The Downside of Everything

Depending on who you ask, the late Freddie Mercury could have either been an angel or a devil.

Most people today are inspired by the story of how an immigrant boy became lead singer of one of the greatest bands the world has ever known: Queen. Not only were his songs musical genius, he had an unsurpassed combination of vocals and showmanship. You may not have heard of Freddie but you definitely know the tune to “We Are The Champions” or “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Queen sold hundreds of millions of records.

Alas, in his personal life Freddie made some mistakes. He died from AIDS complications at 45, caused by his hard partying, risky bisexual lifestyle. Alcohol and drugs were common themes — he truly lived like a rock star.

The financial writer Morgan Housel once shared the below tweet about “crazy.”

You can’t achieve wild success without being an outlier. To be an outlier requires you to think differently from others — to be at least a little bit weird. Yet, nobody really wants to be weird. Contradiction.

It’s a concept I’ve been thinking about a lot. Because in life we normally think about the positives: the upside. But most times it’s worth paying attention to the downside too.

For example:

Finding Your Soulmate

Contradictions happen frequently in relationships. Think about the social-climber woman who’s attracted to highly-successful career men. Only to be disappointed when he focuses on work all the time, and neglects her.

Similarly, I’ve known guys who like splashing tons of money to impress people, then complain the only girls they attract are shallow gold diggers after their money.

This isn’t to say that all broad stereotypes are true. But everything comes with a cost.

One of the most important things I’ve learned in relationships is that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. You’re never going to be able to find someone perfect.

Everybody wants the good stuff. But can you accept the bad that comes with it?

Choosing Your Career

During the earlier parts of my career, I spent many years — probably due to naivety and too many cheesy motivational videos — trying to figure out some difficult but important questions. How do I:

  • Find my passion?
  • Enjoy my daily work?
  • Get paid to do what I love?

This led me to explore several career paths. I’ve done jobs where I was paid well but didn’t really enjoy the work. I’ve been in jobs where I really believed in the vision of the company, but personally didn’t perform. And I’ve also been in jobs where the benefits and prestige were good, but I wasn’t growing and learning much.

In the end, I’ve realized there are trade-offs in our careers as well. Sorry, the perfect job where you’re paid tons of money, work only four hours a day, everything feels like “play,” and you have world-class bosses and smoking-hot colleagues doesn’t exist. Even people with “dream jobs” admit at least some parts of them suck.

More examples: If you work for a huge multinational corporation, you’ll have good pay and benefits. But you’ll likely also get lots of boring meetings, and it’ll take forever to do anything. If you work for a startup, it’ll be exciting and things will move much faster. But you’ll have to deal with more uncertainty: will the startup ever be profitable?

Is that “career fulfillment” worth more than stable income for your wife and kids?

Hiring People

Back to people. If you’ve ever been an interviewer, you know how difficult it is to find the ideal candidate.

For every positive trait, there’s usually a related “negative” one:

  • A good talker may impress you in interviews, but can she do tedious, detail-oriented work on Excel spreadsheets?
  • A talented programmer may be able to create impressive features for an app. But does he understand human behavior, and how non-technical people use their phones?
  • A confident and ambitious person may be able to win “top salesperson of the year.” But are they too cocky to work well on a team?

I could go on and on, but you get the message: strength in one area is usually correlated with weakness in another.

A great manager doesn’t only figure out how someone’s strengths can help their team, but also ensures their weaknesses don’t mess everything else up.

Gaining Influence and Fame

Thought experiment: If I could offer you 1 million followers today, along with all the power to influence people (and the sweet sponsored post money) that comes with it, would you take it?

What if I told you your newfound influence also comes with huge risks of mental issues, relationship problems within your family, and tons of public criticism? Maybe not so appealing anymore, eh?

The Silicon Valley philosopher Naval Ravikant says this about fame: in today’s age of social media, all of us act as if we wanna be famous. It’s easier than ever to expose yourself to the world like a celebrity. But celebrities are actually the world’s most miserable people.

I’m not faultless here. I’ve always thought it’s better to be famous, and to a certain extent I’ve always tried to grow my influence. But the more I read and learn, the more I wonder if it’s better to lead a quiet life.

Apparently there’s something better than being rich and famous: rich and anonymous.

Making Money Investing

Which brings me to my final point: investing. Everybody wants to make good money — especially if it’s passive income. But almost nobody (except gamblers in for the adrenaline rush) wants to take high risks.

Unfortunately, the reality is investments that can deliver high returns also come with high risks. Wanna earn 10% profits a year? Easy, there’s tons of investments you can buy. How about 30%? Harder, but possible too. How about 100% — doubling your money within a year? Even harder, but there’re still super-high-risk investments that potentially allow that.

The crucial thing: the higher the potential for gain, the higher the risk you might lose money.

This is why if you go to a responsible financial adviser and ask the impossible question: “What’s the best investment?” they won’t start with how much money you can make. Instead they’ll ask: “How much risk are you willing to take?”

What about those investments that guarantee easy money; huge returns with no risk? You know what we call those? Scams.

A Note About Being Negative

After a ton of “negative” examples above, you might be surprised I actually call myself an optimist. I grew up one. I think it was because my parents have always been very supportive. And growing up middle class meant I had every reason to believe my dreams could come true.

In fact, research has shown it’s good to be an optimist; even slightly delusional about how good things can get. Otherwise how would you try to make anything better in this world?

But I’m writing this for the dreamers. The people — who like me once — believe they can do anything they set their mind to. I write this not to discourage you. I write this to try paint a more realistic picture of how the world works.

Because the way to achieve your dreams is not just to believe. It’s also to be hyper realistic.

– – –

The late Freddie Mercury lived flamboyantly and died early.

“I don’t expect to make old bones, and what’s more I don’t really care,” he said on death. “I certainly don’t have any aspirations to live to 70. It would be so boring.”

Everything in life has its price. Whether it’s health, time, money, mental energy, or even commitment.

One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves is then: It’s easy to focus on what I can gain, but am I willing to bear the cost?

– – –

Pic from Pexels: Marius Venter

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  • Any reasons why growing up middle class meant that you had every reason to believe that your dreams would come true?

    • I think growing up middle class helps here, because you’re privileged enough (have time, money, education) to learn about the “outside” world and plan on ways to get there. I guess the official term would be “social mobility”. Definitely much easier if you’re middle class than if you grow up poor.

  • Hi,

    You mentioned everything comes with a cost. Simple, yet deep.

    You mentioned that you’ve done job that paid wells but you didn’t enjoy it. And I’m currently in that situation, whereby I’m an oilfield engineer, great paid but I don’t enjoy it. However, I do not know how to step down.

    Hope to receive some insight. Because I understand you worked in oil field previously as well.

    Really appreciate it.

  • Good job bro. One of the best article i read so far regarding life s reality. You really given a good article for upcoming people who might be optimist like me but they need to know the upside as well. Keep giving us good article like this. Hope you can right an article about upcoming life expectation after Covid 19 MCO and world recession .

    • Thanks so much Kalai. I’ve got an article around the coronavirus situation so look out for that soon!

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