The Challenge of Choice | White Coat Investor
By Dr. James M. Dahle, WCI Founder
I recently read a short book on a subject I had been thinking about a lot lately. I suspect that anyone who is financially independent (especially if they’re still working) thinks about this subject a lot. The book by clinical psychologist Rick Eigenbrod, PhD is called What Happens When You Get What You Want? If you have gotten what you want (and if you are reading this, you have gotten what you want many times already in your life), you might want to take a look at the book. Most of what I am writing in this post, even if not directly quoted, comes from the book. Think of this post as my notes from the book.
What Happens When You Get What You Want?
What do I mean by “get what you want?” I mean you graduated from college or medical school or residency. You finished a mission or a stint in the Army or a commitment to the Peace Corps. You paid off student loans or a mortgage or became a millionaire or reached financial independence. You got your kids out of the house and into successful lives. Maybe you sold a practice or other business. Maybe you got that job in Colorado or that position as a department chair. Or you published that landmark paper. Whatever it is, you’ve now got it.
Let me now quote from the book:
“If ever there were a subject for a book that didn’t need to be, ‘getting what you want’ would certainly seem to qualify. How much can you say about the topic? To begin with, the question answers itself.
Question: ‘What happens when you get what you want?’
Answer: ‘You get what you want.’
No prologue. No epilogue, and nothing in between needed. So just hold the words and spare the trees.
If you were to walk into a bookstore, you’d be hard pressed to find a section on ‘having what you want.’ Considering all the self-help manuals and spiritual guides that publishers crank out year after year and seeing bookstore shelves stocked with advice on getting everything from lighter souflets to tighter buns, you’d think there might be just a few words about having. Wrong—don’t bother looking. It’s not there.”
As the only book I’ve ever read about having what you want, I thought it was pretty interesting.
The Agony of Victory
The author talks about doing the Camino de Santiago. At the age of 71, he spent a year preparing and then 35 days walking 500 miles on this path in Spain. He arrived at the end and paused in front of the graven image of St. James. While he felt some reward for what he had accomplished, he also realized he was feeling a great loss. Loss of a web of relationships. Loss of a name (Peregrino in this case). Loss of rhythms, routines, and clarity of purpose. Loss of a destination and a glorious goal. He had lost his place in the story. His reward for completing his quest was a serious letdown and emptiness. This is the agony of victory.
As Oscar Wilde said, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” We all assume that the process of getting what we want will be hard but that having it will be easy. It turns out that’s a big lie. And nobody is talking about it.
“Knowing the real story won’t protect you from the difficulties and challenges that come with acquisition and gain and success, but it may insulate you from the corrosive doubt that something is wrong with how you got it or how fast you got there. I want to quell your suspicion that you failed at success, and I want you to understand that success is just as disruptive as failure and, unlike failure, that it comes without sympathy.”
Wow! Arrow to the heart. Slap to the head. This man is talking about and to ME (and many of you, too). This is a precise description of how I have been feeling for the last four or five years since we became financially independent. Do I feel guilty about being able to be a doctor? About learning about finance early in my life? About not caring so much about clothes and cars so I could save so much of my income? About starting a successful business? About making work optional a little more than a decade out of residency? Absolutely. Sometimes. Did I work hard? Yes. Did I work hard enough to deserve all this? Nope. Despite knowing I never cheated at the game and give away more money every year than almost everyone I know, I still do sometimes wonder, “Why me?” and feel like I don’t deserve the success I’ve seen.
But who the heck am I going to complain to? It’s a total first-world problem. Like people trying to figure out how to furnish their second homes or get the best deal on a NetJets subscription.
“I can’t figure out what to do with my life now that I can do anything I want.”
Waaahhh waaaaahh waaaaah. Let me call the wambulance for you. So, you don’t talk to anyone about it. You just sit there and wonder what’s wrong with you.
