The Paradox of Success

October 6, 2010
4 min read

Painting in broad brush strokes, I will generalise and say that humans are wired to seek out success. The rat race inspires us to strive for the corner office, the latest model car, the smart and good looking partner, the 7 digit bonus, the flight in seat 2A. The hypothesis I’d like to test is:

“Winning at work means losing at life.”

Each day we’re elbow to elbow jostling to get ahead of the guy next to you. But if you surveyed a cross section of the South African workforce, I’m quite sure you’re sure to find some pretty unhappy people. And I’m guessing that this could be for two major reasons – they’re either unhappy in their job, but have bills to pay and the Jones’s to keep up with. Or, they could be successful, but be disheartened by the paradox that is interconnected with being “successful.”

To really earn your pound of flesh in a work environment, to lead a business ahead of it’s competitors, and ultimately stand out as a “success” in the stereotypical sense, you’ve got to be sacrificing something.  This could be the balance in your life, leading you to walk down the road of being a workaholic. You could be letting life pass you by, as you doggedly commit yourself entirely to research and delivery. Performance realised by your peers and seniors drives further responsibility, leading to more demands on you and your time, and raising the bar at even your own game.  People now expect you to constantly succeed – a new pressure.  So where does that leave the rat race? Working ten to twelve hour days for the year, and then taking their pale skins, dark eyes and new Range Rover Sport off to Trouteng or the Western Cape for their 20 days of leave? Sounds a little sad.

My take on it? I guess with a little bit of guilt in the department of over working and letting life slide past, I’m of the opinion that the perceived success factors of society do not lend themselves to leading a balanced and happy life. Life, as I’ve recently been clearly reminded of, is short, and it is precious. It can literally change entirely in 24 hours. So is it worth spending entirely focussed on one particular aspect?

Helping others less fortunate than me is something that gets me very excited. I would be comfortable to say that for the money I’ve earned in my life, that which has been best spent is on others. But helping a community doesn’t feature high on society’s list of ways to be successful, does it? Or would you feel in perfect balance if you drove your Aston Martin into Diepsloot and go and teach maths to a class of Grade 10 learners?  The more I think about the topic the more intricate and difficult it becomes…

So where I’m at is trying to figure out a new balance for my own life. Where work and mental challenge is important, but so is everything else we’re able to enjoy during our time on earth. I do think that those blessed with an ability to think bigger owe it to society to really contribute to human knowledge and drive upliftment.  But I don’t want to miss out on friends, family and seeing and experiencing the pleasures, fears and amazing sights of nature and human creation.
So the three ways I’m looking at “achieving success” are through these main areas:

  1. Align my goals to my passions, where work is fun. To my mind, it’s a good thing to get up and enjoy what you do every work day.
  2. Cultivating charismatic optimism, ultimately looking on the bright side of life. I’ve only ever really seen optimists get better results because they remain passionately focused on finding solutions in the face of appalling odds.  People who are full of excuses normally end up fat and grumpy.
  3. I want to keep learning, keeping an inquiring mind and getting a better understanding of the world around me.

So I might not subscribe to the stereotypical success measurables. But if I think I’m successful – then hell – I’m successful. Who cares what everyone else thinks.

I’ll keep you posted on progress. But I’d love to hear how you keep balance in your life.



nice post Murray.

my thoughts:
1. work-life balance is mythology. If you can achieve this, you are a nine-to-fiver. not necessarily bad, but you will never be remarkable at work (by no means the be all, of course)

2. I also take umbrage at these “new age” pop psychologists who have framed this as too much work is bad. why? if you get the right job, you will work with the best people – colleagues and clients. you will have the intellectual and creative stimulation you just cant get in a bikram yoga class… work is good and we should shed the pejorative connotations it carries. Rebuke the life-balance-nazis I say

2. i subscribe to the Noel Coward mantra: “work is more fun than fun”. It is why I have always chosen the contrarion, seemingly more risky career options (from Morgan Stanley to IS to now Quirk). Because they were more fun. Safe is boring. it is essential to have fun and be inspired about what you do. if you get this, then “work-life” balance is moot

Notwithstanding the above, there are times when you can have too much of anything, fun included. but dont mistake that for “balance”.


This is a really good post Murray and I agree with you. However from my experience I think everyone has their personal wake-up call to reach this realization. I think the idea of balance is sometimes misconstrued, because like Justin I agree balance is not abt the 9-5. For me it’s about doing what you love with the people you love and work stops feeling like work 🙂 Life is too short to be working, …however I think it takes a personal sacrifice to find the “official work” that will give you what you looking for. I believe this will be the reason why, we will find more and more millennials job hopping in the future.


DrM. You should take a look at this book: “The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work” – by Shawn Achor. His hypothesis is that it is not success that drives happiness (and results in the rat race) but rather the other way around. Happy people are more successful because they see potential more readily, they experience more beneficial interactions which leads to more beneficial interactions which leads …(an upward spiral), and they are frankly just nicer to be around. So the definition of success may still be the money, house, car, and the horse but you are more likely to beat the Jones’ at getting them if you “cultivate charismatic optimism”. (1c)
Then of course there is the fleeting happiness of pleasure, the perceived happiness of owning stuff and having options, and the very real happiness of doing things well and even better doing them well for other people. It seems that this third type is in fact what we are wired for but we never seem to get past the first two. (1c)
[Sum = 2c]

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