Money, Achievement, Fame, & Suicidal Ideation

If you paid any attention to the most recent Summer Olympiad, you are probably well aware that Michael Phelps had an outstanding run swim in this latest rendition of the games. His swan song (or so we are told) will go down as one for the ages.
Contract Diagnostics

The story most often regaled of the 2016 version of Phelps is his successful comeback to the sport of swimming. By most accounts, four years ago, he pretty much mailed in his performance in London. His training was subpar and inconsistent. His head wasn’t in the right place.

He was in his mid-twenties. He had been arrested for a DUI at age 19. He had been photographed with a bong. Probably not the first time he had seen a bong. Although he was popular, accomplished, and an incredible athlete, he wasn’t the All-American good boy the sponsors and fans had fallen in love with. I’m not sure he knew who he was either, other than being a swimmer.


I thought they banned those suits

I thought they banned those suits


After scoring an incredible eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, he followed up with four golds and two silvers in 2012. In his first race in the 2012 London games, the 400-meter individual medley, he actually failed to medal in an Olympic event for the first time since he was a 15-year old kid, swimming the 200-meter butterfly in Sydney.

By the London Olympiad’s end in the summer of 2012, he was well-decorated, but it’s not unfair to say he didn’t live up to his potential. It may be more fair to say he didn’t match the expectations the world had placed upon him.

He followed up that performance by coming out of retirement two years later, training with a newfound vigor, and earning five golds and a silver in the 2016 Rio Games, solidifying his position as the Olympian with the most medals in history.


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The Rest of The Story


The comeback story is impressive. His talent and resolve are remarkable. But to me, the victories and medals aren’t the story. It’s where he was two years ago, and how he ended up there.

Retired from swimming and feeling burnout after the London games, Phelps was in a rut, struggling to find purpose without a pool.

Self-medicating with alcohol led to a drunken driving arrest after a stop for speeding down the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Maryland with a 0.14% blood alcohol level in September, 2014.

He continued to drink after being released. He was not a happy man. As he told ESPN the Magazine,

“I didn’t give a s—,” Phelps says. “I had no self-esteem. No self-worth. I thought the world would just be better off without me. I figured that was the best thing to do — just end my life.”


He had money.

He had fame.

He had won more Olympic medals than anyone, ever.

He had no will to live.


There are many lessons to be learned here.

  • Money won’t solve your problems.
  • Neither will fame.
  • Achievements are in the past. Purpose is looking forward.
  • Depression is real and can take down a king.
  • Alcohol is not the solution (despite what Homer says).


Never assume that once you have X amount of money, your happiness cup will bubbleth over. Most of us Financial Independence oriented people have a numeric goal in mind. For some, it’s 10 factorial ($3.6288 million). For others, something less than a million will suffice. I’m shooting for at least 40x annual expenses.

Phelps had way, way more money than any of us are aiming for. He was beyond financially independent by any measure. I haven’t been inside his mind, but based on what I’ve read, it appears he was lacking purpose.

Always have a purpose. What good is money and time if it serves no purpose in your life? What are you but perhaps a hedonist if you serve no purpose in life?

Success and achievement don’t guarantee happiness. Having a goal, and taking steps to achieve your goal, may be as satisfying if not more so than realizing the actual goal.

If Phelps can hit rock bottom when he should be on top of the world, so can anyone. At the time of his darkest days, he had already won 18 gold medals. Which is 18 more than me, and I would guess 18 more than the entire readership of this blog.*

When the binge was over, Phelps checked in to The Meadows, a treatment center in Arizona, for a 45-day stay. He has been sober since, and credits his inpatient stay, along with Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life with saving him from himself.

I’m not going to take this in a direction to suggest you should be born again as an Evangelical Christian. I’m certainly happy it worked for Phelps, but this site is not about religion.

I’m also not going to turn this into a diatribe against alcohol**. Although I certainly would agree that a couple DUI arrests and suicidal thinking are more than enough reasons to avoid the sauce for the rest of your life.


The take-home message is that there are no guarantees.


Being the best won’t make you a winner.


Achieving the loftiest goals may not leave you satisfied.


Money is a focus of this site and most personal finance blogs, but money alone is just one piece of the financial freedom puzzle.


If you need help, ask.


If you’re not happy with your life, change your life. 


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I came across this inspirational camper van on my recent travels. Most days, I find some tidbit of information that reaffirms my desire for a more adventurous life and an early retirement. Rarely does it spell it out in bold capital letters all over. This van speaks my language.


Motivational Van

this is your life

For more Olympic coverage from me, check out Olympic Medalists and the Taxman. Make ’em Pay? Or just check out All Posts for all the posts.



