Part 2


Here we are at the top of a mountain we worked hard to climb—or at least the summit is in sight. Now we face new temptations and problems. We breathe thinner air in an unforgiving environment. Why is success so ephemeral? Ego shortens it. Whether a collapse is dramatic or a slow erosion, it’s always possible and often unnecessary. We stop learning, we stop listening, and we lose our grasp on what matters. We become victims of ourselves and the competition. Sobriety, open-mindedness, organization, and purpose—these are the great stabilizers. They balance out the ego and pride that comes with achievement and recognition.

Two different characters are presented to our emulation; the one, of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity. The other, of humble modesty and equitable justice. Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behaviour; the one more gaudy and glittering in its colouring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline .


At a business meeting in January 1924, Howard Hughes Sr., the successful inventor and tool magnate, stood up, convulsed, and died from a sudden heart attack at the age of fifty-four. His son, a quiet, reserved, and sheltered boy of just eighteen, inherited three fourths of the private company, which held patents and leases critical to oil drilling, worth nearly $1 million. Various family members were bequeathed the remaining shares.

   In a move of almost incomprehensible foresight, the young Hughes, whom many saw as a spoiled little boy, made the decision to buy out his relatives and control the entire company himself. Against their objections and still legally considered a minor, Hughes leveraged his personal assets and nearly all the company’s funds to purchase the stock, and in doing so, consolidated ownership of a business that would create billions of dollars of cash profit over the next century.

   It was a bold move for a young man with essentially zero experience in business. And it was with similar boldness that over his career he would create one of the most embarrassing, wasteful, and dishonest business track records in history. In retrospect, his years at the helm of the Hughes empire resemble a deranged crime spree more than a capitalistic enterprise.

   One cannot argue whether Hughes was gifted, visionary, and brilliant. He just was. Literally a mechanical genius, he was also one of the best and bravest pilots in the pioneer days of aviation. And as a businessman and filmmaker he had the ability to predict wide, sweeping changes that came to transform not just the industries he was involved in, but America itself.

   Yet, after filtering out his acumen from the legend, glamour, and self-promotion at which he was so adept, only one image remains: an egomaniac who evaporated hundreds of millions of dollars of his own wealth and met a miserable, pathetic end. Not by accident, not because he was beset by unforeseen circumstances or competition, but almost exclusively due to his own actions.

   A quick rundown of his feats—if you can call them that—provides a stark perspective:

   After purchasing control of his father’s tool company from his family, Hughes abandoned it almost immediately except to repeatedly siphon off its cash. He left Houston and never stepped foot in the company’s headquarters again. He moved to Los Angeles, where he decided to become a film producer and celebrity. Trading stocks from his bedside, he lost more than $8 million in the market leading up to the Depression. His most well-known movie, Hell’s Angels, took three years to make, lost $1.5 million on a budget of $4.2 million, and nearly bankrupted the tool company in the process. Then, not having learned a lesson the first time, Hughes lost another $4 million on Chrysler stock in early 1930.

   He then put all this aside to enter the aviation business, creating a defense contractor called the Hughes Aircraft Company. Despite some astounding personal achievements as an inventor, Hughes’s company was a failure. His two contracts during World War II, worth $40 million, were massive failures at the expense of the American taxpayer and himself. The most notable, the Spruce Goose— which Hughes called the Hercules and which was one of the biggest planes ever made—took more than five years to develop, cost roughly $20 million, and flew just a single time for barely a mile, only 70 feet above the water. At his insistence and expense, it then sat in an air-conditioned hangar in Long Beach for decades at the cost of $1 million a year. Deciding to double down on the film business, Hughes purchased the movie studio RKO and produced losses of over $22 million (and went from two thousand employees to fewer than five hundred as he ran it into the ground over several years). Tiring of these businesses as he had of the tool company, he forsook defense contracting and handed it off to executives to run, where it slowly began to thrive . . . because of his absence.

   It would make sense to stop here to avoid belaboring the issue—but that would risk skipping Hughes’s egregious tax fraud; the plane crashes and fatal car accidents; the millions he wasted on private investigators, lawyers, contracts for starlets he refused to let act, property he never lived in; the fact that the only thing that got him to behave responsibly was the threat of public exposure; the paranoia, racism, and bullying; the failed marriages; the drug addiction; and dozens of other ventures and businesses he mismanaged.

   “That we have made a hero out of Howard Hughes,” a young Joan Didion wrote, “tells us something interesting about ourselves.” She’s absolutely right. For Howard Hughes, despite his reputation, was quite possibly one of the worst businessmen of the twentieth century. Usually a bad businessman fails and ceases to be in business anymore, making it hard to see what truly caused his failures. But thanks to the steady chain of profits from his father’s company, which he found too boring to interfere with, Hughes was able to stay afloat, allowing us to see the damage that his ego repeatedly wrought—to himself as a person, to the people around him, to what he wanted to accomplish.

