September 20, 2014

Spoiled by Success: a Diagnostic Career Guide to Spoilage Prevention, Prediction and Control

Becoming “spoiled by success”, like the spoiling of a soup, can happen in more than one way, despite the intuitive clarity and seeming simplicity of the idea.

Just as making sure too many cooks don’t spoil the soup requires planning, insight, vigilance and smart decisions, preventing spoilage by too much, the wrong kind or the wrong mix of career success requires corresponding preventive, control, predictive and corrective measures.

That understood, the question to ask is, “How many different ways can talent or plain hard work be spoiled by its own success?” To be useful, this should be asked in a systemically insightful way, drawing upon various models, principles, theories and dynamics to create an analytical framework within which a checklist of risk for any given career can be compiled and applied to either prevent, reverse, control or predict “career spoilage”.

Such a checklist would be invaluable to talents and talent handlers alike—especially when the talent is so taken with or addicted to its own success that objectivity about that success and the perils of having it and the talent spoiled, and the effort wasted, are simply not grasped.

This means that irrespective of whether the talent to be managed is in Hollywood, Silicon Valley or Washington, D.C., career-spoilage diagnostics and counter-strategies should be general, yet useful enough to cover almost every case of potential or evident success-induced danger.

As examples, bad-boy Justin Bieber; Steve Jobs in tyrannical, insensitive or ruthless moments; or self-sabotaging, self-admitted crack-smoking Toronto mayor Rob Ford—valid candidates for “spoilage management”, to the extent that their success created, liberated or amplified tendencies to spoil their own success.

Consistent with the legal view that corporations are “juridical persons”, i.e., to be regarded as having rights, obligations, protections and liabilities associated with individuals, spoilage-management diagnostics and principles can be applied to them as well.

This means that because, like talents, corporations can be spoiled by their success—and in ways in which people can—spoilage diagnostics, if not also remedies and preventives, can be applied to them as well.

Although a truly comprehensive, complete and “deep” career-spoiler diagnostic checklist would probably always require expansion, as career forms, technology and society evolve, it seems that any such checklist must include the following forms and warning signs and allow, among other things, distinguishing “destructive spoiling” from “annoying spoiling”—i.e., spoiling that damages the career and/or the operations of the spoiled individual (or organization) vs. spoiling that merely makes things difficult or unpleasant for everyone else:

*Loss of interest as success spoiler: In some instances, success breeds boredom of the “been there, done that” sort—especially when an appetite for “challenge” has been a key driver of the ambition to succeed and of the experience of being “in the zone” or “flow”.

Although many, if not most successful talents always find a new challenge, when that challenge lies in an entirely different or even reversed direction, despite whatever fresh personal successes follow, the price of that success may be the failure of the previous enterprise—at the expense of everyone else still committed to it.

This scenario suggests that “spoiled by success” has at least two interpretations in terms of exactly who or what is spoiled: On the one hand, the victim of spoilage will be the successful talent himself; on the other, it will be everyone, or at least someone, else, including the organization that had been thriving and successful.

To distinguish these, “career-spoilage” should designate and be limited in application to self-inflicted spoilage of an individual and his or her career.

The perfect illustration of damage inflicted initially or primarily on others, the image of a spoiled over-indulged child will suffice, with allowance made for the likelihood that the spoiling will eventually inflict damage on that child later in life.

This scenario also suggests a theoretical model in which to embed instances of spoilage prevention, viz., “flow theory”, which emphasizes the crucial role of a good skills-challenge match (as well as motivating goals, guiding values, available resources) in the successful undertaking of projects, careers, etc.

A “spoilage manager”, or the talent himself, aware of the critical importance of a skills-challenge match will develop contingency plans to deal with potential or emerging loss of interest through skills-challenge mismatches—which, in addition to boredom induced by a lack of challenge, can also result from challenges that are too severe and beyond the capabilities or resources of the previously successful talent.

*Success and spoilage based on compromising the principles or traits that made success possible: The obvious illustration here is the corruption of a populist politician whose electoral success based on promises of and commitment to transparency and reform is spoiled by breaking those promises and alienating his base, which subsequently ousts him in the next election.

Alternatively, the script requires betraying the principles one stands for in order to have the opportunity to successfully advance them.

Note the range of spoilage here: His success, he himself, his governance and possibly his party’s or faction’s chances are all spoiled because of his compromises or betrayals.

One theoretical model that may apply to such cases is some version of “meta-motivational reversal theory” that postulates that motivation slides from one extreme to another on a behavioral spectrum, often unpredictably, in a way somewhat similar to mood shifts in bipolar disorder.

Another model is “Catch 22 logic” that, in this instance, stipulates that in order to succeed, you must fail, e.g., in order have the power to advance clean government, you have to play dirty politics to get elected. For the sake of career and organization, this is a model to avoid adopting.

*Success and spoilage based on over-extending the principles or traits that made success possible: Using a politician as the reference case again, this opposite scenario is exemplified by a politician whose overweening ambition and drive for power got him elected, but also get him booted out of office, when he sacrifices his promises in order to satisfy an increasingly insatiable drive for more and more power.

A purely business example would be that of some Silicon Valley titan whose ruthlessness in destroying or absorbing competitors eventually lands the company in court—twice: once, in a huge civil suit; next, after filing for bankruptcy and being dunned by creditors.

