Why you should Get your Shit Together Before you Make it Big

Think Deeply about the true recipe for a good life

Think Deeply about the true recipe for a good life

Tales of squandered success. Both Mr. Money Mustache’s mailbox, and the world at large are filled with them.

Every day another pile of $250,000 earners collapses from stress or goes insane, because they have managed to slip into an awful life of debt and time scarcity, despite the fact that they are living within a neverending nuclear explosion of cash. And every day another corporate bigwig directs his legions to take the evil path in search of more money, because he calculates that a lot of extra money is worth a small amount of evil.

In my view, there’s nothing wrong with kicking ass every day and reaching the top. In fact, for many of us, this is the most enjoyable use of our time.

“I love my job. I never want to retire, therefore I can safely ignore the advice of Mr. Money Mustache…” 

…Goes the common refrain.

But the Path of Successful Ass-Kicking is a narrow one, which runs between two perilous chasms:

  • The Pit of Pointless Materialism and Monetary Dependence
  • The Moral Void of Placing Profits Above All Else

How Good People Fall into the Pit:

You start off young, bright, and hardworking. This means you run with a crowd of similar people. For you, jobs have never been hard to come by – the real challenge is just making sure you select the best job. Big incomes come naturally to everyone you know, and this leads to a pleasant ongoing party of a life.

Sally and Joe get a mountain house so everyone can go skiing. You get the summer cottage and a boat for fishing in the summers. Bill impresses everyone with his new Audi Q7, and the rest of you reciprocate with BMWs and Acuras. Fine scotch is poured. Everybody has kids, and the best strollers, car seats, Gap clothing, lessons and private schools are naturally part of the program. Everyone is contributing to their 401(k) and 529 plans, so nobody has anything to worry about. Right?

The only problem is that everyone has already partied themselves straight off the cliff and into the Pit without realizing it. By locking in an incredibly expensive lifestyle, people who fall into this trap have become dependent on their high incomes to just to stay afloat. The slightest nudge to the unstable house of cards – unemployment, divorce, illness, or even a stock or housing market crash, can leave them broke and desperate.

And the overly-scheduled days that come with this lifestyle often leave out the slack that humans require for creativity, growth, and renewal. This leads to “I don’t do anything besides being great at my job” syndrome, which is a recipe for long-term unemployment as soon as the next great economic upheaval leaves your particular industry obsolete.

How Others Fall into the Profit Seeking Void

Some manage to avoid the Pit, by earning so much that they manage to handle all of the bills and still have plenty left over. But they end up lodged into a company with others to answer to who are not so lucky. A public company with shareholders, or an occupation with a boss who runs the show. Void-dwellers may even be CEOs themselves, but unfortunate ones who have come to equate “Profit” with “The Only Point of Corporate Existence*.”

People in the Void usually end up worn, stressed, physically unfit and unfulfilled. Despite leading such “successful” lives, they wonder why life does not feel like a complete success. So they keep seeking more profit in hopes of filling the void.

Neither option sounds great. But either chasm presents ample opportunities for recovery. The key is to figure out if you’ve fallen into one of them, or if you are just starting out, to get your shit together before you make it big. 

Step 1: Figure out if you’ve made it big already.

I love talking to the rising stars of Silicon Valley. With the current economic boom, they are all riding high on a raging river of business exuberance, shooting each other with Optimism Guns. “I’ve jumped over to a new startup. Salary’s a little better and the vibe is great. But the real story is we have a good chance of being bought. Then I’ll be ready to start getting ahead!”

News Flash: If you’re under 40 and making over $75,000, you’ve already made it big. Use this opportunity to start using the cash surplus to build your independence now, rather than spending everything like your coworkers do and hoping for an even bigger payout later. 10 years of slightly-less-ridiculous-than-average living will buy you financial independence for life. Meanwhile, your friends will still be waiting for their first big buyout 10 years from now, waiting to make it big while you have secretly been making it big all along.

