It’s ingrained in the national psyche that all you need to achieve the American Dream is to “work hard.” But there are far more people willing to work hard than people acknowledge. There are plenty of day laborers and people toiling away at minimum- or low-wage jobs who will never get ahead. Hard workers are not hard to come by, but hard work is not enough and has never been enough. Truth is, America has never cared that much about hard work. Why do we keep perpetuating this myth?
Why We Don’t Care About Hard Work
America is a nation that loves effortlessness, or at least its appearance. Do you know how many hipsters we have? Haven’t we popularized athleisure? Didn’t we give the world the Kardashians? These icons of our culture (they’re iconic in that they’re well-known) do not signify hard work. In fact, we detest people who look like they’re trying too hard. America prefers overnight effortless successes. America loves the idea of being thin without starving or craving. America hates the idea that it takes a lot of work to be at the top of one’s game.
So if hard work doesn’t get us ahead, what does? In Great at Work, Morten Hansen tells an anecdote about when he noticed that, though he killed himself working grueling hours, he still wasn’t getting the results of his colleague who worked far fewer hours. She was far less stressed and got better results. Do you think their employer thought he was better for working hard? Nope!
No one prefers the guy who works hard over the girl who works efficiently and gives better results. You may say, she worked hard to be so efficient- but the author admits that he has always put 100% effort into everything he does. He has always worked hard, but hasn’t really worked smart.
The point of the book is that you have to focus your hard work on the important, specific small things in order to succeed. Too often, people focus on tons of unnecessary things (like hard work). They work hard, but they never get ahead.
How My Parents Got Ahead
My parents came to this country with very little and are very comfortable now. My parents didn’t work that hard. And by that, I mean to say, they weren’t toiling in the fields, doing back-breaking labor. They weren’t working crazy hours hustling. They worked hard on a few finite items that I believe led to their ultimate success.
1. My Parents Made Safe Bets.
According to Thinking in Bets, we can’t know for sure what the best decisions are because we have imperfect and incomplete information. The best we can do in life is to make decisions that have a high probability of success.
My dad became an accountant and my mother studied math. These were and still are in-demand fields of study. I don’t know too many hardworking unemployed accountants or mathematicians (some but not a lot).
My dad told me that he used to do accounting for starving artists. They would sell their guitar in order to make rent and when they came into money, they would buy it back. He warned me about this. I mean, I’m certainly not so artistic that I would have pursued a career in the arts. But Asian Americans always want their kids to be able to support themselves. There’s always a push towards “safe jobs.” They want their kids to struggle less than they did. They do this by ensuring that their kids know a trade that is marketable.
In addition to learning a pliable trade, my parents learned other useful skills – like English.
Once, I met this woman in China who told me that she traveled there for months at a time every year for 10 years. Then she turns around to the DVD vendor and says in loud English “FIVE!” and spreads her hand open to indicate the same. This woman, who had spent months and months living in China, didn’t even know the Chinese word for “five.”
Meanwhile, when I was cleaning out my parents’ basement, I stumbled upon my dad’s old English textbook. It’s pretty cute. In the margins, he writes (in his beautiful handwriting) “Study!”
English is my parents’ third and fourth language. My parents made a concerted effort to learn English, which is the main reason my siblings’ and my Chinese is mediocre. They were constantly practicing and, though their grammar isn’t perfect, their English is far better than the vast majority of immigrants their age. I even remember my dad’s first pun (“I find hostels to be quite hostile.”).
I know people will say people don’t need to learn English. I mean, you don’t. But it’s going to be difficult for you in America, just like not knowing Chinese in China is difficult. Granted, if you’re reading this in an English-speaking country, you probably already know the language. But there are other skills you can learn that will be helpful and make you more marketable in your career. If you don’t have a marketable skill (like accounting) and you don’t know the language, employers are more likely to take advantage of you and you won’t know how to get a better job. You don’t necessarily have to use your survival skills, but you’ll be glad to have them if you’re in a pinch.
2. My parents lived within their means.
Well, obviously my parents had to be thrifty. They’re immigrants. My parents drove their cars to the ground and kept the same furniture for decades. We rarely got gifts (you have everything you need! my mom said) and we drove all up and down the east coast for vacations. Not spending all their money helped them to build wealth.
When I’ve talked about “safe bets” above, there’s no such thing as complete safety. Part of making the “safe” bet on engineering, is giving yourself room in case your plan fails. A lot of people get in trouble by making big bets that they didn’t think were risky. Like spending $200,000 on a college education. Buying a $1M house. People think, oh education and housing are solid investments. But even with high-paying jobs, these are risky bets. You could still end up hating your engineering job, and then having to work at it for years to pay for your outlandish college bill.
My parents went to state schools and my siblings and I also went to state schools. Living within our means for education and housing expenses has given us more flexibility in pursuing our careers.
3. My parents were entitled.
I don’t mean this to mean that my parents thought things would be handed to them, but that they understood their own value and demanded nothing less. They hustled. And in my mind, they had a certain middle-class mindset.
My circle of friends includes a few people who grew up in the lower class. These people are generally better at everything than I was/am – there’s a reason they were able to climb social ranks after all. They’re super smart, with amazing willpower, talented, charismatic, good-looking. They basically rose through the ranks based on merit and not tricks. So I’ve noticed that there’s still some tell-tale signs that they didn’t grow up middle-class.
For my ex, B, he always assumed that you get what you are offered. You can’t ask for help or if you do, people won’t give it to you. (Studies show that people who grow up in lower income areas trust people less than people who grew up in more affluent ones). He had seen his mom make do with a lemon of a car, because that’s the only kind of car they would offer to someone with bad credit. They lived in whatever apartment that could fit their rent. Because this is what he saw, he learned to take what he was given and he didn’t ask for more.
My parents, on the other hand, would never settle for less. They taught me to call up the bank to get my fees waived. They always checked for and contested incorrect charges. They haggled. I remember a childhood of scolding them for being too aggressive. (“Guys, this isn’t China. Stop yelling.”) I’m a little more genteel than my parents, but the entitlement is straight up from watching their example.
I remember I was traveling with B, and we were running very late at LAX. The check-in kiosk wasn’t working so we were waiting in a very long line to see an agent to get our boarding passes. The minutes were ticking by, and B had resigned himself to missing the flight. But not me.
