New York Times pundit David Brooks recently expressed in 800 words a message I have spent the last 15 years trying to communicate to senior business leaders and ambitious young people around the world. The title of Brooks's column was "It's Not About You," and he wrote it as a rebuttal to commencement-season addresses that urge young people to follow their passion, pursue their dreams, and, above all, do what makes them happy. "This is the litany of expressive individualism," Brooks warns, and "this mantra misleads on nearly every front."
Truth be told, the column makes him sound like a bit of a curmudgeon, the skunk at balloon-filled graduation parties celebrating the sense of possibility and the spirit of freedom that defines life for young people who have come of age in a world of instant communications, global connectivity, and dotcom millionaires. But I'm with Brooks and his words of warning against the cult of self-fulfillment. The more executives, entrepreneurs, and talented individuals I get to know, the more convinced I become that true happiness, a genuine sense of satisfaction, comes, as Brooks suggests, not from "finding" yourself but from losing" yourself — in a company you believe in, a cause you are prepared to fight for, a commitment to solve a problem that has defied solution.
In other words, "we" is bigger than "me" — the true measure of success is not the value you create for yourself but the values that define your work and how you lead and live.
It sounds counterintuitive, I know. This is the age of the maverick, the startup, and, dare I say it, as the cofounder ofFast Company, "The Brand Called You." That's why it's so easy to focus on the magazine covers, the IPO wealth, the personal narratives. But what these celebrations of business individualism overlook is that the most successful companies and the most effective leaders spend most of their time focused on things bigger than themselves — on their sense of purpose, their willingness to struggle, the legacy they and their colleagues hope to leave.
Arkadi Kuhlmann, chairman and president of ING Direct USA, is one of my favorite CEOs, and an unquestioned success. He's brash, colorful, outspoken — in terms of his style, he personifies the sense of freedom and innovation that drives so many businesspeople today. But in terms of the substance of what he does and how he leads, he understands that he as an individual is less important than the cause in which he and his colleagues believe — creating a financial culture that is more serious, sober, and responsible than what exists today.
"Leadership is about service," he told an interviewer last year, "and you can't lead if you can't follow. It's never about you. It is always about the mission. And people will follow you if you're prepared to get a mission done, something with a goal that is a little bit beyond the reach of all of us."
Wise words from a game-changing CEO. That same spirit also applies to how each of us conducts our lives as individuals. The trouble with always searching to find yourself, work on what makes you happy, and communicate your attributes as a brand, is that you spend too much time looking in the mirror rather than at the world. As Brooks writes, "Today's graduates are told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go of and live their quest."
In fact, true success requires you to flip that logic on its head. Randy Nelson, who spent years as the influential dean of Pixar University, loves to talk about what it's like to be surrounded by "wildly talented individuals" of the sort who work at a company as rich, powerful, and successful as Pixar. His message to these individual stars, for whom it is so easy to strut their stuff and show what they know, is as simple as it is powerful. "It's no trick for talented people to be interesting," he likes to say. "But it's a gift to be interested" — interested in big problems, interested in the talents and struggles of your colleagues, interested in the enduring mission of the enterprise and in new ways of bringing that mission to life.
In other words, less interested in you and more interested in the world around you. As Brooks concludes in his must-read piece, "The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It's to lose yourself."
Here's hoping all of you can get lost, in the best sense of that word.