Success and Emptiness

A friend was offered an attractive job by an outside organization and wanted to discuss the alternatives.  This friend is both smart and industrious.  She has therefore experienced much conventional success, including top grades, employment by a prestigious company, high evaluations, promotions, salary increases, and has been selected as a high potential.

The offer of an outside job triggered a crisis, a recognition of suppressed, personal confusion and a sense of emptiness.  As we discussed the available choices, we constantly boiled things to the essence.  Eventually one course of action seemed clearly superior.  As my friend faced the fiery furnace of choice, there was a long silence.  I have many times been in this moment of silence.  Each case would appear to be unique yet what is revealed is quite universal.  A spontaneous and sincere question emerged, “If I do this, what will my parents and family and others think?  Will they see me as unsuccessful?”

This statement reveals a conventional perspective.  It is based on achievement and recognition.  Without even realizing it, as we imagine the opinions of others we seek to impress through external success, we can begin living from an external locus of control.  In the process, we give away our internal locus of control, we lose our sense of meaning, and we begin to feel empty.  My friend was actually aware of some of these dynamics and offered an observation: “I believe that the most corrosive thing I do is compare myself to others yet I continue to do it.”

She continues to do it because to function socially, we must be aware of how others see us.  Yet unless we are mindful, we can easily and quickly reach a tipping point and become externally driven.  It is natural for all of us to do what she was doing.  While social comparison continually creeps into our thinking, we can avoid emptiness and enjoy meaning by continually and rigorously examining our own motives.  We can do it by continually clarifying our values and our purpose.  This work of careful reflection counters the corrosive effects of social comparison.



  • Why do externally successful people sometimes feel empty?
  • Why might it be corrosive to compare ourselves with others?
  • What experiment might you run to gain a more internal locus of control?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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