A new attendant appeared behind the customer service desk, but she was clearly working on something besides assisting customers. I bypassed the line under the velvet ropes and presented my tickets to her, saying we couldn’t check in at the kiosks. She quickly resolved the issue and we ran up the escalators to the long security line. I heard our names called on the intercom for last boarding call. I then asked every single person in front of me if they would let us cut in line or we would miss our flight. They all said yes. Then we ran through the terminal and caught our flight just before it left (gate attendants love telling you how close you are to missing a flight). Following my example, on our flight, B asked the man sitting next to him if he would switch seats with me so we could sit together. He never would have thought to do that before. For B, he would have just sucked the missed flight or the mismatched seats as fate and paid for another ticket, and whatever other costs were associated with that, and sat separately. I assume people are willing to help, and that’s something I learned from my parents.
I think how I act is very normal for a middle-class person. Lower-class people never expect anything good and upper-class people may have never felt the need to haggle. But the middle-class, we are all about that hustle. Hustling saves money but it also gives you a certain bit of confidence. I don’t believe in “The Secret” but I do believe that optimism can lead to good results. If you believe something good might happen, you’re more likely to try new things, which is more likely to get you somewhere good than sitting on your butt. That optimism is very middle-class, very American.
4. My parents chased the jobs.
My parents were unafraid of switching jobs when it suited their needs. My mother actually moved to Virginia by herself when I was 9 to follow a new job. She rented a room and visited us on the weekends, while my dad took care of us in New Jersey. (It was around this time that I learned my dad was actually a very good cook; he just didn’t care enough about cooking to make anything besides spaghetti for us. But one time he whips out a shrimp with lobster sauce and I thought, who are you?? Why have you been feeding us vienna sausages all these years!).
My parents uprooted their kids from New Jersey to Virginia because of their jobs. Now I know some parents would judge them harshly for this. They should have thought of their children! For me, I think it was rough changing schools but it was ultimately one of the best things that happened to me. The kids from my small hometown in New Jersey would hang out at the local grocery store parking lot for fun. Virginia, on the other hand, has some of the best public schools in the country. Instead of parking lot friends, my peers are teachers, doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Further, the DC metro area is prosperous and well-educated and my entire family lives in the area to this day. I think it would be pretty unlikely that we would all be within a half hour drive of each other in our little town in New Jersey. I’m just going to say here that sometimes you have to move to get a better job and kids are pretty resilient.
5. My parents were equals.
I note something else significant about our move to Virginia: I don’t know too many couples where a man has followed a woman for HER job. I don’t know too many couples where a man takes care of three kids and the house by himself while his wife is away without complaining. I don’t know too many couples where the wife will move away from her kids to pursue her career. (And by the way, my dad has always made slightly more than my mother, so it wasn’t an obvious economic choice).
Personally, I think this was pretty badass all around. When I look at my parents’ careers, my dad always took the route that would make it easier for my mom to stay at her job. We moved houses so she could be closer to work, even though it made his commute longer. My parents were long-distance for a year and we ultimately moved to Virginia because of my mom’s job. My dad has never ever mentioned this; it’s just something I’ve noted from looking back. I don’t think he thinks it’s notable.
It occurred to me later in life that a lot of men will block their wives from advancing in their careers and, those who don’t actively impede are still unlikely to do much to support their wives, particularly when such support is to their own detriment, and if the wife is not earning as much.
I realize it sounds like a small thing – my dad was not a complete obstacle to my mother’s career. But I have seen the reverse pretty frequently, even in subtle ways. My very favorite political story, and this is a category without a lot of contenders, is a weird and controversial one. It’s Ted Cruz buying 100 cans of soup. It didn’t resonate with most people because they don’t live in the same bubble as I do. I know so many hetero couples where, even though the woman is poised for an excellent career, the man still expects her to have domestic duties. This story was that rare opposite – it was Cruz making a gesture that he expected his wife to pursue her own career and that he was perfectly happy to take care of himself. (Also, I’m impressed with how spare his life is. PF blogger in the making right there!).
My mom is an all-around superhuman. I mean, she moved out by herself for a new job in her 40s and commuted between Virginia and New Jersey for a year. Before and after that, she worked full-time and cooked us dinner every night, which we ate sometimes as late as 9pm. But my dad played a significant role in helping my mom’s career, something I think is notable and rare. Having two income earners really helped their financial stability.
My parents’ route is not the only way to success. Obviously a lot of immigrants start businesses. They take riskier routes. This is just my parents’ story. Of course there’s a fair amount of luck involved. My parents are still married. None of their kids had health problems. They didn’t get sick. They weren’t unemployed for long stints.
But the point I’m trying to make is, it’s not all about hard work. I mean, my parents worked, but they focused on the right skills, rather than focusing on working round the clock. People in America don’t really get ahead by working hard at their jobs (but they do need to work at least hard enough not to get fired before finding a new job). Do I feel bad that other people work harder than me and get paid less? No, it makes me feel good because it means none of us have to kill ourselves to get ahead. You need results, not exhaustion.
I say I don’t read the news, but that’s actually not true. My homepage is an RSS feed on Yahoo! and I pay for subscriptions to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. When I say, I don’t read the news, I mean: I don’t follow what’s going on with Trump, I don’t watch TV news, and I try to read GOOD and inspiring news stories. The media generally does a good job of distorting our realities by showcasing the worst of humanity, but I like to distort my own reality by zeroing in on the best. So every now and again, I’d like to share some of the best stories I’ve seen on the web. The theme of this roundup is: makeup!
The Joys of Makeup
It seems like personal finance gospel that makeup is a waste of money and possibly anti-woman. Generally, I think the point of personal finance is never to denigrate another person’s choices so long as others aren’t hurt, the choices are conscious and the choices don’t interfere with ultimate money goals.
I unabashedly love makeup. It’s well-known that color can change your mood. An easy way to cheer up is to see red, like the red in a lipstick. As an artistic person, I’ve always been interested in paint, and makeup is an extension of that. It’s about drawing the light to certain areas and creating shadows elsewhere. Its contemplating symmetry, the Golden ratio and our preconceived notion beauty. It’s about optimism: a belief in change and the ability to change how others perceive us, becoming a new person with a swipe of color. And most of all, it’s just fun.
