By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 12, 2012
We had a birth in the family recently—my nephew Justin and his wife Lissa had a healthy baby boy, whom they named Bryce. It got me to thinking about the concept of the Big Payoff.
The Big Payoff is central to the American dream. In Westerns, it’s claiming that ten-thousand-acre spread where Ma and Pa can raise the young-uns. In gangster flicks, it’s the last big job that the criminal pulls, when he takes down the U.S. Mint. For the Vegas gambler, the big payoff is the jackpot. For you and me, it might be the dream job, the fantasy spouse, the smash hit that puts us over the top.
American Idol is built on the fascination of the Big Payoff. So is Celebrity Apprentice and every other reality show where the contestants move heaven and earth to avoid hearing, “You’re fired.”
The dream of the Big Payoff is that it will change our lives.
I’ve succumbed to this dream. Have you?
Artists and entrepreneurs may be particularly vulnerable. Because we have to work so hard, usually in the face of monumental Resistance, and often alone, over years and years sometimes, we can’t help but think, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if we could stop beating our head into this wall?”
There’s a story (possibly even true) about a young actor speaking with Walter Matthau. “I just need that one big break,” says the youngster. Matthau smiles. “Kid, it ain’t the one big break, it’s the fifty big breaks.”
In my life, I’ve had moments that could qualify as Big Payoffs. Here’s what I’ve learned:
First, the payoff is never big enough. By the time you’ve paid taxes and commissions, weathered the jealousy of your colleagues, and written the final alimony check, you’re left with barely enough for a caramel machiatto.
Second, Big Payoff #1 elevates you to Level #2, on which the challenges are even greater and the drop into the abyss even scarier.
Third, a real Big Payoff carries with it a carload of perverse karma. How often does an outcome we think is great turn out to be the worst thing that ever happened to us? That girl, that house, that Oscar. Nine months later we’re checking into rehab.
Ernest Borgnine died a few weeks ago. He was one of my faves. His greatest movie line, in my opinion, comes from The Wild Bunch, screenplay by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah :
I’d like to make one good score and back off.
Back off to what?
The truth is there is no Big Payoff.
No matter what crown they put on your head, you wake up tomorrow morning facing the same Resistance and hearing the same Muse’s call. You’re still you. Your destiny may have changed, but you’ve still gotta fulfill it, and no one and nothing can help you.
Things were cool in the Garden of Eden. We plucked fruit from the trees. We were cruising. Then Adam and Eve screwed it up. God kicked them—and us—out. “Henceforth,” He said, “shalt thou eat thy bread in the sweat of thy face.”
Which brings me back to young Bryce, who just turned three months old. How does he experience his life? It must feel pretty good, having two adults spend their every waking second loving you and taking care of your needs.
Maybe we all remember that. Maybe that’s the Big Payoff we dream about. But not even Bryce himself can go back to that. Right now he’s trying like mad to roll onto his tummy and crawl. Once he does, there’ll be no looking back.
Me, I keep coming back to the idea of “having a practice.” A practice is lifelong. A practice promises no nirvana. The whole point of a practice is that we discover meaning (and define ourselves) in the act of struggle and the expression of aspiration.
It will help us, I believe, to let go of the dream of a Big Payoff.
We’re humans. We can’t go back to the Garden. Like Bryce, all we can do is keep crawling forward, paying attention as we go.