The successful man who committed suicide

Joan F. Marques - MBA, Doctoral Student
Burbank, California - February, 2003

James seemed to have it all. There were three classy cars in the driveway of his mansion, which was located in the better side of town. His children were all in college, delivering great results. His wife was a beauty, complimented for her looks wherever the couple showed up. His business in computer software programming was running like a train, and his employees adored him. He had an open door policy and made sure to involve all stakeholders of his organization in every important change he was planning to apply. James was a model-person: your stereotypical success personification.

Yet, on a cold November night, the police stopped at the family front door and brought his wife and the kids that were home at that moment the sad news of James' death. He had shot himself through the head. It was obviously suicide. The handwritten note in his pocket explained everything. James was tired of it: He stepped out.

No one in his neighborhood, the clubs that he frequented, or his office, understood the reasons behind James' act. This man had been the epitome of success. What had gotten into him? Did he suddenly lose his mind? For as far as the investigation went, James' records were flawless: no debts, no addictions, no relations with the underworld, and no signs of insanity, not even troubles at home. Everybody was shocked. And confused.

Of course they were confused! Here was a symbol of the dream they all had. And he pulled the plug on himself. He didn't want to live the dream anymore. So what were they supposed to think now?

Here's what really happened to James: he had been pretty successful all his life, according to society's standards. He earned his MBA at a reasonably young age, and started his own business. Because of his understanding character he managed to attract quality people who believed in what they were doing. So business boomed. And James' life soon lost its challenge. Everything was running so well, that James gradually started to feel redundant. His children didn't need him anymore, his wife was having a good time with her friends and social activities, and his business was flourishing, whether he was there or not.

He started to get tired of the same faces at the same places all the time. He was surrounded by many people, yet lonely. He started wondering if he wouldn't have been better of to continue struggling, being happy with every little victory booked, instead of having everything come his way as if it was meant to be. He also started to understand that dreams should not be realized too fast, because that could leave you with nothing left to dream. And for James that was exactly the case: he had nothing left to dream. Every possible road in his life was paved to a sickening level. He felt as if his purpose was fulfilled, and that his journey might as well be over.

James' story indicates that success- like failure- is just an opinion. Society has created a number of criteria for success, which are chased by many of its members. People are constantly trying to find ways to achieve higher living standards: they go back to school in order to earn a degree, they become members of upscale clubs to become buddies with important people, and they buy expensive cars and homes to show others that they are doing well. And a relatively small number really reaches the point where all dreams are realized. But after having read James' story, that may not be considered so unfortunate anymore, don't you think?

Success is an opinion. Everybody thought that James was successful, but he didn't. He was unhappy enough to choose to exit. That may indicate that he was not as successful in his own perception as everybody else thought. For what, really, is success? Is it all that James personified and left behind, or is it the establishment of a lifestyle one feels pleased with for a long time, whatever that lifestyle may be? And doesn't that mean, then, that some people are successful even if they deliberately choose for a low stress job with low pay, but much contentment, even if they could do differently? Can we ever reach a unique conclusion as to what success really consists of?

Someone recently told me that you can only judge whether someone has been successful after his or her death. I don't agree. I think that even at that point we cannot reach a unique conclusion, as some people may consider the studied person successful, while others will disagree, based on their personal criteria.

In conclusion, success is something we all can attain, as long as we care enough to consider what our personal definition of success is. So, maybe it's time for you to wonder if, as a matter of fact, you are not successful now, even if no one else agrees? After all, "what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and, in the end, lose his soul?" That's not success either!