Wear makeup- don’t wear makeup. I don’t care. But I’m a champion of makeup and I’d like to highlight some stories of makeup changing the world for the better:
The first story comes from Rob Bell’s, book Sex God (it’s about the connection between sexuality and spirituality so it’s ironically, the least raunchy book you’re apt to read this year). I know I said this was about makeup but the first part is very sad, so power through and keep reading. [WARNING: the following is a graphic description of a Holocaust concentration camp]:
In 1945, a group of British soldiers liberated a German concentration camp called Bergen-Belsen. One of them, Lieutenant Colonel Mercin Willet Gonin, DSO wrote in his diary about what they encountered:
I can give no adequate description of the Horror Camp in which my men and myself were to spend the next month of our lives. It was just a barren wilderness, as bare as a chicken run. Corpses lay everywhere, some in huge piles, sometimes they lay singly or in pairs where they had fallen. It took a little time to get used to seeing men, women and children collapse as you walked by them . . .
One knew that five hundred a day were dying and that five hundred a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect. It was, however, not easy to watch a child choking to death from diphtheria when you knew a tracheotomy and nursing would save it. One saw women drowning in their own vomit because they were too weak to turn over, men eating worms as they clutched a half loaf of bread purely because they had to eat worms to live and now could scarcely tell the difference.
Piles of corpses, naked and obscene, with a woman too weak to stand propping herself against them as she cooked the food we had given her over an open fire; men and women crouching down just anywhere in the open relieving themselves. .. [a] dysentery tank in which the remains of a child floated.
Bell uses this description to show the inhumane conditions that were thrust upon the concentration camp victims. This was after the Nazis had left after all, so they weren’t still terrorizing these people. Yet the conditions remained un-human. It wasn’t that the actions the people performed themselves were un-human. There was nothing wrong with relieving yourself anywhere, eating worms, or piling up corpses – because those were necessities of their circumstances.
If you were going to pinpoint the exact part that was un-human, it was the lack of care. They couldn’t care about anything because they were so starved – not just of food, but of respect, esteem and individuality. People will cry “don’t care what other people think” but humans are social animals. And when you really stop caring what anyone else thinks of you, perhaps because people treated you like you were nothing to care about, you lose yourself.
It’s like Karamo Brown says on Queer Eye: “You try to act like you don’t care about how your house looks, how you look or the fact that people are no longer in your life. And I’m not buying it.” It’s human to care. When we don’t care about what others think, about how we are perceived, about taking care of ourselves, something wrong has happened.
Later in the diary, another anecdote:
It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick.
I wish so much that I could discover who did it. It was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance.
I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the postmortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At least someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.
How to Break Up with Your Phone in 7 Days. (I am trying this. It’s been such a wonderful calm added to my life to leave my phone at home!)
Sober September. I don’t know why “quit drinking” isn’t at the top of more frugal tips. Alcohol is not good for you and it’s quite expensive. After dating an alcoholic, I’m much more aware of how difficult it can be to stay sober in a Happy Hour-friendly town. So on top of all the above positives, you’re creating a better environment for people who can’t or shouldn’t drink.
I talked with Stephanie, an expat living in Brazil, about dating while pursuing financial independence. This interview is part of a series about dating and money. Read the previous installment here. [This conversation has been edited for clarity.]
1. Tell us where you learned about money.
I learned from my parents more what not to do with money than what to do with money. My mom was an accountant but had her own business. My dad also owned his own business and I saw a lot of the struggles there. There’s so much variability in entrepreneurship. If your company doesn’t do well, it can be a strain, not having steady projects. It’s influenced me not to be an entrepreneur.
I was 1 of 4 children. My sister had a project, how much can a family live off of per meal. My family came up with $1 per person per meal. She went to a private school and her teacher said that’s not possible. And we said, yeah we’ve been doing that all the time. Because I couldn’t ask my mom and dad for money, I learned that I didn’t truly need extra things.
2. Tell us about becoming an expat and your FI journey.
I’ve always wanted to live overseas. I studied abroad in college in Sweden but it was only for 4 months so it didn’t satisfy my wanderlust. I did a 2-year rotational program with my company. At the end of it, I ended up finding a department in my company hiring quality engineers to live and work abroad.
I had an offer to move to Siberia Russia to do almost the exact same job that I currently do. Even though I want to work overseas, the location wasn’t going to work for me. But the offer of Brazil came in after someone else backed out. My initial contract was 2 years. I got it extended for 3 years.
Someone had already given me the idea of “live like you’re still in college and save the rest.” Even after I graduated from college, I only lived on 50% of my income. And then I was a little lost; my next financial milestone was retirement when I was 65.
My roommate told me about Mr. Money Moustache and I read the entire blog. Financial independence means I’ll have enough life savings that I don’t have to work if I don’t have to. I plan to be financially independent when I’m 32.
Being an expat for my company means, I get my normal salary plus several perks like my car and rent paid for. Being in Brazil means I get one meal daily paid for. My biggest expenses are travel, groceries, gas, and shopping. Being an expat allows me to save a lot of money.
3. Do you have any tips on saving money?
I save somewhere around like 98% of my income. Even before I moved to Brazil I saved 50% of my income.
But it can be difficult to save. There’s still temptation: “Oh I’m making more money. I can go on extravagant trips.” And I won’t tell you I don’t go on extravagant trips. But I know which things don’t matter to me. It’s not like I have X budget to go on a trip but instead I think, how can I do this in a cheap but comfortable way? Let me look for a hotel that looks nice but is of good value. This is what sounds like the coolest experience and here is how I can still save money in the process.
At some point, I would like to motivate people not to bite off more than they can chew at a younger age. I’ve heard horror stories of people getting out of college with $100,000 of debt. It’s important to make smart decisions early since it will impact your future self. Student loan payments can translate to $500/month, which is the same as I was paying for rent after college. That’s like paying double rent for 30 years.
The difference between what my sister makes having gone to an Ivy League college and what I make [going in-state] can be offset with good internships and negotiating your salary.
