Success doesn’t occur without exploitation. Using the conventional measurements of titles and money to define success–a limited definition to be sure–we can observe that obtaining a limited resource implies the negation of its access to others. Basically, if you’re eating half of a warm apple pie in a room full of hungry people, then many onlookers–especially those in the back–won’t even get to see the golden-brown crust.
Some of the most successful people have unbridled motivation to achieve greatness. At the expense of relationships and spending time with loved ones, they focus on building businesses that–above all else–earn them money. A business can’t last if it isn’t profitable, after all. And most booming businesses aren’t profitable without the considerable investment of time, energy, effort, and attention.
So, this leads to an interesting predicament: The incredibly successful person is not only knowingly or unknowingly exploiting others to earn money, but he is also harming himself by missing out on deeper levels of fulfillment that only come through enriching human relationships. Which inches us closer to a deep, psychological question–what prompts some people to achieve high levels of success, even when that success comes at the expense of other people’s wellbeing and their own?
The psychological roots of grandiosity–a trait found in most elite business pioneers–are created from childhood wounds. When an infant makes emotional connections to parents who don’t fully engage with and reflect the child’s emotions, the infant develops a sense of shame–a deeply painful feeling that one is bad or not good enough to receive love from others. This creates a developmental arrest in which the self under construction becomes stuck, resulting in a deep sense of vulnerability.
One of the most effective ways a young child may cope with vulnerability and shame is to create a grandiose defense. The child, attempting to avoid these painful feelings, starts pretending that he or she isn’t hurting by creating a false bravado–a fictitious presentation of confidence. However, because this grandiose presentation is only skin-deep, the child needs admiration from others to uphold these positive feelings and avoid the painful ones. And, as we know, the fastest way to gain approval and admiration is to become successful.
This deep drive to become successful helps the child feel in control. It gives them a sense of purpose that guides their lives and provides an illusory sense of power over themselves and others–hiding their painful feelings of emptiness, insignificance, and invisibility. And then, as adults, they develop tunnel vision–singularly focused on achieving success and earning admiration–which comes at the cost of significant relationships with others and harms the people they exploit for money or admiration. Unfortunately, they learn to see other people as objects–means to an end–rather than whole, complete individuals. And while that makes them excellent at cut-throat business deals, it prevents their self-development.
When people are reduced to objects for exploitation and approval, there is no room for deep, meaningful, and fulfilling relationships–which include challenges, compromises, and painful feedback. Such relationships are often avoided. It’s much easier to obtain materialistic and superficial success–along with the accompanying admiration–than it is to admit one’s inner emptiness and fear of being hurt again. And that’s what makes it so difficult for the most successful people to seek help–the presence of a deeper relationship is threatening due to the possibility of being seen as fragile.
These fulfilling relationships–paradoxically–are exactly what people need in order to heal those inner wounds. To transcend feelings of emptiness and shame, individuals must first acknowledge their presence. The emotions must be witnessed by another, and their defenses against closeness must be observed in relationship to other meaningful people. For this type of relationship to be possible, the other person must be viewed as a subject, instead of an object to be used, controlled, or exploited.
We need not demonize the pursuit of success and admiration to avoid painful emotions. Similarly, shaming people for chasing their passions–some of which genuinely create positive change–only perpetuates pain, misunderstanding, and objectification.
Instead, I suggest that we all admit our shortcomings. Embrace vulnerability. Be honest with ourselves. And acknowledge the ways in which we all avoid painful emotions–in one way or another. I advocate that while we appreciate the benefits of our success, we take meaningful and responsible action by giving back to those in need. We all deserve to taste pie every now and again.
We all deserve to love and be loved. And we all deserve an opportunity to build a meaningful and fulfilling life.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.