I THINK a lot about success and its underpinnings. Talent is key, but it will only gain you entrance to a crowded VIP room. Kind of like Platinum Medallion on Delta: you think you’re special, but at LaGuardia, you realize there are a lot of you. Let’s assume you are exceptionally talented. Maybe even in the top 1 percent. Congrats: you join 75 million people, the population of Germany, all vying for more than their share of the world’s resources. When I ask young adults to describe the life they aspire to, most of them outline an environment and accoutrements that are the ecosystem of a cohort that contains millions. Or to put it another way, most young people reading this book likely aspire to be in the top .1 percent. And talent alone won’t get you within spitting distance of .1 percent.
The chaser that takes talent over the top into success is hunger. Hunger can come from a lot of places. I don’t think I was born with it. I have a great deal of insecurity and fear, which, coupled with the instincts we all have, has resulted in hunger. Understanding where hunger comes from can illuminate the difference between success and fulfillment.
The women’s instincts were kicking in, and they were seeking out mates who could better ensure their offspring’s survival—instead of crushing on a funny guy who wore a thin leather tie with Top-Siders and could recite key scenes from the Planet of the Apes trilogy. My instincts were also kicking in, and I wanted to increase my selection set of mates. I decided a requisite for this was to signal success, so I landed a job at Morgan Stanley. I had no idea what investment bankers did, but I knew being one signaled success.
It didn’t take long to realize that the secret is to find something you’re good at. The rewards and recognition that stem from being great at something will make you passionate about whatever that something is. Investment banking, for me, was a unique combination of boring subject matter and a great deal of stress. Figuring out early that my hunger to impress was leading down a road of misery gave me the confidence to get out. I quit the path of success devoid of fulfillment.
The second event also involved the female sex. In my second year of grad school, my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Prematurely discharged from Kaiser Permanente hospital in Los Angeles, she started chemo. She called me at Berkeley and said she was feeling awful. I flew home that afternoon and walked through the door into our dark living room. My mom was lying on the couch, in her robe, contorted and vomiting into a trash can, distraught. She looked at me and asked, “What are we going to do?” It rattles me just to write this.
We were underinsured, and I didn’t have any contacts who were doctors. I felt a rush of emotions, but mostly I wished I had more money and influence. I knew that wealth, among other things, brought contacts and access to a different level of healthcare. We had neither.