Can You Succeed without Sacrificing What Matters Most? Maybe.
On Putting First Things First & Struggling to Balance It All
I’ve never been good at balance, never much admired it as a concept. Balanced people don’t change the world, do they? Show me a wildly successful person who’s happy and I’ll give you a long list of history’s greatest minds who, clearly, were not. As Professor Rab Hatfield told me about his extensive research into the wealth of the artist Michelangelo (who apparently was a miser): “Geniuses aren’t necessarily nice people.”
How, then, do you succeed without sacrificing what matters most in life? Is such a thing even possible? I’ll admit as I get older, I am less prone to trade time with family for another accolade. I’ve been there before, seen what that gets me. It’s not that interesting to me, anymore. I want something else, something more.
And yet, there is a part of me who gnaws away at my conscience every once in awhile, demanding to be noticed. This is the part of me who jockeys for position, who works his clever observations into dinner conversation in hopes of being recognized—the ego that hides behind kind and thoughtful gestures but is still cleverly calculating how it all comes back to him. I don’t love that guy, but he’s still around, making mischief. And I’m trying to figure out what to do with him.
How to Succeed without Sacrificing What Matters Most
That was the original subtitle of the book I worked on with Steve Chou—which became The Family First Entrepreneur. Everyone wants to success, but so often we put the things that matter the most at the end of our priority list. What does it mean to put your family first? And how do you know if you’re doing it right?
If you have to ask the question, well… that’s part of the problem.
I know a lot of entrepreneurs, and most of them have families. But very few live balanced lives. We can make all kinds of excuses and offer various explanations for this phenomenon, but that’s just the truth. People who undertake more than the average amount of risk in a business are those who are not entirely adjusted to the status quo. They want more and are willing to risk more to get it. Sometimes, though, what they risk may not be worth what they get.
Steve Chou is the exception to this rule, but that wasn’t always the case. The reason he’s different from his peers is simple: Pain. He knows what it’s like to sacrifice what matters most for a chance at success. I do, too. I’ve been there before myself—rushing through bedtime with the kiddos and telling my spouse “I’ll be right there.” Staying up late, getting up earlier, rushing from one thing to the next. I know the urgency of booking one more trip away from home in hopes that this latest connection will be my “big break.” But the problem with some breaks is that they can leave you broken.
I am always astonished at the process of writing; it is a form of school for me. Whatever book I am working on is always the book I need right now, even I am the one writing it. When I was helping Steve Chou telling his story of putting his life and business back together after it all fell apart, I was reminded of the areas in my life that were out of integrity. How I was still believing the lie of hustle, aiming at some magical day in the future when all my sacrifice will have paid off.
There are a lot of people in this world who want to sell you the promise of a better life later by convincing you to give up what you love most now. They will try to persuade you that this is only temporary, just on the other side of this next project. With these people, your dreams are always just out of reach, one sprint away from being achieved.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with this message, of course; it can, at times, be a good motivator to get yourself out of a ditch. But it is not the whole truth. Yes, you can achieve certain dreams in life; and sometimes, success is only a few feet away. But when was the last time someone told you that getting everything you wanted might not be good for you—or enough to make you happy? That’s a less popular message.
Allow me to be frank, if I may. No, you don’t deserve everything you want. And even if you did, the likelihood of getting it is pretty low. This is effectively the same thing as giving a child whatever they want, whenever they demand it. Are you and I really that different from a toddler who wants another hit of something sweet? I am not so sure we are.
The Trappings of Wanting What You Don’t Have
And what does it mean, anyway, to want something? I always loved that line from Mad Men in which Don Draper riffs on the ephemeral nature of happiness. “What is happiness?” he muses with a potential client whose business he’s trying to win. “It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”
That’s what wanting gets you: more wanting.
As the brilliant ad man he is, Draper knows products don’t satisfy the deepest longings of a human heart. Which is why we always want something new, better, faster, more interesting. So after you’re done consuming whatever latest gadget you’ve acquired, eventually in creeps a feeling of not-enough-ness that demands you to want… something new. “Even though success is a reality,” Don says, “its effects are temporary.” That’s what it means to want.
So if success doesn’t make you happy, if getting what you want eventually leaves you wanting more, then what does satisfy? Obviously, this is the perennial question of human existence and if I could bottle the answer, I’d be a rich man . But if I had to hazard an answer, I’d say something like this: True happiness is not having to ask the question, “What is happiness?” in the first place.
I do not think enlightened people wonder what happiness is. When I watch my children in sheer states of embodied bliss, they do not seem preoccupied with definitions of contentment. They are lost in the flow of life, consumed by the infinity of the present moment. They are, in a word, here. Once, I heard the Indian mystic J. Krishnamurti claim that time is the real cause of human suffering. It is only when we are consumed with what has been done to us or worried about what might be that we are unhappy. At least, that was his reasoning, and I think there is some truth to that.
Happiness is a state in which you are unaware of any immediate problems. The last time you felt completely content, without a care in the world, what was true? Maybe you were on a beach somewhere or reading a book or with the people you loved the most. You were happy, weren’t you? And for no particular reason. Even if only for a moment, you had no problems, no major conflicts. Sure, if you tried, you could have come up with half a dozen reasons to be upset. But in that moment, those weren’t alive. All that was real was the moment in front of you; and from your vantage point, life looked pretty good. Didn’t it? That’s happiness.
I don’t have a clear understanding of what success is or even an articulate way of explaining the state of happiness without getting into storytelling mode. All I know is that when I am chasing something, I am missing the mark. This moment right here, in whatever place I find myself, is heaven. It is perfect. And only my perspective is askew. At least, that’s what I am starting to believe. I don’t need a plan to be happy. I don’t need to change anything to feel fulfilled. I only need to recognize what is and accept it.
Sometimes, though, I forget this, and must be reminded by a line in a song or by something my kid says. What matters most should not be sacrificed for a temporary thrill. If it matters most, it matters all the time, not just when it is convenient. I learned this from making the same mistakes over and over, mistakes that led to all sorts of suffering. I was reminded of these lessons while working on this book with a man who didn’t want to become a millionaire at the cost of missing his kids’ games.
What I learned from this process of yet another book that came into my life to teach me something was that happiness is less than we think it needs to be. It’s the ability to be with the people you love and the freedom to enjoy it.
I am happiest when I am not thinking about the nature of happiness. I am wealthiest when I have no idea how much money is, or is not, in my bank account. I am successful when I have no vision of what my life will be like “someday” and can stand in awe of the miracle of what is true today—grateful for all that is around and within me. That’s happiness for me; that’s success.
How, then, do you succeed without sacrificing what matters most? By never being willing to sacrifice those things in the first place.
P.S. Here’s an episode where Steve and I chat about the process of coming up with his book idea, selling it to a publisher, writing the book together, and launching it. Lots of insider tips in this one. And don’t forget to check out the book.