I read this book a few weeks ago called THE DINOSAUR ARTIST by Paige Williams. It’s part of my paleontology kick because I want to know more about the science and its practice.
In exploring the world of black market fossils, Williams uncovers an even more fascinating cautionary tale in the life of Erik Prokopi, swimmer-turned-fossil hunter, and how his world got turned on its head.
First, a point that needs to be made: success costs. Sometimes it costs money, or time, or your pride. It can also cost you relationships if you’re not careful.
In Erik’s case, it cost him his entire net worth and then some, a few years of his freedom, and his marriage.
Williams lays out the story quite fairly, and I should be quick to say that her portrait of Prokopi is not that of a bad guy in general. Rather I think he fell for one of the oldest errors in history, where he put himself just a little too close to temptation.
I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the point I want to emphasize ties in heavily with the philosophies taught in that faith. One of the things that the prophets have taught us continually since the Restoration is that we ought to avoid debt.
There is a such thing as a wise use of debt, and doing so to create wealth can be a great tool for blessing our lives and the lives of others. Prokopi was pretty wise with his capital early on in his career as a treasure hunter, digging up Native relics in the swamps of Florida.
But as time went on and he started to find old fossils, he realized there was a market for them, and he started to make more and more money off his recoveries. He went from success to success and started putting together dinosaur skeletons shipped to the States from all over the world.
Now, while there were laws on the books about removing natural history relics from other countries and taking them to America, Williams notes that these laws were scoffed at, ignored, and not enforced, to the point where a robust black market had surfaced and anyone could buy dinosaur bones from anywhere. (Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicholas Cage were two such buyers.)
But between a change in some laws in the US, and the drive of a Mongolian national to protect her country’s natural history, a case was built against Prokopi right when he was at a peak level of vulnerability.
He had acquired too many assets, taken on too much debt, reached just a little too far. His wife was also taking on a lot of debt for a house-flipping business that she ran. While they were successful, they also had a high overhead, and the financial crash of 2008 came down on them hard.
When the market dies and you have $11,000 per month in liabilities, you tend to show hampered judgment.
Fortunately Prokopi had a big job land in his lap. Unfortunately, he was about to get arrested by the Law and charged with all manner of crimes that now had teeth to them.
That’s not the worst part of it though: that came when it surfaced that Prokopi had been having an affair with one of his assistants, a woman who’d been helping with the assembly of an illegal dinosaur skeleton.
His marriage ended, his business was ruined, his finances were destroyed, and he served time in a low-security prison for a few years as part of his sentence.
It was a tragic end, not just to a really fascinating career, but really to what sounded like a beautiful marriage and family. It had to be hard to go through it, then re-live it all for a writer who wanted to put it in a book for the whole world to see.
There is, I think, a positive takeaway for the rest of us though:
How do you define success? What will it take to achieve that? Are you willing to pay that?
These are personal questions and the answers will most likely be personal too.
For my money, I’m not willing to do anything to hurt my wife or kids, no matter how badly I want to be a professional artist and full-time writer. Or even how badly I want to be financially affluent. Or physically dominant. Or whatever.
If I fail my family, nothing else will matter.
I’ve learned this repeatedly as I’ve read bios about great men, men whose accomplishments will be remembered for years and decades to come.
Johnny Unitas, legendary Colts quarterback. He won four rings back when “playing defense” and “assaults & battery” were the same thing. He also cheated on his first wife with a woman who his kids hated, and would go on to marry her. His son’s book THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM was heartbreaking in that regard.
Charles Schulz, one of the greatest American cartoonists of all time, creator of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang. Cheated on his wife after a quarter of a century, paid for his daughter to get an abortion in Japan, and had to sell his home and start over somewhere else. His kids found out about the divorce on the radio. Just tragic.
Alexander Hamilton was another one. Dude might have been President of the US someday, but he cheated on his wife and compromised himself politically, which was disappointing enough but still didn’t approach the level of failure in the home.
All of these men are remembered, and they accomplished great things in their lifetime.
I can’t imagine that being good enough to replace an unfaithful spouse or an absent parent. Not when you’re the one in that marriage, you’re the one in that family, trying to make sense of the hole that is suddenly there.
It can also cost too much.
So be careful of the actual cost. Read the fine print. Use your debt wisely, tactically. No matter the currency, don’t overpay.
Some things, like your family, are not worth paying.