  • Thanks for reminding us what’s important and also for the reference to my site. This is why 10! is just one of several goals that give purpose in my life. I have listed the 10 factors in my life journey, most of which are forward-looking. That’s what gives meaning and factorial effect to our life.

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  • This was a great reminder of the importance of having a purpose. There have been studies done that show how gold winning olympic athletes often fall into at least a mild depression very shortly after winning. If you think about the focus and intensity that it takes to get to that point, it all disappears once that medal is hung around their neck and then the question is, now what?

    I’ve never performed at that level, so I can’t even begin to understand, but I can imagine that it must be a difficult time.

    Other studies have shown that people with children are no happier than people without and in fact, in some studies, people without children are happiest! However, the edge the parents have is in purpose. The children give them a defense (i.e. purpose) against the existential angst that can riddle the childless. I’m not suggesting that people without kids have no purpose, but it’s easier for that scenario to play out.

    • Some great talking points here, Jon. I was unaware of the evidence of depression in Gold medal winners. A quick search let me to this article, which gives a number of examples and the quote, “There is a big bucket of melancholy athletes can fall into. … I really missed being exceptional at something” from Gold medal winning downhill skier Diann Roffe.

      I have read the studies about the childless being as happy or happier than those of us with kids. As a father, I find the results surprising, but I suppose it depends on how happiness is defined and measured. Having children may give us a deeper fulfillment that doesn’t register on the happiness. Of course, some days, and most meals, kids know how to make us rather unhappy, too. 🙂


    • Great post, PoF! Jon, you hit the nail on the head re: kids giving you purpose. I don’t have children. It wasn’t really a choice for me, it just ended up not being in the cards. I’ve also struggled with depression. The kid situation is not the cause of the depression, but it’s a factor.

      One of the thoughts that haunts me when I feel depressed is that I lack purpose because there is no next generation that I’m leaving behind. Without kids, there’s no real impact to me being here. I’m just taking up space and eventually my light will blink out and that’s that.

      In my non-depressed moments, I realize that even parents have a limited impact on their kids, because their kids are people of their own, and they don’t necessarily follow in their parents’ footsteps. If you remove the kid factor, we’re left with our purpose as being living our lives well and trying to make positive changes for ourselves and for others.

      • First, love the user name. Second, “we’re left with our purpose as being living our lives well and trying to make positive changes for ourselves and for others”. Even though you don’t have children of your own, you can still be a positive influence of the next generation through a myriad of activities. And how much more powerful is such a gift when done for a “stranger” than someone of your own blood.

        cd :O)

  • The Green Swan

    Well said PoF. It’s not just about retiring once you hit that number, but finding what is next for your life. I think about my purpose and what I want to make of my life quite frequently, and that is what will keep my going after FIRE. Thanks!

    • Thank you, Green Swan. I know many physicians who have “failed retirement” and gone back to work in some capacity. I just met another this morning. Unlike me, many doctors devote their lives to their professions and struggle to find other activities as fulfilling as medicine when they try to retire. I don’t anticipate having that problem.


  • I think Maggie from Northern Expenditure had a similar saying that went, “Retired you is still you” which re-iterates that whole thinking that you need purpose. I have a post I’ve been working on about how having an ‘ikigai’ actually prolongs your lifespan. It’s translated as “a reason to get up each morning” but it’s one of the things we are mindful about for our Lifestyle Change.

    I’ll probably be doing the SAHD role, and try to fit in some hobbies around that, but I know it might not be fulfilling and I may struggle. I have plans for different avenues I can pursue to get that ikigai back if need be, but it is definitely something people need to be aware of before pulling the plug on something that may be their only ikigai in life.

    • Ha ha ha. I was just about to comment: “Future You is still you!” And look at that! I’m being quoted! Too often we save money for some grey-haired rocking-chair sitting stranger. Instead, we should figure out what we REALLY want to do and save for that. That one adjustment in thinking catapults us so much farther than anything else. Also, I’m glad I’m not 31 and peaking at the top of my identity like Phelps. Instead, I’m 30 and haven’t done a single thing with my life in comparison! 🙂 But I also haven’t bottomed out or felt that insane pressure to be someone I’m not.

      • Future Me is Still Me, but on a hoverboard. And not the kind that doesn’t actually hover at all but explodes instead.

        Glad to hear you haven’t peaked and started the long downhill slide. Don’t worry Maggie; you’ll get there sooner or later.


    • Ikigai. Love it.

      Parenting can give you purpose and plenty to do. But that can’t be the only focus, either, because you can’t parent forever.

