Success Without Misery

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If someone
asked you this question, what would your immediate mental response
be? "What is it like, being a success?"

Would your
first thought be this? "Why are you asking me?" Would
you actually say this?

It would
probably depend on who is asking. If the questioner were one of
the following, you might take the question seriously:

  • A recently
    released inmate
  • A visitor
    from rural China
  • A recently
    divorced woman with four children
  • A 19-year-old
    unemployed high school drop-out

But what
if it were one of the following?

  • Bill Clinton
  • Donald
  • William
  • Michael
  • Ted Turner
  • Newt Gingrich

If it was
anyone on the second list, I would probably think, "This
man has finally come to his senses. He now knows that he has truly
made a mess of things."

The economic
difference between the two lists is obvious. By the standards
of H & R Block, the people on the second list are big winners.
They are models of success. The people on the first list are losers.

The people
on both lists need help. Compared to them, you are probably a
winner. Your success has been greater.

Why do I
say this? Because of a principle that most people figure out late
in life, but which everyone ought to be taught from an early age.

For unto
whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and
to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more
(Luke 12:48b).

The more
wealth that you possess, the more responsibility you have. There
is no escape from this responsibility. It’s not enough to know
how to make a bundle of money. You also need to know what to do
with it. This is the reason why there is so much regret in the
lives of the rich and famous. This is why it rarely pays to become
either rich or famous.


Most of the
people on the second list came out of nowhere. Donald Trump’s
father was rich, but not on his son’s scale. The others came from
middle class backgrounds or lower. They possessed some positive
factor in their lives that let them achieve wealth and fame. They
also had some negative factor that let them achieve notoriety
that the rest of us would prefer to avoid.

The great
rags to riches story in American life is the story of John D.
Rockefeller, Sr., the son of a wayward drunkard. Yet he was hated
all his adult life. The great irony of his life was this: he was
hated for what he did to make his money, which benefited the lives
of millions of people, and he then sought respect by giving his
money away, where his money eventually produced a great deal of
evil. Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie did much the same.

When I look
at Bill Clinton on TV, I think, "What a waste." Given
his politics, I also think, "Praise the Lord." The most
lasting institutional legacy of his presidency was a reduced percentage
of Federal money going to the traditional welfare system. Neither
the Republicans nor the Democrats like to admit this, because
it embarrasses both parties. Where Clinton could have created
a disaster, such as ramming through his wife’s socialized medicine
scheme, he did not get the votes in Congress. His attempt to push
through the medical funding program cost his party the loss of
both houses of Congress. That was a decade ago. He left office
with plenty of money and opportunities to make a lot more.

Clinton was
only the second president to be impeached, though not convicted.
He will be remembered in the textbooks mainly for the Lewinsky
scandal. That is what he has to show for eight years as the most
powerful man on earth.

For unto
whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and
to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.

There has
never been any doubt in my mind that Bill Clinton loves his daughter.
How can he think about her and not feel a terrible sense of regret
for what he did? What level of success could possibly compensate

Newt Gingrich
was the winner of Clinton’s medical care battle. What did it get
him? The Republicans’ 1994 "Contract With America" was
a dead letter from day one, beginning in 1995. Gingrich later
divorced his sick wife. Then he got caught in a sexual scandal.
Then there was his book deal — a variation of the sweetheart
book deal with which he had beat up Democratic Party House Speaker
Jim Wright. He lost his position as Speaker of the House. He left
office a beaten man. But he left with plenty of money and opportunities
to make a lot more.

The men on
my second list were driven internally by a desire to succeed,
yet their success led to front-page scandals or at least great
embarrassments that nobody, under any circumstances, would want
to suffer. When anyone thinks of Trump, he thinks "Ivana,
Marla, and what’s her name? — another blonde." Ted Turner’s
marital life has been a disaster, and then he got in bed with
AOL. Billions of dollars in H & R Block wealth then went "poof."
He could not pay off his promise of a billion dollars to the United
Nations. ("Let’s hear it for AOL!")

