Success. Everyone wants it (in whatever way they choose to define "success.") Yet many don't seem happy when they achieve it. 

That's because many people--especially successful people, whether famous or unknown--struggle with the same issues: "Why do we do the things we do? What pushes us to try to be great? And when it's over...what have we turned ourselves into in exchange for success?"

That's the theme of Wright Thompson's wonderful new book, The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business. (Now is a good time to admit that, where writers go, Wright is my hero.)

I spoke with Wright about the pursuit of success, why Michael Jordan doesn't seem to enjoy being Michael Jordan...and why Taylor Swift may be the most incredible person in American life.

A theme that emerges from the different stories in the book is that people like Tiger Woods, Urban Meyer, and Michael Jordan are incredibly successful...yet also appear to be unhappy.

Michael Jordan is a good example. He carefully nurtured every single trait that would make him successful--but at the expense of every other trait that might later make him happy.  

That was great when he was a professional basketball player. Now, all of those hard-won parts of himself are not only useless, they're worse than useless--because they keep him from enjoying being Michael Jordan.

He's incredibly competitive. He's incredibly driven to be the best at whatever he does--even if that's no longer possible. And he's very aware that Mike Jordan from Wilmington, North Carolina is dead, and that "Michael Jordan" killed him.

It seems he can't figure out how to be good with who he is today.

Think about it: He's a billionaire. He can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Yet because he's so competitive, especially athletically, it's hard for him to look past the fact he's a slightly more diminished person today than he was yesterday.

Of course, that's true for all of us. But most people find some degree of peace with it. When your mindset is that you have to always be the best...it's hard to ever be good with that.

That's why Taylor Swift may be the most incredible person in American life. She experienced global, nuclear success at a young age. And she's continued to be incredibly successful.

Yet she's never had that "teen star" meltdown. Her success is amazing...but even more incredible is that she's mature, well-rounded, and happy. That accomplishment is truly staggering.

To a lesser degree, Ron Howard also comes to mind.

He found a second act as a director. For Ted Williams, the second act was fishing. For Dale Murphy, who is probably the first 60-something-year-old ex-athlete I've met who seems really happy, it's being a stay-at-home dad.

If you find a second act, you'll make it. If you forever mourn the loss of your first act...by the time you figure out how screwed up your life is, there usually isn't enough life left to live.

Say a person dreams of incredible success. Based on everything you've seen, what advice would you give?

When you start, be aware of the price you'll have to pay. You aren't going to get away for free. And unfortunately, you'll never be able to figure out ahead of time everything that it will cost you: relationships, balance, habits, personality traits....

The best hope is to realize when it's time to pull the plug and say, "I want to enjoy this." Somewhere along the line, just about every billionaire had $400 million and said, "That's not enough." You have to figure out what "enough" means to you.

The trick is to do right by the younger you who had a dream...but to also do right by the adult you who wants to live your life.

You can't ignore the 10-year-old you who looked to the stars.

But you also can't ignore the 40- or 50-year-old you who wants to lead a happy, fulfilling life.

Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett is a good example of that. When we talked, he said his goal was just to be good enough to play music with his friends. Being a musician was the goal, not just being a rock star. (Although I'm sure the whole rock star thing is pretty great.)

Plus, Metallica have been successful enough to have agency.

Nobody likes to do anything when they have to. Metallica gets to go out and be Metallica, and it doesn't matter if they sell any tickets. They still sell however many millions of copies of Ride the Lightning.

That's the point: Get to the place where you have everything you want to have...and now you can do it because you love it, not because you're trying to fill some hole in yourself or in your bank account.

[Ohio State head football coach] Urban Meyer said climbing a mountain is invigorating. Reaching the summit is miserable.

You'll never be fully self-aware when you're myopically focused on the climb...but you hope to learn enough along the way that you don't fall into the abyss.

Published on: May 24, 2019
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