Happiness & the GorillaApril 20, 2018
Everyone needs to feel relevant, to have a stage where they hear applause. For me it’s been work and school. The last several years, L2 has been my identity, as it required my full attention, and I was the man in charge. I grew as a manager, gaining reward from watching others lead and later manage me. It’s been exceptionally gratifying. Since selling, however, I learn about decisions, like everyone else, via email. It’s still a nice place to work (smart, good people), but teaching has re-emerged as a focus and where I register the most gratification.
This semester, 170 second-year MBAs, whose backgrounds range from IT consultants from Delhi to Marines from Athens, GA, are enrolled in BrandStrat_Galloway_S17. I enjoy teaching and relate to the kids — was in their shoes what feels like a short time ago. Yesterday even. The second year in the MBA program is a unique place — the kids have incredible professional trajectory, while at the same time they’re a bit lost. Most people who come to business school are elite (smart, hard working, achievers) but aimless. If you were certain what you wanted to do, you wouldn’t be back in b-school. They are being shot out of a cannon with crude aim. I’ve taught more than 6,200 students. I see them everywhere when speaking at conferences or meeting with firms. Alums approach me and are warm, gracious, and show real affection for me and the school. It’s wonderful.
We often veer from the course topic, brand strategy. What I’m most comfortable discussing is … life strategies. We spend more and more time in class trying to construct the algebra of a life well lived. Other than an obsession with maximizing the breaths my family and I take, I have no academic credibility or credentials that indicate I should counsel people on how to live their lives.
Like that’s going to stop me.
Below are images I drew on the board Tuesday night and tried to unpack to 170 of our best and brightest twentysomethings all looking to better themselves.
The Arc of Happiness
Childhood, your teen and college years are the stuff of Han Solo, beer, unprotected sex, and self-discovery with friends. All of us trying to find our way, spilling into adulthood … Magic. From your mid-twenties to your mid-forties, shit gets real — work, stress, and the realization that, despite what your teachers and your mom told you, you likely won’t be a senator or have a fragrance named after you. The stress of building the life you’ve been told you deserve, and are capable of, takes a toll. Also, somebody you love gets sick and dies, and the harshness of life comes into full view.
Then, in your 50s (earlier if you’re soulful) you begin to register all the wonderful blessings that are everywhere. I mean, everywhere. Beautiful beings that look and smell like you (children). Water that turns into waves you can ride and other wonders of nature. The ability to deliver some sort of sweat or intelligence that people will pay you for, that you can then support your family with. The chance to travel across the surface of the atmosphere at the near speed of sound so you can see amazing things extraordinary people built. And when tragedy strikes, many times the tragedy is beaten back by our best ideas: science. You recognize your time here is limited, start smelling the roses, and begin affording yourself the happiness you deserve.
So, if in adulthood you find you’re stressed, even unhappy at times, recognize this is a normal part of the journey and just keep on keepin’ on, as happiness is waiting for you.
Sweating vs. Watching Others Sweat
The ratio of time you spend sweating to watching others sweat is a forward-looking indicator of your success. Show me a guy who watches ESPN every night, spends all day Sunday watching football, and doesn’t work out, and I’ll show you a future of anger and failed relationships. Show me someone who sweats every day, and spends as much time at events as watching them on TV, and I’ll show you someone who is good at life.
Myth of Balance
We all know somebody who’s successful, in great shape, plays in a band, is close with their parents, volunteers at the ASPCA, and has a food blog. Assume you’re not that person. If you want to be economically in the top 10%, much less 1%, you should plan on spending 10–20 years working … and not much else.
I have a lot of balance now, in large part because I had almost none in my twenties and thirties. There’s no user manual here, and it’s a tradeoff. My lack of balance, while affording me more balance later in life, came at a very real cost.
Work, Partner, Friends
All are important and are the pillars of happiness. However, one stands out. Most students devote their greatest efforts to shaping their work lives, and this makes sense (see above: the myth of balance). However, the most important decision you’ll make is not where you work, but who you choose to partner with the rest of your life. A spouse who is not only someone you care for and want to have sex with, but is also a good partner, softens the rough edges and magnifies the shine of life. I have several friends with impressive careers, wonderful friends, and a spouse they love. But they aren’t happy, as their spouse isn’t their partner. They are out of sync on their goals and approach to life. Misalignment on what’s important and a lack of appreciation for the other makes everything … harder. My friends with less economic success, and less time with friends, but a real partner to share their struggles and successes with are tangibly happier.
