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Editor’s note: This commentary by Stanford law professor Robert M. Daines is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought. An earlier version of this commentary formed the basis for a Stanford Law School commencement address.
I’ve recently had the daunting task of running the admissions committee for Stanford Law School. It’s not an easy job. There are thousands of bright young optimists who dream of (or at least write essays about) changing the world and remedying injustice, spending the weekend saving small countries, curing cancer, establishing a chain of organic-farm-to-halfway-house communes, and collecting a Nobel Prize or two — all while leading deeply fulfilling personal lives.
Like many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, these applicants want to succeed and to matter and be part of something valuable.
One recent, impressive candidate confessed that she was driven by “that big fear: the fear of being inconsequential.” This desire to matter, to be on the inside of important firms and causes, can motivate us to do good and to succeed. But, as I once pointed out to a law school commencement audience, this desire to matter also creates a few risks. If we’re not careful, it can also lead us to make predictable mistakes that can bring unhappiness to us and to people we love and care about.
Examples from the world of business and my own personal life, examples I’ve shared with my Stanford law students, help illustrate these risks of relevancy.
First, a little law.
Takeovers and Yahoo
Years ago, Microsoft approached the board of directors of Yahoo with a remarkable offer. It offered to pay Yahoo shareholders almost $50 billion — roughly 50 percent more than the shares were worth at the time.
Yahoo’s board of directors needed only to sign the merger agreement. Since most of the directors would not actually be needed after the merger, they would also effectively resign their positions and hand over the keys to the boardroom, and the shareholders would get $50 billion.
They didn’t. The board refused, stuck to their guns and their jobs, and resisted the offer. Microsoft withdrew and Yahoo shareholders lost billions as a result; Yahoo is now worth a tiny fraction of what Microsoft once offered.
Why did the board of directors refuse such a good offer?
I don’t know. It is easy to spin a story of self-interest: Directors and senior managers were more concerned about their own salaries and stock options, so they ignored the valuable offer and their duties to shareholders.
But I don’t believe the managers and directors of Yahoo made this decision because it lined their own pockets. I think the board members were likely honorable, careful, upright people who were generally scrupulous about their duties, even when it cost them money.
But I do think they probably made an expensive mistake. And it is an error that, unless I am very mistaken, some of you (some of us) are likely to make in the future.
That big fear, relationships and success
I think the mistake they made is not that they put their own wealth over duty. I think it’s more likely that they rejected the offer because they liked being involved in something important (like running the company) and because they wanted to make a difference, to be consequential, in charge, and in the inner ring. Perhaps they rejected Microsoft’s valuable offer because they wanted to matter personally and to make a contribution.
Obviously, this desire to matter and make a difference is laudable and noble. But just as boards do real harm to shareholders when they focus on their own role and job satisfaction (and not the welfare of shareholders), you may find, along the way, that your desire to contribute and be consequential can lead you to neglect valuable (but less immediately urgent) goals, relationships, friends and family.
This will leave you and your loved ones unhappy in the long run.
And all of us, even those who devote their lives to nonprofits and public interest, are subject to these same risks and potential biases.
I leave it to you to decide whether someone can be truly happy if he reforms prisons and rights a string of wrong precedent, but make a mess of his relationships with friends and family; if he argues brilliantly and frequently in court, but too often with his loved ones; if politicians and reporters return his calls, but his children won’t talk to him.
But it is not always easy to remember this.
I remember my first years of teaching and trying to get tenure. They were a blur of anxiety, antacid and bleary-eyed, late-night fights with data and drafts. I had left a demanding job on Wall Street working for the investment bank Goldman Sachs (in its pre-vampire squid days), but I enjoyed research and soon found that the desire to succeed, to be “in the game,” drove me to work much harder as a new professor than I had at Goldman.
I became totally absorbed in my work. I was often physically present with family and friends, but my mind was far away, fretting about my research. If my wife or a colleague stopped by to talk, instead of being glad to see them, I’d get a pit in my stomach and my leg would begin to bounce up and down in my anxiety to get back to work.
Luckily for me, others helped correct my errors. A colleague pulled me aside and told me I was working too hard.
But I didn’t change much. So one day, while I was working at home, my wife came into my office to talk about some concern. I don’t remember the issue — maybe I didn’t know it then — but I remember feeling in a hurry to get back to work and I know that I glanced away from her and back at the computer screen once too often.