      Unless you’re my Mom. 😉


      p.s. Mom, if you ever read this, please understand the a semicolon followed by closed parentheses represents a wink, as in “I’m just messing with you.” I love you, Mom!

  • Money just gives you more time to do what you normally do. So once you don’t have the job there anymore, you need to find something! I hope to have that figured out by the time I call it quits. That thing or things (my “purpose”) will probably change 100 times and that’s fine.

  • It’s finding the balance in life that many find difficult. Excessive frugality, over splurging at each extreme will fill no gap whatsoever. In the middle ground where there is contentment and an understanding of the small things that provide your “enough” is where the joy unfolds.

    And a big shout out to caregivers ( family, friends, counselors, medical profession) who get many back on the road to a new life after going through mental illness. Those that have struggled with that at any point in their life can’t find enough words to thanks those who helped them through dark times.

    Thanks for this piece on what is the core of living.

  • As someone who has in no way, shape, or fashion reached Olympic athlete quality, but trained a ton, nonetheless, I can see how easy it is to slip into Depression and once there, can be incredibly difficult to ask for help or seek help to get out of it. For some a church family and reliance on God can certainly be part of the solution. For others, “simply” redirecting the passion. Sadly, well meaning friends aren’t always the most helpful as most don’t recognize Depression as a true illness. People just don’t understand that the mind can be sick just like the body.

    How awesome could Michael have been (and still can of course) as a swim coach after London! It would be great if more athletes were able or choose to purse coaching after attaining such a high level of success. Of course, sometimes $ needs get in the way (or perceived needs).

    The other day I was running in the foothills when given a “purpose” with a bit of urgency as we were trying to alert authorities to the location of distressed horse. As I was “running” down the hills, I tripped and face planted. And at first, I was very frustrated. Here I was trying to do a good deed. But instead of wallowing in self-pity (and some pain), I got up and decided the “trip” was just to test my resolve.

    Where ever you stand in life, you decide how to view your current circumstances. Turn the negative into a positive and keep moving one foot forwards. It may even still hurt, even a lot, but eventually you’ll get where you were going, even if in a bit slower of a time.

    Sorry, I have written way more than intended. I do tend to do that.

    Have a fantastic day and journey everyone.
    cd :O)

  • Matt @ Optimize Your Life

    This is a great reminder. I think folks in the FIRE community need to be on the lookout to make sure that they haven’t turned FIRE into their purpose rather than striving for FIRE to further their purpose. If working towards FIRE is our purpose, then we have nothing left when we hit our goal, like Phelps after London. Thanks for this.

  • Great post! Michael Phelps has such an incredible story. It’s always important to consider all the hard work that goes into a person’s achievements and also to remember that just because they may seem to have it all together, you never know what type of internal demons someone may be fighting.

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  • Great reminder that we need to have a purpose in life. Phelps story is incredible, especially knowing how many medals he has won.

  • As I have read many times in the past, money does not change your character, it only magnifies it. I’m so glad you chose to highlight Phelps to make a strong case for finding your purpose in life. Fortunately, he is an example that turned out well, but so many other examples turned out much more tragically. Consider, for example, the life of OJ Simpson.

    For anyone who is looking to find their purpose in life, I suggest examining your values. When you learn what is truly important to you, finding a purpose and pursuing it with everything in you becomes much easier.

    Great post, PoF.

    • Thanks, caped crusader. Someone just wrote about watching the OJ chase years ago and the recent mini-series. Was that you?

      I like the quote about money magnifying your character rather than changing it. Hopefully it brings out more of the good than the bad. Every superhero has some elements of both, right?


  • 10 Factorial.. interesting blog 🙂 I also had no idea that Phelps was unhappy with his life. On the outside, he looks like a guy who has everything, fame, money, and a big fan base.

    I think it’s so important to know the purpose of your hard work because in college I worked as hard as I possibly can because I thought that would impress my future employer but I never got to ask how would I benefit or figure out that’s what I want? I didn’t think that would be so important and I’m glad I learned this lesson early on so that my project to become financially independent doesn’t end in tears. Thanks for the reminder PoF!

  • Well, FWIW, Phelps does have all those things. It’s just that all those things don’t guarantee anything.

    Glad you can take something from this and apply it to your life, Finance Solver.


    p.s. I hear 11! is the new 10! Inflation… 😉

    • 11!, oh my, that’s about $40,000,000. Everybody likes a little bit of inflation (better than deflation!), but not that much. 🙂

      Anyway: Brilliant post again. I had heard about the DUI but wasn’t aware how close to the edge that young man got. A cautionary tale of what can go wrong when you achieve everything and fall into a deep hole afterwards. Yes, let’s not forget that the bank account itself isn’t the goal but a purposeful life after reaching FIRE.

