If you want to find out what people are really like inside, what truly motivates them – or you, for that matter – here’s a simple game that’s guaranteed to deliver insightful if not entertaining results.
Just ask one question: Power, fame or fortune: if you had to pick one, which would it be?
There are a couple of ground rules to keep the playing field level:
1. You can’t use one to get the others. For example, you can’t choose power and use it to achieve fame and fortune. You only get one and forever forgo the other two.
2. You can’t choose “none of the above;” you have to choose one. There are no write-in answers, either. It’s strictly multiple choice.
Don’t even think about trying to game the system by figuring out the “right” answer. The game is designed to be foolproof. Besides, if you’re playing it solo, there’s really no point in being disingenuous. Only a fool tries to fool himself.
So try it. Go somewhere quiet and get in the zone. Dig deep into your inner feelings, mull the options, and come up with your answer. Done? Okay, now you can read what the three answers mean. Just be aware, you might not like what you see. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Answer 1: Fortune
It’s said that money is the root of all evil. That’s one of the greatest myths of all time. I don’t know what the root of all evil is, but one thing’s for sure, it isn’t money. Let’s dispense with that right off the bat.
The truth is that unsavory people, for lack of a better term, seek all kinds of things they didn’t earn or don’t deserve. That includes fame, power over others, and of course, fortune. Whatever people lust for, that’s what they seek. A lust for money is greed. That’s not a good thing.
But in general, the pursuit of money or fortune is, on its own, a relatively noble pursuit. In this world, money is how we clothe and shelter our families and ourselves. As a metric for the result of our hard work, accomplishments, and success, it’s not bad.
Of course, fortune isn’t necessarily the most worthy goal I can think of. Personally, I’m more driven by the need to achieve things, whatever my goals are at the time. Nevertheless, money is one way to measure that. And being justly compensated for good, hard work and achievement is a noble thing. So, of the three choices, fortune is without a doubt the noblest pursuit.
Answer 2: Fame
There’s an ancient Chinese proverb: “May you live in interesting times.” On the surface, it sounds like a blessing, but in reality, it’s more of a curse. That’s because notoriety brings scrutiny and that’s rarely a good thing. Thus the saying “no news is good news.” Same thing.
The pursuit of fame is mostly about the need for attention and approval. The constant reaffirmation of self. It’s not just a frivolous or fleeting thing. It’s more insidious and addictive than that. It can be a bottomless pit, a hole that can never be filled. And once it’s gone, as with all addictions, you crash.
To put it a little less dramatically, fame is a childish pursuit. You see, children are all about me, me, me. After all, getting attention from adults is a critical survival skill. But over time, we learn that there’s a big world out there and we’re not at its center. That’s called maturity.
Unfortunately, many people get stuck on their way to adulthood and continue to need that attention throughout their lives. They never truly feel comfortable in their own skin or achieve a consistent level of self-confidence. They never really grow up.
Of the three, fame is perhaps the saddest pursuit but, for the most part, it’s relatively benign.
Answer 3: Power
There’s no doubt that power and influence carry a lot of weight in our society. Indeed, in every society. Leaders, by definition, are powerful people. But it’s one thing to attain a position of power and authority as a result of doing good work, climbing the corporate ladder, or achieving entrepreneurial success.
It’s another thing entirely to pursue power as a means to an end, to have authority and control over others. People often seek power because deep inside they feel weak, powerless, or scared. They seek control over others because it makes them feel safe or less fearful.
Sometimes that fear is based on past or present physical reality, as a result of childhood trauma, poverty, or physical weakness, for example. It can also be the result of a myriad of psychological disorders.
For some, seeking power and authority is a cultural thing, a matter of where and how they were brought up. That said, not everyone who grew up with money or privilege ends up seeking power and authority. It's very much a function of upbringing and, of course, individual personality.
Power seekers can appear to be benevolent and selfless, but that’s often a disguise to lure others and accumulate power for selfish and controlling purposes. Some are aware of their behavior while others live in a state of denial.
In any case, great power carries great responsibility. If a leader isn’t mature, well-grounded, and self-aware, power can lead to corruption and tragic results.
Power is potentially the most nefarious of the three responses.
The fine print
Now, before you think I’m passing judgment on others, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I sought fame and power when I was younger. They were never my highest priorities, but I sought them, nevertheless. Only by achieving both did I come to realize the responsibility that came with them. And that outweighed any childish or selfish interest.
The truth is we all have elements of each of these tendencies inside us. We all want to be recognized and rewarded for our efforts. We all want to control our own destinies. And we all grow and change over time. We gain maturity and wisdom from age and experience.
So take this game for what it is: a data point. No more, no less. Hope it proves useful – or at least entertaining.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.