4. What was the most surprising thing you learned about living as an expat?
The biggest frustration is the feeling that everything you think is normal is not normal and could totally be something different. The first time I drove into São Paulo for the weekend I went to an area of town that seemed a bit rundown by my standards and to park my car, without being able to communicate in Portuguese, I gave someone my cars, they handed me a little slip of paper and I just had to hope that my car would be there when I came back. For the first several months everything you do kind of feels wrong and still after two years I still have situations that feel wrong.
The other thing is, as you start to learn other languages, it’s a learning process and funny when you translate things back into your native language for example I went to the dentist and said Dentista! and walked upstairs. But in America, you wouldn’t walk in and say Dentist! and then just walk to where you needed to go.
5. What was your worst FI dating experience?
I went to an all-you-can-eat soup and pizza place. I picked up the pizza with my hands and people in Brazil don’t touch their food with their hands the look on his face was priceless. I also tried to pay for myself on that one too.
6. Who picks up the check?
Sometimes when I get into situations where I know that I don’t like them, I’m going to offer to pay and do things to show that you’re not interested.
Brazil is a masculine society and it would be expected for a man to pay the bill however I tend to make significantly more than my dates, so I still offer to split the bill.
My ex-boyfriend was on the same financial independence path that I was on. But where I’m at right now I want him to be financially independent. I would love to find someone with the mindset but I’m not holding out for that because I don’t think that’s a possibility here [in Brazil].
7. Best piece of advice for dating and money
You need to give people a chance. Even if they don’t click all of your boxes at the beginning is not a reason to dismiss them. Finding people who have lived abroad gives them something more in common with me. And they’ll hopefully start to understand that people are different. Otherwise it’ll be hard for them to understand about my daily challenges and experiences about living in a foreign culture.
I’m looking for someone that wants a relationship. That doesn’t seem so common. Perhaps because I’m looking on Tinder.
A lot of people have said that financial independence is not achievable on 20-30k. But I’ve always had the mentality that if I’m 32, I will still do something else with my time since I’m not going to sit on a beach for the rest of my life.
Also what’s the harm of me being financially independent? I’ve run into some people who have a very skeptical opinion or disbelief of being able to accomplish financial independence so young. But I try to let go of the negative thoughts and do what’s best for me.
One of the other struggles I’ve really gone through with planning to be financially independent at 32: I have no real constraints with location or money. I don’t have a family or kids. I don’t have anything that’s pulling me into one of the things. It’s leaving me in the middle of figuring what I want to do. I know I’m going to want to do something else with my life. I have a life coach to figure out what I want to do after financial independence.
I’m definitely planning to take some time off and travel but the big unknown is what happens after that. It’s a little exciting when you take out the constraints, but also a challenge. It leaves me able to think about the bigger view of the world and try to do something that leaves the world in a better place than I started.
The internet is a strange and fascinating place. You can get a lot of information here, but not all of it is stuff you should follow. Generally, you should be wary of everyone and anyone because the internet is a crazy unregulated place. Lots of people are just writing content in order to sell you stuff. And some others are just idiots.
You should even be wary of advice from good-hearted intelligent people. Most people are speaking from their own experience and everyone’s experience is their own. The decisions they made were “good decisions” because they worked out – but that doesn’t mean you can or should make the same decisions. As much as personal finance bloggers like to say that the path to riches is simple and straightforward, there’s a fair amount of luck involved.
How I Got Lucky
My high income is directly tied to attending law school. So I could write an article about how everyone and anyone could go to law school to get a high-paying job, right? But I would feel that that was disingenuous. I know enough about my journey to know that the path was not guaranteed.
The timing of my law school graduation was fortuitous. I started law school four years after I graduated from college. If I had graduated law school in 2008-2009, I probably would have been fine for two years, but if I had tried looking for another job after that, I likely would have been stuck due to the recession. If I had graduated in 2010-2011, I would have graduated into an unexpected recession in the legal field, where many graduates were unable to find any legal employment, let alone high-paying jobs. There is some research that shows that the graduates from those years are still lagging behind financially compared to graduates from other years before and after the recession.
Instead, I graduated in 2012, which wasn’t the best of years, but showed vast improvements in job prospects over the 2010-2011 graduates. Furthermore, we all already knew that the job market was difficult and were going in eyes wide open (I started law school in 2009).
Still, I was also lucky to be hired. Interviewing is still a bit of a black box to me. People just like certain people more than others. (Perhaps you could be cynical and say it’s all white men hiring other white men, but I’m not white or a man, so that’s likely not how I got my job.)
There are certainly bad candidates, but we interview dozens of candidates from good schools with good grades and most are perfectly fine. I don’t have a real understanding for why I was picked. And I feel lucky that I was. I know someone who graduated near the top of my class who couldn’t get a job at any law firm and was still meandering years later.
Then there were the people who got fancy jobs but hated them. I know someone who decided to quit even before starting his job. I know more than a few people who rage quit after a few years. They did everything right, but, for these people, the legal field just wasn’t for them. (They could have switched to different legal jobs, but the people I’m thinking of just got out of the legal field altogether). Some people might think that they could have researched more about the legal field before going to law school but working at a law firm as a secretary or paralegal, as many college graduates do before pursuing law school, is not really a good indication of what it’s like to be a lawyer. Like most things, you have to do it, to really know what it’s like. And I was lucky that I was largely happy with my job.
The Trouble With Following Other People’s Paths
Pre-recession, law was seen as a very safe and prestigious job. Post-recession, there have been a lot more horror stories.
The main trouble with any kind of big investment like law school is that you don’t really know how it’s going to turn out. There are all these forces outside your control that will determine whether you view your decision as a good or bad one. If someone graduates into the recession and can’t find a job, then the decision seems like a “bad” one. If the person gets a lucrative job, then it’s a “good” decision.
But each person started the decision with the same information. It’s a poor way to judge the thought process of a decision by its outcome when it was external forces that changed the ending. (For more on this topic, I would highly recommend Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets.) You can make perfectly good decisions that go awry for reasons outside your control. It doesn’t mean the decision is a good or bad one. It just means that luck was involved.
We Don’t Definitively Know What Decisions Led to Any Person’s Success
If you were running an experiment to determine cause and effect, it’d have to have controls and be double blind. Real life is not like that. Most people don’t have an identical twin who was making the same decisions at the same time and chose the opposite path – and then continued to make identical choices keeping that one decision the only variable.