My partners ask me all the time when I’m going to quit working. I describe it as an existential struggle of trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I don’t see why I can’t do what I planned to do my whole life and spent over a decade learning how to do just because I got rich faster than most people and even faster than I expected. Sure, there’s the asset protection concern that pushes a lot of FI docs out of practice. I learned about asset protection (heck, wrote a book about it), realized it wasn’t nearly as big of a deal as most worry about, did a few things to minimize the risk, and returned to seeing patients. For the first year or two, you can justify working a little more pretty easily.
“Well, returns might not be as good as expected. And I’m retiring early so maybe I shouldn’t be taking out 4% anyway. So I’ll work and save a little more.”
The classic “one more year” syndrome. Then, maybe you boost your spending a little bit.
“Well, maybe I really would like to fly first class, stay in five-star hotels, and get a new Tesla every three years. And I certainly don’t like budgeting. Let’s see how much we spend if we don’t constrain ourselves at all.”
So, you work a little longer. But eventually, you either need entirely new financial goals (charitable foundation anyone?) or you have to admit to yourself that you’re working very hard to earn money that you very clearly are never going to spend. And then you wonder if that’s really how you want to spend the rest of your life. And you worry about how much money you can leave to your kids without ruining them. And how to do so.
The Story of Wes
In the book, Eigenbrod tells the story of Wes, a talented businessman who sold his business and then found he was so lost that he ran an ad in The Wall Street Journal to try to get a group of retired execs together to talk about his sense of loss.
“After getting what he wanted, Wes was bummed—and he was bummed about being bummed. Not a patient guy, he wanted to figure a way out of this strange place.
Here he was—having grown a business like it was on steroids and having received an offer that his partners and investors couldn’t pass up—making an early exit, his plan for a ‘liquidity event’ realized much sooner than anyone had anticipated. And then he found out that he wasn’t prepared for it. He had gotten what he wanted, but after the blur of lawyers, bankers, accountants, consultants, assorted rich guys, and champagne, he wasn’t where he wanted to be.
Not one to panic, he figured this was just some kind of decompression period he needed to go through. Maybe he was suffering from a case of the bends brought on by coming up too fast from the high-pressure depths of where he’d been. But as the days and weeks passed, and as his uneasiness turned to real suffering, he felt there was nowhere to go and no one to talk to.
He imagined calling a doctor’s office: ‘Hello, I’d like to make an appointment.’
‘OK. What are your symptoms?’
‘I’m depressed, kind of lost. I’m even having trouble figuring out what time to get up in the morning or what to do when I do.’
‘How long has this been going on?’
‘Since I sold my company.’
‘I recently sold a company I owned and now I can do whatever I want because I made lots of money.’
‘So you have tons of time, buckets of money, all the freedom in the world, and you want the doctor to help you with this problem?’
‘Yes, that’s it.’
‘Sorry. We help people with real problems.’
There is just nowhere to go with this “problem,” despite the fact that all kinds of people have it. And it’s not just wealthy entrepreneurs that have it. A PhD who just finished their defense has it. Homemakers dropping their youngest off at college have it. Mountain climbers returning from K2 have it.
The Grand Narrative of Success
If we think it’s not worth asking, “What happens when you get what you want?” why do we think it’s not worth it? The reason is The Grand Narrative of Success. Again from the book:
“We know because ‘everyone’ told us so. We learn pretty quickly that life is about closing the gap between what we want and what we have. We’re told over and over by parents, teachers, marketers, and the media that we should be after something and that we’ll be measured by how quickly we get it, by how effectively we mine the gap between the current and desired situation. For every gap we discover, invent, or accept, we know what will happen when we close it: we will be happy with our achievement and with ourselves. Oh, and also handsomely rewarded with the usual currency: stuff and status.
We hear stories that reinforce this from early childhood. Think about how most fairy tales end, reassuring us that happily-ever-after is the norm. Ride off into the sunset and fade to black. We’re not invited to think much more about it. And we don’t. Kids become co-authors of happily-ever-after by NOT asking: ‘Did Bambi survive the hunting season?’ or ‘How did Snow White’s marriage to the prince work out?’ Leave well enough alone, children. If you don’t bring it up, we won’t either . . .
We haven’t changed our expectations of what happens when we get what we want since we were kids. Even in the face of experience, even though we know better, we’re still looking for a Disney Channel ending . . .
