Success Makes Us Sick!


"Many recognize only too late that you can skip a couple of steps on the ladder of success. But always only when going down”
(William Somerset Maugham)

Already during our school days, it was communicated to us that success will make us happy. Thus, we should study hard in order to get a good job later.  When we then entered the workforce, our interest was in our careers. The higher the better, a corresponding status is indeed associated with a manager’s job. And unfortunately that was also the case back then: Top managers were the heroes of our time–that, for example, there were families behind them who no longer had a family father or lives which failed along the career path, etc.: These ramifications were never communicated to anyone. But also the affected persons themselves fall victim to a fallacy: The attained status was namely transient. As soon as the success was no longer there, the status was gone. By no later than the end of their careers, these managers would have to realize that their status could not be defined by a function–indeed, it no longer even existed. Oftentimes, this often occurs to managers who were once quite powerful who then experience burnout or who were often said to suffer retirement shock. Incidentally, a phenomenon to which oftentimes only managers fall victim. “Small” employees hardly ever suffer from this retirement shock. Their social status indeed also hardly changes.


How Should Management be Understood?


What can we managers thus do in order to not become sick from our own careers? My answer would be: We must learn to understand our careers differently. Hall & Mirvis makes the case for the transformation from the organizational career to the “protean career”. Thus, we come to an understanding of career which is self-determined and driven rather by personal values than by the rewards offered by an organization and which promotes the entire person, social networks like the family and the “meaning of life”. Have managers from our time ever asked themselves the question of what the meaning of their work life is when they hound each other about an EBIT increase?


The protean career uncouples the career concept from the connection to an individual organization. That strengthens our autonomy in action and compels us to another understanding of our status. Management then becomes a temporary role. From the very first day, I had to be aware that this function would end; or as Stephen R. Covey recommended, “At the beginning, to already have the end in sight”. Due to the rapid transformation, it also becomes important–or even very important–for managers to become accustomed to shorter learning circles. And learning can be done in various ways: At the company, at other companies, or also between work stages (sabbaticals also offer this opportunity at some companies). The “career ladder” is the wrong term because it gives us the feeling that only the continuous ascent is the right career. We need career “phases” in which we also repeatedly have work breaks (time-outs) in order to regenerate ourselves and learn something new.


Promoting Careers within Company Networks


In the professional team sports, this is already a reality today.  Professional athletes customarily have employment contracts which are overvalued, but for a fixed duration. The plannability on both sides is thus increased because the developments in the future cannot be predicted. However, the compensation is more strongly-oriented towards performance and success-based components. However, the club also ensures that there are regenerative phases because no team would play for 12 months a year without any breaks–or as Covey would say, “to sharpen the saw” from time to time; today, we would probably refer to this with work-life balance or with similar terms. In order to not immediately lose top talent, exit clauses are agreed with transfer fees. If thus the talent should nonetheless (want to) go, then one receives at least compensation in order to search for a replacement player, but no one is hindered in his development.


In the corporate context, this is perhaps even a little more complex. Cross-company cooperation during the development of tomorrow’s top performers unfortunately hardly exists at all. Big companies try this by motivating their talents to do job rotations at their subsidiaries. However, much too often, I see the anxiety at companies that they will lose these talents if they would do another job for a certain period of time–in order to only then indeed lose their talents at the end because they lost their motivation or perhaps become burned-out.


In order to promote our talents better, we must thus embark on new paths. More courage in creating the career models wouldn’t hurt us in this regard. These days, values and needs change faster and more (theoretic) options will be demanded precisely by the new generations (Generations Y and Z). And they are right because success shouldn’t make us ill. In the end, sustainable success gives us meaning in our work lives and we will attain it only through a new understanding of our career. 


  • Hall D.T. & P.H. Mirvis: “Redefining Work, Work Identity and Career Success” in ‘The Oxford Handbook of the Psychology of Working’; Oxford U. Press, 203-217; 2013.
  • Stephen R. Covey S.R.: “The 7 Habits of Highly-Effective People”; Simon & Schuster UK; 2004