Nobody wants
to live in rags. Nobody wants to go through front-page scandals,
either. Nobody wants tens of millions of people laughing at his
follies, thinking, "he’s not so smart after all."


I have known
my share of successful people. I have read biographies about many
more. A sense of regret is a common thread in most of their lives.
The sense of regret is summarized in the phrase, "would-a,
could-a, should-a."

The more
opportunities you have, whether they are handed to you on the
proverbial silver platter or you stumble on in your work, the
more responsibility you have. Men say, "I do the best I can
with what I’ve got." What if they’ve got a lot? The more
they have, the more they feel that they must accomplish. They
are on a treadmill of success. They don’t see any legitimate way
to get off. If they stay on, they think: "I should have accomplished
so much more. It was right in my hand!" If they get off,
they think the same thing.

are the classic treadmill people. They can’t get off. They may
have lots of money and almost all of the things that money can
buy, but they live in fear of those around them. They live in
fear of exposure. They have chosen a way of life, and they are
stuck with it, or think they are. It would take something like
a religious conversion to get them to break with their past. The
conclusion of "Godfather
" really did end the series. Al Pacino’s character
lives with the regret of his daughter’s death as a result of that
one "last" big-time operation, which we know would not
have been the last. He dies, with only a dog as his visible companion.

The biggest
political drop-out in Western history is probably Charles V, the
last Holy Roman Emperor of any consequence, who squandered a fortune
of Spanish gold and silver trying to put down the Protestant Reformation
and trying to control a series of popes. He failed. He abdicated
late in his career, in 1555, turning power over to his two sons
in a divided empire. He was a bloated glutton by this stage. He
was a consummate loser despite all of his temporary victories.
His son, Philip II, carried on the family tradition. He launched
the Spanish Armada against England in 1588. It sank.

In the twentieth
century, the most famous drop-out was King Edward VIII, who abdicated
to marry Mrs. Simpson. They spent their lives in a round of meaningless
travels and formal occasions. He got no credit for having quit
for love. He was seen as a quitter. No one missed him.

How can a
successful person leave gracefully? John Templeton, the investor,
made the transition to world philanthropist, but he surrendered
his American citizenship as part of a low-tax escape route. He
lives in the Bahamas, a tax haven. There is always a price to
pay. He doesn’t impress me as a man suffering from regret, but
he is also a rarity. He got off of the success treadmill with
his reputation intact and most of his money.

Of all the
highly successful people I have known, Murray Rothbard was the
one who seemed to have the fewest regrets. He was not worth a
lot of money, but he wrote a lot of books, some of them classics.
He wrote more thought-provoking articles on more topics than anyone
I can think of. He carried a bibliography in his head that was
immense. He was the single most important person in putting together
the ideological foundations of an entire movement, libertarianism.
He overcame many phobias, such as the not being able to leave
New York City. (I suffer from the opposite phobia.) He was always
laughing. That is what I remember most about him personally. He
had a lot of fun. So did those around him. If you did not enjoy
having fun, you had to avoid Murray Rothbard.


A wise man
has an exit plan, early. The more success he wants to achieve,
the more carefully he should plan his pathway off the money treadmill.
He should define early in his career what he regards as success,
and then design a way to move to the next phase of his life, should
he achieve his plan.

The people
who are bound to fail, no matter what level of success they achieve,
are the ones who define success as "more." The great
god more — mammon — consumes its worshippers. If you must always gain
more, then you are mentally tied to the treadmill. Worse: you
are a hamster inside an exercise wheel. The wheel is attached
to a generator that consumers enjoy using, but it is still a wheel,
and you are still a hamster. "Amusing, isn’t he?" the
viewers say. "Toss him an extra treat, and he’ll run for
another ten minutes." The viewers keep tossing in treats.

Donald Trump
is a hamster. In 2000, he briefly ran for President. (Had you
forgotten?) Now he gets to be on TV in one of those imbecilic
"reality" shows, "The Apprentice." What is
the point? He was interviewed in the December 2003 issue of Esquire.
He told the interviewer that his philosophy in life is to squeeze
every dime out of a deal. The great god more has this man in the
whirling cage. "Run, Donald, run." Donald runs.

