How It Feels to Get Everything You’ve Ever Wanted
I wanted success, money, and a bit of fame. I got it all. Now what?
There are two tragedies in life, Oscar Wilde once wrote: not getting what you want and getting everything you want. The latter is much worse.
I wanted to be a writer. I don’t know when that dream started, but for a very long time, I craved accomplishment in this pursuit that very few are lucky enough to make a living from, let alone find success in.
I also fantasized about what it would be like to have money, lots of it. And while I was at it, I thought it’d be cool to be a little famous, too. To be connected with or have influence over important people, to be sought after for advice or input. That had to be awesome, right?
Maybe, apart from my genuine love of writing, that’s what attracted me to being an author. It was a way to have all those things. And indeed, in the last year or so, I have actually accomplished most of them.
My books have sold extremely well. They’ve been reviewed in major newspapers and translated into dozens of languages. Looking at my bank account here, I am relieved to say that I don’t really need to think about money anymore. And if that weren’t lucky enough, I regularly get invited to speak with all sorts of interesting people from the worlds of politics, finance, sports, and entrepreneurship.
So how does it feel to have everything you ever wanted in life? And to have it earlier than you ever could have realistically expected?
I can tell you: It feels like nothing.
In her new documentary Miss Americana, Taylor Swift talks about that moment when her album 1989 came out and utterly dominated the music industry. “Oh God, that was all you wanted,” was the only thought in her head as she won Album of the Year for the second time. “You get to the mountaintop and you look around and you’re like, ‘Oh God, what now?’”
10 years ago, I probably would have scoffed at those remarks. I know I did a long time ago when I first read this beautiful passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald:
From that period I remember riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.
But today, I get it. I understand that existential angst. You work so long and hard to accomplish what feels like crazy pie-in-the-sky dreams. When success comes flooding in, you expect the high to last. You expect it will feel wonderful and exciting, but it doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t really feel like anything at all. Maybe it feels even worse than nothing because you expected something so different.
I was mowing the lawn when I found out my book debuted as an instant #1 New York Times bestseller. I saw the email come in and went right back to mowing the lawn. Nothing was different. Nothing changed. I was still me.
We all think some external accomplishment is going to change everything, but it never seems to. It doesn’t change what you feel like when you wake up in the morning, doesn’t change how you see yourself, doesn’t change how you go through the world.
Even as I write these words, I know most people won’t hear me. From an evolutionary point of view, it makes complete sense why we would believe that achievement will make life better, that it will be worth all the sacrifice and pain, that it will transform everything bad in our lives into something good. It’s that drive that has sent explorers off on dangerous voyages into the unknown, and kept inventors in their workshops despite receiving all the wealth and admiration in the world. But just because something is good for progress, doesn’t mean it’s good for a person.
To be clear, I am not writing this to the person who is still early in their career, who has yet to put that first big win on the board. That person is not ready to hear what I am saying. I am writing to the person who has already done it, who is asking, as Taylor Swift and countless others have asked: What now?
Here’s the advice I can give you. First: Do not deceive yourself. A second ring is not the answer. It does not prove the existence of the first ring, nor increase its luster.
Second: Do not despair. The problem for most people is that they have put so much pressure on this moment — not when the work is complete, but rather when the achievement is recognized — that when it comes, it wrecks them. The grief over this lost hope can destroy you. Because you’re not sure what to live for now, you’re even less sure how to keep going.
The problem is not what you have been doing, but why you’ve been doing it. You thought that doing important or impressive work would make you happy. Yet the opposite is true: Being happy will help you do important and impressive work, and quite possibly better and more pure work.
There is a story I wrote about in Stillness is the Key in which Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were at a fancy party in New York. As they stood in the home of some billionaire, Vonnegut needled his friend.
“Joe,” he said, “how does it feel that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel has earned in its entire history?”
“I’ve got something he can never have,” Heller replied.
“And what on earth could that be?” Vonnegut asked.
“The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Enough. This is actually the best place to work from—to live from. Over the last year, I have tried to see if I can operate from a place of fullness rather than craving. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped working — Heller didn’t — but it means that I now see the results as a bonus, not as entitlements or rewards or dues.
To be alive, that is the accomplishment. To have your health. To have people you love. This is winning. To get to do the work — that’s the reward, not whether the work is recognized. And it’s all we control anyway.
Theodore Roosevelt was a published author by age 23. He had wealth, fame, and power. But eventually, he realized that “far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” So yes, accept the honors with gratitude, cash the checks (while managing the money responsibly), and enjoy the parties and praise. Then, as soon as possible, get back down to work.
Not to prove anything to anyone. Not to scale a higher mountain. Not to really get our parents to notice this time. Not because flying private is even better than flying first class. No. We get back to work because it’s the process that we have always loved, the joy of realizing our potential. The dream is the doing.