Release yourself from the trap of success

Success can easily fence us in and suppress our humanity, but it doesn’t have to be so

September 2014 | By Gavin Sharpe


Success can easily fence us in and suppress our humanity, but it doesn’t have to be so

In January 2012, I walked away from the company I co-founded and ran for almost 10 years [Shilton Sharpe Quarry]. It was the UK’s most profitable recruitment company, according to Recruiter’s HOT 100. 

I didn’t just step off the corporate ladder — I jumped. I sold my entire stock back to the business. Only my name remains on the door. Why did I walk away at what was arguably the peak? What lessons, if any, have I learnt?

Close your eyes and define what it means to be successful. I guess most of us define success by material wealth. There is nothing wrong with that per se. However, when do we know we have acquired enough wealth or enough power? As John O’Neil argues in The Paradox of Success, wealth and power have meaning only in comparison to what others have: we must be more wealthy or more powerful than the next person. 

As with many ‘successful’ people, my self-worth and identity became inseparable from material success. That is the success trap. Getting out feels like self-annihilation. 

As a consequence, we unconsciously widen the gap between our real selves and the self that we project into the world. 

Success not only traps us but also draws out our darker side and/or pulls dark people in. Narcissists are attracted to leadership roles. They are addicted to power. There are almost definitely narcissists in managerial roles in your organisation. Typically grandiose, they seek to control everything and everyone to preserve their self-interests and self-image. They exaggerate their achievements, and put down anyone who might pierce the veil of their carefully constructed identity. 

I recognise some of myself in that. I think I could have been a better role model. My objective was to maximise revenue from each employee. It was not to support each employee to achieve his or her full potential, as it should have been.

In unconsciously micromanaging those closest to me, I was able to feel ‘more than’ them and they, inevitably, felt ‘less than’ me. 

To quote Gore Vidal, the mantra at play here was: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

What have I learnt? 

• Perhaps we need to widen our definition of success. We are more than the image we project into the world. 

• If our raison d’etre is only to maximise profits, we will probably suppress our humanity and that of our staff. Our culture will be oppressive. Employees will be suffocated, not liberated. Real power can be given away, not tightly held. Cloud cuckoo land? Think Google. Think Zappos. 

• We need to find and/or integrate our true selves into all aspects of our lives. If we split and become one person at work and another at home, there is a high probability it will affect our mental health. 

What might you gain if you step off the ladder for a while to reflect and be rejuvenated? 

I embraced a portfolio career. I joined the board of a fast-growing UK recruitment company. I am striving to be an authentic leader. I joined the board of a not-for-profit NGO. I qualified as a psychotherapist. We find more time for travel.

I am more aware today of my personal and corporate journey(s) and the need to have them aligned. Success need not trap us. But my experience is that it so easily can do so.

Gavin Sharpe co-founded international legal recruiter Shilton Sharpe Quarry

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