   There is a scene from Howard’s slow descent into madness that bears illustrating. His biographers have him sitting naked in his favorite white chair, unwashed, unkempt, working around the clock to battle lawyers, investigations, investors, in an attempt to save his empire and to hide his shameful secrets. One minute he would dictate some irrational multipage memo about Kleenex, food preparation, or how employees should not speak to him directly, and then he would turn around and seize upon a genuinely brilliant strategy to outrun his creditors and enemies. It was as if, they observed, his mind and business were split in two parts. It was as if, they wrote, “IBM had deliberately established a pair of subsidiaries, one to produce computers and profits, another to manufacture Edsels and losses.” If someone was looking for a flesh-and-blood metaphor for ego and destruction, it would be hard to do better than this image of a man working furiously with one hand toward a goal and with the other working equally hard to undermine it.

   Howard Hughes, like all of us, was not completely crazy or completely sane. His ego, fueled and exacerbated by physical injuries (mostly from plane and car crashes for which he was at fault) and various addictions, led him into a darkness that we can scarcely comprehend. There were brief moments of lucidity when the sharp mind of Hughes broke through—times when he made some of his best moves—but as he progressed through life, these moments became increasingly rare. Eventually, ego killed Howard Hughes as much as the mania and trauma did—if they were ever separate to begin with.

   You can only see this if you want to see it. It’s more attractive and exciting to see the rebel billionaire, the eccentric, the world renown, and the fame, and think: Oh, how I want that. You do not. Howard Hughes, like so many wealthy people, died in an asylum of his own making. He felt little joy. He enjoyed almost nothing of what he had. Most importantly, he wasted. He wasted so much talent, so much bravery, and so much energy.

   Without virtue and training, Aristotle observed, “it is hard to bear the results of good fortune suitably.” We can learn from Hughes because he was so publicly and visibly unable to bear his birthright properly. His endless taste for the spotlight, no matter how unflattering, gives us an opportunity to see our own tendencies, our own struggles with success and luck, refracted back through his tumultuous life. His enormous ego and its destructive path through Hollywood, through the defense industry, through Wall Street, through the aviation industry give us a look inside someone who was repeatedly felled by impulses we all have.

   Of course, he’s far from the only person in history to follow such an arc. Will you follow his trajectory?

   Sometimes ego is suppressed on the ascent. Sometimes an idea is so powerful or timing is so perfect (or one is born into wealth or power) that it can temporarily support or even compensate for a massive ego. As success arrives, like it does for a team that has just won a championship, ego begins to toy with our minds and weaken the will that made us win in the first place. We know that empires always fall, so we must think about why—and why they seem to always collapse from within.

   Harold Geneen was the CEO who more or less invented the concept of the modern international conglomerate. Through a series of acquisitions, mergers, and takeovers (more than 350 in all), he took a small company called ITT from $1 million in revenues in 1959 to nearly $17 billion in 1977, the year he retired. Some claimed that Geneen himself was an egotist—in any case, he spoke candidly about the effects that ego had in his industry and warned executives against it.

   “The worst disease which can afflict business executives in their work is not, as popularly supposed, alcoholism; it’s egotism,” Geneen famously said. In the Mad Men era of corporate America, there was a major drinking problem, but ego has the same roots—insecurity, fear, a dislike for brutal objectivity. “Whether in middle management or top management, unbridled personal egotism blinds a man to the realities around him; more and more he comes to live in a world of his own imagination; and because he sincerely believes he can do no wrong, he becomes a menace to the men and women who have to work under his direction,” he wrote in his memoirs.

   Here we are having accomplished something. After we give ourselves proper credit, ego wants us to think, I’m special.I’m better. The rules don’t apply to me.

   “Man is pushed by drives,” Viktor Frankl observed. “But he is pulled by values.” Ruled by or ruling? Which are you? Without the right values, success is brief. If we wish to do more than flash, if we wish to last, then it is time to understand how to battle this new form of ego and what values and principles are required in order to beat it.

   Success is intoxicating, yet to sustain it requires sobriety. We can’t keep learning if we think we already know everything. We cannot buy into myths we make ourselves, or the noise and chatter of the outside world. We must understand that we are a small part of an interconnected universe. On top of all this, we have to build an organization and a system around what we do—one that is about the work and not about us.

   The verdict on Hughes is in. Ego wrecked him. A similar judgment awaits us all at some point. Over the course of your own career, you will face the choices that he did—that all people do. Whether you built your empire from nothing or inherited it, whether your wealth is financial or merely a cultivated talent, entropy is seeking to destroy it as you read this.

   Can you handle success? Or will it be the worst thing that ever happened to you?

Chapter 11


Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him.


The legend of Genghis Khan has echoed through history: A barbarian conqueror, fueled by bloodlust, terrorizing the civilized world. We have him and his Mongol horde traveling across Asia and Europe, insatiable, stopping at nothing to plunder, rape, and kill not just the people who stood in their way, but the cultures they had built. Then, not unlike his nomadic band of warriors, this terrible cloud simply disappeared from history, because the Mongols built nothing that could last.

