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Measuring Up: Born in the Shadow

Personal Perspective: The real pain of growing up in a storied family.

Key points

  • Most of us gauge personal success by what we accomplish.
  • The gap between the level of accomplishments of our elders and our own success sets us on a quest to feel legitimate.
  • The angst of children from prominent families over “measuring up” is a psychological issue. It is often mistaken for “entitlement.”

Sonja’s J.D. and M.B.A. didn’t feel like accomplishments. They were badges without a purpose. Acutely aware of the gifts she had been given growing up—private schools, the opportunity to learn several languages, and travel and learn about different cultures—she grappled with how to build her own life. She struggled in isolation. She was convinced that those around her wouldn’t understand.

As she emerged into adulthood her challenges grew, a giant shadow cast by the accomplishments of her elders hung above her head. She privately wondered whether what she did with her life was “enough,” given the successes of her family. In the darkest moments, she wondered whether she could ever live up. Sonja felt a pressing need to find a place of significance so she could spread her wings.

Most of us gauge personal success by what we accomplish. But Sonja’s quest to find her path was an ongoing concern. With every success, she wondered, “was it (she) enough.”

Growing up Sonja was surrounded by well-educated scientists; both her grandfather and father had advanced degrees in chemistry. They built a global business using their knowledge. No official policy existed within the family about requiring a Ph.D. or an interest in science to work in the family business, but Sonja observed that those in the family with advanced degrees ended up rising to positions of leadership. The business was filled with Ph.D.-level employees. The work demanded it.

From an early age, Sonja was aware that science was not her passion. While she wished she could find a place within the family enterprise, she was pretty sure that her choice not to pursue an advanced degree in science meant finding a different path. She began to think about alternatives.

As she searched to find a path, her first choice was law. Perhaps she could contribute to the family business with this kind of training. Ironically, Sonja succeeded at anything she tried. She excelled in school and her contributions to her first law firm were acknowledged. But she left the practice of law because she did not feel fulfilled.

She'd always had an interest in fashion, so she finished an advanced business degree (M.B.A.) and found a position in the fashion industry. Those of you familiar with “The Devil Wears Prada,” based on a real story, got a glimpse at the underbelly of the industry. Fashion was not as glamorous as Sonja imagined.

Sonja was unaware that she suffered a malady common among children born into prominent families. The gap between the level of accomplishments of their elders and their own success sets them on a quest to feel legitimate. Even with continued support from the family to take her time and choose what she wanted, the internal pressure Sonja experienced was about measuring up to their successes. Among all the giants in her life, her admiration for her grandmother is captured in referring to grandma as “a force of nature.”

Her grandmother was the glue of the family and in her eighties traveled the globe for the business. She was a powerful woman, who, upon the death of her husband, took over the international business he created. Her grandfather, an immigrant, built the business with Sonja's father. Surrounded by giants, including her brothers, she felt she was different. During our conversation, she declared, “It’s all about achievements.” This was an ah-ha awareness for Sonja. Among all the giants in her life, her wish was to become a force.

Russ Haworth, a family business consultant from the U.K. and I interviewed 24 rising-generation family members from around the globe. Supported by a research team from the University of Adelaide in Australia, Francesco “Frank” Barbera and Joelle Hawa, we were able to put experiences like Sonja’s into a larger context. While Sonja believed that her story was personal, the research suggests that it is part of a predictable pattern.

The psychological angst of children from prominent families about “measuring up” is a psychological issue. It is often mistaken as “entitlement,” and it deserves attention. For years, I kept hearing the constant refrain at conferences that referred to the “entitled” youth raised in storied or wealthy families. One consultant referred to them as “waiters.” The implication was that the rising generation from wealthy families were not pursuing their own goals since, at some point, they would get everything handed to them. None of the rising generation from prominent families that we interviewed escaped their own struggle to make their mark on the world.