“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy. Everything else is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.”
– Albert Camus
A cursory online search yields over a million results on the habits of highly successful people “hustling” for success. This rat-race, the seemingly endless pursuit of status, money, and power, has yielded the explosive growth of new technology and record levels of new wealth. No one represents this better perhaps than Elon Musk, the mercurial serial entrepreneur and founder of SpaceX, Tesla, and PayPal. For years, Musk famously touted the 100-hour work-week as the “prerequisite for changing the world.”
But there was a problem: after amassing hundreds of millions and catapulting multiple companies to success, it dawned that there was a hidden cost. After his second divorce, he realized he hated “being in a big empty house, and the footsteps echoing through the hallway, no one there.”
His story speaks to the paradox of today’s archetype of success—a person optimized for consumption—both the consumer and the consumed. However, the mentality of “work hard, play hard” cannot save even the brightest of stars from our societal epidemic of depression and anxiety or being at the mercy of broken social contract, driven by the polemics of demagogues and fascists. The scramble to the top of the heap to capture the elusive prize has created a generation molded to pursue goals without meaning. The solution to this malaise is to shift the conversation towards answering the question of “why.”
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs hints at an answer. Maslow argued that basic needs such as food, water, and shelter must be satisfied to allow more advanced needs – love and belonging, esteem and, finally, self-actualization to be realized.
Understood superficially, this line of thinking could be abused to justify the pursuit of prestigious, grueling, soul-sucking careers. If you can pay the bills, then buy belongings, access the best schools, jobs and other markers of esteem and success, this warped logic goes, you will then be happy and free to finally pursue your passions. Yet in every country and every industry, there are many unhappy people at the top. The system is broken, somehow, and the solution to fix it murky.
The path forward appears clearer when you consider Maslow’s revision of his theory later in life, distinguishing pursuits in service to oneself from those in service to others. True self-actualization, he explained, can only be achieved by going beyond yourself with self-transcendence, which he described as the “very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.”
The journey from self-actualization to self-transcendence lies at the heart of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, published in 1961. Its protagonist, Binx Bollinger, is a young stockbroker living in 1950s New Orleans. He dedicates himself in equal measure to his career in finance and his family while indulging in a love of movies and love affairs with his secretaries. Soon, he embarks on a “search” for a more authentic life, explaining, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
The novel, which won the National Book Prize, sheds light on the alienation and despair that so often accompanies the age of abundance. (In Binx’s case, it is a post-war boom; today, it is our Second Gilded Age). In other words, he seeks to answer Maslow’s question, “What happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread, and when his belly is chronically filled?”
In this set of essays, Stefan Beiten leads us through his own search for an answer to the question of “why.” An entrepreneur, investor and lawyer, Beiten had all the trappings of success: by age 40, he had placed over $1 billion in investments and founded nearly 20 companies. He had raised three children and produced global hits such as Deep Blue and Planet Earth. But after the 2008 financial crisis, he lost it all. After a life spent in pursuit of accolades and achievements, he wondered, “what is the point of it all?” This quest for self-inquiry results in the creation of The Argonauts.
The Argonauts is a global community built to withstand the turbulent time we now find ourselves in. Its Trust Circles operate as a laboratory, an incubator for holistic self-discovery. It stands in direct contrast to the demagoguery of contemporary leaders. To quote Beiten: “Bad leaders produce bad times. But bad times can also produce good leaders. Good leaders then produce good times. But good leaders cannot emerge in the absence of good ideas.”
I write this passage amid a global pandemic. The world’s responses to coronavirus have, of necessity, been coordinated by local and global governmental bodies, forcing people to rely on these more than has been the case in recent memory. The outsized role of these institutions has exposed growing deficiencies in even the most hallowed political institutions. Indeed, the leadership crisis that Beiten speaks of seems very much upon us.
And yet I feel that we are in a golden age of ideas and collaboration. This is an era in which we see San Francisco-based entrepreneurs developing drone delivery services to get blood and medical supplies to remote, rural communities in East Africa. Meanwhile, in India, financial technology platforms strive to help smallholder farmers break the cycle of debt. In a refurbished train depot in Paris, cybersecurity and green-tech companies flourish in the creative entrepreneurial hub of Macron’s ambitious vision of French entrepreneurship, Station F. These examples show that good ideas, good leaders are all around us even in these dark times. But to fuel their drive to pursue a conception of success beyond mere monetary gain, they need an ecosystem of collaborators and champions behind them.
In just a few short years, The Argonauts has emerged as that rarefied space at the global level that is not about self-aggrandizement or accolades. At the end of the day, it is a community that is more focused on listening and learning than speeches and soliloquies.
Poland-based Argonaut Tomasz Karwatka founded Divante over a decade ago to provide software solutions for industry leaders from T-Mobile to 3M. With a fast-growing business and high-caliber clientele, it is easy to default to rooting one’s success in contracts and spreadsheets; however, Tomasz has turned to The Argonauts to help maintain sight of his north star. He calls his Circle peers a “great source of experience and inspiration.”
In the words of fellow Argonaut and acclaimed data scientist Alex Jackl, it takes “a certain humility [and] servant leadership” to access this community’s full power. But once that power is realized, “we can more powerfully shape ourselves, our relationships, our communities, our societies, and the world far easier than we can alone.”
Katia Walsh, Chief Strategy Officer at Levi-Strauss, regularly wakes up at 5 am to get on her Argonaut Trust Circle calls. “I never miss a meeting because communicating and connecting with my Circle crew keeps me going, energizes me, gives me the brainpower and optimism I need. These people I’ve never met in person have become my family, my confidence, my close friends.”
To sail a ship in the stormiest of seas, even while maintaining sight of land, you need a dedicated crew. In this volume, Beiten shares his journey to finding his cohort of mariners and how he found his way back to shore after years of being lost. As you read this volume and explore the Argonauts community, I hope you see the shoreline too.
Akinyi Ochieng is a strategist for sustainability and social impact as well a writer and researcher for the culture and politics of emerging markets, providing strategic support to philanthropists, companies, and nonprofits looking to build, enhance or launch social impact programs and change the discourse around pressing social and environmental issues. Having studied at Yale University and the LSE in London, she went on to lead global marketing and communications in the sustainability, financial services, and technology sectors across the United States, Europe, and Africa, working with diverse stakeholders from rural farmers to C-suite executives.
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