Successful Careers and Failed Relationships

My last article addressed how to map out a path to a better life.

Never forget the importance of balance in a good lifeIn it, I recommended systematically going through every area of your life and analyzing each individually. Where are you right now in your financial life? Where do you want to go? Where are you in your relationship with your spouse? In your career? In your hobbies? In you physical health? Mental health and intellectual endeavors?

If you are trying to learn to be successful by looking at what people at the very top of their fields have done, my approach may seem counter-intuitive.

As someone who has read a lot of biographies of successful people, I have found that one of the defining factors of these characters is a singular focus and drive. They are obsessively focused on one aspect of their life and they use that focus to push them to the top.

I’m not going to tell you that that won’t work for you.

I’m going to tell you that it might, but you shouldn’t do it anyway.

Career Success and Failed Relationships

I have long been fascinated with people that achieve massive success. People that reach the very top of their chosen field. People that change the course of history.

One recurring theme that I find is that an inordinate number of these people seem to have major problems in other areas of their lives.

I don’t have statistics to back this up, but the rate of divorce, or at least marital infidelity, seems ridiculously high in the population of people that achieve enough success that a biography is written about them.

From Donald Trump to Bill Clinton to Ronald Reagan to John F. Kennedy. Elon Musk. Warren Buffett. Michael Jordan. Paul McCartney. Tiger Woods. Tom Cruise. I could go on all day spanning all sorts of different industries.

(As a side note, I recognize that everyone that I just listed is male. I don’t know if that is because women are drastically underrepresented at the top because they haven’t been given a fair shot or if it is because they are better than men at living balanced lives. Or both. Or something else entirely.)

I’ve interviewed for jobs in big law firms. One of the things that turned me off about that line of work is that every partner that I interviewed with was on at least his second wife.

You have to be very good at your job to become a partner at a big firm. You’ve got to have incredible work ethic and drive and social skills. These are very smart and talented people. And yet…

I Want to be Happy

I don’t want to make this all about cheating and divorce and failed relationships. This is about a lack of balance. Failed relationships are just the most visible sign of a lack of balance.

It is harder to see how fulfilled someone is with their social life or hobbies. There’s no real measure for us to look to for spiritual success.

But these failed relationships show us that people are not living balanced lives.

Personally, I don’t want to achieve success in one area of my life at the expense of everything else.

I want to be happy.

And happiness requires balance.

Focus Less on Money

I first really immersed myself in the world of blogs through the personal finance space.

I discovered Mr. Money Mustache’s Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement and wanted to learn more. The first blog that I read regularly and eagerly awaited new posts from was the Mad Fientist.

At the Mad Fientist site, Brandon regularly dove into the nitty gritty details of how to maximize your investment returns, minimize your tax burden, and get to financial independence (FI) as soon as possible. He even had an ongoing experiment where he had a theoretical average investor racing to FI against someone that was practicing all of the little tricks that Brandon uncovered.

When Brandon retired at the age of 34, I felt oddly proud for someone that I had never actually met or interacted with. (Side note: I did get to chat with him at FinCon this year and nerded out a bit.)

After retiring, Brandon did the rounds of personal finance podcasts. The prevailing message?

He shouldn’t have focused so intently on money to the detriment of the rest of his life.

Money is only one aspect of life. Having a lot of it can make a lot of life better. But it can’t make you happy if you aren’t living a balanced life.

Why We Want More Money

A lot of us in the personal finance space place a lot of emphasis on money. Which makes sense, because, well, it’s the personal finance space.

But let’s think this through for a minute.

Whether you’re reading articles on frugality or investing or side hustling, the goal is ultimately to have more money. So why do we want to have more money?

We want to eliminate stresses. We want to have more options. We want to be comfortable and secure. Hell, maybe we just want to buy nicer things.

And why do we want all of those things?

Ultimately, we are on a quest to live a happier life.

A Happy Life is a Balanced Life

A happy life is a balanced life.

Financial success is great! But is it worth it if it comes at the expense of everything else?

This goes for any single area of your life. It’s hard to live a happy life if you’ve achieved enormous success in your career, but have no friends. Or if you are the most fit person that you know, but have no sense of meaning. Or if you have fulfilling habits, but poor health.

You get the picture.

A single-minded focus on one area of your life may be the fast track to success, but it is also an easy way to abandon the path to happiness.

Join the Conversation!

