Last 0 Low 0 High 0 Change 0 Change % 0 Bid 114.4 Ask 115.2 Currency GBX No Shares 0
  • Home
  • Latest
  • TV
  • How to cope with ambition and success: does it really come at a price? A discussion with Adam Leigh

How to cope with ambition and success: does it really come at a price? A discussion with Adam Leigh

Posted on 5 October 2021

In September, Adam Leigh, spoke with Partner Kate Clark about his first novel is "The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus". During his thirty year long advertising career, Adam learnt everything there was to know about selling dog food, toilet paper and the small print on a mortgage ad. Serious stuff. Undeterred, he wanted to find out in his middle-age dotage if he could still write.

In this session, Adam discussed ambition, money, power and reflected on his successful career more broadly and the (fictional) journey that his protagonist, Alex Lazarus, goes through.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.

Kate Clark

Good afternoon, welcome everybody I'm here today with Adam Leigh who's the author of ‘The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus’.  Thank you for coming here today Adam.  We're here to talk about Adam's book; the book is a study of ambition and the mayhem it can create.  It looks at the impact of Alex Lazarus's desire to build a successful business, on himself and the people closer to him as it recounts his journey of self-discovery as an entrepreneur, father, husband and son.  The novel explores what ambition has meant to different cultures over time and what that means for us today and prompts us to examine how we can balance our aspirations with just being happy.  It also prompts some really fascinating questions about the interplay between ambition, success, luck and family which we will be exploring with Adam today.  But first, Adam can you tell us about the autobiographical element and what inspired you to write the book?

Adam Leigh

Thank you Kate.  Well it's lovely to be here. It's based on what you can achieve through a series of random things fuelled by your own ambition and many, many years ago with a very good friend, we were walking in the park with our then eldest children who were only two and it was 1999 and it was the year of the first dot-com and at that time it was the wild west of dot-coms because it was dial-up internet which didn't work but huge aspirations that the internet was going to change everything and we felt that we needed to have an idea ourselves and we were watching our kids sort of fall off a climbing frame and we thought okay let's launch you know, we're great dads let's launch a parenting website.  We then brainstormed this idea for a start-up.  We met for about two months and then we actually had our second children and the chaos of a second child took over.  He got promoted and was the youngest board member of M&S and I got given a new toilet roll account at work so he did much better, better than I did and it never happened and we always joked, we are very close friends still, we always joked about what happened, what a fortune could have been and one day I was lying in the bath planning to write a novel which is how I spent the last 30 years.  Because the other thing you should know is I am an English graduate and I always wanted to write a book and so this is actually the formulation of a desire to write a book and sort of half an idea I had about a world I lived in and I thought you know what, what… let's imagine what, what could have happened.  So the book is obviously set a little bit later, it's set in 2012 onwards and so I just wrote this imaginary tale of what if we'd launched this start-up and what would have happened and that's the sort of autobiographical element and, and what, what's worked out nicely for me is that it's allowed me to fulfil an ambition of writing a book and to write about the concept of ambition which, which actually professionally I found fascinating for a long time.

Kate Clark

I mean what's so interesting is that one of the key themes for the book is ambition and what that means for different people and Alex,  the main character are asked this question and for him he says, ‘it's the need for massive external recognition’.  What is ambition and what makes a person ambitious?

Adam Leigh

It's a hard question to, to answer because ambition means many things to many different people and I think if you look up a dictionary definition of ambition it will say it's the desire for more success, power or something else and I think what's happened is ambition has shifted and actually people want more of something but actually the newer working generations don't necessarily want power and glory in the way that it's traditionally been seen but ambition and I sort of write about a little bit in the book has a lot of cultural roots where actually ambition is fundamentally seen as a bad thing.  Somewhere in the 19th century and you know post the Revolution came this view that anything could be possible and you get the birth of the American dream and actually you get the liberation of you know an immigrant culture coming in and working hard to as they say in Hamilton, get things done and you know our ambition then suddenly became seen as possibly more, a more positive thing.  Ambition doesn't have to be qualified by what you achieve professionally, ambition can be many things and I think one of the things we've seen certainly post pandemic is that you know, people want softer values as well.  But I suppose that's what I think is fascinating which is you know, asking yourself what you want more of and then if you have a drive to achieve that, what you possibly sacrifice or what you possibly may lose in trying to, in trying to get there.

Kate Clark

And is the pursuit of more a good thing?

Adam Leigh

There's a thing that's true about all of us which is that we can be quite restless for something and there's a brilliant thing I don't know if you've read any of the Yuval Harari books but in one of… in his second book which I think is called ‘Homo Deus’ he talks about banging your head on this mysterious glass ceiling and he uses the example of an American in Japan over the last 50 years you know, domestic consumption has increased, people's livelihoods have got much better but if you look at measurements of happiness, people aren't happier, people aren't happier than they were in 1950 coming out of War, how they were in 2000 you know, on the brink of all this wonderful technology.  If you want more of something it doesn't necessarily bring you happiness and calm.  On the other hand it can also stimulate some of the parts of you, you know, so you know in a very trite, superficial personal fashion I always wanted to write a book and in trying to do that and then being ambitious to get a book produced it's I think allowed me to feel about myself in a way that I haven't over the course of many years and it's sort of released lots of ambitions to do more writing.  It's a mixture depending on how you focus and whether you focus for good.

