Here's a simple quiz.
Are married, well to do men more or less likely to practice unprotected sex with prostitutes than their less established counterparts?
The answer is surprising. According to a study by psychologist Dieter Kleiber, those men living the most stable and successful lives are significantly more likely to practice unprotected sex when patroning services from ladies of the night.
Upon first examination, this is completely irrational. These are the people with the most to lose. The risk/reward equation is clearly tipped in favor of playing it safe. And yet, stability is now known to increase the propensity to take on unnecessary risk. How can this be?
The reason, it turns out, is that stability and success over time lead us to falsely conclude that we are invincible. "The more secure and orderly a man's life is, the more he believes in his own invulnerability," Kleiner summarizes.
Which brings me to Martha Stewart. I had the pleasure to spend time with Martha one afternoon a year or so ago. She is a delightful person. She is beaming with intelligence. And she loves her customers, thinks like them, is devoted to them. It is this exceptional empathy for her customers that has allowed her to become one of the most successful female entrepreneurs of all time.
So why did she do it?! I couldn't help but ask myself this question over and over when, several years back, it was revealed that Ms. Stewart had initiated a stock trade based on a insider tip from a friend, and then later lied to authorities about it. Martha was worth over a billion dollars at the time, but she took a risk that turned her life upside down and ultimately landed her in jail over what -- a stock gain that amounted to less than four tenthousanths of one percent of her net worth! For a person with $100,000 nest egg, that's the equivalent of a cup of coffee.
Martha Stewart engaged in such wreckless behavior, at least in part, because she felt invincible, and she is not alone. Bill Clinton brazenly trolled the oval office halls "with that woman" because at the time things were going so well. Corporate fat cats spend absurd amounts of money on office refurbishments, and fly jets to Washington to beg for bailout money because they are so comfortably cocooned within thick layers of spoils and accolades. They simply cannot envision a future that diverges greatly from their comfortable, successful present.
The more things go right, the more you cling to the belief that they can't go wrong.
Author Jim Collins has told me this phenomenon is conspicuously present in his research of successful companies that unexpectedly decline or fail. Market successes leads to arrogance leads to myopia and unnecessary risk-taking, and eventually leads to decline.
As individuals trying to manage our organizations and our careers, we are certainly not immune to this illusion, often with destructive consequences. We believe that work will continue to go well, so we fail to save for a rainy day. We tell ourselves that current successes will invariably be repeated, and in so doing fail to invest in building new skills, fail to identify potential new opportunities, and fail to explore new channels to leverage our strengths and passions.
Things do change. Past success does not guarantee a prosperous future. Those prescient enough to anchor themselves in humility and prepare for an uncertain future are least likely to succumb to obstacles of their own making. Those who believe they are invincible (such as those from our quiz) may one day surprisingly awaken to a cycle of penicillin and a divorce attorney.