What most people think is, well I became rich. How did I do this? And they retrace their steps. But they aren’t considering what would have happened in the alternate reality if they had pursued other jobs, other careers, other spouses, other lifestyles and how the timing affected how those decisions turned out. And truly, even if they did consider this, they would all be guesses.
We Can’t Even Trace Our Own Decisions to Success
I made a spreadsheet for myself of when I would break even for law school. I assumed I would continue working for the job I had at the time and save the same amount.My break-even point was only a few years ago, even though my salary out of law school was 4x my original salary.
But I had to count the opportunity cost. It was 3 years without working and $200,000 tuition. Also, I was quite a little saver before I went to law school, so I think I would have continued that, which would have been particularly beneficial because I would have been saving while the stock market was low. Of course, I also had to assume that I would have been steadily employed throughout this whole time period.
Was going to law school the right decision financially or career-wise? I don’t think I can even answer that question without much more information and until I’m much further along in life. I don’t know the ending to my own story yet, so I certainly can’t tell you if going to law school will be right for you. For right now, the decision is fine. That could change.
We Don’t Even Know If Someone Is/Was Successful
I recently received a comment that detailed a woman’s tumultuous relationship with her husband. The relationship was absolutely fantastic for 10 years. And then it got tougher. They say that hindsight is 20/20, but that’s not really true. Our hindsight in 10 years may be different than our hindsight in 20.
I’ll see people (usually celebrities) touting relationship advice after only dating someone for a few months. Even if they’ve been married for 30 years, we can’t really judge if someone’s relationship advice is sound. We don’t know if they’ll make it 31 years. People get divorced later than that.
People tout skincare advice when they’re in their 20s. The true test is obviously what happens when they’re in their 40s and beyond. People tout career or financial advice when they’re in their 20s or 30s (hey, I’m included in that list!). I will be the first to admit that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I mean, I try not to give advice. I am just telling you my thoughts. I have no extra wisdom for you. (Sorry.)
So someone might have an immediate success right now, but that doesn’t mean they know what got them there. It doesn’t mean that they’ll stay successful. That doesn’t mean that that success was a good thing (because maybe if they had failed, they could have gone a different way that would have led to even greater success somewhere else). We could look at any number of luminaries who were called failures at one point. Steve Jobs was a failure when he got fired from Apple and Abraham Lincoln was a failure when he lost his first campaign. But we would be wrong to have written them off as failures. The arc of the universe is long.
Be wary of people who are only part of the way along their paths. They don’t know their true ending yet.
Even if We had the Information, We Shouldn’t Judge Decisions by their Outcomes
As much as we all want to say that the difference between the rich and poor is the right decisions, there’s a lot of luck involved. The same decisions that make people rich also can make people destitute.
I went to law school, got a high paying job at a law firm and worked for long enough to break even.
The breakup of a marriage can lead to financial ruin all by itself.
There are likely people who invested in index funds or bought a house in a good area, lost their job or got a health emergency that stretched out longer than expected and had to withdraw money at a loss during a recession.
This is the problem with seeing other people’s outcomes and tracing back to one or two decisions. We don’t know if that person could have done better making another decision. And we can’t know now that making that person’s decisions from 10 years ago would be the right decision for us. We would like to say that the only thing keeping people from riches is making the right choices or hard work, and you definitely need those things, but a lot of decisions that worked for some of us, won’t work for all of us. A lot of people followed good advice and got into a lot of trouble. The path is not as error- and risk-free as we purport it to be.
Why All Financial Advice is Flawed
There was a time when people considered mortgage and student loan debt “good debt” but after the housing bust during the recession and with ballooning and insurmountable student loan debt ever rising, it’s doubtful that people can use that adjective to describe that kind of debt anymore.
I’m not saying you should make bad decisions. Though we don’t know the future, we can still make the best decisions we can given the information at hand, because they still work A LOT of the time. There are certain decisions that we must make, even if we can’t predict perfect outcomes:
Living within your means, to the extent it’s feasible.
Developing skills that will be profitable to you and others.
Surrounding yourself with good influences and a good environment.
Investing in index funds.
But many of the other decisions you may make – whether to choose a STEM major, whether to become a lawyer/doctor/plumber, whether to get married or stay single – those routes worked for some people but might not make sense for you. The best we can do is to carefully consider our options and try to make a decision that – if everything falls apart – we hope we can be happy with.
Today is my birthday. So it is my God-given right to dole out unsolicited wisdom I have gained from being old. 35 Tidbits of Wisdom because I turned 35. You’re welcome.
1. Believing you can improve is the first step to success.
I have a bit of a beginner’s luck problem. I tend to be pretty good at things on my first try. I bowled over a 130 in my first game. I got a flush in my first poker hand. I’ve always aced standardized tests.
This doesn’t seem like a problem, but in performing well without trying, I was less equipped to overcome obstacles when they inevitably came. I assumed I would just continue on easily until my ability ended. I chalked difficulty as a sign that I shouldn’t continue – that I had reached my peak and it was all downhill from there.
After reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, I was extremely sad to think of the things I had quit when I had encountered difficulty – hobbies, relationships, dreams. Now I’m more likely to pick up hobbies where I might have to face obstacles. I don’t want to quit when I’m behind – I want to either never quit or quit after I know I’ve given it my all.
2. Do a little bit every day.
Now that I know I need to improve, I try to work on all the things I would like to improve on a little bit everyday. As part of my belief in beginner’s luck, I also had a certain degree of perfectionism. I didn’t believe in working through obstacles (because you should just work perfectly and never encounter obstacles) and I only believed in practicing in bursts (probably because one shouldn’t try too hard and needing to work everyday means you probably aren’t meant to do it). But I’ve found that working a little bit everyday builds a habit, and provides better long term results.
So instead of thinking about perfect practice, my only goal for every day is to get a little bit better or to try at all. If you practice a little bit everyday, you can’t help but get much better over time, even better than if you had practiced for long stretches inconsistently.
3. Believing in your dreams is important.
This is the part of The Secret that’s not crap. If you believe in something, it makes it much more likely to come true.