Kate Clark

Yeah I mean there, there are sort of clear references in the book to the sacrifices that have to be made whether that's personal relationships, family, marriages in order to fulfil ambition and as you've said, ambition is different things for different people in the book.  I mean it's interesting to look at how the different generations have a different approach to ambition and perhaps the younger generation in the book the, the PR characters who sort of come in to help set up in the outset, their version of ambition is, is to be able to make decisions for themselves.

Adam Leigh

Yeah.

Kate Clark

It's not just about personal gain and, and money and those sorts of things.

Adam Leigh

This is about tech and start-up culture.  If you look at the number of start-ups 2019 there was 616, in 2020 there were 760,000 new start-up companies.  So people are feeling more liberated to set up their business and, and within five years 57 percent of those no longer exist.  So people are ambitious for the autonomy of working for themselves and working in different ways even though actually the odds you know aren't so great.  The flip side to that is that there are lots of studies that show the things that come top in people's ambitions are very prosaic conservative traditional things like being a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer.  No one says I want to be a tech raven and of course within that cohort there can be plenty of people that want to be very successful but actually people also you know you're balancing with ambition a wider set of questions about how you want to live your life.

Kate Clark

But why, why do you think that is?

Adam Leigh

Well I think some people are innately competitive for success and others, their ambition and it's still an ambition, will be about the sum of the parts and the quality of their life.  We did a lot of research asking very successful CEO’s of big media businesses what lay behind their ambition and some of the things that drove those people who were very successful were things like they felt slighted as a child, then maybe their parents and we had this with a couple of women who felt that their father preferred their brother you know, really,  really archaic bits of, of prejudice that that drove them or they weren't so good at school and, and, and it made them very competitive, they're very competitive people, they hate to lose, they hate to lose at tennis they you know, and it's some of those facets that are actually relatively genetic you can't, you can't, you can't you become a, it's innate.  I think just the world now allows us to question that much, much more.

Kate Clark

It's interesting to think about what motivates different people with their ambition and what priorities they have and that one of the key things as you've just said in the book is family and the website that Alex and Julian set up, is a parenting website called ‘The Irony’ as you read the book is not lost, but obviously I’ve not given too much away.

Adam Leigh

They become [shit] parents.

Kate Clark

They become [shit] parents and neglect their, their spouses and their children and sort of clearly there are elements of their lives that have to be sacrificed…

Adam Leigh

Yeah.

Kate Clark

…in order to fulfil or keep striving to fulfil their ambition.  There's a lot in the book about parents, about the, the relationship between the two main characters and their children but also Alex's relationship with his own father so I mean what, what do you think makes a good parent?

Adam Leigh

I think the question is not what makes a good parent but I think it's about the balance you want to create in your in your life as a parent and that's why you know, the irony of the premium parent has a motto written in this book called ‘Family First’ and that was par…  meant to be part of the irony that of course you know he's, he's building a business with a with, with a proposition of family first and yet his family's most of the time coming second and I, I don't think that ambition and I don't think if ambition is aligned to success, has to come at the expense of being a good parent.  I don't think that's true for a second.  I think there are many casualties along the way where the balance between ambition and the balance between your personal values you know becomes misaligned and I think you know that's pretty obvious.  The challenges and drives sometimes if you are relentless because often the most successful entrepreneurs, what makes them successful is not that their vision is better but their focus is more laser and they are more relentless in the pursuit of that vision and therefore the extraneous the you know, collecting the shopping on the way home there isn't room in their brain for that at that stage.

Kate Clark

And that's about the, the impact of ambition on family.

Adam Leigh

Yeah.

Kate Clark

And one of the sorts of other things that really interested me was just about chance and…

Adam Leigh

Yeah.

Kate Clark

…luck and opportunity and, and so much of what happens in the, these tiny little I mean the, the whole essence of the book is based on a chance…

Adam Leigh

Encounter.

Kate Clark

…conversation at a children's playground.

Adam Leigh

Yeah.

Kate Clark

Tiny little you know, instances which could easily not have happened,  you could have you know, been 10 minutes earlier or 10 minutes later and just what, what element do you think sort of chance and luck…

Adam Leigh

I think there's...

Kate Clark

…is at play.

Adam Leigh

…there's a brilliant John Paul Getty quote which says, ‘secrets of success, rise early, work hard, strike oil’ and you know and, and I think…

Kate Clark

Be Lucky.

Adam Leigh

But yeah, you've got to; you've got to have an element of that.

Kate Clark

Do you think you need luck to be successful?

