I have always been interested in what the most powerful / smart / successful people in the world do after they create their great work or leave their high-profile positions. Where is the afterparty? Do they move to the background and pull the strings that control the puppets that run the rest of the world? Do they just retire into the freedom of the caribbean? Do they make symbolic gestures or motivate big changes in the world? Do they work harder than ever? Surely, some do each of these things.
Upon first reflection, several names come to mind. JD Salinger. Al Gore. Eli Broad. Bill Clinton. Nathan Myhrvold (see previous post). Several recent names have highlighted this issue. Take Sandra Day O’Connor or Evan Bayh. For O’Connor, she was a supreme court justice for 25 years and the first woman to ever reach the high court. There is not much room to go up from there. For Evan Bayh, he was a political scion / heir-apparent (his dad was a US senator) who lived up to his famiy reputation to become a 2-term state governor and then a 2-term US senator. Of these, Evan Bayh is a bit more interesting, as it is much more intriguing to see what happens when someone is still young after their notable work than if they are more retirement-age. Sandra Day O’Connor (age 79) has taken up a position as a social commentator and paid speaker, essentially doing a well-earned victory lap. Evan Bayh just turned 54. He has mentioned everything from becoming a CEO to a university president, but is “leaving his options open.”
That’s it, I’m checking out. JD Salinger never wanted to be famous are avoided it at all costs. He wrote in “The Catcher in the Rye” of his main character Holden Caulfield hating “phonies” and wanting to go live in a cabin alone where he wouldn’t have to talk with anyone. In a sense, that is exactly what JD Salinger did, moving out of New York after achieving some success to a secluded existence on 90 acres in Cornish, New Hampshire. He is reported to have written extensively for the rest of his life – in more than 50 years of isolation – without publishing much of anything. What did he write? Will any of us ‘phonies’ ever see any of it? One of the greatest American writers in history, but he doesn’t think anyone deserves to share his work. How many other Howard Hughes / JD Salinger / or other scientific or literary or mathematical genius types through history have just checked out and simply cut themselves off? I’m sure historians could put together a pretty high-powered list.
Power brokers. Bill Clinton was a US governor at 32 years old, president by 46. After two terms as the most powerful man on Earth he was done by the time he was 54. Then what? He became the pre-eminent power broker in the democratic party and has invested his time heavily in the Clinton Global Initiative, a high-powered group designed to bring powerful business leaders, former heads of state, nobel prize winners, and other influential people together in a call-to-action to help improve the global condition. In this role he has been able to continue his hold on influence and has enormous sway as a world-wide power broker.
Save the World. Bill Gates holds mythical status in modern society for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is his title as the “richest man in the world.” He is a well-respected techie and business leader. In 2009 he mostly checked out of the company that had created him to do something bigger. With the Gates Foundation (see previous post) he has created an organization that is already the world-leader in making philanthropy more like a business with clear goals and huge impact. By managing his foundation more closely, he can write a letter to stakeholders like the one he recently released, talking about the 250 million children he is saving with one new vaccine, and the 500 million starving people he is helping to feeed with new drought resistance crops. I exaggerate, but only a little. Gates has traded in making money for saving and improving lives. In a sense, Al Gore has done the same, but more focused on a single cause (climate change). Gore now has an Oscar and a Nobel prize to console him as he curses the hanging chads in Florida’s election ballots.
Get Richer. More than a few people upon exiting their high-profile situations just turn their genius-power, public service history, or other notariety into bigger bucks. Names that might get mentioned here include anyone from Nathan Myhrvold (his “Intellectual Ventures” is not exactly a non-profit) to Elon Musk (PayPal to SpaceX andTesla Motors) and other serial-entrepreneurs. Given the other ambitions on this list (saving the world or enhancing the arts) this may seem like a selfish play with one’s talents, and maybe it is, but we can’t fault talented people from creating companies, creating new jobs, and creating wealth. It is no less than the American way.
Enhance the Arts. Eli Broad has had wild success, building two Fortune 500 companies (KB Homes and SunAmerica Financial). In a sense, he gets the title of “get richer” together with his fascination with the arts for going back after making his fortune to try to do it again with company #2. He currently is a noted philanthropist, focusing his efforts on a variety of efforts from improving K-12 education to supporting stem cell research and his named business school. However, a huge focus for Broad has been on the arts. In addition to holding one of the greatest private art collections in the world, he has given endlessly to support museums and to protect and provide access to the arts.
On and On…. This list could go on and on. In coming years it will be interesting to see what Obama, Bayh, and others do with their new-found freedom.