All of us, more or less, count on over-the-rainbow strategies, making when-then deals with ourselves throughout our lives, ‘When I get married, then I’ll settle down and be happy.’ ‘When I get that sports car, then I’ll feel freer.’ ‘When I get my degree, then the world will open up to me.’ ‘When I get past this project, then things will slow down and get easier.’
You probably have one of these deals going on with yourself right now. See if you can put it into words, beginning with the conditional clause (‘When I get . . . ‘) and ending with the payoff (‘then I will . . . ‘). When did you make that deal?”
That deal is “The Grand Narrative of Success.” And it turns out it’s a lie. Let’s boil it down.
“We hear the message in the places where we work, or hope to: ‘Join us. Be successful. Get what you want.’ As a resident of Easy Street, you’ll be able to drive the car you’ve always wanted, take the trip you never thought you could, and generally feel good about yourself. Finally, you’ll have status and all the stuff that can go along with it. All because of success.
This Grand Narrative of Success is largely fueled by the people who make and sell the very goods and services that a striver toward success might think he or she must have—if not today, maybe next year. It’s also, I think, part of our culture of stardom and celebrity, where even (or maybe especially) the suddenly successful have entourages of adorers and millions of friends who breathlessly await their next tweet. Sudden super wealth is also attainable by winning one of the countless lotteries that millions of people pin their fading hopes on every day . . .
To greater or lesser degrees, we all buy into the idea of The Grand Narrative of Success, or at least recognize its hold on us . . . Not that we always admire those with the most. We might find them arrogant or elitist. We might find their words shallow or self-serving. But whatever their shortcomings, the successful people in our society are generally embraced and held up as role models and examples of what can be achieved in life—and what’s possible in this land of opportunity.
That’s not to say that everybody sees success in these terms—or only in these terms. A lot of people understand that success can take more than one shape. But when it comes down to making a choice between personal spiritual enrichment or personal financial enrichment, the scales are likely to tip in the direction of material gain.”
The Grand Narrative of Success provides structure, meaning, and identity to our lives, and it is scary to leave that. At cocktail parties, we ask “What do you do?” and we ask young people “What are you going to do?” Heaven forbid if the answer isn’t something tangible and preferably profitable.
Without that structure, we’re often not sure what we want. And when we don’t know what we want, we fall back into the familiar, proven processes that lead to more.
The Challenge of Choice
When you disconnect from The Grand Narrative—or at least seriously question it—you are left with freedom and choice. It turns out that is a scary, scary place to be. When you really study people, they want to be handed a dinner menu with just three things on it: a beef dish, a fish dish, and a vegetarian dish. It’s enough choice to feel you have a choice but not enough to really give you the pain of having to choose and be responsible for your decision. They don’t want the Cheesecake Factory menu. It’s hard. You could spend two hours reading it. Not only are there dozens of choices of cheesecake, but there are five different appetizer salads and 23 different appetizers, and we haven’t even gotten to the entrees yet. People think they want that many choices, but they really don’t. And when you exit The Grand Narrative, you have that many choices. It’s hard.
Instead of following The Grand Narrative of Success, Eigenbrod suggests we instead undergo a series of “Hero’s Journeys” or “Hero’s Quests.” In the classic Hero’s Quest, the hero leaves the place he or she is familiar with into a region of supernatural wonder, encounters fabulous forces, and wins a decisive victory. Then he or she returns to the familiar world and bestows fabulous boons on others. The familiar world has not changed, but the hero has. With a hero’s journey, you discover your own meaning and authentic identity away from the comforts of home, family, and the known world. You have to lose yourself to find yourself. And when you complete one quest, you simply start another.
The freedom to choose is both a reward and a challenge, a gift and a burden. It is self-defining, but do we really want it? The author explains:
“There’s something else that I’ve heard from a lot of people: the word ‘freedom.’ Often, it’s about their desire to be free from certain things—a job, a relationship, a promise . . . Less often, I hear people talk about the freedom to, as in the freedom to live life on their own terms. It seems easier for people to enumerate the things they’d like to be free from than to specify what they’d like to be free to.”
