Sacrifice Must Hurt

After four years of working like a madman to survive as a self-employed creative, it first dawned on me that, “Damn, this making money thing is actually really hard.”

For most of my life, I had been told that I was special, mostly for having an above-average IQ and getting good grades with little effort. Now that I had stepped into an arena I had no experience in, and where the audience didn’t care one bit about who you were, only what you could do for them, it was clear that I was not special, nor would my talent magically carry me to the heights I had once been so sure I would reach.

I always knew that success takes hard work and diligence, and I quickly adjusted to both of those after choosing my own career path, but what I didn’t know and wasn’t prepared for was the amount of sacrifice greatness demands. So. Much. Sacrifice. And I wasn’t even halfway where I hoped to go yet!

That lesson first registered with regards to making money, perhaps because that was the most immediate task on my plate. If you start from scratch, you can’t just make a million dollars in six months and go lie on the beach for the next five years. That’s not how it works. Four years in, I finally realized — and accepted — that at least a decade of hard work is in order, perhaps a lot more. I also realized that, for most people, myself included, the hard work wasn’t the problem. Many people work hard every day. That can be its own reward. On most days, I had fun doing, writing, learning, even if the hours were long. What makes people quit is the sacrifice. Not doing other things, that is what hurts. It’s also the only thing that works.

One of the very first things I did as a writer was to write a book. I took what should have been a series of blog posts and, within a week, turned it into a short book I published on Kindle. I could have stopped right there. I had everything I needed. A craft to master. A way to monetize it. And so much to learn about both. What did I do? I went on to the next thing. I started coaching. I tried making online courses. I launched a website. Instead of taking the pain of sticking to one thing and grinding it out until the exponential rewards kicked in, I kept shopping around for various ways of making money. I just couldn’t sacrifice all the opportunities in front of me, and that’s why, four years later, I still had mediocre results. That, too, caused pain. In hindsight, a kind that is worse.

Back then, I summarized that insight for myself: “If your sacrifice doesn’t hurt, it is not working.”

It’s easy to confuse hard work and sacrifice. We tell ourselves the long hours are the pound of flesh we bring to the table. But if we don’t have focus, if we’re unable to kill our FOMO, to make the true sacrifice of letting go of opportunities left, right, and center, those hours aren’t worth very much. They can’t add up because we’re all over the place. I used to think that hard work was enough, but it’s not. I wanted to try out all these different ways of making money, and so I allowed myself to get distracted. I forwent the sacrifice, and I paid the bill years later.

That’s the crux of the sacrificing matter: In a world full of choices, you can choose not to do it. Especially the emotional kind of sacrifice which, in most cases, is the one that truly counts. For most of us and the big dreams we have, physical sacrifice is the exception, not the norm. Here, too, of course, the same rules apply: Working out twice a week instead of four times is not a sacrifice. Not going to the gym at all and gaining weight or losing fitness because you’re working so much, that is a sacrifice. One is merely an inconvenience, the other actually hurts.

But the emotional sacrifice of not pursuing jobs, projects, or other people you could date? Phew. That is the big one. We love hoarding ideas, dabbling in projects, and keeping our feet in all kinds of doors just to make sure they don’t fall shut on us. We could just use salt and pepper for our eggs, but we prefer to throw in half the spice rack and call it haute cuisine. Variety may be the spice of life, but it is also the death of achievement.

It hurts to eliminate variety. To let go of past identities. Of ideas you could execute, places you could go, and versions of yourself you could become. Those are the true, painful sacrifices success actually demands. Those are the emotional burdens we must sit with if we want to be great husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, or brothers and sisters. The itches we mustn’t scratch if we want to get rich and retire young, become a pioneer in our field, or lead a company that changes the world.

No one will be there with us at our desk when we feel the pull of a new idea, the temptation of an enticing proposal in our inbox, or the lure of some other distraction about to torpedo our dreams. It is on us to make the hard choices, to let those emotions linger and pass without acting on them so we may stay en route to the destination that truly matters, and we’ll have to make those choices time and again before we arrive.

That’s the true nature of sacrifice. It goes well beyond hard work, and it only works when it hurts — but in the end, unlike the easy path, which is guaranteed to end in misery, it may, with a little luck along the way, be well worth the price.