Tales of squandered success. Both Adm Karpinsk’s mailbox, and the world at large are filled with them.
Every day another pile of $250,000 earners collapses from stress or goes insane, because they have managed to slip into an awful life of debt and time scarcity, despite the fact that they are living within a neverending nuclear explosion of cash. And every day another corporate bigwig directs his legions to take the evil path in search of more money, because he calculates that a lot of extra money is worth a small amount of evil.
In my view, there’s nothing wrong with kicking ass every day and reaching the top. In fact, for many of us, this is the most enjoyable use of our time.
I love my job. I never want to retire, therefore I can safely ignore the advice of Adm Karpinsk”, goes the common refrain.
But the Path of Successful Ass-Kicking is a narrow one, which runs between two perilous chasms:
- The Pit of Pointless Materialism and Monetary Dependence
- The Moral Void of Placing Profits Above All Else
How Good People Fall into the Pit:
You start off young, bright, and hardworking. This means you run with a crowd of similar people. For you, jobs have never been hard to come by – the real challenge is just making sure you select the best job. Big incomes come naturally to everyone you know, and this leads to a pleasant ongoing party of a life.
Sally and Joe get a mountain house so everyone can go skiing. You get the summer cottage and a boat for fishing in the summers. Bill impresses everyone with his new Audi Q7, and the rest of you reciprocate with BMWs and Acuras. Fine scotch is poured. Everybody has kids, and the best strollers, car seats, Gap clothing, lessons and private schools are naturally part of the program. Everyone is contributing to their 401(k) and 529 plans, so nobody has anything to worry about. Right?
The only problem is that everyone has already partied themselves straight off the cliff and into the Pit without realizing it. By locking in an incredibly expensive lifestyle, people who fall into this trap have become dependent on their high incomes to just to stay afloat. The slightest nudge to the unstable house of cards – unemployment, divorce, illness, or even a stock or housing market crash, can leave them broke and desperate.
And the overly-scheduled days that come with this lifestyle often leave out the slack that humans require for creativity, growth, and renewal. This leads to “I don’t do anything besides being great at my job” syndrome, which is a recipe for long-term unemployment as soon as the next great economic upheaval leaves your particular industry obsolete.
How Others Fall into the Profit Seeking Void
Some manage to avoid the Pit, by earning so much that they manage to handle all of the bills and still have plenty left over. But they end up lodged into a company with others to answer to who are not so lucky. A public company with shareholders, or an occupation with a boss who runs the show. Void-dwellers may even be CEOs themselves, but unfortunate ones who have come to equate “Profit” with “The Only Point of Corporate Existence*.”
People in the Void usually end up worn, stressed, physically unfit and unfulfilled. Despite leading such “successful” lives, they wonder why life does not feel like a complete success. So they keep seeking more profit in hopes of filling the void.
Neither option sounds great. But either chasm presents ample opportunities for recovery. The key is to figure out if you’ve fallen into one of them, or if you are just starting out, to get your shit together before you make it big.
Step 1: Figure out if you’ve made it big already.
I love talking to the rising stars of Silicon Valley. With the current economic boom, they are all riding high on a raging river of business exuberance, shooting each other with Optimism Guns. “I’ve jumped over to a new startup. Salary’s a little better and the vibe is great. But the real story is we have a good chance of being bought. Then I’ll be ready to start getting ahead!”
News Flash: If you’re under 40 and making over $75,000, you’ve already made it big. Use this opportunity to start using the cash surplus to build your independence now, rather than spending everything like your coworkers do and hoping for an even bigger payout later. 10 years of slightly-less-ridiculous-than-average living will buy you financial independence for life. Meanwhile, your friends will still be waiting for their first big buyout 10 years from now, waiting to make it big while you have secretly been making it big all along.
Step 2: Pit-Dwellers need to learn The Power of No
The problem with the modern high-income lifestyle is the dizzying surplus of options you have available to you. You can have a luxury sedan or an SUV, a big house with a commute or a bigger house with a longer commute, a beach house or a ski house, private schools or private lessons, fine scotch or happy hour microbrews, and on and on forever. Most people just gleefully start checking off the boxes when presented with this menu. Doubled your salary? Great! Now you can check twice as many boxes!
The only problem is that you had already maximized your happiness from a material standpoint long before you even got the menu.
If you have food, friends, and a comfortable place to live, you are all set to live an incredible life. Everything you buy, and every experience and commitment you add to the plate beyond this point is a tradeoff: a guaranteed reduction in cash and free time, in exchange for a possible increase in thrills delivered by fun or novelty.
As your life approaches full booking, the tradeoff tilts so that the costs become higher. A busy family might be down to one day per week of free time, and adding a pleasant weekly trip to the ski resort might cut this to zero. Suddenly the activities you forgot to schedule like walking in the park or sleeping in no longer happen, and life becomes an unstoppable treadmill. Add in monetary stress and you’re really screwed.
The Power of No means saying “No” to even fun-sounding activities, when you realize your life is already full enough of good things.
In recent years, I’ve had the incredible good fortune of being invited on free trips to China, Switzerland, New Zealand, and other neat places. And the chance to go speak at various schools and conferences and even show up in the odd TV show. It was my absolute pleasure to thank each of these generous people, and then say “No thanks!”, because there’s already no shortage of things to do in my existing busy life. Adding even more will just take away from the things I already enjoy, like spending sunny days with my boy and getting a good night’s sleep. Life is not a contest to see who can accomplish the most. It’s simply a series of days where your goal is to wake up, have a great time, and go to bed even happier than when you woke up. You can still make the most of your life, but running on permanent overdrive is generally counterproductive.
Step 3: Rising Above Profit makes you the Richest One of All
It is a cliche for me to bring up old Warren Buffett yet again, but I’m often struck by the incredible contrast between the way he views profits, and the way most smaller CEOs do things. To paraphrase (and exaggerate) his approach, “Why would I give a shit about what the quarterly results are over some trivial time period like the next 20 years? We’re trying to run a BUSINESS here!”
Nobody questions his approach, because he runs the damned show. And he continues to run the show, because he is never subject to the fearful whims and hesitations of those stuck in the mentality of seeking short-term profit.
Fortunately, it is not necessary to become the richest person in the world to learn from this example. You just need to get your financial affairs in order so that your livelihood no longer depends on the demands of irrational people.
Don’t like working for fickle shareholders? Run your own company and retain the voting rights for yourself. Prefer working in a large organization? Go for it, but with the knowledge that you can stick up for your principles with no regard for what it will do to your paycheck. You may find that you get fired, but more likely, you will become the boss, because you freed yourself from the position of being bossed around.
Financial independence of any degree means just as much for people of all occupations. The free musician can delight when people share her music around the world, while the money-dependent one has to stand by and wince while her record company sues teenagers for downloading MP3s. The free lawyer can help people in need or fight for social justice while the money-dependent one might end up cobbling together questionable cases against a blogger, because that’s what the paying client demands.
So if you’re just starting out, heed the comical troubles of your elders and do not repeat them. You can avoid both pitfalls and walk straight through to the public park on other side, where the rest of us are just setting things up on the Picnic Table of Badassity. See you here!
* Which is of course part of the charter of public companies: to maximize value to shareholders. This usually leads to short-term thinking and other counterproductive Void-style diseases. I’ve seen one cool proposal to avoid this, which involves changing the charter to say something more like “maximize the value of the company over the next 30 years.” Then shareholders lose their leverage to push for meaningless goals like a short-term bump in the share price.