  • Great post! Purpose is so important, as is the journey taken toward goals. Great example with Phelps.

    I worked so hard to get my black belt a couple of years ago, and on the day I actually received the belt, I expected the clouds to part and angels to sing. It was a bit of a letdown that day, but I now realize the belt wasn’t the end goal, so I choose to continue happily on the journey.

    I have family members I’ve watched sink deeper and deeper into a mental funk in a retirement without purpose. They don’t know what to do with themselves, they have no (visible) goals and I do believe they are quite unhappy.

  • I didn’t even turn on the TV this week…who’s this Michael Phelps guy?

    Great message though PoF. So glad I quit the sauce for life too.

  • As much as I was led to believe during my childhood and early adulthood that acquiring money is one of the most important goals in life, it is true that having a purpose helps you stick around longer. You’ve probably read that post-stroke victims tend to do better when they are motivated to participate in physical therapy.

    • Motivation to get better tends to lead to better results in nearly every facet of life. It’s no surprise that morbidity and mortality data reflect it. I’ve seen it in several studies, and definitely first-hand.

      Thanks for the insight!

  • ChooseBetterLife

    Hopefully Phelps and all the athletes will continue to find new purposes. Depression and feeling lost are very common in former elite athletes as they age out of their all-consuming sports and don’t know what to do with their lives afterward, just as some people become depressed after retiring because so much of their identity was wrapped up in their careers.
    Thanks for the reminder to make life about living a well-rounded, complete existence, not pigeonholing ourselves into a tiny slice of the pie.

  • MM

    So much truth here… Thanks POF for this timely article! A purpose driven life is key… Congrats to Michael Phelps for being the most decorated Olympian in history! I am so very proud of my fellow Marylander!

  • So true! I was just listening to the Tim Ferriss podcast yesterday and he had Tony Robbins on. Sometimes I can take or leave Tony, but he said something that was an a-ha moment. He said that achievement is not the same thing as fulfillment. That Robin Williams had achieved every goal he set out to do, but look what happened to him. Not to mention he was loved my millions of people around the world. You can be rich but not fulfilled. You can be poor but happy. Money only amplifies who you already are.

    • How true, Tonya. Fulfillment beats Achievement any day.

      Robin Williams is a sad example of someone who didn’t find his way out from a deep funk. Many, many rockstars… the list would unfortunately be a very long one.


  • zeejaythorne

    Please know that the National Suicide Hotline Call 1-800-273-8255 is staffed 24 hours a day and they will talk to you. They even have an online chat if you cannot speak for any reason.

    Purpose is hard for many folks to find, but I hope you know that you are loved and someone is impacted by your existence.

    • Excellent! Same font and everything.

      I knew there was a web address somewhere on the van, and I thought I captured it in a photo, but couldn’t find it afterwards. All I could remember was that it had Massachusetts vanity plates and some great advice. I’ll be sure to check out the Holstee site!


    • Patricia

      This is really nice! Saw it on a wall of the hostel I stayed in Las Vegas, in 2013. Took a picture, put it on my desk and it says so much to me everytime I look at the picture!

  • Very, very well said PoF. Great article and a great lesson for us all to learn from. Money is one piece of the equation, but it definitely isn’t the only piece. Not by a long shot. I loved these two points. On paper, they are the easiest, no-brainier ideas. However, for some reason, they are the hardest to implement when you are in the heat of the moment. Pride gets in the way of asking for help or you come up with 8,000 excuses for why the status quo is okay. to me though, they are the key to allowing you to be happy, enjoy the wealth you have amassed, and enjoy the purpose in your life.

    “If you need help, ask.”

    “If you’re not happy with your life, change your life.”

    Thanks again for the amazing read.

    Bert, One of the Dividend Diplomats

    • Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words, Bert.

      I think many of us, myself included, firmly believe that life will obviously be better once we have X amount of dollars and can live life by our own rules. I like to look at the evidence, and history is full of examples of people who “had it all” but were clearly not living “the good life”. Best to define what that is before you arrive at the goal. I’ve made an extensive list of things I’d like to do in early retirement. If I get bored, which is highly unlikely, I’ve got a list of fun and purposeful activities and challenges to refer to.


  • As much as a love reading about FI, I am reminded by stories like Phelps that even if you have the money to do anything you want, you really have to find meaning in life on your own terms. Thanks for sharing.

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