Exasperated, she told me that if I was so focused on my work, she would make sure nothing disturbed me. She promptly left, found a lock and locked me in inside my home office. I couldn’t get out. Seriously. She wouldn’t open it. Luckily for me I had just gone to the bathroom and I had some Girl Scout cookies hidden in the room (some things in life are too important to trust to the kitchen), so I spent the better part of the afternoon there — locked in my office — much to the delight of neighbors who happened by.
It’s easy to say you value and cherish your relationships and that they are important to your happiness and a meaningful life. You’d certainly pass a written test on the topic. But being true to the relationships and people in your life is not easy — in part because of this laudable drive to succeed, to do something important and to avoid seeming, if only to yourself, inconsequential.
You may, like me, end up locked in your office — metaphorically, if not literally.
Three things make it especially difficult to achieve long-term professional success while also preserving family, friendships and a life of service and faith.
I. Opportunity cost
First, hard work often brings great opportunities. The allure of these opportunities makes it more difficult to spend time with friends and family.
Second, these opportunities are often found in institutions bristling with high-powered incentives and monitoring mechanisms primed to issue immediate feedback to help us stay focused on the success of the organization. To get more out of us, the firms and government institutions we work for will offer potent encouragement — partnership, praise, promotion and prestige.
Some also offer the assurance that we are doing righteous work. This can be exciting.
It can also be a problem because usually the most important commitments and relationships and people in our lives do NOT have comparable built-in incentive and monitoring mechanisms to tell us how we’re doing.
You will probably NOT get annual reviews from your loved ones and friends. Unless I miss my guess, your family and close friends will not send you monthly reports on how many hours you have spent with them and whether you are meeting, exceeding or falling below expectations. In fact, because they love you and want you to succeed, they will sacrifice for you and encourage your efforts to make a difference.
And so, if you are not very careful, you will go too long neglecting and damaging important relationships. And it can happen without you noticing it.
Years ago, liberated from my home office prison, I went to a movie with my wife and left our oldest son in charge for the first time. He had finally gotten old enough to baby-sit, so my wife and I happily went out and left him to watch the sleeping children. It was great. We enjoyed our newfound freedom. But when we walked in the door, I was horrified to see smoke and the unmistakable scent of an electrical fire. I thought of my sleeping children and I panicked and raced around looking for the fire.
I found my son lounging on the couch, reading The Economist (obviously, we didn’t have a TV). “Hey!” I yelled. “What’s going on? Don’t you smell that?” “Sure,” he languidly replied. “I do. … I looked around and didn’t see anything. And you know, it was kind of irritating at first, but you get used to it.”
Well, everything turned out OK — we found the problem. Our 2-year-old had turned on an air-conditioning wall unit in the middle of winter and it had burned out. Things were fine, but we didn’t go out again to a movie for a long time.
But I have learned that, in things that really matter, my son was right. If you only look a little, you won’t see anything wrong in your personal relationships. You will not see the disappointment you cause and you will miss the shared experiences and the chances to build trust … and after a while, you will get used to it. Even when the stakes are high, you can get used to signs of deadly trouble. And you may not notice the problem until it is too late to fix.
III. Short-term success
There is a third reason strivers are vulnerable and may end up ignoring their most important commitments and relationships. Driven, success-oriented people want to make a difference. They want to count for something. This may lead you to focus on projects where you can quickly achieve and measure your success. This feels good.
But relationships with family and friends, peace of mind, a life of service and faith do not yield immediate results. Real friendships and — if you have children — raising a family will take thousands of hours of work that produce no immediately visible results. If you are not careful, a desire for measurable success will lead you to spend too little time on these relationships.
So, there you have it. Target managers sometimes harm others and miss out on valuable opportunities because they want to be personally involved in something important. They will insist their actions and contributions aren’t understood or properly valued, but they will sometimes harm the shareholders they want to serve.
You and I are no different. We want to succeed personally as well as professionally — to be happy as well as accomplished — to change the world and have meaningful relationships.
However, even if our intentions are good and noble and selfless, if we are not careful, we may neglect meaningful personal relationships, family and friends. And that would be a costly and painful mistake. We will insist we’re not understood and properly valued, but we will have harmed those we love and want to help. To avoid that, we need to fight now against the biases I’ve described.
Don’t get locked in your office. Don’t let your desire to matter interfere with the things that matter most.
Robert M. Daines is the Pritzker Professor of Law and Business at Stanford Law School and the Associate Dean for Global Programs.
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