When setting your goals for the new year and beyond, make sure to include goals from multiple areas of your life. Don’t look for success at all costs. Look for a balanced, happy life.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? How do you approach balance in your life and in your goal setting? Join us in the comments!

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50 thoughts on “Successful Careers and Failed Relationships”

  1. Balance is certainly the key. I work a position for many years that was out of balance. I was often stressed and cranky. So much so my oldest son made a little song about how business made dad cranky, cranky, cranky. It was an eye-opener for me. I was able to change careers in 2016 and have found a position with better balance, less overall money, but less stress and I’m not cranky. I have more time to spend on things that are more important to me like my family. I would never trade money again for the time and balance I have back.
    Brian recently posted…Financial Steps to Take Before DivorceMy Profile

  2. Balance is definitely key. Last night, I decided to have a no-screen night, in which, I was going to set my phone down, not turn on the computer, and just experience life.

    I started reading Sam Walton’s autobiography last night. He made a great point as well that he always focused on attending his kids activities and with this balance of work and play, he was able to be wildly successful while also having great success at home. All of his kids went on to success, and his wife has always been happy with his efforts at home and at work.

    I’m trying to do the same thing – balance work and play – and while I’m working a lot, I want to ensure I’m staying health, and I’m always trying to be self aware of my psyche and state.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter – this is a great series!

  3. Well said, Matt. You need balance in life. I want great relationships with my wife and friends. I want to be a great parent to my kids (however you want to define that). I want to be financially secure. I want to spend my time doing things that have a purpose and are both interesting and challenging to me. I want to win!

    As a side note, I first found Retireby40 that led me to MMM and then the Mad Fientist and Rockstar Finance and then…right here. I love MMM’s writing and agree with many of his points but find he’s a bit more on the extreme side than I want to live my life. Your writing on the other hand, well in about a year of following you, I’ve agreed with every point! I love the way you really focus on what’s important and find ways to…well, optimize it all.
    Jason@WinningPersonalFinance recently posted…3 Steps to Improve Your (Financial) Health In 2018My Profile

    1. I always enjoyed reading MMM, but I don’t know that I ever really connected with him all that much. RB40 was one of the first few that I found, as well. And I actually found Rockstar Finance via the Broke Millennial Twitter feed. Erin used to tweet out a bunch of PF articles every morning and they always included the three Rockstar features. Eventually I started just going to Rockstar directly.

      Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by, Jason!
      Matt recently posted…Mapping Your Route to a Better LifeMy Profile

  4. I couldn’t agree more, Matt. I could have climbed beyond mid-level management in my professional career if I wanted to, but that would have necessitated neglecting Mrs. Groovy. And she didn’t sign up for that. So, yeah, it would have been nice to be a high-powered executive. My swinging d%&k (i.e. income) would have been larger than all my friends. But I’ll take financial mediocrity and a very happy wife over that any day. Awesome read as always, my friend. Cheers.
    Mr. Groovy recently posted…The Geoarbitrage CalculatorMy Profile

  5. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that I agree with all of this. Having been there done that with an unbalanced life (and a failed marriage) I’m all about optimizing each area of life as equally as possible now. Periodic check-ins with myself and my husband help me pay attention and self-correct if I’m getting out of synch now.

    It can be easy to get caught up in the noise, but with focus, it can also get easier and easier to quiet it down, remember what matters, and rebalance.

  6. I think sometimes Jon and I have emphasized the personal a bit too much…but one of the things about coming to our relationship and parenthood relatively late was that we didn’t take either for granted and that we had both gone through other phases of life where work and money were emphasized.

    That said, emphasizing the three of us too much isn’t good either. We each need our hobbies, and some meaningful work (even volunteer work) and friendships elsewhere.

    1. For sure. While I emphasized not prioritizing career success at the expense of relationships, balance applies to all aspects of life. Too much of anything (even a good thing) can be problematic.

      Thanks, Emily!
      Matt recently posted…Set Smaller Goals!My Profile

  7. I’m so with you on this! I used to get really discouraged reading other people’s blogs that were crazy successful, but then I realized that they had put a ton more hours into it than I did. Now I’m doing this full-time, but even with that, I limit myself to a traditional work week at most in terms of hours.

    I finally realized that the jealousy was stupid. We all have different things going on in our lives, and when I started, blogging and making tons of money that way was in no way a priority. It was a hobby. Now that it’s full-time, I’ve got other stuff going on in my life that is more important than something like FIRE. The number one priority: my kids.

