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From “hungry wolf” to “fat cat” – how culture can promote or hinder growth

I’ve been sitting on this concept since a conversation I had with a friend who visited me in San Francisco last month. She had been traveling since she started studying for her MBA degree at INSEAD and had left a successful career in commercial real estate in Romania.

Both of us have friends who are successful people in their fields in the country and we discussed the concepts of hungry wolves and fat cats, and their relationship to growth – both personal and systemic. I had already written a post about attitudes in the US vs Romania, so this intrigued me to the point where I had to write about it.

Hungry Wolves

A hungry wolf is the metaphor for relentless ambition, the kind that you need to break through glass ceilings, to start great companies, to win impossible races, to build amazing products, and, in general, to improve yourself and the world around you. It’s that inner fire you feel every morning and the drive to go beyond what’s expected of you and over-deliver. It’s that drive to change things for the better, instead of letting them fester. This is the kind of person that pulls communities forward, both economically, politically and socially.

It’s usually associated with under-privileged people, who usually have to fight harder than others to move up in the world. Immigrants, minorities and people from lower income backgrounds tend to be hungry wolves. Sometimes, the environment plays a key role in keeping wolves from turning to fat cats – high cost of living, working culture, social norms, competition can influence this behavior.

Fat Cats

A fat cat is someone who is content with what they have achieved. Generally, people become fat cats when they don’t feel their success is temporary and they stop growing/advancing. They stop and settle, and every day starts to resemble the previous one. There are two main kinds of fat cats: made and born.

The fat cat that made it is, usually, a former hungry wolf that decided it had enough and it’s time to focus on other things, and not fane those inner flames anymore. Maybe it’s early retirement, or desire to pursue a slower life, or they just had enough of the rat race. They stop giving it the extra edge, stop over-delivering and settle to do the bare minimum to keep things going, keep the lights on. You can spot them at work, in your friends groups and in the way the talk about their goals and ambitions. They don’t shine anymore.

The other type of fat cat is the one that was born like this. They usually come from wealthy backgrounds, have had safety nets their whole lives and are the representation of privilege. They don’t have to worry about the future, so they don’t invest time thinking about it too much. They share the same symptoms as the fat cat that made it, but the difference is that the born one might not have had a flame to begin with. They are easy to spot in the wild – spending money that’s not a result of their work, making poor life choices and surrounding themselves with fake friends to run from their own lack of purpose in life.

My Romanian and US experience with fat cats and hungry wolves

It’s 2020 and we’re still in growth mode globally, still let by the US economy, in spite of the crisis super-cycle that historians have identified. The US has had crisis ever 1-2 generations, and every time it has recovered because its culture is built on the hungry wolf concept. Some argue that socialist measures might stifle some of this drive and turn hungry wolves into fat cats, as more safety nets get built into the system. In key places in the US, though, there are some key factors that will delay and even prevent this from happening.

I have been living in San Francisco since 2016, and in cities like this it’s hard to see a majority of people turning into fat cats. The cost of living, its growth, the work culture and competition, the lure of the next biggest thing in startups, growing companies everywhere keep that flame alive. Hell, it even sparks flames in former born fat cats. This type of economy, while taxing for the average individuals – sometimes with burnout, depression, social anxiety, drives growth. It’s a price people pay for their advancement. This perpetual hungry wolf doesn’t think their prosperity can last forever, so it works hard so it has a base to land on if things go South. They create to invest, they prepare for long term prosperity.

On the other hand, I lived in Romania growing up and for a good part of my early adult life. The culture there, while still rewarding and encouraging for hungry wolves, has a very specific local flavor. Parents and other people in social circles that are risk averse repeat a very damaging mantra: “isn’t this enough for you?” (I wish there were a good explanation for this. Here’s my take on it: When you get a mortgage and a car, that’s when people start to say that you made it, and your mom tells you to stop pushing, because you have enough).

This type of culture socially punishes overly ambitious people and helps create an environment where it’s ok to settle for enough. While this can be great to the individual’s immediate quality of life, if prosperity goes away, and the fat cat becomes a skinny cat, then will it have enough drive to turn back into the hungry wolf it needs to be? Or will the former born fat cat have the strength to spark that flame on its own?

But back to the hungry wolf. The trap there is not to overdo the hungry part, and end up bursting from over-eating. It’s ok to be just a little bit hungry sometimes and not terribly hungry all the time. I’ve seen some people call it the long term greedy approach. Seems to work for successful and happy people.

This is the Romanian article (EN translation) that contributed to a few of the ideas this post.

Later edit:

I had a cool exchange on LinkedIn with a friend of mine, Ciprian (Chip) Borodescu (Co-founder & CEO at MorphL), and I wanted to share it with people reading this later here:

Hey Titus, interesting analysis and I think I agree 99% of it.  One thing that I struggle with is the very last thing you wrote: “I’ve seen some people call it the long term greedy approach. Seems to work for successful and happy people.” In my opinion success ≠ happy. I think the fat cat is very happy, don’t you think? (that’s certainly the case for my cat, haha!) Is that cat successful? It depends on the definition of success. Success for some people is external: if they have a great professional career or other people think highly of them, that immediately translates into success. If not, it’s a total disaster. Success for other people comes from inside – their own sustainable definition of success, that’s not attached to the success of a startup, project, deal, etc. Success is found within and they don’t seek validation from outside. Both have a growth mindset, only the latter has a more mature and balanced approach to life. You’re encouraging hungry wolves to find a balance: “a little bit hungry sometimes and not terribly hungry all the time”.  However, this places the balance in the realm of wolves still. How about placing the balance in-between the two? Cats are predators too – which I read as a “growth mindset” 😉

To which I replied: Great point! I think fat cats can be happy and successful too, as long as they are able to stay fat 🙂 for me, the two concepts are.about active and passive approach to life/growth. I like your internal / external lens, and to the definitions in the article, if you take an active approach to either success paths, you’re still a hungry wolf, seeking improvement. A fat cat is happy with where it it is.

Photo by Patrick on Unsplash

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