Disillusion in the business world: its negative impact on seeking

The affordances of technology in today’s world have created supercompanies out of start-ups. The “Horatio Alger” opportunity that technology can provide in a business world that sees disruption more as opportunity than threat has helped fuel grandiose illusions for many of today’s designers, developers, and young entrepreneurs. The fact is that for every successful billionaire and billion-dollar company that grew seemingly overnight, there are hundreds or even thousands of businesses and business visionaries who met with a much lower level of success - or even abject failure.

Many of these failed visionaries took the lyrical advice of the old song about the ant and the rubber tree plant: “They pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again. ’Cause they’ve got... high hopes.” In these cases, a person retains their capacity to remain, in the words of Dr. Lichtenberg, “a seeker, seeking” and “a doer, doing.”

However, some who fail lack such resilience. When they lose sight of their dream, they lose sight of themselves. Their illusions of grandeur become shattered and all hopes they might have had get shattered as well. With no hope, there is no reason to seek. There is no reason to do. This is the state of disillusion.

As an advisor to business leaders, I’ve seen many different responses to both success and failure. To my mind, the saddest, and arguably the most dangerous, is disillusion.

I submit the stories of Peter and Greg.

The story of Peter

Peter was one of many promising, bright technicians in the dotcom era. He loved technology and all it could bring to solving business problems. He loved thinking about how technology could provide quick, scalable solutions to complex business challenges. He loved puzzles and problem solving and was highly competitive.

Peter noticed that the more adept he got at solving problems, the dumber others in the world seemed to be. His confidence in his abilities grew in proportion to his disdain for authority, tradition, and anything time-tested. He had no use for his father, who left his mother when Peter and his sister were quite young. Early in high school, he began to view his mother as an “unnecessary burden on his freedom” and an “impediment to his mind.” He tolerated high school long enough to graduate and only lasted a semester in college before he struck out on his own as an entrepreneur specializing in designing software for individual businesses. Peter quickly found clients he could easily help, and he charged a handsome fee in return. Within a few years he had a full-time client bring him onboard in a crea-tor/advisor capacity to develop a technologically scaled idea for their new dotcom product offering. His software solution was so successful that he and his company were retained to optimize the new technology as a major selling-point for their company.

Peter was savvy enough to realize he could sell the same technology to other types of companies in the market with no pre-existing limitations from his current client. His challenge was that he had a total disdain for marketing (“If the product is so good, why does it need to be marketed?”), and a nasty habit of brow-beating anyone who worked for him (“Why can’t they learn to think for themselves? Why do I have to constantly solve their problems?”)

I was recommended to Peter as someone who could help him build and grow a company with a strategy that wouldn’t require too much of his involvement, time, investment, or leadership.

I quickly determined that Peter’s new technology had no competition in the field and could quickly and easily become an industry standard, so I took him on as a client. It didn’t take long for me to learn that he had a reputation for being equal parts smart, savvy, and arrogant. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that people actually liked not liking him. Nonetheless, Peter’s technology started to become an industry standard, to the point where he was making more money than he had ever made before.

As time went on, he went through employees like water and became more and more disagreeable as his business success increased. It seemed that anytime we talked about how fast the business was growing, Peter could only tell me how he deserved more respect as an entrepreneur and authority from his clientele, his employees, and the marketplace. In spite of his increasing bitterness, his business continued to grow even though he wanted less and less to do with it. It seemed that his favorite refrain was that he was an unappreciated genius who was bigger than one little piece of technology.

Soon it became clear that, based on market conditions and Peter’s personal limitations as an owner, it was time to sell his company. Peter was now rich and free from the necessity of operating or owning a business. While he had progressed from being just another technician with one client and no initial personal investment to having millions of dollars and a great lifestyle, he told me he was feeling empty. The captains of his industry wanted nothing to do with him and he couldn’t figure out why. He soon began having illicit sexual affairs and spending lavishly on long trips for himself. When I asked him about his plans, he said he didn’t have any. When I reminded him that he didn’t make enough money on the sale to not have any plans, he said he didn’t care. He told me that he made enough not to have to do anything for anyone ever again.

He became listless, bored, and withdrawn. He found himself alone without friends or people who wanted to do business with him. He insisted that he liked it that way. His wife divorced him because of his flagrant infidelity, and he had to sell his house as well as his personal possessions. Peter became a person who had no drive to solve puzzles or problems, or even to discuss ideas.

When we last talked, he told me that he was an unappreciated genius. A one-shot has-been who had a little luck and a little success, but not even close to the degree that his great capabilities deserved because no one listened to him. He also told me he was enjoying smoking pot and recreationally experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. He had spent what was left of his fortune and lived in a trailer alone, not wanting to talk to anyone. To all who knew him, Peter disappeared.

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