    Parents need to work and I work hard, but for me (and I admittedly have a little more intense of a situation with a special needs child)I try to make sure that I’m also working smart. Because all of those successful men I read about (okay, not all, but a surprisingly large majority) are self-admittedly bad fathers. It’s an area of their life where they’ve failed. And I’m just not willing to be successful at the expense of their childhood. Or probably more appropriately, I have a different definition of success that includes a business I built from scratch, but emphasizes my relationships.

    And it’s definitely that women haven’t been given a fair shot. 😉 I don’t think we deal with work/life balance any better than anyone else. I just think we’ve learned to internalize the struggle as we’ve been forced to take on a greater percentage of responsibilities across a wider area for so long collectively as a gender.
    Femme recently posted…Insure Your Future Self with Separate FinancesMy Profile

    1. I’m all about working smart rather than hard. I’m hoping that will serve me well with a little one on the way. I’ve been told that becoming a parent really forces you to prioritize the things that are going on in your life and drop the unimportant stuff.

      I’m with you completely on the blog jealousy. It felt like everyone around me was getting Rockstar features and huge numbers and I just wasn’t connecting. It took a while to come to terms with the fact that they are putting in more time and prioritizing their blogs more than I am. I like to think that my research and writing are good, but I focus on those aspects to the exclusion of any real marketing effort. I’m okay with that, but I needed to recognize it and think about it in terms of priorities.
      Matt recently posted…Set Smaller Goals!My Profile

  8. With huge dreams in head for successful career, it’s not easy for anyone to maintain any relationship from the heart. If one is fortunate of getting relationships who admire their dreams and try to maintain from their end, then with successful career a successful relation can possible.

  9. Balance is the key. You can’t focus on one thing at the expense of another. Success without a good relationship would be meaningless to me. Thanks for the mention in the comment above. 😉

  10. Hi Matt, you make some great points in this article. I’m sure it’s easy for some to get caught up in workaholism and success. It is so sad, then, when a family disintegrates in the wake of that success. Quality time with spouse and kids has always ranked higher for me than climbing a corporate ladder. Great post!

    1. For sure. I think part of it is that it is easier to measure success in the corporate world. You get raises and promotions and bonuses and corner offices. There are fewer measurable milestones with family. We need to put more work into making sure family gets the same attention and effort.

      Thanks, Carol!
      Matt recently posted…My Better LifeMy Profile

  11. Great post Matt!

    I fall in the out of balance camp at the moment, but I’m actively working to change that. I’ve had a huge focus on my career in a super stressful field, and I’ve lost touch with people that mean a lot to me. I’m planning to go off on my own fairly soon, which should give back a lot of my time and energy. I’m excited to strike a better balance!

  12. Incredible idea! I always say that life is all about trade offs. For everything you decide to do you decide to not do something else and in the moment that may not seem that consequential. However, over time these trade-offs begin to add up. This is why it is important to choose your own version of happy and take the steps that support that! Great work as always.

  13. This is excellent advice. I was actually having a conversation with a friend yesterday about Elon Musk, while discussing the big rocket launch. He is super human with all this business endeavors – Tesla, SpaceX, The Boring Company, and Solar City. And yet, his marriage failed. Probably because of his above-and-beyond commitment to changing the world.

    I think people who change the world at the magnitude of someone like an Elon Musk are martyrs. They are willing to sacrifice balance and happiness in their own lives for the greater good of humanity. It’s both noble and chilling to think about.

    At a personal level, I want a balanced and happy life. I find that by living this way, I can have a positive impact on those I care about the most – and make their lives better as a result. And this is my impact on the world, just on a more micro than macro level. I’m ok with that!

    It’s always helpful to keep this in mind when looking at what some of the most successful people in the world have done, and wanting to replicate their success. Do you want mirco-level success or macro-level success?

    1. I think that is mostly right, Andrew. It is exceedingly difficult to find people that really change the world and also seem to live happy, balanced lives. It doesn’t seem to be impossible (Barack Obama strikes me as someone with a major impact on the world that also seems to live a happy life), but it seems extremely difficult. I think most people need to make that decision of whether they want to change the world on a macro-level as their primary goal or succeed on a more balanced and micro-level.

      Thanks for the comment, Andrew.
      Matt recently posted…Big Money ChangesMy Profile

  14. Terrific article!

    After focusing so much of my energy on building wealth for the past 2 years, I have dedicated 2018 to try and balance my life again. Building wealth can be a constant grind that will definitely wear you out, and those close to you. I used to check the market daily, but now a small change I made this year is I usually only check it once a week. This may be because my accounts are growing to levels now where it makes me feel secure, but it has definitely been less mentally draining on my own mind by not checking everyday.

