The Contribution vs Character Acceptability Curve
Regarding Work Ethic, Superstardom, and General Assholery
We’ve sort of made this conscious decision as a society about what our objective criteria of success is. Money, power, fame, and accolades are the tokens of value. Who you are as a person, whether that be kind, funny, and caring, or cold, aloof, and egotistical, plays no part in our zero-sum calculation. This may not be a hard and fast rule about our collective perception, but it is directionally correct.
Two personal heroes of mine are Elon Musk and Tiger Woods. Both are savants, clearly born with inherent ability, and both are maniacally driven to produce results. Whether those results are getting humans to Mars, or just being the best human on the planet to ever play golf, the motivations are similar. We respect these achievements, we admire their drive, we strive to be like them in all aspects of our life. There are articles like “Elon does these 5 things to keep his mind sharp”, and people go bananas. They see the achievements, and they conflate some superficial breathing exercise or interview technique with the work ethic and sacrifice it took to be “successful”.
Sacrifice is the theme of this article. What did Elon and Tiger have to sacrifice to reach this echelon? And subsequently — was it worth it?
We are all given a finite amount of time on this planet, and for the most part we are free to do with it what we choose. Hopefully, we choose the things that are important to us, and are not living our lives beholden or subservient to some externality. We can throw ourselves completely into our work, or our families, but most people play somewhere in between. Obviously I don’t have to tell you which side Elon and Tiger err on, and I am not going to count up the number of wives that Elon has had, or the number of mistresses of Tiger. There is no reason to harp on details. The simple fact is that both men, who have been lifted into the stratosphere of the pantheon of success, appear to be quite shit at relationships. They have sacrificed this aspect of their character to achieve greatness. This is not an unfamiliar pattern. Many successful people make this trade off of work life and family life. Some out of necessity to provide adequate resources to survive, others out of some internal drive to meet the objective criteria of success that society has instilled in us.
Sidestepping the bigger question of “why does society value productivity over family?”, which would take whole socio-anthropological encyclopedia to answer, I want to ask a question more relevant: What is the correct path? How should one allocate his or her time in today’s world?
To attempt an answer, let’s zoom out to a big picture view to the contributions of Elon and Tiger. Elon has shifted global consumer sentiment about EVs with the stated mission to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”. If that isn’t enough he also has the goal of “making humanity multiplanetary”, and improving bandwidth of the brain-computer interface. These are absolutely mind-boggling, universe-changing projects that will benefit billions of people over time. Tiger does not have quite the same projected impact but his sheer dominance as a person of color in a sport of overwhelming whiteness created shockwaves and long lasting effects by bridging a racial divide in such a monumental way. It really cannot be overstated how good Tiger is at golf. In terms of being the greatest of all time at something, Tiger is better at golf than Michael Jordan is at basketball, if that puts it into perspective for non-fans. Was it worth it for these men to wreak havoc on the lives of others in pursuit of their unfathomable-to-mere-mortals goals? I would assume for them, yes, but it is truly the other people in their lives that are paying the sacrifice for the things that benefit exponentially many more.
So there is some supply demand curve where there is this theoretical level of assholery that is allowed as long as the person is contributing a net positive to society. I don’t think that is hyperbole. However, due to the way we value success, I would argue there is much assholery that slips through unchecked, crossing the character/contribution equilibrium with negative character without making the proper contribution to society. Hollywood actors come to mind, although I am sure they are mostly lovely people.
Now you could also explore the other side of this trend, people who have amazing character and exist only to care for their families, and have no grander aspirations in life. Those people are admirable, and yet society does not value them so. I would also venture to guess that some of that societal pressure wriggles its way into the family and a perfect 10 character, loving, providing, is still met with slight resentment for only being a 1 in contribution. These things won’t be solved in a blog post, I am merely exploring the range that this interesting phenomena exhibits.
So what does it all mean? Well, like most things in life I think it means that balance is key. It takes certain sacrifices on either end of the spectrum to be high-character or high-contribution, and both of those paths should be respected. It should also be noted that they exist in different quadrants. Contribution is outward in society, cultural, and character is inward into self or smaller social circle, or family. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles”… We are all walking our own path..