Don’t get spoiled by success

You have more to learn


Throughout your career, you work hard to learn, grow and establish a track record of success.  If you are fortunate, you encounter hardship and setbacks along the way.  These keep you real.

If you are observant and smart, you realize that today’s accolade loses some of its sparkle overnight. Success doesn’t camp out. It keeps moving, seeking new members for its roster.

If you are not particularly observant, you may fall prey to the seductive side of success that can spoil you rotten. It happens when you start believing every word in congratulatory letters and positive stories written about you while ignoring viewpoints that do not align with your own. When you spend more time gazing at evidence of your brilliance than sharpening and applying your expertise, you may be in trouble.

If you also begin to associate exclusively with people who think like you do, applaud your talent and hand you awards, beware. Your world can become dangerously small and your once bright eyes and open mind can grow dull. One day, you may find you have crossed an invisible line that separates growth and building from protecting what you have already achieved.

Hardships and setbacks are unavoidable when you actively seek to learn and grow.  Inevitably, you will encounter others who started in different places, have experienced a different journey from yours and, consequently, hold a different point of view. Great minds are sharpened when they grate against others. That’s how our thinking gets polished. It is not always a pleasant process, but it is always a refining and broadening one. Learn to endure it. Better yet, learn to leverage it.

Success that spoils you, by contrast, is an insidious process that starts with nothing but upside. You work hard to build credibility, associate with people who are as hardworking as you are, and create a community of success. The slide toward the dark side begins when you establish boundaries to protect this community. At first, these boundaries are mental. You begin to reject external ideas, along with the people who offer them. You privately judge others as uneducated or uninformed. You take comfort and pride in your accomplishments as proof that your way of thinking is superior.

The current political environment is a case study in this regard, though admittedly extreme.  When Donald Trump cannonballed into the political establishment’s hot tub, all hell broke loose. The high-minded thinkers, writers and operatives squealed in outrage and continue to sniff in disgust at this unprincipled and undisciplined outsider; this intruder who clearly has no respect for their hard-earned prowess and achievements. He knows who they are, he just doesn’t care.

Their prose, once so carefully measured, blew up. Harsh judgment, crass vocabulary and even profanity stripped bare the veneer of social piety, revealing a host of people spoiled by the closed circles they built over a period of years.

Their steadfast refusal to see and accept a world different from the one they know and live so comfortably within creates profound intellectual and emotional dislocation. It threatens their comfort, creates danger for their routines, and challenges the foundation upon which their self-identity stands. No wonder they strike back.

The point here is that success can weave a cocoon of self-celebration and smugness that blinds a person. The instinctive desire to protect the cocoon supplants the spirit of discovery and risk-taking that generated success in the first place.

Perhaps this is a natural progression from precocious protégé to seasoned expert, but I hope not. The most compelling people are those who remain humble in success, hungry for learning, and intrigued – even entertained – when the world shifts abruptly. When yesterday’s success dims with the light of a new dawn, they welcome a chance to learn anew, even from people who don’t live in their world and can’t possibly know what they know. They realize the reverse is true, as well.

Keep learning. Welcome challenge. Don’t be afraid to change your point of view. Do refuse to shrink, and protect what has brought you success so far. And as author Richard Bach wrote: “Remember where you came from.”

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Susan Marshall is an author, speaker, and Founder of Backbone Institute, LLC, whose mission is to create a stronger, more confident future one person or team at a time. Her work over nearly 30 years with leaders in public and private sector industry, non-profit agencies, and public education is dedicated to building strong leaders who in turn create successful organizations, transform school systems, and develop leaders at all levels.

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