The Price of Success

In the movie “Interstellar,” the hero character, Cooper (played by Mathew McConaughey), was asked to save the world as we know it (the most heroic thing to do). In return, he must leave all his loved ones behind with the possibility of not seeing them again. His act of courage will save the human race in the long term, but in the short term, he will not be able to save his kids and loved ones; instead, he must leave them behind for their destiny. He will never be able to see his kids growing up in front of his eyes, never be part of their life ever again.  In my opinion, the movie brought up two critical points.

1) Do we all have significant and larger-than-life dreams and aspirations that we want to achieve? What makes successful people successful? I will argue that the answer is no; we don’t all have big goals or larger-than-life dreams.

2) Was the quality of time spent throughout our lifetime for personal achievements or to add value to others’ lives (i.e., family members and loved ones)? And for this one, the answer is not easy; despite the ideal answer, reality proves otherwise.

Let’s start with the first point: larger-than-life achievements require larger-than-life sacrifices, and as based on this movie, to reach for the stars, one must be willing to leave loved ones behind on earth, I guess. In theory, any of us might say, “yes, sure, I can do it for the greater purpose.” Still, as humans, we constantly evaluate the risks of any challenge, and depending on our character, we also make our decision. So, taking the above challenge is not easy if you are a parent.  On the other hand, most of us go through life and die passively without achieving the goals we always dreamt of, simply because it was only a wishful thought.

The definition of success and achievement is different from one person to the other, and this has nothing to do with how big or small our goals are compared to others, as we should never compare ourselves to others. Each of us has our circumstances and experiences that set us apart. Some would want a small happy family, a good house, and a decent job, while others want to be a famous soccer player or a Doctors-Without-Borders member to help others worldwide, and some want to join the rich and famous club. Hence there is no one model for happy life or success, as we all have our versions. One thing for sure, though, is that no one makes it alone, and external factors in our lives play a significant role in supporting or blocking our plans.

Looking at success from another angle, the book “The Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell talks in detail about what made successful people so successful. It is about the men and women who achieve out-of-the-ordinary results and how success is defined in our minds vs. how it should be defined. The book argues that no one ever made it entirely on their own and that their backgrounds, upbringing circumstances, parents, society, and the period when they were born all contribute to the success stories. Hence, external factors are key in making or breaking some of the success stories shared. In many education systems worldwide, “ability grouping” gives an advantage to the more talented kids. Hence it supports talented kids with better education programs.

In contrast, the average kids remain using the intermediate education programs, which makes the talented even better, while the average never gets the same chance to grow. One can argue this further in other aspects of life; for example, in the USA, the taxes on the rich is less and has more facilities than on the poor, so the rich gets richer, and the poorer get it the hard way. However, the point here is to understand the impact of external factors on the success of successful people, driven by the three main factors instilled by our societies at large (selection, streaming & differentiated experiences).

For example, if two men were born on the same day, but one was born in an American city, and the other was born in a small town in Yemen, all things considered, they will most likely not have the same fortunate quality of life. The advantages the US kid has (i.e., environment, education quality, resources, money, etc.) and the lack of such resources for the kid who was born in Yemen will make all the difference between the two kids as the advantages will clearly and positively impact the life of the American kid, all things remain the same. Let us take another example from the sports industry, where the age bracket is usually crucial in the selection and acceptance process for any kid joining any sport. In this industry, especially in the western world, selection by age comes first. The streaming of the good players vs. the average or below-average ones happens when such talented ones get noticed and nurtured. After which comes the differentiated experience where those talented kids are given extra training or special programs to enhance their talent and become pros, and it is all for the sake of making it big in the sports of the school, the university, or even the country. Hence, if a kid is not selected from the beginning of this process, they will not have the advantages given to the selected ones. The book also talks about the magic number of hours that needs to be invested by any person in learning/practicing a particular field to become an expert in that field, which is 10,000 hrs. So far, all those who made it in their respective fields spent no less than 10,000 hours in practice and hard work; from the famous rock band the Beatles to Bill Gates of Microsoft to bill Joy of Sun Microsystems, and the list goes on and on, from artists to sports legends to business people.

Now to the second point; what matters the most to us as individuals? More quality time with family and loved ones or personal goals and dreams? Of course, a bit of both is possible, but 100% on both is not likely. In today’s busy lifestyle, many working parents, especially men, spend late hours at work and don’t get to see their kids for days, and their excuse is usually workloads. We assume we are working late and hard to improve our families lives. While that is partially true, it has a lot of selfishness in it, as we are also satisfying our own egos and feeding our own vanity by working hard so we can achieve more and succeed and stand above all others as worthy of success. In reality, kids don’t really care how much money their parents make, and they are willing to settle for a lot less than what their parents provide them, only to get more quality time with them. Cooper, from the movie, could have rejected the mission and spent the rest of his life with his kids and seen them grow up and even die in their lifetime. He chose not because i) he did not know the mission would take this long & ii) he wanted to save the human race at large and his kids’ future as well.

If you read any death-bed literature, you will notice that no one ever talks about wishing for more time to make another million, close another deal, or get a new car. At such times, materialistic and personal possessions don’t matter. Our quality of life is what matters; did we spend enough time with our families and loved ones? Were we there for our kids while they were growing up? Did we express our love to the ones who expected from us? Did we take risks and have a fulfilled life? Did we live life, or were we busy making a living until life passed us by? Did we chase our dreams or only spend our lives reminiscing on what-ifs? There is no right or wrong answer here, as it all depends on your priorities in life and what matters the most to you. We will all say that our loved ones and kids matter the most, but in reality, not all of us are acting on it and making sure to spend enough quality time with our loved ones. A friend once told me that he consciously tells himself every day at 6 pm, “it is now 6 pm, and I have a choice to make. I either go home now and spend some time with my kids before they go to bed at 8 pm, or stay at work and don’t spend time with them and only go home when they are already sleeping.” He said that this way of thinking and looking at the situation helped him most of the time to do the right thing and go home to his kids.

Finally, remember that this is the real deal, the only life you are given. No repeats, no extra lives, no rehearsals, and most of all, no fixed timing, as “Game Over” can come at any minute. So whatever you want to do or achieve or whomever you want to be with, do it before it’s too late.

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