Passion, Values, Money
The best marriage partnerships I know of are synced up on three things. They are physically attracted to each other. Sex and affection establish your relationship as singular and say “I choose you” nonverbally. Good sex is 10% of a relationship, but bad sex is 90% of a relationship. However, this is where most young people end their diligence. You also need to ensure you align on values like religion, how many kids you want, approach to raising kids, proximity to parents, sacrifices for economic success, and who handles which responsibilities that make a life. Money is an especially important one for alignment, as the number one source of marital acrimony is financial stress. Does the other’s approach to, contribution, and expectations about money flowing in and out of the household foot to yours?
$ = Zip + Credentials
We have a caste system in the US: higher education. Economic growth is increasingly clustering around a handful of supercities. This is the peanut butter and chocolate of economic velocity. Tell me your degree (level and institution) and zip code, and I can estimate, with decent accuracy, how much money you’ll make over the next decade. Advice here is simple. While young, get credentialed and get to a city. Both get difficult, if not impossible, as you get older. There will always be great stories about Steve Jobs, Jay-Z, and other college dropouts. Assume you’re not that person.
Money Can Buy Happiness
There is a correlation, and money can buy happiness, to a point. Once you reach a certain level of economic security, the correlation flattens. More money won’t make you less happy either (also a myth). I made the mistake of spending all my time, for most of my life, trying to figure out how to make more money, instead of taking pause and asking what makes me happy. So, yes, work your ass off and get some semblance of economic stability. But take notes on the things that give you joy and satisfaction, and start investing in those things. I found writing only several years ago, and it’s now one of the most rewarding parts of my life. Writing is my therapy. This shit banging around in my head finds an escape route. It’s a chance to immortalize how much I love my kids, miss my mom, and love Chipotle. Writing has reconnected me with people I care about and introduced me to new interesting people. I hope, after I’m gone, my kids will read this stuff and feel they know me better. I wish I’d started 30 years ago.
Einstein is credited with saying compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. The notion of putting money away is most important to the cohort that least understand it, young people, as long-term is not a concept they’ve grasped. Many talented young people assume they’re so awesome that they’ll make a shit-ton of money. OK, maybe … but just in case it doesn’t rain benjamins, start putting away money, early and often. Don’t think of it as money working, think of it as magic. Put $1K into a magic box, and when you’re ready for it, in 40 years, presto … it’s $10–25K. If you could have this magic box, how much would you put in it?
Most of us understand how compound interest works with money, but don’t recognize its power in other parts of our lives. The app 1 Second Everyday reminds you to take a second of video each day. A small nuisance/investment every day. At the end of the year, I sit down with my kids and watch the six minutes that was our year. We watch it over and over, guessing where I was, laughing when they see themselves, remembering what a great time we had at Harry Potter World.
Nothing matches the mother-child bond. It’s not just instinct, but the small investments in you she made, every day from the beginning. This can be applied to all relationships: take a ton of pictures, text your friends stupid things, check in with old friends as often as possible, express admiration to coworkers, and every day tell as many people as you can you love them. The payoff is small, and then immense.
Feeling masculine is hugely rewarding (note: I realize how strange that sounds, and that I can’t really speak to the rewards of femininity). My inner Tarzan swings on vines, and I’m happy. The vines have changed. As a younger man, I felt masculine by impressing my friends, having sex with strange women, and being ripped. As I’ve gotten older, other vines have emerged. Being a loving and responsible head of household who provides for my family makes me feel “strong like bull,” as does being relevant, in the classroom or at work.
Male monkeys have higher ranks and more mating success if they have more social bonds, rather than being bigger or stronger. Increasingly, being a good citizen makes me feel like beating my chest. Stuff I never thought about when I was younger — being a good neighbor, respecting institutions, remembering where you came from, helping people you will never meet, taking an interest in a child that isn’t yours, and voting. Coming to grips with your shortcomings and making an effort to repair your deficits. In sum, being a man, and not a boy in a man’s body. Masculinity now means relevance, citizenship, and being a loving dad.
Equity = Wealth
It’s difficult to get to economic security via salary, as you will naturally raise or lower your lifestyle to match what you make. As soon as possible, buy property, stocks, and try to find a job that has forced savings through a retirement plan or, better yet, options on the firm’s equity. Always be in the stock market, as you aren’t smart enough to time it. Try not to have more than one-third in any one asset class when you’re younger than 40, and then 15% when you are older than 40.
The definition of “rich” is passive income that’s greater than your burn. My dad and his wife receive about $50K/year from dividends, pension, and Social Security, and spend $40K/year. They are rich. I have a number of friends who earn between $1M and $3M, and with several children in Manhattan private schools, an ex-wife, a home in the Hamptons, and lifestyle fitting of a master of the universe, they spend most, if not all of it. They are poor. By the time you’re 30, you should have a feel for what your burn is. Young people are 100% focused on their earnings. Adults also focus on their burn.