Choice is challenging, and challenge is hard.
The Scarcity Mentality
If you’ve been around the financial, self-help, or coaching space for long, you’ve probably heard of the “scarcity mentality” that holds people back from accomplishing great things because they’re afraid of what they might lose. That makes it feel like the scarcity mentality is part of The Grand Narrative of Success. However, in a lot of ways, that fear of loss keeps people engaged on The Grand Narrative pathway. Maybe overcoming the scarcity mentality is not finding some way to 10X your income. Maybe it’s knowing the answer to the question, “How will you know when you have enough?”
Become Your Own Narrator
The Grand Narrative relieves us of the responsibility to make choices. Productivity becomes a goal in and of itself. The brief time you allow yourself outside of the narrative gives you introspection that can be used to explore and choose other ways to measure the value of your life. Then you can author your own narrative. You no longer set goals, you discover them.
One of my favorite parts of the book is the revelation that, contrary to what Katie has been telling me when we talk about actually leaving medicine (or WCI), I don’t have to know what I’m going to retire to before doing so. Eigenbrod says it this way:
“You can become your own author if you want to, and you don’t have to know where you’re going before you get started. You just have to know that you’re ready to listen to yourself . . . Even though the choices we have made eventually make us, they don’t make us in stone. We also need to realize that unless we find a new framework for choosing, we will take what’s easy and familiar because it’s easy and familiar. We need to see our choices as expressions of our lives at the moment. Life requires of us a constant process of making choices that are current, free, and enlightened. We are all works in progress . . .
We assume that success will change our circumstances but not ourselves. So we try to put our life back together much the way it was and so miss a tremendous opportunity to not only redesign our life structures, the externals, but also to change our sense of who we are, which is the essence of individual development.”
Don’t let succeeding take up your whole life.
The Value of Emptiness and Spaciousness
“In my experience, the people who succeed in creating their own narrative, those who use it to explore and direct their lives, share a common trait: the faith and courage to stand within emptiness for a while.
What kind of emptiness? The kind that’s the natural result of getting what we want. It’s the void—the temporary loss of structure, meaning, and identity—that follows the fullness of accomplishment and achievement. That’s how it feels to a lot of people: like floating in a void, like being lost without a map.
Some people never find their way out of the void, but maybe that’s OK with them. Maybe just groovin’ in the void has been their lifelong dream. Or more likely, they figure out that the best way to deal with it is to choose to fill it up again with more of the same stuff they always have.
Others don’t try to fill it up again. They see, or learn, that the void is not nothing. It is something, ironically, that we say we want and work so hard to achieve: freedom and spaciousness . . . [But] it can scare us away, make us quickly retreat to the fortress of the familiar.”
Like a Jedi master, Eigenbrod says that spaciousness is not just space. It’s not a void but being receptive to all that’s going on around and within you. He says it can be cultivated and the way to do so is to let go.
- Let go of linearity. There is no straight line between success and anything, including peace of mind, contentment, fulfillment, and self-development.
- Let go of the need to be in control. When you force a straight line through life, you lose out on other possibilities. Learn to meander.
- Let go of scarcity. Don’t fall victim to the voices that say you don’t have enough or that you should stay put right where you are, lest something bad happen to you or your stuff.
- Let go of goal setting. Western civilization won’t collapse because you don’t have a goal. Don’t set them; discover them as you move along your own path of curiosity.
- Live with the questions. They foster exploration and learning, even when not answered. Success allows you to trade in your old questions for new ones.
Can you handle spaciousness? Can you live with emptiness for a while? Can I? Can you live, at least some of the time, outside The Grand Narrative of Success? Don’t you want to find out? I enjoyed the book, and I think many of you would, too. It’s given me a lot to think about, and it’s gotten me excited to inject some emptiness and spaciousness into my life.
Buy What Happens When You Get What You Want on Amazon!
What do you think? Have you read this book? Can you relate to any of this yourself? Gobbledy-gook and psychobabble or something useful to consider? Comment below!