Secret to Success: Go for “Just Enough”

Being the very best in your chosen field is, paradoxically, a matter of accepting your limitations. A book excerpt by Harvard Business School’s Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson.
by Laura Nash & Howard Stevenson

"Success has always been an American preoccupation, but the definition of success takes on a new urgency today, when every conventional measure of success seems to have a faster burn rate than ever before," say Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson. The HBS faculty members decode the moving target of success in their new book Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life (Wiley, 2004). After conducting hundreds of interviews with high achievers, they developed a framework for thinking about integrating four spheres of life: happiness, achievement, significance, and legacy. Here is an excerpt from the chapter, "The Dangers of Going for the Max."

One of the most ironic aspects of the fiftieth anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary's scaling of Mt. Everest was how ephemeral the standards of climbing success turned out to be. As the world observed Hillary's lasting mark fifty years after the event, the statistics that marked extreme achievement on Everest were blown away as new records for the oldest, most often, and fastest climbs were logged in over a one-week period.

Excelsior! It's an exhilarating standard, to be sure, whether the score is the highest mountain in the world or how many zeros you tally up in your portfolio. New levels of human performance take us closer to the gods and set the stage for what we hope is excellence in our own DNA.

These moments also make good copy. Rocketing success markers that are already fueled by marvelous heights of new achievement are further escalated by the glamorized treatment they receive in today's media-centric world. The elements of celebrity—spectacle, "bests," charisma, and any form of novelty from the latest in consumption to a sexy new organizational culture—have vaulted popular ideas of success over the top. You may be immune to the grosser forms of celebration—how many really believed Dennis Koslowski's financial excesses at Tyco were a sign of good business leadership?—but culture is a strong shaper of worldview. These patterns are leaving a deep footprint on the ground assumptions people and businesses bring to success.

'Best' [is] an essentially limitless standard.

We are so hyped up on the eternal "higher" that we are tempted to believe that that's all there is. We can think we have to be (or appear to be) the almighty to be anything at all. One thirty-nine-year-old fellow we interviewed cashed out his start-up software business for a cool $19 million in 1999 and felt ashamed to tell his peers he hadn't made more! When records break at such earth-shattering speed, being all we can be doesn't just get tougher, achieving multiple desires becomes impossible. If we value achievement and adopt celebrity standards, we will certainly fall victim to our own excess. Nothing will be enough, and success will never satisfy. If we're high achievers, we may be plagued with self-doubt, feeling that we've never done quite enough.

When Reaching for the Stars, Why Think About Limits?

To achieve multifaceted, lasting success in a world of moving targets, it is not enough to soberly reject celebrity as the only leadership style. You have to understand the baseline assumptions behind celebrity, and how deeply they undermine the way you might measure and plan your choices around success. In addition to the moral difficulties that are posed by celebrity's narcissism and materialism, there are seeds of self-destruction in the celebrity approach to high achievement. Many people and organizations under appreciate this problem and hence bring a self-defeating paradigm to their pursuit of success. They assume they have to anchor their aspirations on some celebrated form of the "best," an essentially limitless standard, to meet even a minimal standard of success. And yet they seek many ends in life.

You cannot maximize two things if they are tradeoffs, by the very definition of maximizing. Unless you see the fallacy of this approach and are sensitive to how many cultural and economic reinforcements are making it seem inevitable, you make yourself all the more vulnerable to the moving targets phenomenon. You are unprepared to find the satisfaction of "just enough."

It's a classic dilemma. The ancient Greeks pondered the same question at the height of Athens' artistic and political strength in the Periclean Age of the fifth century B.C.E. The tragedian Sophocles, in his famous "Ode on Man" in the [play] Antigone, marveled at humankind's resourcefulness and success: The chorus notes that without gills, man has devised ways to travel on the sea. He has invented speech, and plows for the earth. With these accomplishments he secures good things such as food, shelter, the rule of cities, and complicated forms of reasoning. But, argues the wise chorus, "from death alone he still cannot escape . . . Limitation is built in to the human condition. You need to bend to higher laws."

