Don’t follow your passion and know when to call it quits (book review)

The Algebra of Happiness: Notes on the Pursuit of Success, Love and Meaning

By Scott Galloway

Penguin Random House


This review first ran in the July 20 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

algebraA special public service announcement for all freshly minted grads who were told during their convocation ceremonies to pursue their passion and never quit.

It’s lousy advice that may not lead you to a life well lived, warns Scott Galloway.

“People who speak at universities, especially at commencement, who tell you to follow your passion – or my favourite, to ‘never give up’ – are already rich,” says Galloway, a professor at New York University’s business school and author of The Algebra of Happiness.

“And most got there by starting waste treatment plants after failing at five other ventures – that is, they knew when to give up.”

Instead of pursuing your passion, figure out what you’re good at and then spend years getting better at it, whether that’s building treatment plants, practicing tax law or installing kitchen cabinets.

“The emotional and economic rewards that accompany being great at something will make you passionate about whatever that something is.”

Scott also has a reality check for 20-somethings who intend to maintain perfect work-life balance while stepping onto the bottom rung on the ladder of success.

That balance comes at a cost, says Galloway. “If balance is your priority in your youth, then you need to accept that, unless you are a genius, you may not reach the upper rungs of economic security.

“The slope of the trajectory of your career is (unfairly) set in the first five years post-graduation. If you want the trajectory to be steep, you’ll need to burn a lot of fuel. The world is not yours for the taking, but for the trying. Try hard, really hard.”

To maintain a steep trajectory, you need to get the easy stuff right. For Galloway, that means showing up early, having good manners and always following up.

Galloway also has advice for those of us in the back half of our careers. “The number one piece of advice seniors would give to their younger selves is that they wish they’d been less hard on themselves. Your limited time here mandates that you hold yourself accountable. But also be ready to forgive yourself so you can get on with the important business of life.”

And our most important decision is not what credential to earn, what career to pursue or what investments to make but deciding who to spend our life with. Choose wisely, says Galloway.

“Who you marry is meaningful; who you have kids with is profound. Raising kids with someone who is kind and competent and who you enjoy being with is a series of joyous moments smothered in comfort and reward.

“Raising kids with someone you don’t like, or who isn’t competent, is moments of joy smothered in anxiety and disappointment. Sharing your life with someone who’s unstable or has contempt for you is never being able to catch your breath long enough to relax and enjoy your blessings.”

Galloway’s book expands on the final and most popular lecture in his brand strategy course. So, if like Galloway’s students, you’re wrestling with life strategies around what career to choose and how to set yourself up for success, reconcile ambition with personal growth and live without regrets, you’ll find some proven formulas in the Algebra of Happiness.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.


Review: If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy by Raj Raghunathan

if-youre-so-smart-why-arent-you-happy-0This review first ran in the Nov. 7 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

 If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?

By Raj Raghunathan

Portfolio / Penguin


A Bay Street investment banker from Ancaster is on vacation.

The banker is sitting on a dock and drinking a Modelo.

She offers a beer to a local fisherman and strikes up a conversation.

The banker quickly realizes the fisherman is wicked smart.

“You should consider working on Bay Street,” says the banker.

The fisherman asks why he’d want to work on Bay Street.

“Because you could make a fortune,” says the banker.

The fisherman asks what he would do with his fortune.

“You could retire early and enjoy the good life,” says the banker. “With enough money, you could even move to Mexico, settle down in a small village and spend your days fishing.”

And that’s when the banker realizes the fisherman is even smarter than she first thought.

Raj Raghunathan, author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy, tells a version of this story to his business students at the University of Texas and the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.  He says the story underscores how easy it is for us to fall prey to the happiness paradox and confuse career success with life success.

“Although happiness is a very important goal for most people, they also seem to devalue it as they go about their lives,” says Raghunanthan. “People seem to routinely sacrifice happiness for the sake of other goals.”

Raghunanthan didn’t want his students to make the same mistake.

“I wasn’t sure that I was helping my students lead happier, more fulfilling lives.  If our education system doesn’t ultimately lead to a better quality of life for all concerned, how good is it? I doubted that my courses – or for that matter most courses offered at business schools – were helping students lead happier and more fulfilling lives, and this troubled me.”

So Raghunanthan created a course that takes a scientific look at the determinants of happiness.  He put his oversubscribed course online and also turned it into a book.

He’s identified seven deadly happiness sins and seven corresponding habits of the highly happy.

“The things that lead to happiness and fulfilment are the things that make us not just better – more kind and compassionate – but also more successful. The recipe for happiness is a win-win-win recipe.”

According to Raghunanthan, lots of smart and successful people tend to botch the recipe and willingly or unwittingly sacrifice our happiness for other goals like money, fame and status.

Some of us make that sacrifice because don’t have a clear or concrete idea of what it means to be happy. “We tend to devalue things when they are abstract, ambiguous or otherwise difficult to understand.”

Others of us have deeply held negative beliefs about happiness. We worry it will make us lazy since the only time we’re truly happy is when we’re on vacation, sitting on a dock and doing nothing.

We worry that prioritizing happiness will make us selfish although the research shows exactly the opposite happens.

And we lose sight of the ultimate goal of leading a happier, more fulfilled life and instead focus all our time and attention on pursuing the means to achieving that goal.  “People can get so caught up chasing money that they forget all about why they wanted the money in the first place.”

Along with explaining the seven sins and habits, Raghunanthan offers seven happiness exercises that make a strong case for why we need to smarten up and change our ways.

As Raghunanthan asks at the end of his book, “if you aren’t happy, how smart are you really?”.

Jay Robb serves as director of communications at Mohawk College,  lives in Hamillton, Ontario and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. He would happily move to a villa in southern Mexico.