Thursday, December 17, 2009

Success: Bill Gates v. the Dalai Lama

The more we study the science of success, the more we realize how critical it is to define it. Only then will we know whether we've reached it... or whether it's the kind we even want.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling book Outliers, asserts, unconventionally, that success is not about how hard we work or how much we overcome - sure, those are important - but rather about where we come from, specifically, (1) the year we were born and (2) the status and history of our family. The answers to those two questions will predict stratospheric success more than anything else.

But while Malcolm's explanation of success is unconvential, his definition of it is not. He frames success as does conventional wisdom - along the lines of money, power, fame. Bill Gates is clearly a success. So are the Beattles. Both examples in Malcolm's book.

But what about the Dalai Lama? That is to say, are there not other measures of success, alternatives to money, power, fame? What about happiness? or fulfillment? or inner peace?

Well, those things are simply harder to define. How exactly do we define happiness? How do we use it as a benchmark to determine the degree to which someone has it? With money, it's easy - How much does someone make or have in the bank? But with happiness, it's nebulous at best.

This is a measurement problem. There's no way to measure happiness like there is to measure money. Where there's a measurement problem, there's a credibility problem. And where there's a credibility problem, people don't buy in.

Malcolm could have written a book about success defined as happiness, fulfillment, and inner peace - in fact, we would have loved to have read it - but he might have had a problem with readership buy-in, and ultimately, book sales. In a world - or at least, a country (America) - that defines success as how much money we accumulate, power we amass, and fame we attract, low book sales would have been a problem.

This entry is not meant as a critique of Malcolm's book (we really liked it) or his values (we suspect he's a good person). We simply use his book as a reference point and catalyst for thought and conversation.

We'd love to hear from you. Do you buy-in to this alternative definition of success? Or do you think it's just a rationalization of reality? Put another way: Are you drawn to the type of success achieved by Bill Gates or the Dalai Lama? Comment here or write us at


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. *sorry deleted original and replaced it with the same comment with a login.

    I think I'm not too far off (and I'm sure many will agree) that money is life's most successful measure, IN QUANTIFIABLE terms that is.

    You simply can't disagree with that fact but I do place a strong importance and value in intangible aspects of life such as honor, trust, respect, integrity etc, things that we are unable to measure and quantify.

    I think in a Bill Gates vs. Dalai Lama comparison, it's tough and based on the context the choices are too extreme for me haha. Both have had incredible effects on our global society, but Bill Gates having amassed such a huge wealth has the greater potential to affect the world (if he so chooses, which luckily he has done with his various philanthropic initiatives). But in terms of overall happiness as a person, I'm sure the Dalai Lama embodies a sense of well-being not many can have and I suspect that regardless of money, he can stay happy. That is my ultimate goal in life, be happy without any relevance to how much money I have in the bank account. It's a difficult task for sure but based on our current money-driven landscape, I think that you can derive some great personal peace if you can reach that sort of goal.

    A friend Angelo put me onto this, I look forward to reading your posts.

  3. Eugene,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I agree that effecting positive change deserves a place in our definition of success. It got me thinking: Perhaps, we should really think about success along two dimensions - professional and personal. Whereas professional success is about money and social impact, personal success is about happiness... which leads to another question: To what degree do we need (or should we have) each dimension?