Limits? Tell that to today's college graduates, more in debt than ever before and with the prospect of sudden wealth still a recent possibility if they can just be the next genius. Limits are about failure, about being inadequate as a contender. Even if your goals are not necessarily about record-breaking, today's shoot-the-lights-out standard of success seems totally plausible. And for many, all this feels totally out of control. We're not just referring to the ousted CEOs who are contending for the highest S/E ratio (severance package/earnings losses during their tenure). In 1965, Intel's Gordon E. Moore astounded the world by asserting that the number of transistors on a silicon chip would double annually. Although he had to refine that prediction downward to every eighteen months or so, his words received celebrity status and came to be called Moore's Law. Drawing on Moore's Law, technological innovation and billionaire wealth took on an obsessive pace in the go-go years of the 1990s, and not just among the Silicon Valley dot-comers. This seemed to be everybody's idea of success.

A Nation Rethinks Success

After the market crash in 2000, there was talk that Moore's Law had reached its theoretical limits and perhaps the pace of innovation needed reining in. Then came September 11 and a new spirit of self-examination caused many to ask whether they were making all they could of their lives. Author Po Bronson struck a newly exposed nerve with the book What Should I Do with My Life? His message is about a good life measured by peace and fulfillment rather than scale alone. For some, these trends have led to a new questioning of extreme consumption, a dissatisfaction with being overworked. And yet these intimations of other targets are constantly being cannibalized by new celebrity treatments of the desire for "simple living."

You have to be prepared to question the sure success even when it seems to be about simpler values. Like the upper-middle-class living room featured in sitcoms, many depictions of a simple life today cost more than you might think. Our collective fixation on "the best" and what the best means is an open invitation to be deceived by the latest success fairy tale. Today's featured record-breaker is often tomorrow's letdown.

It's easy to feel stupid when you compare yourself to the celebrity successes.

And we're not just talking about all those millionaires doing the perp walk—like Martha Stewart, Bernie Ebbers, Sam Waksal, and Dennis Koslowski. It's also true for some of the most admired in business. Here's a familiar success pattern that should give pause, but instead seems to shed all possibility of providing "sticky" lessons: After a meteoric rise in his company's earnings during the boom, a captain of industry caps his reign as a celebrity CEO with a guru book of success lessons. Almost before the ink dries, the same CEO is mired in notoriety, a celebrity failure as it were. The reasons trace back to fundamental imbalances in the mix of beneficial or self-serving aspects of his lifestyle and perk package. Some people feel tricked as the details of all this glam are revealed to have been funded at the company's expense. Others shrug it off. After all, he got the job done for the shareholders. Why shouldn't he get his reward? Surely it is more than possible that the fabulously performing winners are really just ordinary decent people who got lucky.

However you might admire his achievements, would you really want to be the total celebrity CEO or just the parts about wealth and winning? Is there a single model out there that can make these distinctions for you, to which you can securely hitch your star? Is there any more effective motivator than the Absolute Best?

The Best Is Not Necessarily the Highest Score

For many people trying to piece together the best parts of the best performances they see out there, success has mutated into a series of irresolvable contradictions. Needs for achievement, ethics, family life, connection to others, and faithfulness to yourself seem doomed to vie in a terminal contest for your exclusive attention. It's easy to feel stupid when you compare yourself to the celebrity successes, easy to feel inadequate if you don't command great wealth, or your family doesn't resemble the Brady Bunch. It is hard to understand how other people find the time. And yet these models also raise doubts. You may wonder whether it is ever possible for a Bill Gates to be a "regular guy" at his scale of wealth and power. Can families survive the effort to grow this far this fast? Are business schools right in buying into a method of scoring the game that threatens to reduce their diversity of intellectual and social capital? All for the sake of a best list ranking? Are these really the right signposts on the road to a success that endures?

