Aspire | Action | Acquire
Aspire | Action | Acquire

The Curse of Ambition

Dr David Schwartz, the author of The Magic of Thinking Big, asserted, our success at work largely dictates the standard of living that we provide our families. He attributed our belief systems to mankind’s early development and wrote “Thousands of years ago the cave man who had the happiest home life and was most respected by his cave-mates was the fellow who was most successful as a hunter.”[1] There is reason to question Dr Schwartz’s assertions.

Back in 1984, the late economist Lester Thurow was published in the New York Times and stated that “people accumulate wealth solely to provide future consumption privileges for themselves and their children” is incorrect.  Using the Forbes 400 as an example, Thurow asserted that social acceptance and the power to influence are the real drivers of wealth accumulation.[2]

On the surface, Thurow’s observations may also seem at odds with what the eminent professor of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, has found from polling thousands of parents on what they want for their children. Professor Martin Seligman cites contentment, health, love, and meaning that he broadly categorises under the banner of “well-being”[3] as the wants of parents for their children. Principally, these responses to Seligman’s polling are non-monetary.

The paradox of financial ambition, what economists term ‘opportunity cost,’ is that the pursuit of wealth is often at the expense of family relationships. In one of his autobiographies, J Paul Getty, who was married five times, wrote of not remembering a single day of vacation in forty-five years that he was not interrupted and spent at least a couple of hours on business.[4]

Sam Walton was another not to let a good holiday het in the way of business. Walton would take driving holidays with his family and visit his stores and those of his competitors. What his daughter Alice remembers of her childhood was that the whole family was involved in working around the stores.[5] This is how a second generation of Walton wealth was nurtured.

Ray Kroc, the late billionaire behind McDonald’s, acknowledged, holy matrimony ended in unholy acrimony of his first marriage[6]. Kroc’s only child, a daughter with whom he didn’t develop a relationship, predeceased him leaving no heirs to the fortune he amassed. Aristotle Onassis and Conrad Hilton tell the tales of their wives departing to pursue other romantic interests as a consequence of the time spent on their respective businesses. Indicative of the strong association that entrepreneurs have with their businesses, Hilton would refer to each of his hotels as his mistresses[7].

In his autobiography, Phil Knight, the primary founder of the sporting apparel company, Nike, wrote of the palpable guilt that separation from family brings. Neither of Knight’s two sons exhibited real interest in the business and one died tragically in a sporting accident. Not dissimilarly, Conrad Hilton’s sons showed little early interest in their father’s hotel empire. Sadly, one died tragically craving his father’s acknowledgement. Edsel Ford too is said to have suffered for lack of acceptance under the want of his father to be like him.

The examples given highlight the importance of choice. Had Phil Knight followed his father’s advice he would have got a “real job” and may never have started Nike. Vance Packard, who has already been mentioned for his study of thirty ultra-rich people in the 1980s found around half did not think in family dynastic terms. One interviewee in particular, the late Ewing Kauffman, preferred not to hire relatives. “We get better executives because they know they won’t have to fight nepotism.”[8]

Of the families interviewed by Packard that did think in dynastic terms, several had grounds for disappointment. A post-interview story of U-Haul founder probably is one of the saddest. Leonard Samuel Shoen, had a full dozen children by three of five wives. Shoen distributed the ownership of U-Haul amongst his children and took his own life after being evicted from the company he started. The acrimony doesn’t end there. There remains suspicion that a brotherly dispute is behind the murder of the wife to one of the heirs[9].


[1] David J. Schwartz, The Magic of Thinking Big (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007).

[2] Thurow, Lester C. “The Leverage of Our Wealthiest 400 (published 1984).” Opinion, NewYork Times. October 11, 1984. https://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/11/opinion/the-leverage-of-our-wealthiest-400.html.

[3] Martin E. P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (New York: Atria, 2013),76.

[4] Paul Getty, How to be Rich (New York N.Y: Jove Books, 1986), 192.

[5] Sam Walton, and John Huey , Sam Walton Made in America: My Story, (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 68-69.

[6] Ray Kroc, and Robert Anderson , Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonalds (Chicago IL: Contemporary Books, 1977), 73.

[7] J. Randy Taraborrelli, Hiltons – the True Story of an American Dynasty (New York: Little Brown & Company, 2015).

[8] 1. Vance Packard, The Ultra Rich: How Much is too Much (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989), 243.

[9] 14. Luisa Kroll and Alex Morrell, ‘Inside U-haul’s Rollercoaster Ride from Nastiest Family Feud to Market Dominance’ (Forbes, 2016), < https://www.forbes.com/sites/luisakroll/2016/02/10/inside-u-hauls-rollercoaster-ride-from-nastiest-family-feud-to-market-dominance/#2bdeb2333bb5 > accessed November 03, 2020.