Can You Be Successful Without Being Secretly Unhappy?

3 lessons from Rosamund Pike’s Marla Grayson.

Can You Be Successful Without Being Secretly Unhappy?
Image from Netflix

3 lessons from Rosamund Pike’s Marla Grayson.

“It’s lonely at the top.”

I was reading an interview of the Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan where he quoted this line, mentioning how hard one has to work to reach the top, and it’s very lonely there.

This reminded me of the warning my family and teachers have repeated to me over and over again — how success and happiness are mutually exclusive, and you have to give up on one to achieve the earlier.

I also recently watched the movie I Care A Lot based on the recommendation from my friend Buse Umur. The protagonist, Marla Grayson (played by the “Millennial Femme FataleRosamund Pike), is portrayed as highly ambitious, albeit ruthless at times. She stops at nothing to get what she wants and make her dreams come true. The movie chronicles her journey on how she became one of the world’s richest entrepreneurs while starting with no money in her bank account.

It does a brilliant job of portraying the moral dilemma most successful people face: if forced to pick between money and happiness, which one to choose?

This question forced me to look at the psychology behind success and its implications. I found some interesting correlations and lessons that apply to every person who has dreams and the drive to make it big. If you’re pursuing a dream and don’t want to lose touch with your humanity while on the journey, this article is for you. There are no spoilers or references to the movie. Rather, this article looks at what it really takes to be successful without compromising on your chances for happiness.

1. Know Where to Draw the Line

You might have to break some rules. But how far would you go before you start losing track of what’s “right” and what’s not?

To reach the top, you might have to hurt other people. But how much ruthlessness would you show before you realize you have no friends left?

To be successful without being unhappy, you need to know where to draw the line. A researcher at the University of Bern in Switzerland split ruthlessness into three traits after studying 800 employees across various industries. These different traits are:

  • Machiavellianism or the ability to manipulate people.
  • Narcissism or immense confidence and a great sense of self-worth.
  • Psychopathy, marked by impulsiveness, the need to control other people’s behavior, and the tendency to take risks.

The study results established that of these three ruthless traits, only individuals high in narcissism and Machiavellianism have high chances for success. The Machiavellians are able to get what they want by their powers of persuasion. At the same time, narcissists have good impression management, so they can convince their colleagues or supervisors that they are worth special advantages.

This study showed that to a certain extent, manipulating others and thinking highly of yourself can lead to better chances of success, but how far are you willing to go? This is again a personal choice, but one that you might have to make early on in your journey and establish rock-solid principles so that no amount of success, fame, or money can sway you.

It’s good to be ambitious, but it’s even better to have contingencies to rely on if your endeavor doesn’t succeed.

2. Don’t Underestimate Your Rivals

If you think too highly of yourselves, there’s a chance you might end up thinking your rivals or opponents know nothing. This overestimation of your own talents could be a serious pitfall.

As a post by Harvard Business Review suggests, “we tend to overestimate how rational, careful, and logical we are. We are also prone to believe that others are more susceptible than we are to irrational decision-making. Both of these biases make it easy to ignore or underestimate the harm that can befall us as a result of competitive arousal.”

Of course, self-belief is a great trait. But that shouldn’t come at the cost of thinking your opponents know nothing. Treat your opponents as your equals and give them more credit than you’d normally do.

It’s better to over-plan and be happily surprised than under-prepare and be heartbroken. Do your homework before making any guesses.

“You never under or overestimate your rival. When I play my biggest rivals or when they play me, we realize we are playing among equals.” — Viswanathan Anand, former world chess champion.

3. Know the Stakes

There’s always as much to lose as there’s to gain when it comes to games of power. Walk into the battle knowingly. Be prepared with what you’re willing to risk.

There will inevitably be some collateral damage along the way. It might hamper your relationships and sabotage your chances for happiness. Know your limits and the limits of the people you love.

In other words, know the “cost of failure.” According to psychologist Carl Beuke, PhD., here’s how you can estimate the cost of failure:

  • Visualize what happens if you don’t reach your goal.
  • A more positive way of asking this question is, “What’s my contingency plan?”

The cost of “just” missing out on a personal or professional goal could be very high if you haven’t planned an alternative to fall back on. It’s good to be ambitious, but it’s even better to have contingencies to rely on if your endeavor doesn’t succeed.

It’s better to over-plan and be happily surprised than under-prepare and be heartbroken. Do your homework before making any guesses.

Final Words

There’s a famous two-line story that goes like this:

Those who had notes ran for shelter. The ones who had coins danced and enjoyed the rain.

I don’t know the source of this story, but the message is crystal clear: if you’re rich or successful, you can’t be happy.

But if you take some precautions, this doesn’t always have to be the case. Here’s what you need to keep in mind to be successful without being secretly unhappy:

  • Know where to draw the line to your ruthlessness.
  • Treat your opponents as your equals. It’s better to over-prepare and be disappointed with the competition than under-prepare and be overwhelmed.
  • Know what you’re prepared to risk. Be aware of the limits of the people you love who might end up as collateral damage.

At the end of the day, “success” has different definitions for different people, and that’s why “risk” isn’t the same for everyone either. If you want to be successful without compromising on your happiness, you need to have a clear idea of where you are, where you want to be, and what you have to give up to reach there.

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