When I was younger, I thought constantly about the things I wanted to accomplish, because we live in a society that’s geared toward achievement. But when I was being encouraged to dream big back then, nobody ever warned me about tradeoffs. Nobody warned me that you give up some things in order to pursue other things. I was under the impression I could have it all.
I’ve thought a lot about choices in the past few years. For a long time, I tried to avoid making choices, because I looked at life as a buffet where you just kept adding to your plate. Maybe my metaphor wasn’t too far off, but I didn’t realize that the “plate” we have in life is of a limited size. If your plate is full, something has to come off as you add more to it.
If you devote yourself to pursuing a dream of some kind — wealth, fame, early retirement, whatever the carrot dangling in front of you is — you always give up something else. Only you can decide which tradeoffs are worth it — and nobody can spare you from the certainty of having to make the choices, whether they’re conscious or unconscious.
As I thought about this Monday night, I was reminded of a quote from investment guru Jim Rogers. In his book, “Investment Biker,” he discussed the tradeoffs involved in pursuing whatever it is you want:
“Most of us don’t have the discipline to stay focused on a single goal for five, 10 or 20 years, giving up everything to bring it off, but that’s what’s necessary to become an Olympic champion, a world-class surgeon, or a Kirov ballerina. Even then, of course, it may be all in vain. You may make a single mistake that wipes out all the work. It may ruin the sweet, lovable self you were at 17. That old adage is true: You can do anything in life, you just can’t do everything. That’s what Bacon meant when he said a wife and children were hostages to fortune. If you put them first, you probably won’t run the three-and-a-half-minute-mile, make your first $10 million, write the great American novel or go around the world on a motorcycle. Such goals take complete dedication.”
I love Rogers’ book and I like the general idea behind what he has to say here, but when you read it, it’s very clear which things he thinks are worth pursuing. At least, you can tell what was most important to him when he wrote the book 17 years ago.
Rogers didn’t marry or have a family when he was younger, because he thought those things didn’t matter. He was more interested in pursuing his dreams. Rogers made a fortune on Wall Street and then pursued various personal goals. But he found out later in life that he gad given up something important in the tradeoffs he made.
Rogers is 69 years old now, but he didn’t have his first child until he was 60. Just last year, he explained to a reporter than he had been wrong in the priorities he had had, especially as they relate to children.
“I thought children were a terrible waste of time, energy, money — I felt sorry for my friends who had children,” he said. “I thought it was something I would never do. I was terribly wrong. They are so much fun.”
Rogers has two daughters and he’s living in Singapore, mostly so the girls can grow up speaking Chinese, which he considers important for their being prepared for the future. His daughters dominate his life today. He bikes them 8 km to school in the morning and then bikes back to pick them up at the end of the school day. They’re clearly the most important things in his life.
By pursuing the things that he did at a younger age, Rogers accomplished a lot of things that many people would admire, but he waited until his 60s to start enjoying the thing that has given his life the most meaning. Was that a wise choice? I don’t know. Only he could say. I wonder, though, if he now thinks it would have been a better use of his time a couple of decades ago to make family the center of his life. I don’t know what he’d say.
Rogers is lucky in that his fortune is giving him the flexibility to make his daughters his priority now. Not everyone would be so lucky as to have that chance at 60.
If you want to pursue wealth or success or even just the financial security that you believe will allow you to take it easy in 20 or 30 years, is it worth it? You only have the best years of your life once. You can give them to many different things, but whatever you choose will mean you’re cutting out other things. Do you want wealth? Do you want time with someone who loves and understands you? Do you want fame and admiration of the public? If you’re lucky, you can have one of those. Few people will be lucky enough to have more than one.
As Steve Jobs lay dying last year, he told biographer Walter Isaacson why he had chosen to co-operate on a biography about himself.
“I wanted my kids to know me,” Jobs said. “I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.”
I love the things Jobs accomplished. Many of the things he did have affected me. But for his children, will a biography make up for him not having been there? Was it worth not being there for them in order to accomplish the things he did? Only he and they could possibly know. All I know is that he could accomplish big things or he could be there for his kids. He couldn’t do both.
What’s important enough to you that it’s worth giving your life to? Is gaining “financial security” going to be worth the sacrifice? Is whatever you’re aiming to accomplish more important to you than anything else you could be doing? You only get to do life once. Spend your time as you truly want to spend it. Don’t waste it living someone else’s priorities or constantly putting off choices that need to be made.
Whatever you’re doing with your life, is it something you’re going to be happy that you spent your years doing? Or is there somewhere else you should be? Something else you should be doing? Someone else you should be with? Some other life you should be living?
Only you know that. Just make sure you’re happy with your choices before it’s too late to change your mind.