They are heavy hitters. Most of them have won what Harvard Business School promised them many years ago: power, status, wealth.
Still, something big is missing. They have worked for decades to reach the pinnacle of their profession — yet, rather than feeling empowered by achievements, they feel enslaved by commitments. How much is enough? Many have huge option packages, some own villas in Tuscany — yet such financial assets and material comforts yield neither real fulfillment nor true meaning. Is that all there is?
To find out, these Masters of the Universe go back to school. Once a year, 30 to 40 gray-around-the-temples executives troop to Boston to bare their souls at Odyssey, a Harvard Business School offering calculated to provoke midlife introspection and, in some cases, career redirection. Their confessor: Shoshana Zuboff.
Zuboff, a social psychologist, leads her charges through two weeks of exploration — first, among themselves, in a classroom; and later, along with spouses, at such venues as the Black Point Inn Resort, in Prouts Neck, Maine. The readings are diverse — from research on adult development to case studies of figures like Donald Burr, founder of People Express Airlines. For most participants, it’s an emotional ordeal. For some of them, it’s a life-changing epiphany. For all of them, it’s an opportunity to wrestle with “enoughness.”
Zuboff, 47, has been there herself. Until recently, she and her husband, Jim Maxmin, led whirling transatlantic lives. She wrote a now-classic book, “In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power” (Basic Books, 1988), which brought her acclaim and tenure. In London, Maxmin ran Thorn EMI’s consumer-electronics business.Then he led a turnaround effort at Laura Ashley Holdings, a long-troubled British retailer.
But in 1994, Maxmin left Laura Ashley after clashing with the company’s founding chairman. For her part, Zuboff had become unhappy with how little time she was able to spend with her two-year-old daughter, Chloe. So the couple decided that it was time for a change. They moved to Nobleboro, Maine, a one-stoplight hamlet 90 minutes north of Portland, and built a house on the shore of Lake Damariscotta.
From this outpost, they steward an investment fund that targets electronic-commerce opportunities. Zuboff has shifted to part-time status at Harvard, where she holds the Charles Edward Wilson chair in business administration. Along with caring for Chloe, now 7, and Jacob, 4, she consults with corporate clients. She also spends five hours a day at her lakeside cabin, where she is writing a book on wealth, work, and identity (to be published by Viking). Between chapters, she talked with Fast Company about the lessons that people learn in the Odyssey program.
Name Your Price
Near the start of each Odyssey class, I pose the question “How much is enough? How much net worth would you need to consider changing your life — so that you could do what you want?” You hear lots of different numbers: Some people say “$20 million.” Others say “$200 million.” But most people are reluctant to settle on a number. They say it’s a moving target: “I used to think it was $1 million, but when I got there, I realized it was $10 million.”
That’s a defense mechanism. As long as we think that we don’t have enough money, we don’t feel free to ask the important questions about our lives. We use that rationalization to protect ourselves from the fearsome fact that we do have the ability to make choices.
From “Who Am I?” to “Who Am I Becoming?”
To start down this path, we need to create enough time for personal reflection. I ask Odyssey students to sit down before they start the course and to write the story of their life. They review all of their important experiences. This isn’t about discovering “who I am.” It’s about discovering “who I’ve been” — which is a prelude to finding out “who I’m becoming.” I reject any static view of personality. You have to understand the dynamics that have energized your life and how they’ve changed over the years. Then you can begin to see the change that will shape the next phase of your life. In the first week of Odyssey, students generate data about themselves by writing, by speaking, and by analyzing pictures and symbols. We mine their autobiographies to understand the larger patterns in their lives and to get different perspectives on the truth.
Identity Is Its Own Prison
For most of us, there’s a tension between dissatisfaction and fear. On the one hand, we’re not at peace, not happy with what we see in ourselves or in our lives. On the other hand, we’re afraid to make a move, to leave behind what we have been. When we reach our fifties, identity becomes its own prison. We’re so wedded to our old identity, which we see as the source of our success, that we fail to imagine other aspects of ourselves that are larger than identity. We fear that there’s a lot to lose. But this isn’t about losing identity. It’s not about quitting your job and going off to bake bread. Change is more profound and more subtle than that. You can keep your job and still become a different person.