The Harvard Grant Study was the largest study on happiness, tracking 300 19-year-old men for 75 years and looking at what factors made them less or more happy. The presence of one thing in a man’s life predicted unhappiness better than any other factor: alcohol. It led to failed marriages, careers coming off the tracks, and bad health.
When I was just out of college, living in NYC and working at Morgan Stanley, I’d go out every night and get shitty drunk at a very cool place with, what appeared to be, other successful people. It felt natural. I’m a better version of myself drunk. Sober, I’m intense and a bit boring. Drunk, I’m funny and optimistic. Also, I found it near-impossible for me to meet women unless I was fucked up (see above: swinging on vines). During the week, I found myself, in the middle of workday, looking for empty conference rooms so I could nurse my hangover via a 60-minute nap under the table. Mornings were about Diet Cokes and greasy food so I could get to the afternoon where, for about an hour, I felt human again and would inevitably agree to meet a bunch of my friends from Salomon and some models at The Tunnel or Limelight, where we’d order $1,200 worth of vodka, and fun Scott would show up.
Not going to class nor learning much at UCLA made me a mediocre banker. However, alcohol made me a mediocre person. I’m lucky I don’t have a physical addiction (I think), and when I moved to the West Coast, I didn’t miss the sauce. Ask yourself, post-college, are substances getting in the way of your relationships, professional trajectory, or life. If yes, address it.
Lion > Car
Studies show people overestimate the amount of happiness things will bring them, and underestimate the long-term positive effect of experiences. Be strong and exciting; don’t rely on status symbols to convey your power. Invest in experiences over things. Drive a Hyundai, and take your wife to St Barths.
Good Death and ROI
Other than my kids, the thing I am most proud of is giving my mom a good death. I spent eight months living with my mom in the Del Webb’s Active Adult Community in Summerlin, Nevada. During the day, I’d manage my mom’s healthcare and watch Frasier and Jeopardy with her. At night, I’d venture to the Strip and get drunk with entrepreneurs who were starting cigar bars and restaurants, and strippers. It was a strange but rewarding time in my life. The instinctive rewards from nurturing people at the beginning of life — the joy of children — are well documented. However, providing comfort for someone you love at the end of their life is also deeply satisfying. If you’re in a position, and many aren’t, to make a loved one’s exit more graceful, you’ll cherish it the rest of your life.
On a balanced scorecard, the happiest people are those in a monogamous relationship who have children. I didn’t want to get married or have children, and still don’t believe you need children be happy. I can say, however, that being a decent dad and raising kids with someone I love and who’s competent has for the first time begun to address the question we all struggle with: Why am I here?
Success = Resilience / Failure
Everyone experiences failure and tragedy. You will get fired, lose people you love, and likely have periods of economic stress. The key to success is the ability to mourn, and then move on. I’ve had a marriage fail, had businesses I started go bankrupt, and lost the only person who (at that point) I knew loved me, my mom … all before 40. But blessed with a great education, good friends, some talent, and the best zip code in the world (USA), for me these were obstacles not barriers.
Nothing is ever as bad or as good as it seems. Market dynamics trump individual performance, so your successes and failures aren’t entirely your fault. The number-one piece of advice seniors would give to their younger selves is they wished they’d been less hard on themselves. Our competitive instincts lead to us to anchor off the most successful people we know, and be disappointed when the person in the mirror doesn’t match those achievements. One of the keys to a healthy relationship is forgiveness, as you, and your partner, will at some point screw up. Your limited time here mandates you hold yourself accountable. But also be ready to forgive yourself, so you can get on with the important business of life.
As an atheist, I believe this is it. That when near the end, I’ll look into my kids’ eyes and know our relationship is coming to an end. And that’s ok, as it motivates me. A recognition of the finite nature of life is a blessing, as it focuses you on loving, forgiving, and finding the Gorilla.
Life is so rich,
Robert Fulgham for the college crowd. Important stuff nicely said.
Probably the most useful life advice I’ve read online. Thank you
Scott, this is a great piece for reflection and meditation about life. I love it. There is so much truth behind. In my 49 now, I can tell that time is our not so hidden, yet misunderstood and most denied enemy. For me it is key that we learn very early in life to accept change, obstacles and even failure as part of the game and as opportunities to learn. Thanks for sharing your wonderful work!
What a breath of fresh air to read. I take some reassurance in knowing there are others who are interested in common sense way to go about the journey of life. Thanks for putting this out there Scott.
If the bible was converted to suit our life in 2020… amazing life tips n’ tricks that I strive to live by 😉
Words to live by indeed