I can’t even remember what it was, but long before the Bill Gates news broke (i.e., that he was chumming it up with Jeffrey Epstein on the regular; that he had questionable, at best, office behavior at Microsoft; that he may just be a jerk) I got quite upset by a realization that so many conventionally successful people are completely out of touch (at best) and moral failures (at worst). Certainly not all, but many millionaires and billionaires. When I find myself in situations like these I tend to look to my elders for wisdom. In this case, I texted my dear friend Michael Joyner, who is a 62-year-old super successful polymath. He’s won the distinguished researcher award at a major US health care system, is quoted weekly in the largest international publications, and is widely known as the world’s foremost expert on human performance. He is also a practicing anesthesiologist on the side. Most important, Mike is not an egotistical jerk. (For example, he always makes time for people like me!)
Here’s the killer part of our conversation, which happened over text:
Me: I can’t believe there are so many egotistical jerks. Why do all these people just completely lose touch? What is it about money or power or status that just turns you into a douche? Is it unavoidable?
Mike: I am getting more weight equipment.
We didn’t talk much further on the topic because we didn’t need to. What I suspect Mike is saying is this: Lifting weights helps keep you from becoming an egotistical jerk.
Doing something that is hard and real humbles you. You have to earn the successes. And when you experience failures, you can’t just talk them away. When the bar drops, it drops. It is hard to get out of touch or full of yourself when you are working hard on something that is concrete, when your successes are earned and your failures cannot be rationalized with corporate mumbo-jumbo or social media hot takes.
Weightlifting is but one example. There are myriad other activities that fit the bill. Running, cycling, swimming, gardening, sculpting, baking, and so on.
Perhaps my most humble executive coaching client is a CIO at a huge firm. I’ve been working with him for about four years now. He is so sincerely understated; at times, to a fault. He also is a diehard woodworker. Guess what? When you are building tables in your basement you are going to get humbled over and over again. Tables either stand or they don’t. And you can’t just use your power or money or relevance or fame to make a shoddy table stand.
I doubt this is is a cure-all, but one way to stay in touch with reality, especially as you rise, is to quite literally stay in touch with reality. Not spend all day tweeting. Not spend all day in extra meetings or sitting on fancy boards. Not endlessly refreshing your bank account or stocks. But doing actual, real things in the world.