One analytical model that may apply here is addiction dynamics—particularly the concept that, through habituation and desensitization, stronger and more frequent “hits” come to be required to achieve the same “buzz”. A second is the dynamics of “rationalization” and “denial” as psychological “defense mechanisms“.

For example, war-time atrocities tend to breed more and worse atrocities, as each atrocity serves to rationalize the previous as well as the next one (and vice versa) and facilitate denial that any of it matters (since, if it did, that would be horrible and unbearable, wouldn’t it?)in keeping with the “the first one is the hardest” principle, or lack of one.

These principles apply to and are utilized (consciously or otherwise) to over-extend and ramp up the “success” of careers ranging from the criminal to the far more ordinary.

*Self-entitlement based on and destructive of success: When success through great luck, hard work or talent is misperceived as license and success by right, a sense of self-entitlement is a common and unpleasant outcome. Especially impacted by this syndrome are those who have facilitated the success of the rising star and are kicked away, like a ladder that is no longer needed.

The spoilage here is multifaceted: Good working relationships between facilitators and the successful talent, e.g., between protege and mentor, are ruined; what should be the talent’s gratitude morphs into contempt or, at best, callous indifference; successful career relationships are miscategorized as successful persona—with the risk of overestimating the ease of replicating or surpassing them.

As a result, the talent is unable to enjoy the fruits of success for long, and will soon strive to ratchet himself up to a “higher” level set of relationships or operations, thereby dooming himself to chronic discontent, offset by a very fleeting sense of satisfaction.

The icon of this kind of spoilage is the previously down-in-the-dumps loser boyfriend who dumps the new woman in his life who, in redeeming and validating him in a constructive relationship, built up his confidence enough for him to “trade up” and look for someone “better” and “worthy” of him.

*Success based on pampering and pandering: In domains as superficially disparate as parenting and the grooming of organizational talent, pampering of and pandering to the centerpiece talent can seriously backfire and, as a minimum, make any success of the “star” or the supporting “cast” very short-lived.

From the standpoint of the talent, his or her success is obvious and seemingly assured, even if only because being pampered and pandered to is often perceived as success in itself, apart from the career and organizational goals such indulgence is supposed to advance.

The iconic, predictable problem with this kind of indulgence is that it creates atrophy, dependency, a stunting or loss of adaptability and unrealistic over-generalized expectations of the same pampering and license in broader, organizationally external domains in which others may not only be less accommodating of talent demandsand expectations, but also hostile to them.

An analytical framework from which to interpret and manage this kind of career and organizational spoilage is an augmentation of  the perspective of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and typical military-style boot camp: Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger;  in addition, whatever makes you weaker may kill you—figuratively and professionally, if not literally.

*Success won and spoiled through hubris: Similar to garden-variety arrogance and egotism, hubris—understood as self-destructive pride and overconfidence—nonetheless has special attributes that go beyond the excesses of these.

In particular, hubris seems to be fueled and framed by some sense, demonstrably delusional (when it leads to the failures and tragedies that define it as it runs its normal course to a destructive encounter with nemesis, the agent of fateful revenge) that one is “destined” to succeed through some sort of rendezvous with history or Fate.

Because colossal hubris, e.g., of a Hitler, creates both its successes and ultimate failure, a diagnosis of it, as a “condition”, pretty much means that the hubristic individual’s or organization’s fate is sealed—but not as grandiosely expected.

Of course, the key to accurate prediction of the career and organizational course driven by hubris is an equally accurate diagnosis.

Unfortunately, hubris is generally better-confirmed retrospectively, after the catastrophic end, than in advance, and therefore may be less susceptible to interventions—especially because those possessed by it are frequently talented enough to make a convincing case for the likelihood of their success.

Hence, the key challenge when dealing with hubris-driven success is to identify and manage it as such, with the understanding and expectation that it will surely lead to spoilage, if not complete self-destruction.

So, how is that to be accomplished? There are ways: Among them is to monitor the ambitions of the talent for signs of a drift into domains of incompetence.

Hubris tends to correlate with a sense of infallibility, omniscience and omnipotence—in extreme cases with delusions of quasi-divinity and operations of “destiny”, “fate”, “divine ordination”, etc.

As such, it is utterly self-insulated against any counter-evidence, including evidence of quantitative or qualitative incompetence in the form of taking on too much within one’s area of expertise or in taking on challenges beyond one’s existing skills and accessible resources.

A second hubris management tool is to closely monitor the means-ends matches favored by the talent. In early-stage success, the means adopted to the ends will be well chosen (otherwise, success is unlikely, if not impossible); however, in the tragic, spoiled second half of the career trajectory, operational slippage will become evident, in the form of unwise or inappropriate selection of means to ends or choice of goals and ends themselves that compounds the costs and failures of badly set goals.

An unexpected framework in which or perspective from which to approach success-spoiling hubris is that of one of the canons of scientific method: Any hypothesis that cannot be refuted by any evidence, e.g., “Any evidence that I am not destined to succeed is unacceptable”, is at best superstition, metaphysics or illusion. Making the hubris-obsessed talent aware of that may prevent the otherwise likely catastrophic career, organizational and/or project spoilage of that talent.

…If you can get him or her to listen.


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Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).