Entrepreneurs who curb their ambition to be happy instead
First published in the Financial Times on 20th January 2015.
Quiet industries and locations have advantages, especially compared with the madhouse of London
Is it better to be a big fish in a small pond? Or to aim for the very stars, no matter the price?
When Robert Browning wrote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” he suggested the latter. I think Mr Browning was urging us all to attempt true greatness, and strive to the maximum of our abilities, even if we fail in the attempt. The famous line is from his poem “Andrea del Sarto”, about an extraordinarily talented Italian painter of the Renaissance known as the “faultless painter” who was nevertheless overshadowed by his magnificent contemporaries, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael.
Yet I see many successful and fulfilled entrepreneurs who deliberately choose not to compete in the major leagues of business, even though they are up to the task. Instead, they pick a quiet industry, live in a provincial city, and possibly even relocate to a smaller country.
In such sectors and locations you do not have to be as good to be a top dog, nor fight as hard to stay there. Oligopolies are common, while juicy margins and returns are much more easily attainable than in large markets where, admittedly, the rewards of success are commensurately higher — both financially, and in terms of status and applause.
However, research suggests that in terms of human happiness, relative success matters much more than absolute success. In other words, you will probably be more content if you are a higher achiever than your immediate contemporaries in a small locale than you would be persisting with a futile struggle on a national stage.
Almost every field of work I know is a ferocious battle if you are aspirational — and much more so than it was even 15 years ago. There are more people, and therefore more talent, than ever before. In the west, we compete ever more directly with billions of new rivals in Asia, the Americas, Europe — everywhere really. The race can be exhausting: I do not blame ambitious combatants for throwing in the towel after a couple of decades of remorseless striving with the big beasts.
A number of entrepreneur friends have retreated to tackle more modest challenges: smaller communities, less audacious goals, somewhat less cut-throat rivalries, social enterprises rather than major companies. After all, who wants to be just one among many? Surely it is better to be a local hero, feted in a modest way, rather than a disappointed also-ran who tried but failed to make it to the absolute top.
This philosophy probably permeates many contested walks of life: one’s choice of school, university, workplace, neighbourhood, career, hobbies — even romantic partner. Aim for the biggest and the best; or settle for plain old good?
I live in London, a sheer madhouse when it comes to securing one’s place in the overall hierarchy. The cost of membership is steep, and not just economically. The pace of life, if you want to keep up, feels draining, mentally and physically. Affording a decent home, bringing up a family, standing out among the driven and accomplished Londoners — it can all become a self-defeating pursuit.
I suppose the prizes are there to be seized for the very few, but they can feel like a chimera. Is the sense of satisfaction deeper, or the moral comfort greater, residing in a world city like London?
If one downsizes and moves away from the metropolis, embracing a truly suburban or even rustic existence, remote working means one can still add plenty of economic value, and gain deep fulfilment.
Withdrawing from the fray in such circumstances is not cowardice, but makes way for a new generation of dynamos to stake their claims. Moreover, spreading experience and flair across broader pastures is healthy, and prevents too much enforced crowding out.
Each January I get overenthusiastic, and draw up a list of (for me) demanding targets — business and personal — to attempt in the coming year. There may come a time when I grow weary of such a punishing, self-inflicted set of resolutions, and choose to at least partially escape the daily grind. But not for a few years yet — I still have some mountains to climb.