Step 2: Pit-Dwellers need to learn The Power of No

The problem with the modern high-income lifestyle is the dizzying surplus of options you have available to you. You can have a luxury sedan or an SUV, a big house with a commute or a bigger house with a longer commute, a beach house or a ski house, private schools or private lessons, fine scotch or happy hour microbrews, and on and on forever. Most people just gleefully start checking off the boxes when presented with this menu. Doubled your salary? Great! Now you can check twice as many boxes!

The only problem is that you had already maximized your happiness from a material standpoint long before you even got the menu.

If you have food, friends, and a comfortable place to live, you are all set to live an incredible life. Everything you buy, and every experience and commitment you add to the plate beyond this point is a tradeoff: a guaranteed reduction in cash and free time, in exchange for a possible increase in thrills delivered by fun or novelty.

As your life approaches full booking, the tradeoff tilts so that the costs become higher. A busy family might be down to one day per week of free time, and adding a pleasant weekly trip to the ski resort might cut this to zero. Suddenly the activities you forgot to schedule like walking in the park or sleeping in no longer happen, and life becomes an unstoppable treadmill. Add in monetary stress and you’re really screwed.

The Power of No means saying “No” to even fun-sounding activities, when you realize your life is already full enough of good things.

In recent years, I’ve had the incredible good fortune of being invited on free trips to China, Switzerland, New Zealand, and other neat places. And the chance to go speak at various schools and conferences and even show up in the odd TV show. It was my absolute pleasure to thank each of these generous people, and then say “No thanks!”, because there’s already no shortage of things to do in my existing busy life. Adding even more will just take away from the things I already enjoy, like spending sunny days with my boy and getting a good night’s sleep. Life is not a contest to see who can accomplish the most. It’s simply a series of days where your goal is to wake up, have a great time, and go to bed even happier than when you woke up. You can still make the most of your life, but running on permanent overdrive is generally counterproductive.

Step 3: Rising Above Profit makes you the Richest One of All

It is a cliche for me to bring up old Warren Buffett yet again, but I’m often struck by the incredible contrast between the way he views profits, and the way most smaller CEOs do things. To paraphrase (and exaggerate) his approach, “Why would I give a shit about what the quarterly results are over some trivial time period like the next 20 years? We’re trying to run a BUSINESS here!”

Nobody questions his approach, because he runs the damned show. And he continues to run the show, because he is never subject to the fearful whims and hesitations of those stuck in the mentality of seeking short-term profit.

Fortunately, it is not necessary to become the richest person in the world to learn from this example. You just need to get your financial affairs in order so that your livelihood no longer depends on the demands of irrational people.

Don’t like working for fickle shareholders? Run your own company and retain the voting rights for yourself. Prefer working in a large organization? Go for it, but with the knowledge that you can stick up for your principles with no regard for what it will do to your paycheck. You may find that you get fired, but more likely, you will become the boss, because you freed yourself from the position of being bossed around.

Financial independence of any degree means just as much for people of all occupations. The free musician can delight when people share her music around the world, while the money-dependent one has to stand by and wince while her record company sues teenagers for downloading MP3s. The free lawyer can help people in need or fight for social justice while the money-dependent one might end up cobbling together questionable cases against a blogger, because that’s what the paying client demands.

So if you’re just starting out, heed the comical troubles of your elders and do not repeat them. You can avoid both pitfalls and walk straight through to the public park on other side, where the rest of us are just setting things up on the Picnic Table of Badassity. See you here!



* Which is of course part of the charter of public companies: to maximize value to shareholders. This usually leads to short-term thinking and other counterproductive Void-style diseases. I’ve seen one cool proposal to avoid this, which involves changing the charter to say something more like “maximize the value of the company over the next 30 years.” Then shareholders lose their leverage to push for meaningless goals like a short-term bump in the share price.



  • Zen Mustache (Johnny Drozdek) April 6, 2014, 8:04 pm

    Hello! Johnny here from the band Zen Mustache – that’s our sticker in the picture at the top of the blog. Hadn’t heard of your site but some of your readers pinged us and requested stickers.

    Nice post by the way. Great perspective. My wife and I have been trying to avoid the Pit for 15 years, gradually making our way to Badassity. Save us a spot, we’re gonna make it.

