Saturday, 31 March 2012

Why so many executives wake up in the morning wanting to die

A trick cyclist once told me about a client of his – a fantastically successful financial type, rich beyond the dreams of avarice etc. – who admitted treating his staff like dirt and to waking up every morning wanting to die. (Given the financial events of the past few years, it’s hard not to think “Good!”)

Obviously it’s nice to receive confirmation that vast City bonuses don’t guarantee happiness (especially as I’m evidently never going to be able to test this theory personally). To be honest, I only have one or two rich City friends, and they seem happy enough, but we’ve all met money folk who've left us wondering why they seem so bloody miserable, so dissatisfied - after all, if money doesn't cheer them up, what's the point of doing what they do?

The concept of flow, formulated by Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi in his excellent book, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, might shed some light on the conundrum of unhappy executives. Flow, as defined in the book, is the state we experience when we lose ourselves in an enjoyable activity –  our ego evaporates as we become one with the activity (for instance, practicing a musical instrument or playing tennis or assembling an Ikea flat-pack cupboard). If we never experience flow – in other words, we never get away from ourselves through purposeful activity – life loses its tang, becomes saltless, as Belloc put it. We end up miserable.

At the start of our working lives, we tend to run around hysterically, not quite knowing what we’re supposed to be doing, and not sure whether we're really cut out for this line of work. After a while most of us – or our employers – discover what we’re good at, and this is usually an activity that absorbs us. Our work offers opportunities to experience flow, and life suddenly seems okay. If we’re exceptionally lucky, this activity is valuable enough to provide us with a good living indefinitely and we get to go on doing it until we retire (some time around one's 78th birthday these days, apparently). Unfortunately, most flow activities don’t pay enough to justify going on doing them - for instance, the most absorbing, flow-inducing job I ever had paid £8,500 a year.

Eventually, a lot of us become senior executives of one sort or another. This means more money – but opportunities for losing yourself in work become limited. This is because executive jobs usually require one to function at a “meta” level. The happy software coder asked to manage a team of coders suddenly isn’t doing much coding anymore, if any: he’s doing annual assessments and interviewing job candidates and attending dull meetings – not only are these activities deeply unenjoyable (unless you’re weird), but they also require an increase in self-consciousness: there is no way to lose your ego in meetings where your main aim is usually to cover your arse and fend off incoming.

So the happy coder or TV producer or book editor no longer spends his or her days enjoyably lost in activities they excel at: they have to stand back from the absorbing, immersive stuff and take an over-view – and, at that point, work often stops being fun. As the flow sensation is so enticing, so addictive, an unhappy, recently-promoted executive is tempted to lose himself in the minutiae of the projects they should be leading: they become obsessed with details, start doing the work their underlings should be doing, work themselves into a frazzle trying to get back to their happy place - and drive everyone nuts in the process. Or they just work too hard doing joyless things badly. Either way, personal and professional disaster beckons.

I remember watching the boss of Panorama running around the BBC’s Westminster offices one evening getting himself into an enjoyable, adrenalized frenzy doing detailed edits on a report due to be broadcast later that night. This, of course, is not what the editor of Panorma is supposed to do – producers take care of that sort of thing. “This’ll end badly,” an experienced colleague remarked to me. As we watched the completed programme go out, the report – almost inevitably - the screen went blank for about half a minute. That's the sort  of mistake for which a humble producer would have been banished to Radio Auchemuchty for a year or two. The editor of Panorama, however, found it in his heart to forgive himself, emerging from the edit suite after the broadcast to declare the programme an absolute triumph. (I found myself the victim of this sort of crass, big-footing treatment on several occasions – we all did.)

When it became my turn to switch from “flow” to “meta” mode, luck was on my side. Unlike many of my fellow BBC execs, I was well into my forties when it happened, so the pleasure of running around like a blue-arsed fly blissed out on adrenalin had begun to pall. And I had a management coach to help with the transition – jolly useful things they are, too. I also rapidly discovered I rather liked being a boss. But most important of all was the fact that the area I was working in was so brand-spanking new, no senior executive had ever done any of the jobs anyone on their teams was doing – in other words, there was no “happy place” for me to retreat to.

So, when you next meet a miserable executive, tell them to get a management coach or a satisfying, immersive hobby – or suggest they go the whole hog, give up the inflated salary, the PA, the company car and the private health insurance (if these perks still exist) and go back to doing what made them happy in the first place. With any luck, a few less people people will end up bullying their staff and wanting to kill themselves.


  1. Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi. You are having a laugh, right? Nobody has a name like that.

    Interesting post. The ancient Greeks had a useful expression for a fulfilling life - "Eudaemonia" [human flourishing]. Both Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen [sensible names] applied it to their own lifes [for any Englishmen out there, they were Polar explorers].

    I have been reading a number of books recently about Wall St. in the 1980s in an effort to discover what makes our own rapacious and dishonest financial services industry tick. Why go on and on making deal after dodgey deal - often with the connivance of the political administration - when you have already amassed a great fortune?

    The American financial writer Michael Lewis indicates that in the absence of of not being able to win military medals for valour or achieve feats of heroism the urge is to join "The Big Swinging Dicks Club" [BSDC]. And then to add bars to underline the recognition.

    The book "Barbarians at the Gate" [Burrough and Helyar] is about the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco [the biggest in history] in the late 80s. It involved all the major financial institutions and depicts a dystopic world of greed and human unhappiness and really ghastly people generally. Following Lewis' analogy about the BSDC I noted that the four main players - Ross Johnson of RJR, Henry Kravis of KKR, John Gutfreund of Salomons and Jim Robinson of Amex - all had wives much younger than themselves who knew seriously how to spend money. Wake up, Rupert! And enjoy some eudaemonia through membership of the Small Non-Swinging Dicks Club. I am a life-long member.

  2. It's pronounced "Mee-high-cheek-sent-mee-high" and he's Hungarian, Church Mouse.

    The scariest view of the horrible lives led by members of the BSDC (speaking as a fellow lifelong non-member) was provided by the book "The Smartest Guys in the Room" by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, all about the Enron scandal. I'm simply astonished that all these don't have massive nervous breakdowns every six months - or whenever they realise just how ghastly their lives really are. Stunning book.