Why Are So Many Successful Men Sick Men?

Donald Miller

One of my favorite scenes in any book takes place in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. If you remember the story, it’s about the citizens of a particular street along the California coast. There’s a man they call Doc who collects all kinds of species of sea animals to sell to colleges and laboratories. And there’s a group of homeless guys who live across the street from Doc’s shop. They live in an old warehouse and one of them lives with his wife in a large, abandoned piece of pipe. His wife has draped curtains over fake windows on the inside of the pipe and the boys all sit on the steps looking out at the street, judging the value of the world as it passes by. The homeless boys are led by a well-meaning man named Mack who wants to throw a party for Doc but just makes a bunch of mayhem trying.

*Photo Credit: Jim Linwood, Creative Commons

One afternoon Doc and a friend are working in his laboratory and the friend happens to look out the window to see the boys drinking their beers and judging the world and he wonders out loud to Doc about whether they’re any good as men. Doc argues they are and says of the boys that in a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean.

Doc’s friend won’t hear it. They’re homeless and an eye sore. As Doc and his friend were talking, the whole town was headed down to watch a parade because it was the 4th of July. Doc told his friend to watch the boys and he bet his friend that even as the band marched by and as the princess rode by on the back of a convertible the boys wouldn’t turn and look. He said they were not taken in by glitz and glamour and noise. To the amazement of Doc’s friend, the boys never turned their heads.

And then Doc makes an observation about the world I’ve always thought was profound: The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.

• • •

I’ve always loved that scene. I don’t think a month goes by that I don’t think of it and I read that book for the first time twenty years ago. I don’t know why I like it so much except I want to be the kind of person who isn’t taken in by shiny things, by the big show of personality, of charm.

I’ve noticed something in life. I’ve noticed there are dazzling people who are remarkable and amazing and worth telling stories about and then there are quiet ones who get up each day and go to work like farmers. And I’ve noticed the quiet ones who get up each day and go to work like farmers are usually the ones that, over the long arch of a life, can be counted on the most. They speak a simple truth and prove their values through work. Everything else is a parade, I suppose. Sometimes when I meet somebody who talks slick and there’s a crowd gathering I think about Mack and the boys and I quietly walk the other way.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller has been telling his story for more than a decade, now he wants to help you tell yours. He’s helped over 1,000 companies clarify their message through the StoryBrand Workshops. For an introduction to what he’s doing now, check out the 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.

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  • Matt Flinner

    I learned this truth the hard way, although I have not been able to put in to words like that. Thanks for this. I am going to share this with my AA sponsor.

  • Shelbi Gesch

    Perhaps, then, it’s time to start listening to (and retelling) the quiet and ordinary people’s stories. If you took fifty people at random and asked them who the most influential person in their life was, I’d be willing to bet that you’d hear mostly the names of ordinary people. Fame’s influence may be far-reaching, but the influence of an ordinary man or woman motivated by love and grace –that is the thing that changes lives.

  • Gemma

    This is so thought provoking, and is something I have been considering for awhile now as I struggle to achieve that elusive ‘work/life’ balance. But I just don’t think the issues are quite as black and white as we would like them to be.

    I was raised in a quiet, hardworking and very conservative family in a rural area. I was expected to get married young, live in the same area and focus on raising a family. Many of my friends followed this path (honestly, none of them seem particularly happy. There are very high rates of depression and anxiety amongst my high school friends.).

    I, however, had a restlessness in me – fortunately/unfortunately I was captivated by glitz and glamour and noise. I spent time living abroad, I learned foreign languages, I climbed active volcanoes, I topped my class at university and went on to study at a top law school. I bucked the conservative values I was raised with (my parents didn’t even want me to attend university as a woman) and am now passionate about advocating for gender equality and human rights. These experiences led me to challenge my worldview and values, and they also led me to a place where I was able to deal with my insecurities, fears and unhealthy relationship habits.

    For these reasons I am so pleased that I was so driven to achieve as I finally feel as though I am becoming the person I want to be and feel as though I am helping the world progress in a positive direction. Yet I have been quite criticised for this – for challenging the status quo. I carry a sense of guilt for not having fulfilled the wishes of my parents, for not having always been there for my friends while I was travelling, and for enjoying spending so many hours working.

    I think both pathways can be glamorised/romanticised or criticised equally – that is, the quiet, hardworking path or the adventurous, pioneering path. And I think it’s important to not belittle a person for choosing one over the other – we each have to live our lives to the best of our ability, and to find a pathway that suits our personality to bring us peace and contentment. I think it is our motivation for doing so that counts. If it wasn’t for both the advocates and the farmers, our world wouldn’t function. We need both ends of the spectrum.