The people who are successful did not have perfect lives. They are not the most privileged. They are not the luckiest. Every person who succeeds believed they could. Many who fail believe they can’t – and many haven’t even tried. Belief means you’ll try, and you’ll try confidently and longer than you would if you didn’t believe. Belief is not enough for success but it’s necessary.
4. What you think about your life is more important than what actually happens in it.
I read this anecdote about a woman who, before she was shown into her nursing home room, stated that she was going to love it. Her guide asked how she could know she loved it without seeing it. The woman replied that she had already chosen to love the room no matter what it looked like. Happiness was a choice she had made and it wasn’t dependent on the circumstances of her life.
Too often we think that something needs to happen to us before we can be happy. Then when it happens, we wonder why we aren’t automatically happy. But that’s because happiness isn’t something that happens to us – it’s something we choose every second of the day (depression aside).
5. People are more similar than they are different.
I heard a commercial that said that humans are 95% similar and we spend all our time arguing over the last 5%. We forget that this person before us is basically the same as we are.
It’s a weird thing to think when we are living in such a polarized time but I’ve always been amazed at how similar people ultimately are. I think about this every time I watch a movie about family struggles. Or about finding true love. Or even a movie about finding a fulfilling vocation. There is no group of people who doesn’t empathize with these tropes.
I think when we are growing up we have this idea of bad guys and good guys. We think if we put ourselves in another person’s shoes, we would behave differently. It’s freeing to think, in large ways, we are results of our genetics and our environments. We are all reacting to different genetics and different environments and that largely makes us different people. But I think if we had the same genetics and environment, we would all be much more similar. So yes, even though I just said above it’s all about what your attitude about your life is, I still have a lot of empathy for people who got dealt a rough hand. The thing is, if you’re dealt a rough hand, you still have the same responsibility for doing the best with it you can.
We all have the responsibility to get better but we can’t judge too much. We like the music that was popular when we were 13. We are unlikely to like jobs where most of the people are unhappy. We are likely to be happy in jobs where others are happy. If it works for most other people, it will probably work for us. (But see #34). Be wary of when others make a big deal of differences between people; often those differences don’t exist. People are similar.
6. Try to remember you’re important for who you are.
Even as I say we are all similar, each person’s voice is still vital. It can be easy to think that you’re just one in a million and that that makes you replaceable.
Sheryl Sandberg writes in her book Option B: “Adam and his colleague Jane Dutton found that counting our blessings doesn’t boost our confidence or our effort, but counting our contributions can. Adam and Jane believe that this is because gratitude is passive: it makes us feel thankful for what we receive. Contributions are active: they build our confidence by reminding us that we can make a difference.”
You can make a difference. Try to remember instances where you have. You and your contributions are vitally important.
7. Practice being happy/grateful/abundant/at peace right now.
If you can’t be happy right now, you won’t be happy when you make more money, when you lose weight, when you retire.
If you’re not happy now, figure out why. Don’t put off your happiness believing that something else is going to happen.
In some ways, it’s when you’re busiest that it’s the most important to prioritize. People know when they’re a priority. If you wait years for work to die down to see people, they will see that they were not important (this is not necessarily the case if you have a killer week or month). If you wait till retirement, even if everyone is alive that you wanted to see, they will know that they were only important enough when time was plentiful. If you wait till you’re completely safe financially to give, and that’s your first gift to your loved one, it’ll sting a little. You will have to spend a lot more.
It’s not the same to give when you have abundance. People recognize when you are giving out of scarcity and they appreciate it more. You can’t replace the sacrifice later in life when you’re comfortable.
8. This is the secret to happiness: Find a way to love the things you have to do, find time for the things you already love and minimize stuff you hate.
I saw an article that was ostensibly about cutting your expenses. Hate to cook? Well just batch cook once a week. Dude, if you know how to cook, know that you hate it, then do something else.
Life is short; there’s no reason to spend so much time doing things you hate in the name of “improving your life.” Being an adult should be about having the freedom to find the crossroads between joy and growth and health and financial stability and spending quality time with others.
9. Corollary: spend your money to increase doing the stuff that makes you happy. Minimize time and money spent on stuff/experiences that don’t make you happy.
This seems super obvious but no one ever does it. I hear people complain all the time about how unhappy Facebook makes them. Don’t read it, I say. Yeah, I guess I could do that, they say. But then they don’t.
Cut your time and spending on things that don’t make you happy or don’t have a purpose. Find the cheapest simplest things that make you happy. Do those as often as possible. And then, hopefully, you’ve freed up some money to do the more expensive things that make you happy. It’s a process but I find it’s a fulfilling one.
10. Once you have the necessities, take the time to rest.
Once you’ve set up your home, you’re mostly done.
Unless you’re a minimalist who works in a coal mine, you don’t need more clothing. You can get your shoes resoled. You can borrow books and movies from the library. You don’t need new furniture or new decor.
At 10 years, your phone probably won’t work anymore and your car will likely die. You will need a new mattress.
You will run out of food and water and toothpaste eventually. You might pick up some hobbies and some instruments. But enjoy the period when you don’t have to buy anything. Enjoy the period when you don’t have anything more to do. After you work out, rest. After your work day, rest. Don’t always be trying to get to the next thing.
11. The hardest part is being content.
You can get caught on the treadmill easily, see #10. Pick your goal, stick to it, stress less. People think achieving the goal is the hard part, but it gets even more difficult when you find new and greater goals. I’m content with my money? Why? Because I said I would stop worrying when I had saved $X and when I hit $X, I said, previous me thought it was enough and I don’t have enough evidence to say it isn’t enough. So I have no choice but to be content.
And I am.
12. Don’t believe everything you think.
There’s all this negativity running in our brains and a lot of it, you can’t even find the source. So much of what people believe is them repeating negative beliefs that someone said to them when they were a child. I’ve read so many of these: the kid who mocked your clothes or said this or that wasn’t cool or desirable. The girl who told you to laughed at your skinny legs. The boy who made fun of Kylie Jenner’s lips. People start believing these random terrible thoughts and they change their lives because of them. Instead of thinking, this kid’s an idiot, it’s “I have to change my lips!”