    Out of curiosity, Mr. Money Mustache how did you come across the sticker you included in your post? (Incidentally if anyone else would like stickers email us at zenmustache@gmail.com or hit the Contact page on our website: http://www.zenmustache.com)

    Thanks for the connection and we’re enjoying your site.
    Johnny Drozdek

  • Gaurav August 5, 2015, 6:43 am

    Long time lurker, first time commenter.

    Just a quick background on me. I am 28 years old, living in India and have followed the principles slightly-less-than-ridiculous most of my working life. I have also been fortunate enough to have attended a great undergrad engineering school, and work in fancy jobs for my working life so far. As a result, I have had pretty fortunate experiences – extensive traveling abroad to fancy places without spending any of my own money, interesting hobbies, interesting friends, get to regularly meet interesting people. I am also completely debt free, earn a decent salary which is likely to grow over the coming years (even by very conservative estimates), and have decent investing and saving discipline.

    One thing which I was struggling with off late was the point you made in this post. Already I have a fairly interesting life, and the number of options keep increasing. This is true both in terms of my personal life, and professional life. I have really interesting startups asking me to work part-time with them (and I absolutely love what some of them do), and have interesting hobbies and people I can meet regularly.

    But my friends and people around me keep making me feel bad that I don’t do “even more interesting” stuff. Like go to an even fancier restaurant than I might occasionally go to otherwise, or travel to an “even more exotic destination”, or meet 5 friends over the weekend, instead of meeting 2.

    Sorry, I don’t intend to make myself sound like a privileged ass, because I am pretty much an average dude, who just followed basic principles well in life – work hard, keep in touch with friends, save and invest regularly.

    Back to the point, all this came to a point where turning down this over abundance of “interesting” almost makes me feel bad. Like when I turn down meeting friends over the weekend because I want to sleep more, or not taking a “Eurotrip” because I am anyway traveling somewhere with my family later in the year, or not working harder by accepting some of these part-time opportunities, or not networking even more aggressively.

    I am also of this opinion that I life really isn’t a contest, and I am largely fairly happy and satisfied. I am not kidding, someone actually ACCUSED me that you are too content with life, and you should be more hungry.

    Anyway, thanks for this and the blog. I absolutely love reading it. I am slowly making my way through your blog starting from the first post :)

  • EarningAndLearning June 16, 2017, 6:09 pm

    I loved what you said about not letting your livelihood depend on the whims of irrational people. That is by far my biggest motivation to become financially free: so I don’t have to pretend to respect bosses I don’t respect (and maybe don’t even like) and don’t have to bite my tongue so I don’t get fired.

    And loved this bit: “Life is not a contest to see who can accomplish the most. It’s simply a series of days where your goal is to wake up, have a great time, and go to bed even happier than when you woke up.” What a fun & inspiring mission to have in life!

  • Anonymous March 31, 2020, 4:22 pm

    Here’s a cheerful update. While the statement that the purpose of a corporation is to maximize shareholder value is still around, its been under some serious scrutiny in 2019. World business leaders are stepping up to the plate and adding some real meat:

    Recognition that environmental, social and corporate governance policies (ESG) represent material risks and opportunities directly impacting financial performance;

    Reassessment of the shareholder primacy doctrine and the narrow view of corporations as nothing more than profit machines;

    Adoption of “sustainability” as both a strategic goal for companies, an antidote to short-termism and a path to strengthen public trust in business and the capital markets;

    Acknowledgement that companies must serve the interests of their “stakeholders” as well as their shareholders;

    Reassertion of the principle that corporations must be accountable for the human, social and public policy implications of their activities, with an urgent focus on climate change;

    Understanding that a corporation’s “culture” is reflective of its integrity, its internal well-being, its sustainability and its reputation.

    Acceptance of expanded board accountability for ESG issues, sustainability, purpose and culture and working with the CEO to integrate these factors into business strategy;

    Emergence of the integrated reporting movement [www.integrated reporting.org] with its program of integrated thinking and integrated management as the basis for corporate reporting.




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