A few years ago, one Odyssey participant realized toward the end of the program that what he really wanted was to be a performer. So he started working as a stand-up comic and in theater. He’s still passionate about business. The challenge for him is to take this new piece of himself and to find a life structure that will allow him to integrate that piece into the rest of his life.
Grow Up — Then Grow Up Again
Even when we reach adulthood, we still aren’t finished developing. But change does start to happen in different ways. As children, we develop merely through living, through interacting with the world. Adult development doesn’t work that way. It depends on how we respond to what is put in our path.
Some people arrive at Odyssey feeling a need to change because of a crisis: the loss of a loved one, the prospect of selling a company that they’ve built. For others, the crisis is more subtle: They just don’t feel the same excitement that they used to feel. I don’t steer people toward crisis. But I try to help them appreciate that crisis is often the crucible for life’s true riches. I try to help people to appreciate that crisis is not something to be feared, rejected, or organized out of our awareness.
Take a Leap of Faith
There’s a crucial fork in the road that people encounter while they’re dealing with this question. One path is what I call the “Neiman Marcus option”: “I can fix this by going shopping. I can shop for a new house — or for a new job on the West Coast.” That works, but only temporarily. The other path requires entering into a relationship with the sources of your dissatisfaction. You say, “I can withstand this pain. I have faith.”
A leap of faith is not an orderly, systematic process. Instead, it’s like being pregnant for the first time. There are days when you wake up in a panic and you want to get out. Then you realize that the only way out is forward. You’re propelled ahead in ways that you just cannot control, and you almost have no choice but to take a leap into the unknown.
Keith H. Hammonds (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior editor. To learn more about the Odyssey program, visit the Web (www.exed.hbs.edu/programs/ody/index.html).
My Odyssey: David Wolff
Title: Chairman and president, Wolff Companies; Age: 58
Odyssey Class of 1998
I’ve been a real-estate developer in Houston ever since I left Harvard business School, in 1964. I’ve made a lot of money, and I don’t need to make any more. I had gotten to a point where I said, “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?” Toward the end of the Odyssey session, we were supposed to come up with a life plan. I had mine all done. Then I realized that I didn’t mean what I had written. My plan was superficial; I realized that I needed to go deeper if I wanted to feel that I had accomplished something. That realization forced me to explore what was really important to me.
At Odyssey, I kept getting kidded about the four wonderful houses that I own. I thought, “This is becoming my identity: I’m the guy with lots of houses. Is that how I want to be thought of?” That lesson has stayed with me. Now, when someone asks me to do something, I ask, “How does this project fit into what I want my life to be?” Nonprofits will take up as much time as you’re willing to give them, so I really monitor that part of my life. I’ve also realized that in the years ahead, I’d like my children and grandchildren to live near my wife and me. That would have a big impact on my happiness, and it’s a lot more important to me than money.
My Odyssey: Marty Greenberg
Title: Chairman, Sterling Commodities; Age: 59
Odyssey Class of 1998
I had gotten to a point in my career where the hunger was down. I’d been there, done that, and work wasn’t all that interesting to me anymore. At the same time, I was seeing my powers diminish, and that’s a terrible thing. Even though I own my own firm, I can’t do half the things that I used to do, and I’m not as important to the firm as I used to be. But I don’t want to retire. I’m going to be 60 in December, and I want to stay young. I don’t want to be sitting in Florida with my pants up to my chest.
Odyssey got me thinking in different ways about my future. Before, I knew that two plus two was four. Now I’m not so sure what two plus two is, but I feel better anyway — because I don’t think that finite answers matter so much. Most of us type-A people believe that everything we do has to be perfect. I learned that you can do something today that has faults, and you can amend it tomorrow, and that’s okay. Now, if I’m not working, I no longer feel guilty. And because I’m not so uptight about failing, I’ve been able to take more risks. Before, we were only in the commodities business. Now we’re opening up a securities day-trading firm. Before, I would never look at that kind of opportunity — for fear of failing. Now I’m more open to risk. And I’m more intrigued by my work.