Several years ago, management consultant Dr. Gerald Kushel studied a representative sample of America’s top executives. He found that only a small group - just 4% - rated themselves “very satisfied” with both their personal and professional lives.
I doubt many people were surprised to find that genuine contentment is a rare commodity in corporate boardrooms. We’ve all known hard-driving businessmen (and businesswomen) who ended up frustrated and burned out, even if they met their professional and financial goals. The executive who sacrifices his personal life to meet his business objectives is almost a proverb.
Yet this 4% maintained a remarkable sense of balance in their lives. Kushel found that “in addition to success in the marketplace, they manage to have extremely pleasing private lives, enduring and satisfying relationships with friends and family, and enjoy many quiet pleasures alone.”
These executives had an uncanny knack for managing skillfully and delegating effectively. But a couple of important characteristics separated the 4% - the ones who were “very satisfied” with both their personal and professional lives - from the burned-out majority.
For starters, Kushel found that the 4% met none of these stereotypes:
- They take their work, the company and their career very seriously.
- They ruin their family lives with their preoccupation with work.
- They operate under great stress.
- They are weighed down with multiple problems.
- They are real infighters.
- They have a strong need to control others, including both their peers and their subordinates.
- They stick to their guns when they’re right.
It turns out that these qualities - which together represent a caricature of the harried business executive - were almost completely absent among those who were happiest with their lives both at home and at work.
Instead of seeing themselves as driven executives whose careers define their lives, Kushel discovered that the 4% have a sense of identity that goes far beyond their job description or even their family’s definition of who they are.
Instead, they define themselves on their own terms. They see themselves as more than any one role at home or at the office. In fact, their identities are more generally drawn more from their values, their principles, their interests or their philosophy of life.
It’s not unusual to find many artists, academics, 9-to-5’ers and assorted slackers with this point of view. But top executives?
Absolutely. One CEO of a national manufacturing company pled with Kushel, “Please don’t let anyone know. If the people back at my company found out how lightly I take my job, they’d feel very much let down. They enjoy thinking of me as a workaholic. So sometimes when things go wrong, I feign worry and upset. They love it. Sometimes I act angry just to get my people moving. Acting angry can be productive, but really being angry usually makes very little sense. Deep down, I never forget that there are many, many more important things in this world than making profits.”
Men and women with a heightened sense of self found it easier to achieve their objectives and accept occasional setbacks - even serious ones - with relative equanimity.
The 4% took responsibility for the circumstances in their lives. They virtually never saw their problems as the result of their spouses, their colleagues, their children, bad luck or “the breaks.” Rather they consistently went out of their way to place the responsibility for unhappy outcomes on their own shoulders.
Acknowledging that we are largely responsible for the circumstances in our lives creates the power to change them.
However, Kushel’s survey reveals that those who want nothing more than money, power and prestige are often frustrated by their inability to achieve it. Why? Because they want it so badly, he discovered, that they cramp their style, turn off potential allies and inadvertently undo their own efforts. Those who put money and status in perspective, on the other hand, often achieved material success with relative ease.
The 4% are onto something here.
Conventional wisdom says that to get everything you want, it’s often a matter of trying harder and “wanting it more.” Kushel found just the opposite: Success at home and at work is more likely the result of putting yourself and your objectives in perspective… and, ironically, wanting it less.