Is That All There Is?

When you're making money, but you're still not happy
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the January 1999 issue of Subscribe »

The American "can do" spirit has many entrepreneurs thinking the sky's the limit. Trouble is, if the sky's the limit, you'll always feel earthbound.

Knowing when to pronounce yourself successful can be a matter of life and death. Although there are a lot of happy millionaires, there are also a lot of compulsively ambitious souls who are never satisfied, no matter how many houses, cars and boats they have. Someone makes a million with a brilliant investment, and then immediately sets out to make two. Once that person has two, the adrenaline rush is too great to resist, and he or she lays plans to get into the $5 million club, and on it goes. If that's what you think life is all about, read no further.

I had a good buddy who for years got along beautifully by teaching sailing part time, waiting tables and brokering the occasional sale of a boat. He lived simply, enjoyed his friendships with people from many walks of life, and never overvalued material possessions or status symbols. His go-with-the-flow demeanor lit up rooms. And although his pretax income was never more than $36,000, he was a happy camper.

Then one day, he hooked up with a pal who plugged him in to a job selling technology to foreign companies. He commuted and put in long and weird hours, accommodating clients in various time zones and sacrificing what had been a rich social life. The first year, his take was nearly $2 million. He promptly set up his own business, bought a waterfront condo and paid decorators to create the ambiance of a European estate house, complete with ancient family crests (not his) and a grand dining table. A way cool home office, right?

On my first visit to his new "movie set," I popped in without knocking and heard him yelling on the phone. In all the years of what can only be described as our brotherhood, I'd never heard him shout at anyone. I asked what was up. He said, "The morons I bought the table from were supposed to be here two hours ago to pick it up and replace it. I paid $6,500 for it, and the damn thing is scratched!" I looked for the scratch in vain. "It's underneath!" he barked.

In later conversations, I suggested that, at 45, he was now in a position to retire and sail for the rest of his life. He agreed, but put it off for another 10 years. After all, he had more to do, including making much, much more money.

The point of this cautionary tale is this: Whether you're just starting out or starting over as a homebased business owner, figure out your goal now. Decide when you'll be able to breathe deeply and acknowledge your success.

In the meantime, the way to be truly rich is to manage your resources with the long run in mind. Be a boss you really enjoy working for. You'll find yourself doing quite well long before you hit the $5 million club.

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