In its addiction to "best," today's culture trivializes or ignores the age-old human struggle between striving toward that which brings us ever closer to godlike power and voluntarily accepting limits. Then, once in a while, we are offered the gift of reexamining our measures of success in light of a more nuanced and meaningful standard.

In the same week that Everest was being littered with trash by one group while another band of hikers was organizing to pick it up, a different kind of record was being broken. Golfer Annika Sorenstam had beaten out forty other players—all men—in the opening round of the men's PGA tournament at Colonial Country Club. Ultimately, she didn't make the final cut, but her victory as a woman competing successfully in a male tournament carried so much interest and credibility the conventional measures of golfing success—winning the PGA—were suddenly called into question.

Since Sorenstam didn't win, what measure would capture the sense of success that the public and this athlete clearly felt? There were many scores out there: David Owen of the New York Times summarized her success in terms of beating out forty of her competitors, which "turned the men's C-minus into an F."2 She beat the Las Vegas oddsmakers over-under by eight shots. She won on the publicity scale: Blasted by media attention that would have undone many a new player, she emerged from the relative obscurity of women's golf to dominate public attention. She herself had another standard: to see how much better she could go by competing with better players. In her eyes, she'd achieved success, even if she didn't win the final prize. Far from being demotivated by the recognition that she'd hit a limit, Sorenstam seemed to find satisfaction in knowing that limit was still an amazing stretch for her and women's golf as a whole. She had achieved just enough for now. Instead of defeat, she got energy.

Maximization Does Not Work as a Measure of Success

What is the right measure of success in your eyes? What is it for your company or school? Is being really successful inevitably a matter of being the best, highest, youngest, richest, smartest, and prettiest on every scale you know—that is, celebrity winner-take-all? Such standards are maximized forms of accomplishment. Simply put, maximization is any form of going for the extreme—genius intelligence, superhuman effort, the best house, the unique lifestyle, and the most profit possible. Pick up any magazine and you can find a glamorized message of "making it" that assumes not only extreme performance but maximized reward: great wealth, drop dead attractiveness, all the attention, and possible omnipotence.

What is the right measure of success in your eyes?

Maximized measures begin to start counting success at the limits, only after you've gone further than most other people. This leaves individuals and organizations facing a very large territory of failure and a very small sweet spot in which they can actually feel they've won. And the spot changes with each new competitive achievement—moving targets. No wonder we're stressed out. Maximized versions of success are more than superficial presentations. They have the power to co-opt our innermost standards of expectation, however insecure they may make us.

Undoubtedly, goals calibrated to maximization have the power to inspire. "Be all that you can be" sounds more like a virtue than a vice. "Go further than humankind has ever gone." Who would argue the opposite as a rule for success? But even if you are drawn to the positive aspects of maximization as your standard, most people's sense of success demands high scores in many differing categories. Sometimes these goals contradict each other: Wealth and best friends who love you for yourself, not your money. A generous nature and being in the top position. Leading a team and being able to do everything your way. Not to mention being best at every activity of your life, from tennis to cooking to managing your portfolio.

For this kind of mix, maximization will not work as an operating paradigm. How can you maximize four things? Can you really base your idea of success on super-effort times four? Would you want to? Before you anchor your ambitions on the outer limits, think of the Roman and British empires. Rome continually pushed its borders in a political philosophy of limitless power—only to discover it had to build a wall to keep the invaders out before it could really build and protect its roads. The British set up a legal and bureaucratic system in each of its colonial territories, but the idea of limitless exploitation became the empire's undoing.

If life were lived in a fixed time frame, where success was measured only in the instant you hit the peak, maximized measures would work. But the only fixed time frame we know for sure is death. Everything else is subject to moving targets. If you wish to live with a continually renewing sense of success that really seems worthwhile and lasting on all your success targets, you have to give up the standards of maximization.