The Price of Success

A cautionary tail.

Posted Apr 24, 2012

As you probably know, J. Paul Getty was one of the wealthiest and most successful American industrialists in history. Fiercely ambitious from an early age, Getty made his first million at age 23 in 1916. He later went on to found the Getty oil company. In 1957, Fortune magazine named him the richest living American and in 1966, the Guinness Book of Records named him as the world’s richest private citizen. 

Getty's philanthropy lives on in the forms of his massive collections of art and antiquities, which formed the basis of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles California. Over $661 million of his estate was left to the museum after his death in 1976.  Although he is highly regarded by vast numbers of people for his financial success, as a younger man, his drive to acquire power and money had a detrimental impact on other aspects of his life, particularly in his relationships with women. He was, at one point quoted as saying, “A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you are a business failure.”

And yet, he married five times having children with four of these wives. He couldn’t seem to keep a marriage going for very long. His obsession with amassing a fortune and wielding power alienated each of his wives, eventually driving them away. His marriage with his first wife Jeanette, lasted for only three years, with Allene for two years, Adolphine, four years, Ann, four years, and finally Louise, nineteen years. 

Perhaps as a young man, Getty was willing to pay what he saw as the inevitable and unavoidable price of financial success, and to sacrifice marital longevity for a higher priority. Yet there is evidence that J Paul came to feel some remorse in regard to his life priorities as he approached his later years when he wrote: "I hate and regret the failure of my marriages. I would gladly give all of my millions for just one lasting marital success.” 

At the end of Getty's life, all of the prestige and the massive amount of wealth that he had accumulated meant very little to him. It was only then that he become experienced and wise enough to understand what really mattered most. Despite all of his accomplishments, he died with great regret.

It’s a sad story and a cautionary tale for those of us who may have chosen to make career-building our highest priority, thereby relegating loving relationships to a lower priority status. It is at our peril that we neglect our relationships, throw them the leftovers of what is available after our best energies have been exhausted at work, or put them on hold until "later". 

Our partner may be patient during those times that we are building a strong financial foundation, but even during the most trying of times, and we certainly are living in trying times, failing to attend to the needs of our relationships pretty much guarantees eventual breakdowns and greatly increases the likelihood of divorce. Like any other living organism, relationships require ongoing care, nurturance and attention in order to thrive. While they can tolerate brief periods of neglect during times of crisis if the foundation is solid, even the strongest relationships will be damaged, sometimes irreversibly if they are not provided adequate care.

John Gottman, considered by many to be the leading researcher on marital success and failure has stated definitively that many more marriages die of neglect than die of conflict over differences. Even the best of marriages have irreconcilable differences that need at least occasionally to be addressed, even if they can't always be resolved. The act of acknowledging and addressing them respectfully is a loving act that can strengthen the marital bond even if there is no "resolution". And as the late M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled has said, "A Failure to confront is a failure to love." When we consistently fail to bring love in any of its many forms to our relationships, we run risks far greater than we may realize. Sometimes we see the end coming before it's too late and if we act quickly and intentionally, we can not only save our relationship, but we can restore it to a degree of integrity and trust far greater than anything that we had previously experienced. Many of us have personally experienced how such crises can make our relationships "stronger at the broken places."

In our hyper-materialistic culture, it’s easy to go off the road and become distracted by temptations. Many of those around us may be lost in their own obsessive quest for the security and happiness that they believe material success will bring. Avoiding the pitfalls of such an orientation requires great clarity about what truly matters and an ability to stay faithful to a course that will honor our deepest values. Perhaps we can all learn something from J. Paul's experiences, his failures as well as his successes.  His confession of regret may be a plea to the rest of us to avoid making the mistakes that he made in his own life. Perhaps in heeding his words we can arrive at the end of our life with gratitude and love. If we do, I doubt that the amount of our net worth will matter all that much.