far from the lips of sufferers, which stands for “can’t be arsed”.

So far this syndrome has been ignored by experts who study performance.

Yet it’s so obvious: being truly happy is a serious handicap. If life is thoroughly agreeable as it is, why should anyone lift a finger to change it?

Last week, the Harvard academic Rosabeth Moss Kanter touched on this in a blog post entitled: Mark Zuckerberg and Misery as Motivation.

She argued that what gets entrepreneurs going are the painful flaws in their characters and in their circumstances.

Mr Zuckerberg, at least according to the film The Social Network, set up Facebook because he didn’t have any friends.

Even though the man himself says this is twaddle, I bet that if he had been the most popular guy at Harvard he would have said CBA to the idea of setting up a website.

Equally, Evan Williams, who has just moved aside as chief executive of Twitter, is supposed to be shy and slow to decide things, which may have drawn him to a business where communication is easy and instant.

There are lots of other examples among entrepreneurs. Alan Sugar would surely not have been boiling beetroot or flogging firewood as a schoolboy if there had been any money at home.

Richard Branson might not have been so keen to prove himself had he not been dyslexic and seen as a dunderhead.

It is not only true of entrepreneurs. The same applies to success in the corporate world, or success at anything at all.

I remember interviewing Gerry Robinson, corporate man turned television guru, who told me that he would never have got anywhere had it not been for his gnawing dissatisfaction with himself.

What made him unusual among CEOs was not that he felt this way, but that he admitted it.

This theory – that it is our unhappiness that drives us on – holds up splendidly in journalism.

If I think of colleagues who are not thriving, the problem is more often a shortage of neuroses than a shortage of talent.

All good journalists must ardently cling to that most destabilising of truths: you are only as good as your last story.

For columnists, even greater character flaws are required: to be any good you must have an insatiable appetite for approval that can only come from a secret fear that you are no damn good.

So if it is pain and misery that count, we need to rethink the sort of jobs people should do, the sort of people companies should hire.

To find the right career we should ignore the standard advice – do what you love – and identify the character flaw or source of misery.

Do what scratches the itch, is more like it.

Likewise, employers should look for the right weaknesses as much as the right strengths. And candidates faced with a selection panel should no longer feel that they must hide their chippy insecurity, but should flaunt it instead.

And what about the parents of the teenage boy?

They could always bankrupt themselves and inflict real hardship on the family, or start to beat or bully the boy.

Failing that, they can simply wait for the next generation.

Though research into EHS is not yet advanced, it’s my guess that the children of sufferers are unlikely to have the condition themselves. Growing up in a household without money or success, any offspring of this teenage boy will find that whatever the task, they definitely can be arsed. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010)