“How do you “make it” in life?”
I grew up in the US, with a very American view of success.
It’s a simple formula. Make money. Create a secure and comfortable life that makes you happy. Attract people to share it with. Win the admiration (and envy) of friends. Then, repeat this cycle as far as you can take it.
Do this, and you’re promised security, contentment, fun, freedom, social credibility, love and respect... all the things that you “need” to be happy.
I embraced this, 100%.
I started my first business at 19, and with hard work and fortunate market timing, I soon had more money than I knew what to do with. I was barely out of school, and already I’d ticked off all the things on my list of life goals...
- Make some millions
- Own a successful business
- Start a family
- Buy a nice house
- Own a fast sports car
- Be free to do whatever I want to
By any American measure, I’d made it, in a big way.
But it sure didn’t feel like it.
I wasn’t happy.
I had success, but when it came to happiness, somehow this wasn’t it.
I enjoyed aspects of my new life, but mostly I just felt stress. I felt stress at running my business, at negotiating big contracts, at chasing big invoices, at managing and feeding 25 employees,
Money and success didn’t make my relationship happy
Sure I could give my family everything they wanted, the nice house, cars, vacations, the best clothes... but I didn’t know how to make my relationship happy.
I hadn’t known how to pick the right partner, or to be the right partner, and all the stress and time required to build my business put a huge strain on our relationship.
Money and success didn’t make my friendships better
Friends felt uncomfortable with my success, perhaps comparing their own career choices to mine. I enjoyed going out to dinner with friends, and I remember one friend snapping at me when I tried to pay for dinner.
“I can pay for it myself.”
This really stood out to me because it was very out of character for this friend- he's one of the friendliest and most grounded people I know.
But in that moment, there was distance between us.
At a visit to my parents, my dad took me aside and shared that he envied my success, which also shocked me. He wasn't the kind of guy who seemed to envy anyone- again, very grounded.
I didn’t really find my success anything special, why should anyone else? My success was simply due to a willingness to work ridiculously hard, and accept a lot of stress.
I might have more toys than the average guy, but I was still the same Mike, with the same thoughts, emotions and values. Nothing had fundamentally changed.
I felt like success was somehow separating me from the people I loved, despite my deep desire to share my good fortune with them.
On the whole, I'd rather have those relationships, than that money.
Money and success didn’t make me happier
I liked never having to worry about a mortgage payment, or a utility bill.
The anxiety I used to feel opening mail was gone. Mortgage payments, car payments, insurance payments, medical payments... money flowed in and out like water and that sense of freedom was nice.
But that wasn’t “freedom” the way I imagined it would be.
I had money to do pretty much anything I wanted to, but I had no time, and no energy to actually do those things. The money machine was running full steam, but I was the foreman, and I never got to sleep or the machine would break down.
Maybe even blow up.
In my first decade of entrepreneurship, I have one awesome memory and that was taking a week-long vacation to Mexico and getting my PADI advanced diver license. That was my favorite memory from 10 years.
I didn't need $8 million to do that... and I could have made a lot more of those memories if my priorities had been "living" rather than "winning."
Everyone wanted more from me
My clients always wanted cool new products. My employees saw the skyrocketing success of our business and wanted a bigger piece. My business partners... well that’s a subject for a book someday.
At 21, I wasn’t really prepared to manage 25 employees, all with different personalities, goals and expectations. I felt a huge responsibility to them as well, and went a year without salary when income on some large receivables were delayed.
No matter how much I gave, it was never enough. In fact, I found the opposite was true. The more I gave, the more people expected from me.
This dynamic works the same way in nature.
Bees work hard to gather honey- a strong hive of 60,000 bees travels huge distances every day - the distance from the Earth is from the Moon. But gathering that honey attracts other bees and wasps who want to raid the hive. It also attracts grizzly bears, skunks, honey badgers... and humans.
Stress was my new reality
I had a lot of great life experiences, but these experiences were rare.
They were moments, little breathers where I got to ascend above the clouds and get some fresh air, and look at the little empire I was creating.
That fresh air, freedom, and sense of joy lasted just for a minute... and then I was called back into the factory, to put out more fires.
Life is the Best Teacher
"I wish everyone could experience being rich and famous, so they'd see it wasn’t the answer to anything."
- Jim Carrey
After 3 1/2 years of lavish living, the market changed in a direction we couldn’t adapt to. The money factory burned to the ground... and the rest of my world with it.
I lost it all. My business, my house, all 4 cars.,. even my family.
Toxic stress kills, but sometimes the heart attack happens outside of you, in your relationships and your world.
Here’s what I learned.
More isn’t better
It’s easy to see why this confuses people.
We equate money with freedom and possibility, so more seems better. We equate sex with joy and validation, so if one sexual partner is great, two seems better. A bigger TV is easier to see. A faster car makes that commute more fun.
But there are hidden costs to “more.”
There is a huge amount of time, energy and attention required to create more, and to protect and maintain it.
“Enough” is a much more sustainable goal, and when your mind and your time are your own, you get to enjoy your life rather than trading each breath for stuff you don’t really need.
By comparison, I have much less now, and yet more than I’ve ever imagined.
I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
“Making it” is about who you are, not what you have
The reality is that everything outside of you- money, houses, relationships, can add fun and pleasure to your life, but you cannot count on them to be there forever.
The only thing that you can count on to be there no matter what, until your last breath, is you.
And the more I invest in myself, the better each breath becomes. The sense of peace, clarity, focus, contentment... it's epic.
I wish I'd known that earlier.
Happiness is simpler than you think
You can learn a lot about happiness by watching a dog.
It doesn’t need much. Enough food. Enough shelter. Enough freedom. Maybe one good relationship, some exercise, and an opportunity to play.
Give a dog those things, and it’s world is absolute bliss.
We’re really no different, but our idea of happiness has warped. We’ve attached it to having more. More than we need. More than yesterday. More than our neighbors have.
But happiness is not a competition.
Figure out what you need, and figure out what qualifies as “enough.” Aim for that line, and when you hit “enough”, stop and re-evaluate what you want from your life.
The most valuable thing you have is your time- it’s the one thing you can never make more of. Don’t trade it for useless things.
Know who your friends are
Good relationships matter more than money.
I don’t miss the money. I do wish I’d invested more time in my relationships and friendships- with this perspective...
There are people in your world who love you for who you are, and there are people who love you for what you can give them.
The first type is rare, and special. Value them. Keep them close. Often you won’t know who they are, until your life blows up.
There's nothing wrong with having money.
But... I worked hard and pursued success because I believed that money & success would bring me happiness.
That's not what I found.
They solved a few stresses, but they also created much bigger ones.
They gave some freedom, but it imprisoned me in fundamental ways.
They created new relationship opportunities, but only shallow ones. The relationships that were important to me suffered and distanced.
They gave moments of joy, but never happiness.
Money isn't bad, and I'm not suggesting everyone should become a monk.
I'm simply saying this.
Identify what's most important to you, and invest in those things directly.
Build those relationships. Develop those skills. Grow yourself, every day.
Build yourself into someone you respect and admire, and you'll be happy no matter what life throws at you.
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