On a recent flight from Zurich to New York, I sat next to a very successful investor who had paid too much for a small high-tech firm. As we talked, he told me how livid he was with the owner of the company. Despite making a powerful initial impression, the entrepreneur lacked motivation and consistently missed important business commitments. My seatmate complained over and over during the course of the flight about how the owner had led him on with promises of breakthrough technologies that never materialized. I asked my fellow traveler how long this guy had been upsetting him. "Far too many months!" he grunted angrily.
And yet the man sitting next to me was a multimillionaire. He lived in a beautiful home in Switzerland and had a lovely wife and child. He'd been a successful venture capitalist and invested in several incredibly profitable companies in the past. But even with all of these accomplishments, this one person was irritating him immensely.
Almost all of us know someone who drives us absolutely crazy — one person who consistently frustrates us or makes us feel guilty or sad. We've all spent countless hours reliving times when this person was inconsiderate or ungrateful. Just thinking of him or her makes our blood pressure rise, our pulse race with anger, and our minds fill with grief.
People like my flying companion's business owner can make you feel absolutely miserable. But dwelling on these nettlesome individuals is never a good idea. If you believe, as I do, that it's our own behavior that holds us back from achieving as much as we can, then one of the larger culprits is the time and energy we waste being angry.
An old Buddhist parable may help illuminate the issue. A young farmer was paddling his boat up the river to deliver his produce to the village. He was in a hurry. It was a hot day, and the farmer, covered with sweat, wanted to make his delivery and get home before dark. Looking ahead, he spied another vessel, moving rapidly downstream toward his boat. The vessel seemed to be trying desperately to hit him.
"Change direction, you idiot!" he yelled at the other boat. "You are going to hit me!" But his cries were to no avail. Although the farmer rowed furiously to get out of the way, the other boat hit him with a sudden thud. Enraged, he stood up and shouted, "You moron! How could you manage to hit my boat in the middle of this wide river? What is wrong with you?"
As he strained to see the pilot of the other vessel, he was surprised to realize there was no one in it. Rather, he was screaming at an empty boat that had broken free of its moorings and was just floating downstream with the current.
The next time you start angrily blaming someone else for problems you encounter, just remember, there is never anyone in the other boat. When we are screaming, we are always screaming at an empty vessel. The other person who is irritating you will not change direction in the current just for you.
Of course, you don't have to like this other person. You don't have to agree with him, and you don't even have to respect him. But you do have to remember that he is who he is, or his craziness will become yours. After all, he probably isn't losing sleep over you. You're the one being punished, but you're doing the punishing, too.
It's also important to remember that when we direct our anger at someone else, we are often really mad at ourselves. I suggested to my seatmate that the real cause of his anger might be that he was beating himself up for being a poor judge of character and not conducting adequate due diligence into the purchase. After careful consideration, he agreed that I was right. Then he began berating himself for making a bad decision. "I usually have a great sense for these deals, but I screwed this one up!" he said. "The person that I am the most upset with is me."
But getting angry with himself for making this mistake was just as fruitless as brooding over the slack business owner. I reminded him that he was extremely successful in spite of this mistake, and that he would only learn from his failings in this deal. By the end of the flight, he'd decided to cut his losses, sell the company, and apply what he'd learned to another new business.
It's hard not to become consumed by anger, whether it's directed at someone else or at ourselves. But trying to change the course of others and criticizing ourselves for past mistakes isn't just unproductive, it's exhausting. When you're angry at someone else, redirect your energy to change yourself, not the other person, and commit to learn from your failures. It's a much better way to navigate the waters.
Marshall Goldsmith is corporate America's preeminent executive coach and a cofounder of Marshall Goldsmith Partners.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.