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When you meet misfortune on the road to success

April 10th, 2016
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How steep of a price are we willing to pay for success? Startup founders or anyone trying to climb a corporate ladder know that sacrifices will have to be made. Long hours, missed family events, and close friendships that become distant are common.

We have all seen or personally experienced the signs of dysfunction when these sacrifices become too great, such as substance abuse, extramarital affairs and health problems. Sometimes family, friends and coworkers will thankfully intervene before or at the point when there is a crisis. They could see the signals that something was wrong. Fortunately, that is often the moment at which the striver, who is oblivious to the emotional and physical toll that his or her ambitions are taking, can be helped before it leads to a tragedy.

The outliers are the dramatic falls of the seemingly impervious high achievers. They are frequently the picture of perfect health, great family, large network of friends and brimming with ideas, projects and unbridled ambition. You know the type. Business challenges, economic uncertainties and controversies only fuel their ambitions while it would unnerve others.

Public perception and inner realities

Energy industry giant Aubrey McClendon was this type. His sudden and untimely death was a sobering reminder of how life’s misfortunes can bring down someone known for being resourceful and a fighter to a point so low that he could see taking his own life as the only option.

McClendon was described as brash, a risk taker and bigger than life. He was the founder and CEO of Chesapeake Energy and bet heavily on filling world demand for natural gas by using controversial hydraulic fracking technologies to access hard to reach gas reserves. His rising star had shined ever so brightly until the price of energy plummeted.

Chesapeake Energy’s profits fell. Friction between McClendon and his board of directors led to his sacking. In typical fashion, an undeterred McClendon started a new company. But for all of McClendon’s shrewdness and self-confidence, his difficulties didn’t go away. In fact, they got even worse.

The bank financing McClendon secured for his new company was withdrawn. Additionally, he was being investigated for federal anti-trust violations. A federal grand jury was scheduled to reach a decision whether to issue an indictment in early 2016. True to his outspoken nature, McClendon publicly criticized the investigation and maintained his innocence. Privately, he was reported to have been very concerned.

On March 1st, McClendon was indicted for antitrust violations. Nevertheless, on the same day, the energy pioneer, who was also a part owner of the NBA’s Oklahoma Thunder, reportedly had a meeting on a project to build an Olympic-class rowing facility near Oklahoma City, and did nothing out of the ordinary for the balance of the day. The next day, however, he went for a drive by himself and crashed his car into an overpass at high speed, which local authorities think was a deliberate act.

A shared dilemma

I was not a friend or even an acquaintance of Mr. McClendon’s. But I know a lot of people like him. A few have been industry pioneers, but most were small business entrepreneurs, corporate executives and professionals. All shared similar characteristics: they were highly ambitious, entrepreneurial and unstoppable, and willing to pay nearly any price to be successful. Success seemed to follow them everywhere, but occasionally so did major failures and personal traumas.

There were bankruptcies, divorces, drug and alcohol addictions, health and emotional problems. Sound familiar? Life can be unpredictable and tragic. But why is it that some people are able to regain their balance after a fall while others are irreparably damaged?

Our knowledge about mental health and what would cause a well-adjusted person to give up hope has probably never been better. But still chance and circumstances can play decisive roles. Would McClendon’s fate have been different if the federal grand jury had reached a different decision? Was this the fatal tipping point or was there another problem so emotionally overwhelming that he could see no other alternative? We will probably never know for sure. The factors that move one person under extreme stress to behave in a certain way may be different for another person. In today’s highly competitive and stressful world, understanding what those factors are could make the difference in coping or folding in the face of extreme adversity.

But this is not an academic discussion. It is in many ways a very personal conversation for people in all walks of life who try to live their dreams, no matter how grand. Whether a founder of a successful startup business or the men and women who juggle jobs, school and family responsibilities to advance their careers, knowing how high of a price you are willing to pay to reach those goals may ultimately save your life.

Cultivating the areas of life that give you strength, dignity and purpose to avoid falling into an abyss of despair when misfortune knocks is a survival skill worth learning.

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