   Like all reactionary, emotional assessments, this could not be more wrong. For not only was Genghis Khan one of the greatest military minds who ever lived, he was a perpetual student, whose stunning victories were often the result of his ability to absorb the best technologies, practices, and innovations of each new culture his empire touched.

   In fact, if there is one theme in his reign and in the several centuries of dynastic rule that followed, it’s this: appropriation. Under Genghis Khan’s direction, the Mongols were as ruthless about stealing and absorbing the best of each culture they encountered as they were about conquest itself. Though there were essentially no technological inventions, no beautiful buildings or even great Mongol art, with each battle and enemy, their culture learned and absorbed something new. Genghis Khan was not born a genius. Instead, as one biographer put it, his was “a persistent cycle of pragmatic learning, experimental adaptation, and constant revision driven by his uniquely disciplined and focused will.”

   He was the greatest conqueror the world ever knew because he was more open to learning than any other conqueror has ever been.

   Khan’s first powerful victories came from the reorganization of his military units, splitting his soldiers into groups of ten. This he stole from neighboring Turkic tribes, and unknowingly converted the Mongols to the decimal system. Soon enough, their expanding empire brought them into contact with another “technology” they’d never experienced before: walled cities. In the Tangut raids, Khan first learned the ins and outs of war against fortified cities and the strategies critical to laying siege, and quickly became an expert. Later, with help from Chinese engineers, he taught his soldiers how to build siege machines that could knock down city walls. In his campaigns against the Jurched, Khan learned the importance of winning hearts and minds. By working with the scholars and royal family of the lands he conquered, Khan was able to hold on to and manage these territories in ways that most empires could not. Afterward, in every country or city he held, Khan would call for the smartest astrologers, scribes, doctors, thinkers, and advisers—anyone who could aid his troops and their efforts. His troops traveled with interrogators and translators for precisely this purpose.

   It was a habit that would survive his death. While the Mongols themselves seemed dedicated almost solely to the art of war, they put to good use every craftsman, merchant, scholar, entertainer, cook, and skilled worker they came in contact with. The Mongol Empire was remarkable for its religious freedoms, and most of all, for its love of ideas and convergence of cultures. It brought lemons to China for the first time, and Chinese noodles to the West. It spread Persian carpets, German mining technology, French metalworking, and Islam. The cannon, which revolutionized warfare, was said to be the resulting fusion of Chinese gunpowder, Muslim flamethrowers, and European metalwork. It was Mongol openness to learning and new ideas that brought them together.

   As we first succeed, we will find ourselves in new situations, facing new problems. The freshly promoted soldier must learn the art of politics. The salesman, how to manage. The founder, how to delegate. The writer, how to edit others. The comedian, how to act. The chef turned restaurateur, how to run the other side of the house.

   This is not a harmless conceit. The physicist John Wheeler, who helped develop the hydrogen bomb, once observed that “as our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” In other words, each victory and advancement that made Khan smarter also bumped him against new situations he’d never encountered before. It takes a special kind of humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more. It’s remembering Socrates’ wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he knew next to nothing.

   With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That’s the worry and the risk—thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.

   The nine-time Grammy– and Pulitzer Prize–winning jazz musician Wynton Marsalis once advised a promising young musician on the mind-set required in the lifelong study of music: “Humility engenders learning because it beats back the arrogance that puts blinders on. It leaves you open for truths to reveal themselves. You don’t stand in your own way. . . . Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’”

   No matter what you’ve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying.

   It is not enough only to be a student at the beginning. It is a position that one has to assume for life. Learn from everyone and everything. From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies. At every step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn—and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.

   Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know). It obscures from view various weaknesses in our understanding, until eventually it’s too late to change course. This is where the silent toll is taken.

   Each of us faces a threat as we pursue our craft. Like sirens on the rocks, ego sings a soothing, validating song—which can lead to a wreck. The second we let the ego tell us we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt. That’s why Frank Shamrock said, “Always stay a student.” As in, it never ends.

   The solution is as straightforward as it is initially uncomfortable: Pick up a book on a topic you know next to nothing about. Put yourself in rooms where you’re the least knowledgeable person. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challenged—what about subjecting yourself to it deliberately? Change your mind. Change your surroundings.

   An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.

   Most military cultures—and people in general—seek to impose values and control over what they encounter. What made the Mongols different was their ability to weigh each situation objectively, and if need be, swap out previous practices for new ones. All great businesses start this way, but then something happens. Take the theory of disruption, which posits that at some point in time, every industry will be disrupted by some trend or innovation that, despite all the resources in the world, the incumbent interests will be incapable of responding to. Why is this? Why can’t businesses change and adapt?

   A large part of it is because they lost the ability to learn. They stopped being students. The second this happens to you, your knowledge becomes fragile.

   The great manager and business thinker Peter Drucker says that it’s not enough simply to want to learn. As people progress, they must also understand how they learn and then set up processes to facilitate this continual education. Otherwise, we are dooming ourselves to a sort of self-imposed ignorance.





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