The Real Price of Success
Today at a Glance
- I was recently struck by a realization: The people I read books about are very rarely the people I would ever want to trade lives with. Why? The price of their success was not one I would be willing to pay.
- There is a price tag for anything you want to achieve in life. Every single thing you want is an output that requires certain inputs to buy or earn. There's a "list price" (actual, direct price to pay for the thing you want) and a "real price" (List Price, plus the hidden, indirect price in the form of the tradeoffs and opportunity cost of the pursuit).
- What I've learned: There are many things in life that look like a great deal based on the List Price, but a ripoff based on the Real Price.
- Questions to ask: What is the List Price of the thing you want? What is the Real Price of the thing you want? Are you willing to pay that Real Price?
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I was recently re-reading Titan, the biography of infamous businessman, John D. Rockefeller, when I was struck by a realization:
The people I read books about are very rarely the people I would ever want to trade lives with.
In Rockefeller's case, his childhood was filled with painful memories of his relationship with his shady father—including one in which the elder Rockefeller would encourage his son to jump into his arms, only to let him fall, and then advise him to "never trust anyone completely, not even me."
His adult years were marked by a ruthless focus and discipline around the expansion of his Standard Oil empire—a 24/7 obsession that allowed him to amass the largest single financial fortune of any person in history.
That relentless pursuit allowed him to achieve enormous things in the business domain, but one is left to wonder how much the other areas of his life suffered from this narrow lens.
Read about the lives of other titans of business, politics, or culture, and you will find a similar theme:
Extraordinary success has a price (a very steep one at that).
In today's piece, I want to share my model for considering the price of what you want to achieve, how to determine the Real Price (vs. the List Price), and how to determine if it's a price you are willing to pay.
List Price vs. Real Price
In a basic sense, our lives are shaped by three factors:
- The things we want: Financial success, healthy relationships, physical and mental health, etc.
- The price of those things: The obvious and non-obvious inputs required to buy or earn those outputs.
- The willingness to pay those prices: Whether we are willing to pay the price to buy or earn those things we want, or if we try to go "bargain hunting" for cheaper alternatives.
Most people focus on (1) but very rarely think about (2) and (3). If they do think about them, it's in vague, high-level terms.
But failing to consider the price of the things you want is a recipe for never getting them—or, even worse, getting them and realizing you shouldn't have been willing to pay that price.
There is a price tag for anything you want to achieve in life. Every single thing you want is an output that requires certain inputs to buy or earn.
Importantly, there's a "list price" and a "real price":
- List Price: The actual, direct price to pay for the thing you want. The effort, hard work, discipline, and energy required to buy or earn that thing.
- Real Price: The List Price, plus the hidden, indirect price in the form of the tradeoffs and opportunity cost of the pursuit. The Real Price incorporates the price of the things you said "no" to by saying "yes" to this one thing.
Using the example of John D. Rockefeller, the List Price for his success was the countless years of 24/7 hard work and focus, but the Real Price also included the loving relationships lost, the mental health deterioration from the nonstop schedule, and the reputation damage of some of his business practices.
There's the List Price you see, and the Real Price you don't. Before you go after anything, make sure you know both.
What I've learned: There are many things in life that look like a great deal based on the List Price, but a ripoff based on the Real Price.
The 3 Questions to Ask Yourself
Three core questions to ask yourself as you venture forth into new domains:
#1: What is the List Price for the thing I want to achieve?
The List Price is generally clear—the inputs come in the form of hours, focus, energy, discipline, and the like.
There is one nuance to consider:
If the List Price is based on the way that things have always been done, is there a better way? In other words, what would this look like if it were easy?
Our perception of the List Price is generally informed by how much others have paid for that thing in the past. It's possible that there is a better, lower List Price that is available if you do things more efficiently.
For example, if the thing you want is a fit body, you may think the List Price is an hour at the gym, 4-5 times per week. But perhaps it's possible to do 30 minutes of intense exercise at home and achieve the same (or similar) thing.
It's worth considering whether your view of the List Price is based on dated historical precedent.
#2: What is the Real Price for the thing I want to achieve?
What am I saying no to by saying yes to this?
Consider all of the tradeoffs, missed opportunities, and sacrifices that will be required in your pursuit of the one thing.
What events am I going to miss? What relationships will have to take a backseat? What aspects of my health will fall out of view?
Be honest in answering these questions—it's the only way to enter a new pursuit with clarity on what you intend to pay, and avoid the creeping price tag that slowly increases and makes it so difficult to walk away (due to the sunk cost fallacy).
Also note that the Real Price will change based on the "seasons" of your life. For example, the tradeoffs will look very different when you have young children vs. when they are grown up and out of the house. This means that you may want to come back to your view on the Real Price with some degree of regularity.
#3: Am I willing to pay the Real Price?
Now that you're aware of the Real Price of the thing you want:
Am I willing to pay it?
If the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no, great.
The goal is simply to enter with clarity. To avoid getting to the other side and realizing you paid a much steeper price than you wanted to.
The Price We're Willing to Pay
For me, thinking clearly about the List Price and the Real Price of the things I want has helped create a balanced existence.
I spent most of my life thinking that I wanted to build something enormous, be extraordinarily rich or famous, and have some large buildings named after me.
But while the world certainly needs some people to continue thinking like that, as I've matured, I've realized that the Real Price of those things is not one that I'm willing to pay (at least not for now).
It would almost certainly mean giving up these 1pm Wednesday pool days with my son—and I'm just not willing to do that.
In a different season of my life, perhaps I will reconsider my view on the Real Price, but for now, I'm thrilled to enjoy my pool days and leave the building of something enormous to one of my amazingly ambitious readers!