These memories are then triggered by other people who had no recollection of these previous memories or how it would affect them. And then we lash out at the triggers. And the relationships get ruined. Be careful what you think.
13. You don’t get bonus points for worrying.
I wish I could tell all women this. Yes, men worry too. But I’ve never known a man to wear his worry with pride. As in, I worry because I care more. I can out-worry you.
If social media makes you feel bad about yourself, eliminate social media. Put a lock on your phone and your computer. Put yourself in places where you will be forced to put them down.
Consider unplugged dinners, camping, or just putting your tech in a different room so you can read or play. There’s a whole world out there.
15. Don’t pick your scabs.
Literally and figuratively. Don’t ruminate on the past just to self-flagellate. Don’t self-flagellate. Don’t dwell in regrets. Don’t dwell on things you can’t change.
16. Discomfort is a great thing.
I saw this article once that said to be uncomfortable everyday and then listed ideas like biking and turning off the a/c. I’m surprised he didn’t add “walk through sketchy neighborhoods.” Ok people die without a/c and when biking when unfamiliar. I mean, small discomfort is something you should do. And it builds resilience. It keeps you from staying on the couch all day. It keeps you changing and learning and growing. Discomfort can be a great thing (see #1).
17. Communication is an art, not a science.
It’s hard to convey the right messages in our words. People say it’s a text problem but it’s an every-medium kind of problem. I love this quote that people use music exists to speak the words we can’t express. Our understanding of communication is much more limited than we realize. People hear someone say one thing, and they think it means one thing. Or they believe it means something completely unrelated to what the person said because it triggers some thought in your head. Try to be graceful to others as they figure out how to learn to communicate effectively. Be graceful to yourself as well. Also, read this book and this article: Oprah’s 3 Questions for Effective Communication.
Gabrielle Union in Health Magazine: “No one who’s ever said anything super negative to me has an amazing life. Once I realized that, it’s different than, like, J.Lo saying, ‘Her squat form wasn’t right.’ Because she would know. But you, in your mom’s basement, really?”
So now, if it’s not J.Lo speaking the word of Truth, then it doesn’t matter.
Just because someone said it, doesn’t mean you have to internalize it, react to it, or even acknowledge it. You don’t have to take everything to heart.
19. Be kinder than you think the situation warrants.
You will never regret giving someone the benefit of the doubt. (Just don’t give them any money.)
I also liked what Whitney Cummings wrote in Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans. Imagine the person as a small child. Imagine the person having a bad day. Always think in your mind “I love you” when speaking to someone to whom you might get angry or be mean to. Even if it’s a stranger. Particularly if it’s a stranger.
20. #19 includes being nicer to yourself.
Try to take the advice you give to your friends. Not because I think you’re a hypocrite, but people tend to be much nicer to their friends than themselves.
21. You can bring good or bad into the world every second of every day.
Every news story you click on is a vote. Every social media post can make or break someone’s day. You change the world every day. You know the butterfly that flaps its wings turns into a tornado, or something like that? Imagine if a person does one thing good or bad and the results it has on the word.
This was the situation for a friend of mine who worked in social media. She tweeted what she believed to be hilarious political burns on her personal account. Some people found it funny. But her company was afraid of the effect it might have on clients. Her boss had warned her multiple times already.
It was at this point that my friend complained to me about this event and how she felt she needed to post freely. But I imagine it’s hard to find a job in social media if you’re fired for impropriety on social media. The lack of income puts a strain on your marriage. You complain about the marriage stress constantly to your friends, who would like to support you but are embarrassed at your lack of responsibility for the whole situation. And you’re thinking, why do you have to post negative stuff? Simply, why?
I think we have grown accustomed to believing that negative stuff is more important than positive stuff. And while it’s important not to believe everything is perfect when it’s not, I think negativity is only useful if it can lead to positivity. If you post about something terrible, it should come with some understanding that we can help. It doesn’t help just to be outraged day in and out. Negativity CAN lead to positivity but it doesn’t necessarily lead to it. We are just making the world a little bit worse with every negative post and negative comment. And with social media, we’re all public figures now (not necessarily in a legal context).
I try to post positive content as much as possible. If it’s a mocking tweet, it’s mocking an idea or teasing a friend. I try to retweet positive stuff as much as possible. Because every tweet is a vote for good news.
There’s a Rumi quote I like that is often misinterpreted:
Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.
It’s not that you give up changing the world and instead focus on changing yourself. It’s that if you change even one little action you make, you’ve already changed the world. They also say environment is more important than willpower. Can you imagine being surrounded by positivity for the day – what that would do for you – what that would do for all people who have to deal with negativity? Be the positivity in the world.
One more point for positivity: see #12 above where I mention that Kylie Jenner got lip augmentation because one boy made one comment. Those lip implants led to Kylie Jenner’s $1B lip makeup fortune, an uptick in lip implants (up 43% since 2000) and very likely increased lip envy for millions of women. If that one butterfly boy had shut his lips maybe more women could be content with theirs.
22. No one cares what you look like or how your life looks.
You’re not Kim Kardashian. (Unless you are. Hi Kim!)
So many of people’s beliefs of what they look like and how they compare are formed from some random kid in elementary school. People will make snap judgments, sure. But that kid doesn’t think about you anymore. Stop thinking about him/her. No one is looking at you and judging you. And if they are, they don’t matter. No one who matters is wasting their time like that.
23. Say your thanks to the people you love.
I heard this on Tim Ferriss too – (ok fine, I’m a Tim Ferriss fan. My ears perk up when I think about him. I’ve had a lot of breakthroughs just listening to him). But he gets on a plane and wonders if he dies whether he would be happy with his life. And I always think about whether I’ve told everyone I loved them enough. Told them everything that has changed about my life because of their influence and guidance and love. Do it. You won’t regret it.
24. Spend time with people who know different and more than you.
It makes me a little weirded out that people spend so much time with people similar to them. And I’m not even talking about their families, which I think is pretty normal. I’m weirded out by Christians who only hang out with Christians (btw I’m Christian and that’s why I’m picking on Christians). I’m weirded out that so many people don’t know any Trump supporters. I’m weirded out by Asians who only want to hang out with other Asians (sorry West-coasters, there just aren’t that many here). Millennials who only hang out with millennials.
