Pyrrhic Victories

The most popular movie villain in recent years has been Thanos, the big bad purple dude at the center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He seems to have won the best-villain championship belt which has been passed down from other greats like Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort. A lot of his popularity is simply due to the fact that Marvel has taken over the movie industry, but he is a terrifying character with an interesting story.

When Thanos was young, his home planet was a paradise, but it faced a growing problem as he got older: depleting resources and overpopulation. In order to save the planet, Thanos came up with a radical solution to randomly kill half the population so that the other half might prosper. Yikes. For obvious reasons, his morbid idea was rejected and his civilization slowly deteriorated until it became extinct.

The destruction of his people convinced Thanos that the rest of the universe was doomed to suffer the same fate. So, it became his life’s work and all-consuming cause to rid the universe of half its population in order to save the surviving half from suffering starvation and poverty.

Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen the movie Avengers: Infinity War, but Thanos does eventually wipe out half of all people in the universe. However, his victory didn’t come without personal costs. In order to achieve his goal, he had to deal with pesky Avengers, grapple emotionally with slaughtering millions of innocent people, and was forced to kill the only person he had ever loved, his daughter Gamora.

At the end of the movie, Thanos sits down and ponders on what he’s done. While satisfied with accomplishing his life’s mission, you can also see sadness and guilt on his face at what it had cost to get there.

During a dream sequence, his daughter asks him what it had cost to achieve his dream. In what’s become a popular meme, Thanos solemnly replies, “Everything.”

Thanos’ victory over the Avengers is an example of what’s called a Pyrrhic victory. I’m sure there are more eloquent examples out there, but being a Marvel fan, his story was the first that came to mind.

The expression “Pyrrhic victory” comes from King Pyrrhus of ancient Greece who suffered so many casualties in defeating the Romans in battle, he said:

“If we win another such battle against the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”

A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that comes at such great a cost, perhaps making the ordeal to win not worth it. Meaning you won the battle, but it was so bloody and caused so much drama and required so much emotional energy that in the end, it actually cost you more in winning than in losing.

I think about Pyrrhic victories in finance and money quite often.

We’ve all heard stories of people who achieved great financial success, but it came at a great cost to their personal lives. They have all the money they could ever ask for but in accomplishing their goal they neglected their mental and physical health, or missed precious time and experiences with family and friends, or didn’t invest in their personal and marital relationships.

I wrote a while back about a guy whose sole purpose was to be able to retire in his 40s. He obsessed over becoming financially independent as soon as possible only to later realize that his fixation on this goal cost him his health and his marriage. He later admitted that his early retirement wasn’t worth the personal costs it took to get there.

Pyrrhic victories with money can also happen on a smaller, less-serious scale. Let’s say you’re in the market for a new couch and you want to get the lowest price possible. So you spend hours scouring the internet, drive to multiple different stores, haggle with the salespeople, get into an argument with your spouse because they just want the couch already, and in the end, you do get the lowest price.

You won… but was the discount really worth all the time, stress, and hassle?

Maybe it was. That’s for you to decide. Everyone has different goals and values.

The point is that finances extend beyond a paycheck, investment returns, savings rate, or net worth number. They have a huge impact on our personal life.

With any financial goal, to avoid a Pyrrhic victory and simply enjoy a good old-fashioned victory, it’s important to ask ourselves what’s the cost to achieve said goal, and am I willing to pay it?

Just something to think about.

Thanks for reading!