On Idealization and the Downsides of Getting What You Want
Imagine, just for a moment, that I make you the offer of a lifetime:
I am going to give you $100 million, but…you have to accept this money publicly during a widely televised event (i.e. Super Bowl, NBA Finals, etc.)
Would you take my offer?
Before I even finish this sentence, your mind is already racing about what you could do with $100 million. You could own your home outright, you would never have to work again, and you could say goodbye to the TSA forever. Wouldn’t life be grand? Accepting the money is a no-brainer, right?
But think about what else this offer entails. You are worth $100 million and everyone knows it. Long lost lovers and friends that you fell out of touch with are coming out of the woodwork. They apologize for being too busy to keep up with you, but were “just thinking of you” the other day. In fact, a genetic miracle has happened and you now have hundreds of newly found “relatives” who can’t wait to meet you. Unscrupulous financial advisors are blowing up your phone and every charity in America is trying to convince you why their cause is the most worthy. Forevermore you won’t know who actually cares about you and who just wants to get closer to the money. Who is legitimate and who is a charlatan? Who can you really trust?
For those in current financial distress, the choice is easy: you take the money and hope for the best. There is clear evidence that going from a state of barely making ends meet to one of financial freedom is a positive thing. However, for most of my readers (who don’t have the problem of making ends meet), I’d say, “Not so fast.” Why?
Because it’s easy to see how $100 million would arguably improve your life without even trying. However, it’s much harder to imagine the 2nd order (and higher) effects of having this much money. Remember, money and fame can destroy lives too. While the upsides are clear, the downsides are obscured. You can imagine the benefits, but not the hidden costs.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Boo hoo, you’re complaining about being given $100 million.” Such privilege and #FirstWorldProblems, am I right? What would some random 28 year old on the internet (who is not even close to being a millionaire) know about the difficulties of being rich? Don’t ask me then. Ask the late Felix Dennis who wrote How to Get Rich: One of The World’s Greatest Entrepreneurs Shares His Secrets (emphasis mine):
Still, let me repeat it one more time. Becoming rich does not guarantee happiness. In fact, it is almost certain to impose the opposite condition—if not from the stresses and strains of protecting wealth, then from the guilt that inevitably accompanies its arrival.
I have known a lot of investors who came to the markets to make money, and they told themselves that what they wanted was the money: security, a trip around the world, a new sloop, a country estate, an art collection, a Caribbean house for cold winters. And they succeeded. So they sat on the dock of the Caribbean home, chatting with their art dealers and gazing fondly at the new sloop, and after a while it was a bit flat. Something was missing.
Do you think these two authors are lying to you? Did they spend their entire lives in astute observation just to lead you down the wrong path? No, my friends. They are trying to get the message to you, the question is whether you want to listen.
Yet, this goes beyond just getting rich. Time and time again I have seen how our society idealizes things that are littered with hidden costs. We want the great body, but without the reps. We want the returns, but without the risks. We want the lake house, but without the frozen pipes bursting because we forgot to put in antifreeze.
We can idolize wealth, status, fame, and beauty all we want, but we don’t think about what happens if we ever actually get them…
Be Careful What You Wish For
There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what you want, the other is getting it.
This is one of my favorites quotes because it highlights the dilemma we face everyday of our lives. When we finally get the things we are chasing after, will they truly make us happy or fulfilled?
Based on my limited experience, focusing on fulfillment over day-to-day happiness is the way to go. For example, climbing Mount Everest is probably not a happy experience, but it is deeply fulfilling for some. Pushing your boundaries and contributing to something bigger than yourself (i.e. content, art, a business, a great family, a community, etc.) are what give people this deep sense of meaning.
I’ve found that by building this blog and adding my voice to the financial community, I enjoy life far more, but my happiness isn’t necessarily being maximized. I never want to waste anyone’s time with this blog and I sometimes worry whether my content is good enough to keep people interested. I would definitely be happier in the short-term without these worries, but it’s a tradeoff I would make any day.
So, would I take the $100 million? Not if it was public. I know you may not believe me, but I’m confident that the publicity would ruin my life. Besides, there is something to be said about earning your own success. What better feeling is there? Yes, I could do a lot of good with the money, but if I built my own wealth and gave back, that would be much more satisfying. I hope you agree.
If you want to learn more about the realities of getting rich, I highly recommend reading How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis. With that being said, I will leave you with a few words of wisdom on this topic from my favorite band. Thank you for reading!
This is post 84. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering: https://github.com/nmaggiulli/of-dollars-and-data