    Another investing change I made this year was putting all of our IRA/Brokerage Account money into the Total Stock Market Index Fund. This has helped the balance issue because now I simply invest my families money into the entire stock market, instead of picking different index’s to try and beat the market. It has opened up many more hours in the week now, and because of that I can now spend more time with my fiancée!

    1. I think sometimes it helps to go through those obsessive phases. I went through it as well. It leads us to gather a lot of knowledge in a short period of time. They need to be finite, though. We need to be able to drop back to balance like you are doing this year. Best of luck!

      (Also, I’ve got everything in a Total Market Index Fund and it is amazingly freeing.)
      Matt recently posted…Big Money ChangesMy Profile

  15. My life was never out of balance and my starter marriage has grown nothing but better for more than 30 years but I also chose not to advance past the level I early retired from. Since I left the 9to5 behind I’ve had several offers to go back, one for six times my previous salary. It was very easy to just say no. The carrot/stick world of senior corp management demands too many hours and eventually stops being fun.

  16. Love this, Matt. I have noticed the same exact thing with many of the successful people you mentioned in addition to many others and I decided a long time ago that I did not want that to be me.

    “No success outside the home can compensate for failure within it.”- J. E. McCulloch

  17. If there are women out there who are creative thinkers who can change the world and map out the history books we would be reading about them already.. No one in stopping them from changing our current ways of the world and mapping out a new history book. The folks you mentioned in the post are doing just that, which is why we hear about it.

    1. Hey, Tim. It sounds like you are saying that instead of facing systemic oppression, women are just inherently bad at changing the world. If so, then I vehemently disagree. If not, please feel free to elaborate.

      Thanks.
      Matt recently posted…Big Money ChangesMy Profile

  18. So many great points. Financial success and security are important, but so is enjoying your life. It’s all about finding the right balance. This can be difficult at first, but once you figure it out it can boost your happiness so much.

  19. Thanks for the interesting post! I think it depends on what makes someone happy. If someone achieves their greatest happiness through some single-minded pursuit (like work), and doesn’t hurting their family by pursuing that (if they have a family), I don’t see what’s wrong with that. I think people can find enjoyment in different things: some people just get happy from work! Although I agree that most people prefer a good work-life balance (myself included!)

    1. I agree to an extent. If someone finds happiness in changing the world through their work and chooses to forego having a family, then I don’t have a problem with that. If someone does so and hurts their family, then I do have a problem with it. I think the pursuit of happiness is great, but we want to make sure that our happiness is not at the expense of others’.
      Matt recently posted…Big Money ChangesMy Profile

  20. Great read Matt. I enjoy your posts when I catch them on Facebook.
    Just to play devil’s advocate, I wonder if Brandon from the Mad Fientist site can live that ‘happy balanced’ life better now than if he had to worry about financial responsibilities throughout life.
    I’m not an economist, but their must be some model for time spent from 22-34 y.o.a. Vs. Potential life expectancy ~75.
    If he can live off that initial income for that long vs working through that time. 12 sacrificed heads worth it, if you can grow old after?
    What’s to be said about making it and dropping off? If you don’t fall into the means of wealthy living?

    Also there is a parable about a Mexican fisherman and an American entrepreneur that feels quite relevant to this discussion. Not sure if you’ve heard it before. If you haven’t heard of it let me know and I’ll find it.

    1. Hey, Sean. Thanks for dropping a comment.

      I think Brandon’s take (and I listened to him a while ago, so I could be misremembering) was essentially that he wishes he had taken his foot off the gas just a little bit. There is still definitely a great value to not worrying about financial responsibilities for the majority of your life and it is worth some sacrifice to get there. It’s just a question of how much sacrifice and how quickly do you get there. Seems worth taking an extra year or two to avoid some unhappiness in your younger life.

      And I like the fisherman parable. It’s a big one in the financial independence space.
      Matt recently posted…Big Money ChangesMy Profile

  21. Here discussed points are well analyzed which should be kept in mind for a successful person. When we are running after our business, job or any profitable activity at that time we undergo in negligence towards relationships. As a result we fail to keep it any longer, it proves us as an unsuccessful person. We should be careful towards our business or job as well as our relationships. Thanks!

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