Lipstick on a Pig: The Illusion of Success

Just this week, I finished reading Megyn Kelly’s inspiring book Settle for More. If you’re unfamiliar with Kelly, she’s a former corporate defense attorney turned successful television journalist. She rose to the peak of her law career as a seemingly unstoppable litigator, cranking out work with an efficiency that was machine-like.

Yet, as Kelly reveals, the apparent triumph of each won case didn’t justify the painful cost of losing sight of what was truly meaningful in her life.

The toll was brutal. For months, she saw nothing but the inside of the law firm. Friendships were put aside, weddings missed, personal relationships strained. The onslaught of sleepless nights, tear-filled days, and constant feelings of being trapped and exhausted were her daily reality.

Despite her proficiency and impressive career trajectory, Kelly came to a profound realization:

being good at something doesn’t necessarily bring happiness.

Especially in high performing environments like law (and I’d add finance), hard working people are rewarded with, wait for it…more work.

Sounds familiar?

As Megyn says, it was like ‘winning a pie-eating contest only to be rewarded with more pie’.

The Hamster Wheel of Professional Life

Consider Kelly’s experience for a moment. Like many I’ve met in the highest echelons of corporate leadership, she was caught in a deceptive cycle.

From the outside, it appeared as if she was sprinting towards the pinnacle of success. But in reality, she was just running in place, like a hamster on a wheel.

After finishing a gruelling day at the office, she would return home, heat up a Lean Cuisine in the microwave, and wash it down with repeats of Oprah. Her life, though successful in conventional terms, was reduced to this rinse-and-repeat, soul-destroying cycle.

And that’s the paradox many of us fail to recognise:

Working hard without a clear, meaningful end goal is not advancement—it’s mere motion.

A New Value: Meaning

As Oprah says, we’re only ever one decision away from changing our livesThe only difference between those who feel satisfied and those we might envy is that the latter refuse to settle for less—less than what they can offer, less than what they deserve.

Megyn Kelly ultimately realized that the culture of her profession was fundamentally the same wherever she went, regardless of the name on the front door of the company. It was not the environment but the values that needed a transformation.

The fundamental message of the book is to remember that none of us knows how much time we have on this Earth. While hard work is crucial and can bring a sense of purpose, we can’t waste our lives chained to the office desk, tangled in endless strife.

It’s like applying lipstick on a pig—it doesn’t change the fundamental reality, it just makes it more palatable.

This is why I no longer read tokenistic newsletters by well-meaning but equally blinded organisational psychologists listing the Top 5 Ways to Improve Burnout.

If your working environment is toxic at its most fundamental level, arming yourself or your team with positive psychology hacks isn’t going to change the fact that working there sucks.

So, I challenge you to ask yourself:

Are you merely slapping lipstick on the pig of your life, or are you ready to break free and seek a higher purpose?

Remember, the only person who can settle for more is you.

Recognizing the Hamster Wheel:
A Mini Questionnaire

Let’s take a moment to consider our own lives. Are you too caught in the hamster wheel, losing sight of what truly matters?

Often, when we have been stuck in this cycle too long, our body starts to break down in weird and wonderful ways.

Here are some questions to help you gauge where you’re at. I hope you find them useful:

  • Do you often feel tired, irritable or anxious?
  • Have you gained weight or experienced changes in your eating or drinking habits?
  • Is your sleep pattern disturbed? Do you have trouble falling asleep, or do you wake up still feeling tired?
  • Do you frequently experience headaches, backaches, or other physical discomfort?
  • Have you stopped engaging in hobbies or activities you used to enjoy?
  • Are you often preoccupied with work, even during off hours?
  • Are your relationships suffering?
  • Do you often feel like there’s too much to do and not enough time?
  • Do you suffer from ongoing digestive symptoms?
  • If you’re middle aged, are you experiencing hot flashes?

If you’ve answered yes to several of these questions, you might be stuck in the same hamster wheel as Megyn was. Remember, the first step towards change is awareness.

Don’t settle for less, especially when it comes to your wellbeing. Instead, consider the words of the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus who said,

“The happy man is the one who has a healthy body, a wealthy soul and a well-educated nature”.

We need to redefine success to include not just the hours we put in at work, but also the richness of our personal lives, our health, and our peace of mind.