Luke Johnson: Happiness, like success, is relative

Working with the super-rich left my friend's father discontented with his merely affluent existence.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 11 Dec 2014

There are many secrets to happiness, but I was taught a new one recently by a friend. He described how his father had enjoyed a highly successful career as a banker in the City, and was a confident and accomplished fellow. He possessed a decent London home, a nice ski chalet and all the other trappings of a pretty lucrative life in high finance. Generally, he was a contented fellow, and his friends and work colleagues were of similar social standing and net worth to him.

But then his father made the mistake of taking over the private-client side of the organisation, looking after its most elite clients - almost all of whom were billionaires. And suddenly he spent his time hanging out with the uber-wealthy, with their private jets, mansions in Ibiza or St Tropez, trophy wives, armies of servants, giant yachts and all the rest.

So he no longer felt prosperous, or a high achiever. Suddenly he was something of a pauper compared with those with whom he now worked, and inevitably socialised too. The contrast between his material assets and theirs was stark. And it has made my friend's dad unhappy at an age when he should feel he has done pretty well for himself.

The moral of this tale is that all success is relative, so make sure you live and keep company with your equals. Do not be overambitious in choosing much richer friends, or owning a home in a place you can't really afford to buy. This might sound a little like the old-fashioned admonition to 'know one's place'. But I think it is more about the realisation that envy can be a corrosive emotion, and a destroyer of lives. Avoid being very much the poorest person at the party. The other guests won't care - but you will, and it will make you unhappy.

Writing of unhappy people - I appear to have attracted a stalker. She attends many of my speaking engagements and then comes up to me at the end when I'm signing books, for example, and says: 'I want you' or: 'I want to marry you.' I think she has probably been to at least 15 of my speeches in the past few years, and has called at our offices on various occasions, leaving weird letters. I do know who she is and have even gone on her website to discover why on earth she is pursuing me. She has obviously researched me and knows I'm married, with a family, but none of this stops her obsessive behaviour.

Mostly I have been civil towards her, but my patience is wearing thin. Irritatingly, I tend to spot her just before I go on and start my talk. Inevitably, it can throw me off my stride. She has not been at all threatening, but if the sexes were reversed, then I daresay I would be getting nervous by now and trying to obtain a restraining order.

No doubt virtually everyone in the public eye suffers from these sorts of oddball characters. Perhaps one asks for the attention of eccentrics by writing for a newspaper and giving interviews and public talks. There are surely lots of lost souls in a giant city such as London, trying to somehow connect with fellow citizens. I'm sure the majority are harmless - merely lonely and socially inept. Nevertheless, she is one audience member I'd be pleased never to see at one of my speeches again.

When are business black-tie dinners going to be consigned to history? They are a tedious anachronism and should be banned. I'm sure most participants find them a bore, but feel obliged to show up. Of course, I only have myself to blame for attending them: no one is really obliged to go. All too often I fail to obey what I call Albert's law of invitations: never accept an event months ahead unless you'd be happy to go to it tonight. Somehow these occasions seem more fun in the distant future, so, without thinking, I say yes.

But by the time the date rolls around, they are nothing but a chore. Firstly, one has to wear a ridiculous penguin suit, which means carrying an extra outfit into work that morning, including shoes, socks and bow tie. The next most irritating aspect of such dinners is that they are almost entirely dominated by men, making the atmosphere much more oppressive and noisy, and the mood much drunker.

Typically, they are held in cavernous venues in Park Lane hotels, where one feels like an ant surrounded by so many people all dressed the same. The food at such affairs is notoriously bad - almost invariably limp smoked salmon followed by rubber chicken. You are usually trapped sitting next to someone you don't especially want to talk to all evening. The comperes and speakers are usually third-rate hacks - no wonder guests tend to drink too much. One ends up having to catch a taxi home late, feeling the worse for wear, wondering what the point of it all was.

I have been to hundreds over the decades: for the restaurant industry, the pub trade, stockbroking and finance, television, newspapers, the travel business - the list goes on. In theory, one goes to network, or conceivably pick up an industry award. But mostly the only beneficiaries are the organisers and the hotels that host them. Any readers who see me at such a do should ask: 'What on earth are you doing here?'

Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners

Follow him on Twitter: @LukeJohnsonRCP

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today