“One of the greatest things I did for the human race was not to become a doctor”
-Carl C. Icahn
As post-grads, my friend Nathan and I share our ideas about where we’re headed in life. We stumbled across an invisible force that leads our generation.
It is a force that shepherds our peers’ every move, thought, interaction, wardrobe choice, career moves and ultimately – who they become. And, no I’m not referring to the power of reality TV shows like CNN or 21st century fiction from the New York Times. This force is sewed into our decision-making the way a label is sewed onto your favorite pants. You can’t see it. But you can feel the stitching and it affects how you walk. This force is external validation. Peter Thiel, billionaire founder of Paypal, calls it the credentials trap. The seduction of an undergraduate Ivy League diploma is swiftly replaced by a thirst for a degree from a T14 law school or an M7 B-school. Soon, the children of today become the parents of tomorrow – parents who play Mozart while their children are in the womb in efforts to make them smarter. While top schools maintain their exclusivity by declining their admissions rates ever year, it’s hard for young overachievers to think further than earning the next gold medal.
When moving down the linear path from college to a climbing the corporate ladder, one thing connects the dots – your choices make people smile. Seeking the approval of others has been ingrained into many overachievers as they’ve been rewarded by their top performance all their lives. Once they step outside the gilded gates of college, many people have trouble finding their feet without a syllabus to tell them what’s the next step.
But this isn’t the way to go. You don’t always want to make the choices that make your parents smile right away. If you’re occupied by deciding what will make other people happy and proud of you, it’s hard to answer to yourself what makes you happy. In today’s world where your thoughts are constantly interjected by facebook likes, retweets, compliments, emails, and snapchats – it’s hard to step away from external validation and tap into yourself. External validation can only take you so far, and at some point – other people’s opinions will have diminishing marginal returns on your own happiness. Being so intune with other people’s expectations also makes you more sensitized to the ebbs and flows of the poker game we call life. External validation reaffirms emotional learning, the donkey following the carrot. It can take you far to base your achievements on what others want to see you do – but at some point, you have to decide what kind of vegetables you like to eat.
An individual who always decided what he liked best irrespective of others’ opinions is Carl Icahn. He is no longer the same relentless, belligerent corporate raider who became the embodiment of the 80’s era of takeover artists with excessive greed flowing through their veins. Instead, Icahn today is a shareholder’s best friend. The famous proxy fights and greenmail campaigns have been replaced by civil banter on TV debates and engaging college lectures. Icahn has always decided himself what he likes to chew on best and today his target of choice is Michael Dell. Icahn has been consistently inconsistent by conventional standards, and that’s what makes him so powerful. Those who aren’t indentured to someone else’s idea of success find the flexibility to capitalize on opportunities others miss.
Because of this, he is arguably one of the most skilled investors of our era. Leon Black, billionaire founder of private equity firm Apollo Global Management, confirms that “Icahn is smart and unrelenting, he doesn’t care what other people think, and even though he is not always right, I would never bet against him.” Icahn’s fiercely independent thinking coupled with his confrontational nature propels his lasting influence. When Icahn prepares for showdowns with corporate executives and Board of Directors, he maps out all expected possibilities. Accordingly, he devises a strategy. He does all his own homework and doesn’t copy off of others. He isn’t dependent on anyone to download his eyes and ears for him. And that’s what makes him original. His fiercely independent spirit can set an example for those of us who feel chained up and restricted by the confines of external validation. Icahn’s example inspired me to decide one of the most important lessons I’ve learned this year: the best way to find an answer is to ask yourself the question first, make an argument for both sides and then talk to the experts. When you immediately first ask others, without the proper mental model, you produce white noise.
Today in his on-going battle with Michael Dell, the outcome remains uncertain. On July 18th, there will be a vote that will decide whether investors will accept Dell’s bid to take the company private. Regardless of the result of this battle, it’s clear that Icahn’s independent spirit is the source of his staying power. Instead of teaching kids to get a 4.0 in high school, college and graduate school, we should be teaching them to ask themselves the hard questions about what they feel passionate about. To help yourself down uncharted paths, you can leverage people who inspire you as a measuring stick. A leading investor’s path (not a member of the eminent dead as yet) aligns with my goals, and knowing this about myself helps me make choices. The question you should ask yourself at a crossroads shouldn’t be “will this get me a Fullbright?” When I find myself at a crossroads, I ask myself is this “what _____” would do.
Revised December 2013