Does success inevitably breed failure?

When does the switch from aiming to succeed to aiming not to fail occur? Has any company ever avoided it?

NASA, Microsoft… and next up?  Apple?

Dan Ariely asks this question on his blog. Why did NASA go from the ambitious 1960’s to 1980’s era moon missions to the conservative, blame-finding, cover-your-arse culture of the space shuttle era? Why did Microsoft go from its dynamic, opportunistic creation of DOS and early Windows to the risk-averse juggernaut of today?

Is Apple doomed to a similar fate?  Or is this not a generalizable trend?

When is the moment of the switch? Can you tell when you are inside the company? Can we trace these switches back to a single moment or are they slow, gradual, sweeping changes that no single person or event can be isolated as the cause?

What about in a person’s life? Is there a moment where success inevitably breeds an attachment to the fruits of success?  Is there a moment where the desire to hold on to my wealth, my status, my invites to the important events is stronger than the desire to test new ideas, to innovate, to risk failures?

When a person starts out with nothing, there is nothing to lose.  You look at potential gains and losses more equally.

When you experience some success then you start caring about what you have and you don’t want to give it up, so there is a natural trend towards conservative behaviour.  In this process, you also give up some of the things that made the success happen.

What can I do to see when I am becoming too defensive again?

Bill Gates said “Success is a terrible teacher.  It tends to give the false lesson of ‘I deserve'”.  This tendency to fall into a belief that I get because I am extra deserving, not because of hard work and a little (or a lot) of luck results in the complacency that leads to the fall.  The greek used the word “Hubris” to capture the arrogance before the fall from grace.

Ritual Sacrifice of Attachments

Joseph Campbell explains a ritual that he participated in late in life.  He was to bring 7 objects to a meeting.  These 7 objects were to symbolically represent the 7 most important things in his life.  During the ritual, the group passed through a dark cave with 7 doorways.  At each doorway a guardian demanded that the person give up one of their 7 symbolic objects.  Joseph speaks of a sense of a tremendous peace coming over him as he gave up his 7th object, passed through the cave and realised that he was still the same person.  This ritual didn’t require him to give up the fruits of his success, but it did emotionally allow him to de-attach from these external elements of his life.

What rituals can allow a company to keep alive the positive behaviours of its youth even as it experiences greater degrees of popular success?  What rituals can allow a person to keep balance even as he has more and more to potentially lose?

Author: Conor Neill

Hi, I’m Conor Neill, an Entrepreneur and Teacher at IESE Business School. I speak about Moving People to Action.

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