On Success and Happiness

Robin Williams died today. Normally I don’t give much thought to celebrity deaths—what about all the other people who died today? is my usual unvoiced response to the expressions of sadness that promptly pour out on social media. But this one struck me for a few different reasons.

Much of my generation of Americans grew up with Williams in his most goofy and manic role, Mork from Ork. His later roles, even the relatively serious ones, continued to be driven by the manic motormouth compulsion that first brought him fame. They were leavened by an increasing humanity, but it was clear that giving free rein to his frenetic free association was what really energized him. I had the opportunity to see him live twice—he lived in Marin and would occasionally test out new material at a smallish club in San Francisco—and his barely contained energy, which would grow over the evening as he got going, was practically a force of a nature that swept everyone in the room along with him. It’s hard to imagine Williams surviving, yet alone thriving, in any other profession. Watching him live, I became convinced that Mork the alien was the real Williams, and that he spent much of his later years trying to figure out how to be human. His more touching moments on screen typically had to do with realizing and articulating a failure to be what other characters needed his to be.

People always express shock when celebrities die by their own hand—accidentally or on purpose—as if talent, fame and wealth should be all anyone would ever really want or need. Few give thought to the hard work and hungry years that often go into that golden state of being, even less of the consuming motivations for single-mindedly pursuing an extraordinary goal: literal hunger, perhaps, and the fear and inability to believe that any current fortune won’t disappear again tomorrow; a desperate need for acceptance, for one’s existence to be validated by others; for revenge even, to prove doubters or bullies wrong. When a hole like that goes so deep that it compels someone to keep driving well beyond an ordinary level of success, I wonder if it can ever really be filled.

There are, of course, famous people who escape that trap. J Metz shared a wonderful piece today about his encounter with a boyhood hero, Steve Wozniak. By many accounts, Steve Jobs screwed Wozniak out of much of the Apple fortune that should have been his, but as Wozniak himself says in the video J included, he really just wanted to be known as a good engineer and be able to work on interesting problems. Being able to talk about work he was passionate about gave the very shy young Wozniak a voice. Apple money gave him the freedom to explore various other interests (education was one) but perhaps what he learned from all of that was that he really just likes technical problems, and that he doesn’t need more than that.

Which brings me to a few very similar conversations I’ve had in the past few weeks with people who, while not fabulously wealthy industry titans, have acquired a certain amount of fame and devoted followings in the tech world. They acquired such fame through social media activities, which they mostly started doing for fun. But then their hobbies started gaining attention and taking on lives of their own, and these people began watching their stats. Maybe worrying a bit over their stats. (What struck me as particularly funny was that each assumed others had much more impressive stats than they did.) Their activities opened up all kinds of new career opportunities that have taken them all in directions they never anticipated. But somehow the stats and in some cases the monetization of their content became goals in themselves. And that turned the hobby into an obligation, something that demands self-perpetuation. And now, they’re telling me, they’re not sure if they want to continue with their activities, or if they do, in what form. What do they want to be about? What do others want them to be about?

I’ve said the same thing to each: why not let it be what you want it to be? Pay attention to what you’re drawn to, what you keep wanting to do more of. Let the activity be the vehicle for exploration, but if at some point it reaches a natural expiration date because you’ve gotten what you need out of it, either shut it down, or groom and bring on others to continue the institution and the community that’s grown up around it. It’s okay to be modestly successful at something—especially if it brings you clarity about what’s really important and rewarding to you, which may well be different than what got your juices going five years ago.

One of the comments I read about Robin Williams this evening was, “I hope he knows how many people he brought happiness to.” That crystallized for me that “success” is really the pay for what you give the rest of the world. It’s not about what the world wants to give you.

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