Originally published on Forbes.com.
Ever get a coveted promotion only to discover that you hate your new job, corner office and all? That experience is what Jay Z raps about in his new single, “Holy Grail,” featuring Justin Timberlake. Other artists have been grumbling about success too. “The bright of the lights, they are burning me out,” sing Kings of Leon on their new album. Meanwhile John Mayer swears he’s done with the fame game. “I didn’t have any fun when I was trying to keep [my fame] elevated,” he told Rolling Stone.
They’re making an important point. We spend so much effort wanting, we rarely consider the implications of getting. And sometimes when we get what it was we worked so hard to attain, we realize we’re in for more than we bargained for.
Success brings with it more money, more opportunities, and, according to some research, better health. But it also has its downsides, in music and in business.
One problem is that you’ve got to do things you didn’t have to do before. You’ve gotten to the next level, but now you’ve got a bigger workload, more responsibility, more politics, more meetings, and more stress. A musician who becomes successful has to do a lot of publicity, a task she may hate, just as a brilliant salesperson or technician who becomes successful may find herself doing management work that she hates.
Another problem with success is that the very things that make it great can turn on you. Take fame. Being talked about by millions of people has become a dream for many people in our culture. Attention is great, but it also makes you a target of scrutiny.
A recent study in The Administrative Science Quarterly about an expense claim scandal involving British Members of Parliament (MPs) speaks to the fact that more success translates into getting less slack from the public. Here’s what happened. British MPs can claim reimbursements for personal expenses related to serving in Parliament, for example the costs of living in London while Parliament is in session. The scandal began in 2009 when the Daily Telegraph obtained a computer file with five year’s worth of all expense claims by all MPs, which it made public on its website. The file revealed that many MPs were abusing public funds to support inappropriate expenses. Following a government investigation, fifty-four percent of MPs were asked to repay money they had used inappropriately. In the year that followed, about a third of the MPs left Parliament through resignation, retirement, or electoral defeat.
The researchers compared whether elite MPs (those who held British “honours” and those who were members of their party’s leadership) were more likely to report inappropriate expenses. The answer was that they weren’t. They were not abusing their power. But those elite MPs who did report inappropriate expenses were much more likely to receive negative press coverage and exit Parliament than regular MPs with similar transgressions. In other words, elite MPs were punished more severely for their misdeeds than their lower-status counterparts.
The problem is that when you are more successful, you are held to higher standards in the public’s eye. You are subjected to greater scrutiny and are more likely to be criticized for what you say or do. You are a target. “Have my laundry in the streets / Dirty or clean,” sings Timberlake, “Give it up for fame.”
As a result of the scrutiny, success can lead people to become more self-conscious. Other people are more aware of you so you start to see yourself through the eyes of others, to become “objectively self-aware.” Supporting the notion that success makes people more self-conscious, professor Mark Schaller found that both Kurt Cobain and Cole Porter were more likely to use the first-person singular pronoun in their songs after they became successful. Jay Z reveals his self- consciousness when he acknowledges how he loves fame and how high he is on it, despite his struggles. “I know nobody to blame, Kurt Cobain. I did it to myself” he raps in the song. He also shows self-consciousness when he adopts the voice of a younger version of himself telling the successful Jay Z to get off his high horse and appreciate what he’s got.
The third downside of success is that it can make you egotistical. A study of celebrity athletes found, for example, that as they become more successful, star college basketball players go through a process of self-aggrandizement. Their successful self takes over their entire personality. As the authors of the study write, “The gloried self is a greedy self, seeking to ascend in importance and to cast aside other self-dimensions as it grows. It is an intoxicating and riveting self, which overpowers other aspects of the individual and seeks increasing reinforcement to fuel its growth.” Jay Z reveals the struggle of staying himself in the final verse of the song, where he reminds himself he’s “Still that nigga.”
In other domains, ego can take hold as well. People who get promoted run the risk of having their success go to their head and cloud their judgment. They become overconfident. They feel like they have nothing left to learn. They make what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error: they take full credit for success without acknowledging the role of external circumstances, such as luck or other people. They may even take credit for other people’s work.
Jay Z’s song brings up the hazards of success. But he doesn’t stop there. He steps back and looks at his problems in perspective. “Why you mad / Take the good with the bad / Don’t throw that baby out with the bath water / You’re still alive.” Which is why “Holy Grail” isn’t about how difficult it is to be successful, but how hard it is not to lose yourself in your success, to adapt to it, and to appreciate its benefits.
The true challenge of success isn’t just the unwanted workload, scrutiny or perceived invulnerability, it’s finding a way to make success sustainable.
Watch the video to Jay Z’s “Holy Grail” featuring Justin Timberlake below.