Over 200,000
people applied to become his apprentice. "I
want to be like Donald!" I hope you’re not one of them.

he is correct about this:

fact is that these people are looking to become very, very,
very rich, and you usually become very rich when you work for
yourself, not when you’re working for somebody else," Trump
said. "In theory the person who wins should want to leave
me at the end of a year and go on and become a billionaire or
whatever he wants to become, or whatever she wants to become."

If someone
is paying you a salary, you had better have a business on the


By the standards
of the people on the first list, you are a tremendous success.
They really do want to find out how you did it. If you can volunteer
to help people who really are on that list, you should.

You have
what most of the world today wants, and 98% of the world in 1900
did not have: leisure (TV, movies), hot and cold running water,
power tools, wonder drugs, cheap reading material, 50,000 items
for sale at Wal-Mart, air conditioning in summer, heat without
having to chop wood in winter, a bank account, and anesthetics
if you ever need an operation. You are not, in short, Scarlett
O’Hara in the hospital scene.

If your attitude
is, "I’m not a success," then you owe it to yourself
to spend some time thinking about these things:

  1. What constitutes
  2. What would
    constitute success in my life?
  3. What do
    I have to do to get it?
  4. How long
    will it take?
  5. What is
    my exit strategy after I do get it?

I honestly
believe that #5 is more important than #1—#4. No matter how
you define success, you must have a plan to get off the treadmill
in a graceful manner. A plan for success must recognize and deal
with your own mortality.

For what
shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and
lose his own soul? (Mark 8:36).

The third
spirit to visit Scrooge took him to a graveyard. Scrooge had ignored
it for too long. He had seen Marley die. He did not get the message.
It did not register. "A Christmas Carol" is a redemption
tale, though without God, heaven, hell, or the other theological
tenets that were fading from people’s minds as they grew richer
in Victorian England, when Dickens wrote the story. The first
spirit shows Scrooge how much he has paid for his economic success.
The second shows him how much his employee enjoys without much
economic success. The third shows him what lies ahead for him
and for Tiny Tim. It is the mark of his redemption that he asks
the spirit about the inevitability of the near-term fate of Tiny
Tim. (Tim’s long-term earthly fate is the same as Scrooge’s.)

The reason
we still enjoy that old story, and so will our grandchildren,
is that we recognize the benefits of an exit strategy from the
treadmill of success. Scrooge doesn’t need to impoverish himself.
He doesn’t need to sell his goods and join a monastery. He goes
to his nephew’s party on Christmas day. He plans to share a bowl
of punch with Crachit the next day. But he keeps open the doors
of his business.

The reason
we love the story is because we understand the truth that it rests
on. We like to see a man trapped on the treadmill, consumed with
the lust for more, get off. How does he get off? By giving away
some of his wealth and by celebrating. Scrooge finally figures
it out: "There’s more where that came from." On the
day after Christmas, he goes back to work. He does not drop out.
He remains productive. He has become Fezziwig, but retains superior
business sense.

This outlook
is what made the West rich. It has been a legacy of the Mosaic
law. In the Book of Deuteronomy, there is a law that commanded
the Israelites to journey to the nation’s central city once every
three years for a huge party. They were required to attend. They
were to eat, drink, and be merry (Deuteronomy 14:22—27).

is an application of this law. Dickens understood this, and he
used it to create a story that has become part of Anglo-American
culture. Here is its underlying assumption:


If you stick
to your knitting, you will succeed. You will become more productive.
Consumers will pay you for services rendered.

You would
be wise to find out additional information:

  1. What will
    consumers want in a year?
  2. What will
    they be willing and able to pay?
  3. Can you
    find a way to sell this at a profit?

This is the
rule of economic success: "Find out what people want to buy,
and sell it to them."

There are
so few reliable suppliers out there, that if you can become one,
you will succeed economically.

There are
so few potential competitors out there who are willing to put
their money at risk that you and a couple of others will have
the local field to yourself.

