I read The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World a few months ago and what struck me most about his story was not Edison’s unbelievable accomplishments and inventions, but the stories that paint him as a really bad person.
By all accounts, he could be a terrible in the way he treated his wife, family, and employees.
I’ve noticed a similar theme for some of history’s other great business minds as well. They often succeed despite the way they treat other people (or maybe because of it).
Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar, described what it was like to work with Steve Jobs in his book Creativity, Inc:
Pixar could not have survived without Steve, but more than once in those years, I wasn’t sure if we’d survive with him. Steve could be brilliant and inspirational, capable of diving deeply and intelligently into any problem we faced. But he could also be impossible: dismissive, condescending, threatening, even bullying. Perhaps of most concern, from a management standpoint, was the fact that he exhibited so little empathy. At that point in his life, he was simply unable to put himself in other people’s shoes, and his sense of humor was nonexistent.
These things aren’t always black and white but reading these types of stories makes you realize hero worship can be taken too far.
This theme came up again when reading Who is Michael Ovitz?, the biography about the founder of CAA, likely the most dominant talent agency in the entertainment business. It’s incredible how much Ovitz and his company shaped the movie business in the 1980s and 1990s in terms of who they represented (basically every big name actor and director) and the deals they made.
By his own admission, Ovitz was ruthless in business and the relationships he cultivated. When someone asked Robert De Niro, “Why don’t you leave Ovitz? He’s such a tough asshole,” De Niro replied, “Yeah, by he’s my tough asshole.”
Ovitz mentions numerous times in the book how his work ethic cost him time with his family. This passage stuck out to me:
In 1979, when I was thirty-three, Ted Ashley at Warner Bros. took me aside and said, “I’m going to give you some great advice.” He grinned ruefully. “And, knowing you, you’re not going to take it. But here it is: I could have worked ten percent less, and it wouldn’t have made a difference in my professional success. But I would have been a lot happier.”
Ted was absolutely right on both counts—it was great advice, and I didn’t take it. I see now that I could have worked as much as 20 percent less, and it wouldn’t have cost me. If I’d worked even 10 percent less, across thirty years, that’s three whole extra years of life I’d have enjoyed.
The problem for type-A personality people is they probably can’t dial it back 10%-20% because their hard-charging nature is what got them where they are in the first place.
Maybe the biggest takeaway from reading about uber-successful people is no one has it all figured out. Balance in all aspects of your life is probably something people will always be shooting for but even the most successful people on the planet could never dream of solving that equation.
Ovitz represented and was friends with the late Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park and many other books and movies.1 Ovitz shared a passage from one of the essays Crichton wrote:
If you want to be happy, forget yourself. Forget all of it—how you look, how you feel, how your career is going. Just drop the whole subject of you…People dedicated to something other than themselves—helping family and friends, or a political cause, or others less fortunate than they—are the happiest people in the world.
The people who have this mindset will likely never go down in the history books as the most successful minds in business. But it seems to me those who go about their lives with this mindset will be far more successful in finding happiness and contentment.
Avoiding a Single Point of Failure
Now here’s what I’ve been reading this week:
- The gnarly truth about the content business (Rad Reads)
- Envy, jealousy and the messy middle (Abnormal Returns)
- How to write better (Jason Zweig)
- 4 lessons from Leonardo da Vinci (Dollars and Data)
- Why America thrives (David Perrell)
- How painful have recent stock market losses been? (Humble Dollar)
- Lessons from the insane boom and bust in crypto (Reformed Broker)
- Is a recession coming? (Atlantic)
1I honestly had no clue Crichton was the creator of ER, which was an enormous hit show on NBC that launched the career of George Clooney.