Adam Leigh

Yeah I think you probably, I think you probably do because I think most people along the way will be able to you know, Facebook will be able to appoint Martin Zuckerberg, be able to point a time where one thing made it resonant to that moment in time, it wasn't about how well it was coded or it wasn't about you know, and again we've all seen the social network and we all saw how it started and why it started and part of it was you know, it was he wanted to meet girls and somewhere along the line you get a perfect, you get a you get a perfect storm.

Kate Clark

As well as of luck there's, there are big questions of morality?

Adam Leigh

Yeah.

Kate Clark

And about success and ambition and morality and Julian, who you described earlier, is the baddie. I hope I haven’t given too, too much away.

Adam Leigh

Yeah, yeah.

Kate Clark

He is sort of the Co-Founder of the website with Alex but Julian tells us that his father told him, ‘don't burden your ambition with a conscience’.

Adam Leigh

Yeah.

Kate Clark

Does ambition make us lose our morality?

Adam Leigh

It can do, I mean that is a short answer.  It doesn't have to.  I mean and we're talking about ambition in a linear corporate sense of wanting to achieve more in a professional capacity.  There was a brilliant phrase used about a colleague of mine when I first started advertising and a very influential advertising person turned to his colleague and said, ‘do you know what your trouble is, you're riddled with integrity’ and you know, and it was very funny at the time and it's a brilliant and I’ve used that phrase forever.

Kate Clark

Yeah.

Adam Leigh

But the question is, is it good to be riddled with integrity?

Kate Clark

Yeah.

Adam Leigh

The truth is people do funny things when there's money involved and ambition doesn't have to be about money.

Kate Clark

I feel that there can be a message to you know, to children, young people about following your dreams.

Adam Leigh

Yeah, yeah.

Kate Clark

And that's great, follow your dreams kids and you know, if you want to be a footballer then you can achieve that and… but should we follow our dreams at all costs?

Adam Leigh

Well I think you know, it's at all costs and the lying and things like that.  You should never do anything that makes you or someone else unhappy.  I mean I think that's just a sort of basic point of human, human morality.  I think that we are liberated to follow our dreams much more easily in certain commercial capacities so you know, the barrier of entry to having a business idea and wanting to make it work has disappeared.  Anybody can start and, and people who are you know, people who are coming out of school, coming out of University, trying to work out what they want to do.  You don't have to go through the traditional routes anymore.  I would define ambition now about wanting more of something and that more can be you know one of the big things is experience.  I mean if you look at experiences, if you look at you know any sort of corporate research at the moment it will say that Millennials and Gen Z people want to work in organisations with purpose, they want to do new things.  I think it's easier to follow dreams as long as you know; you've got to have a bit of reality.

Kate Clark

If you are somebody who is innately very ambitious in sort of true a sense of the word, there's a character who's one of the investors in in the company who can be quite ruthless and moves on to the next investment.

Adam Leigh

Yeah, like a serial, like a serial philanderer?

Kate Clark

Yeah.

Adam Leigh

You’re just, you're just one success, you don't really care about the stuff around it and then the flip side of that and it's sort of mentioned also in the book and I've certainly seen and experienced this, is that you can have an ambition you can realise your ambition and then you can realise ‘so what’ and actually often that can be because life snookers you in a way that you don't expect it, it could be illness, it can be an unforeseen set of circumstances which actually then just is teaching you about the perceived value of money and wealth and all of those trappings and does anyone really, does anyone really care.

Kate Clark

There was a question which is, now that you've written the book…

Adam Leigh

Yeah.

Kate Clark

…you talked about being on a bigger mission.  What are your future ambitions?

Adam Leigh

I'm certainly going to write more I'm, I certainly feel it's using a part of my brain that somehow may have laid dormant or always wanted or I just always wanted to go and develop and I think that's the, comes back to the same thing about people are asking themselves questions now you know, about what do you want more of and I think everybody that's come through the last 18 months has been changed in some way and their ambitions have changed

Kate Clark

It's been really fascinating to talk to you today Adam.

Adam Leigh

Great, well thank you very much for a chance to…

Kate Clark

I really enjoyed the book.

Adam Leigh

Good, thank you.

Kate Clark

I highly recommend it, it's very funny but it's very fast-paced, exciting and you, the characters are so well drawn that you are turning the pages to see what happens next so I really do recommend it.

Adam Leigh

Thank you very much for letting me share the sofa.

Kate Clark

 I think that's what I'm supposed to say.

Adam Leigh

Thank you very much for letting me come here this afternoon.

Kate Clark

You're very welcome thank you.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions to access advice for businesses that is regularly updated please visit mishcon.com


Visit the Mishcon Academy for more learning, events, videos, podcasts and reports.

How can we help you?
Help

How can we help you?

Subscribe: I'd like to keep in touch

If your enquiry is urgent please call +44 20 3321 7000

I'm a client

I'm looking for advice

Something else