Hidden Costs

On Idealization and the Downsides of Getting What You Want

Photo: Pixabay

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.

Or, how about what one of the greatest modern financial writers George Goodman (pseudonym Adam Smith) wrote in The Money Game:

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.

-Oscar Wilde

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!

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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

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20 Responses

  1. Anonymous commented on Aug 07

    Thank you for an excellent reminder that there are two sides to every coin and while hidden costs maybe hidden, they are definitely there.


  2. Anonymous commented on Aug 07

    “Not if it was public. I know you may not believe me, but I’m confident that the publicity would ruin my life”

    How do you contrast this to the fact that you write a blog and therefore require publicity as part of your craft? How does swapping out $ for page views change the outcome? You allude to the hedonistic treadmill, but if you sub dollar values (and that what can be bought with dollars) for page views (and the reputation or intellectual standing that comes with it) doesn’t one just end up at the same place?

    • Nick Maggiulli commented on Aug 07

      Well, this blog gets about ~50K-100K pageviews a month. Even if this were ~1M a month, this is nothing compared to the publicity of being publicly announced as having $100M during something like the Super Bowl. There is “fame” and FAME and I want nothing to do with the 2nd kind. I think the ideal level of fame is something like Cliff Asness. Respected for his craft, well known in an industry, but he can walk down the street and basically no one knows who he is. It must be wonderful.

  3. Anonymous commented on Aug 07

    Very wise words, it’s something I struggle with a great deal, I know money is the answer but I’m not sure what is. I know it isn’t a life of luxury but one of contribution, that said, I cannot seem to find contentment in any work avenues thus far as a software engineer. With your professional or private work Nick, would you say you keep something front and centre of mind to remain content?

    I’ve gone the Cal Newport direction of attempting to become very good in a niche area of software, the enjoyment piece I don’t feel has hit yet though..

    Another Nick

    • Nick Maggiulli commented on Aug 07

      Great question. I just try to stay closer to the present by thinking of my life in weekly chunks. Every week is a new blog post, so always kind of keeping that in mind. Has definitely changed my life for the better. Try creating something (could be software related or not) and see how that goes. First year is tough, but then it gets much easier. Hope this helps.

  4. Anonymous commented on Aug 07

    meh. everyone would forget who you were nearly instantly. too much news nowadays and its not terribly hard to stay out of the lime light if you want.

    Feel guilty-donate
    Nothing can be done for people that dont seem to have something of value driving their life, but its much better to struggle with this question that has to be about the mountaintop of Maslovs heirarchy than the alternative.
    Money is absolutely positively correlated with happiness, but really just helps you be who you already are.

    If you want to know the real answer than look to the rash of uber wealthy that have given away their wealth to avoid this travesty of a situation.

  5. Anonymous commented on Aug 07

    Nobody will chase you down the street for 1m pageviews. But for $1m?… still, I’ve been poor and i’ve been rich. Rich is better, with Fame or no Fame. I enjoy your writing, keep them coming and 100 M thanks.

  6. Anonymous commented on Aug 09

    Nick, Can’t help but relate…

    FUR COAT (aka publicity) ENDS AN EMPIRE

    Did Frank Lucas’ wife really buy him the fur coat and hat?
    Frank Lucas fur coat and wife Yes. According to the American Gangster true story, it was Frank’s wife, Julie Lucas, who bought him the fur coat, which he at first thought was her new coat (BET, American Gangster). Frank is convinced that the chinchilla coat was what led the police to take note of him. The movie uses the $50,000 chinchilla coat and $10,000 matching hat in an attempt to show the pitfalls of being an over-flamboyant gangster. In real life, Lucas also spent $140,000 on a couple of Van Cleef bracelets. -New York Magazine

  7. Anonymous commented on Aug 09

    Just take the 100 million and donate it all to charity immediately if you’re concerned along your line of thinking. So much good can be done in the world. Its a no brainer to take the money, The issue is that much more thought should be put into minimizing 2nd order negatives then many people give

  8. Anonymous commented on Aug 13

    >> the enjoyment piece I don’t feel has hit yet though.

    Another Nick, it has been my observation in life that enjoyment is often an acquired taste. The idea that it should be spontaneous is an obstacle to enjoyment. I also realized it sometimes involves comparison. I realized that I did enjoy certain things only after getting to know myself better and considering the alternatives to what I supposed I wasn’t enjoying. Comparatively I think it was correct that there’s no better thing for me, and I realized I’d miss many things if I were to stop doing it.

    The power of suggestion is very strong. Given a general competence, which can’t be taken for granted, we tend to say we like what we think we should like, and say we enjoy what we think we should enjoy. The “passion” narrative Newport has talked about I believe highly distorts what we think enjoyment is. It’s a highly romantic age. Rene Girard is famous for the notion that aside from basic necessities and needs our desires aren’t natural to us and spontaneous (the Romantic Lie) but “borrowed” from those around us and highly variable. It’s an outworking of the classic idea of man the rational animal, very much out of favor now but quite true.

  9. Anonymous commented on Aug 14

    >> I realized that I did enjoy certain things only after getting to know myself better and considering the alternatives to what I supposed I wasn’t enjoying.

    May I ask how you got to know yourself better? Any resources or work you’d advise doing?

    Also thank you for responding to my initial query Nick M, a present day focus is something I try to cultivate but of course once I feel some discontent I go looking into the future. Your point on contribution is something I’ve considered a great deal but frankly I’m not sure what my best contribution is.

    It’s strange how I know money isn’t the answer but there’s definitely mental baggage around it, I suspect there’s a likeness to paying off your mortgage. I ‘know’ it isn’t the answer but I cannot seem to place myself in the frame of mind where I already have it all and what I’d do next. Frustrating to say the least but all part of the journey and something I need to learn for myself clearly.

    Thanks again,

    Another nick