If you do
exactly what you say you will do, if you show up on time, and
if you stay below budget, you will prosper.

If you find
out why people spend their money, you can develop sales skills.

If you develop
sales skills, you will not go hungry.

There is
so much wealth in the West that anyone who is consumer-oriented
can make a good living, assuming no bureaucrat decides to make
life difficult for him. And if some bureaucrat does, you can always
move. (I did this in 1976, when regulators in California started
making life difficult for me. "Out of sight, out of mind."
I never regretted moving out of the golden state, with its high
taxes and traffic.)


Let us return
to my original question: "What is it like, being a success?"

Do you see
yourself as a success? If not, why not?

By most people’s
standards, you are a success.

What are
you lacking that separates you from your view of success? Maybe
it’s only your poor definition of success.

Is it education?
Then read more. Pick up a yellow highlighter and mark up your
books. They’re yours, after all. Re-read old books that you learned
from but have forgotten.

Is it money?
Then pay closer attention to your job. Improve your job skills.
Figure out what it is that you supply that final consumers are
willing to pay for. Concentrate on increasing your efficiency
in producing these items.

Is it lack
of time? Then read a book on time-management. Buy a Day-Timer
or low-cost equivalent. Start budgeting your time. It’s your only
irreplaceable resource.

Is it your
confusion about priorities? This is probably the toughest nut
to crack. This, you must spend some quality time to overcome.
The lack of a "game plan," which is no game, is probably
the number-one hindrance to personal success.

Is it a lack
of capital? Which kind of capital? Find out how to get more. Even
better, find out how to convert forms of capital that you already
possess into marketable output. Wasted time is usually the first
place to start looking.

Capital is
a tool. The day it becomes your final goal, you have climbed onto
the treadmill.

Let me give
an example from my life. For decades, I saw my capital — my tools — as
my library. I built a large library. My father-in-law had a library
approaching 30,000 books. Mine is maybe half that large. It takes
an expensive building to house it.

Then came
the World Wide Web. Ha, ha: the joke’s on me! There are of course
lots of books in my library that are not on-line. But what is
on-line takes so much time for me to discover, print out, and
read, that my book-reading time has collapsed. So, I’m not quite
ready to give away my library, but I’m close.

made a leap that no one could have foreseen in 1990. That leap
has now reduced the value of what I spent decades collecting.
I am happy that the Web exists. I am happy not to be nearly so
dependent on my library. But the fact is this: I could have saved
a lot of time and trouble if I had foreseen the Internet. The
one thing that consoles me is that I have always regarded books,
especially old books, and above all old books in discount racks,
as legitimate expenditures. I don’t like to spend money on much — I’m
a bit of a Scrooge — but books were my exception. "Spending
money on books is OK." Why? Because they were my tools.

Spend money
on your tools. Just be sure that you are ready to use them. Don’t
get seduced by technology. Don’t buy an expensive guitar before
you can play a cheap guitar. But when your work is suffering from
the lack of some tool, buy the tool, and don’t look back on the
money. But if you can buy it used at half price from someone who
got seduced by technology and has now wised up, do so.


be a success, work half a day. It doesn’t matter which half."

He who refuses
to budget 12 hours a day, six days a week, to an overall production
plan is not going to be a success. By "production,"
I mean anything on your list of priorities.

He who refuses
to set production limits, either in terms of a deadline or output/income,
is not going to know when to quit.

He who doesn’t
know when to quit is on the treadmill.

My recommendation:
find out a way to get off the full-time output treadmill — maybe
not permanently, as Templeton did, but at intervals, as Scrooge
did. You need an exit strategy.

Why? Because
if you tell yourself, "If I get off, I’ll fail," you
are worshipping at the shrine of the great god more. He will consume
you like a candle. He will burn you at both ends.

contrary to Donald Trump, leave something on the table for the
other guy in every deal. Repeat business is where the money is.
Every deal should produce this response in both parties’ minds:
"Let’s do this again."

10, 2004

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
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