I definitely default to an rich well-educated bubble, but I try my best to get out. I volunteer, I date, I travel, I used to meet randos on Craigslist personals. This has greatly expanded my understanding of the world and my empathy.
25. The answer is rarely the atomic bomb.
You have bad bacteria so you use antibiotics. The problem with antibiotics is that they don’t discriminate – they kill the bad along with the good.
The problem with cleansers is that they kill everything. Acne medicine kills the bacteria and dries out your skin.
When you dislike one part of the person, people will throw the whole person out.
When making decisions about people, it always seems like people are very willing to discard people without thinking about where they would go. Oh let’s treat white supremacists like trash. Ok, but humans are social creatures and will find another place to congregate away from you. What then? Oh, felons shouldn’t have jobs. Ok, but what happens if you have an ex-con who doesn’t have money? They’ll commit more crimes. Ok illegal immigrants are sent back to their country but they’re in poverty. Oh that sexual harasser doesn’t work here anymore, he works over at that other company.
So many “solutions” to our problems are thrusting them on weaker populations. It’s out of sight, out of mind. It’s getting rid of the bad, but it also gets rid of the good. There’s no chance to be redeemed. And even if you don’t care about the “bad people,” it’s not an easy solution when you throw everything out. It’s like getting rid of a predator in an ecosystem – it’ll come back to bite everyone.
26. Alcohol, bad foods, and bad habits will kill your looks.
It’s not that youth is more beautiful than age. People are more beautiful when they’re young because their bad habits haven’t caught up with them and most people have bad habits. The young have a reprieve from consequences for a period of time. You can become stronger and more beautiful as you get older. In fact, I believe people are most beautiful after their 20s because you see the compounding of good habits.
27. Look at your body but don’t obsess over how it looks.
It’s very important how your body looks – but not in the way that most people care about. If you’re bruised or your leg is broken, well that matters a whole lot how your body looks. You need to be able to see that to get help. If you are breaking out in a rash or acne, that’s a sign that something is going on with your body. Figure out the cause. That’s the important thing.
Looking at your thermometer is to ascertain the temperature, not to see how beautiful the thermometer is. You look at your body to make sure you’re healthy first, not to assess how beautiful you are. There’s a movement so that people won’t be forced to see their weight at the doctor’s office or won’t be weighed because it makes them feel bad. Get weighed! It’s important to see weight fluctuations for your health. It’s not important because of beauty.
28. Health before wealth.
People pay such lip service to this idea. I liked Tim Ferriss’ quote after he faced Lyme Disease that he would cancel meetings if he really needed the sleep. How many people would give themselves grace to get sleep if they need it? (And I know everyone will say, well I can’t do that because I have to go to work. But how many other things are you sacrificing for your health that have nothing to do with work?)
29. There are no magic beauty potions.
You will get cellulite. Personally, I don’t think it looks bad.
You will get wrinkles. Hopefully where you were once smiling.
You will get sun damage. Well, you should have worn sunblock! But you got your Vitamin D. and Vitamin D is important.
Aging is inevitable. It doesn’t mean you are less beautiful. Don’t spent too much on products that claim to do the impossible. Moisturize and then live your life.
30. Take care of your hands and feet.
I always thought it was weird when magazines would ask celebrities about their favorite beauty products and some would have the gall to list a hand cream. Hand cream! How boring is that?
But my hands do a ton of work and frankly they’re a mess. When your hands are a mess, peeling and cracking, cuticles in disarray, it hurts like a …well it hurts a lot. And your hands age quite early. We talk so much about self-care these days. I wonder if we are just doing the self-care that gets noticed the most – like in our face – and ignore the parts that we think matter less – like our hands. Take care of the things that are less glamorous. That’s how you really know you care about yourself.
31. The secret to social skills is to try.
It’s very hipster to be scowly. It’s very average to be on your phone. It’s very normal to think, oh that person is boring, this conversation is boring, I’m bored. It’s very extraordinary to be interested in someone else and to take the onus of the conversation on yourself. This is basically how all good conversationalists do it – they let the other person talk but lead the conversation somewhere interesting. Good conversation is not about talking a lot; it’s about making the other person feel heard. SeeOprah.
32. Value your privacy.
So I live in DC, which means half the people I know are off social media because of privacy concerns. (Honest, I have more friends than it seems). I have a piece of tape over my camera. Everyone knows everything about everyone these days. It all becomes less special. Privacy is important.
33. It is all holy ground.
As an ENFP, I’m always trying to make connections in my life. What does this mean as a symbol for my life? What is this all leading to?
I loved what Rob Bell said in his tour. He gave a series of hilarious but unrelated stories and just said, this is it. Some would say none of it has meaning but Bell says it all does. Life doesn’t have a coherent theme. But all of this random stuff is the beauty and meaning of life.
34. If it works for you, it works.
In contradiction to #5, I heard this from my doctor and I was astounded. I went to go see her about my one meal a day diet, worried she would chastise me for doing something so stupid. But she noted, I looked and felt fine and my vitals were good so it was probably ok. It didn’t matter what others might say. People are different and what works for the experts might not work for me and vice versa.
This list is an excellent example.
These things work for me. They may not work for you. I love reading tips and tricks from other people, not because I think there are some magic bullet cure-alls. But they are ideas that I can think about and try out. Maybe I’ll find a little improvement there or there. Maybe it won’t work at all. But the beauty of the internet is that we can share all these stupid things that work for us.
I mean Monoi oil was a game changer for me (repels bugs). It might not be for you. But you never know what little trick you have may help someone else. Don’t intrude. But share what you know.
35. Everything is a waste.
Whatever you’re spending your time on, I mean it’s stupid. We are all going to die. You can’t take the time, the achievements, the loved ones. There’s nothing objectively more useful than anything else. The time is going to be spent whether you want to or not. The money will be spent or disappear. It’s all wasted. It will all be forgotten someday. Try to have fun with how you waste time.
All in all, be wary of listening to other people’s advice, including mine. We get to where we are and we have theories about what helped us to get here, but we didn’t conduct double blind controlled studies. We just lived our lives and made our best guesses, sometimes finding cause and effect where there was none. It may be helpful to you but it might not. Take whatever is helpful to you and disregard the rest. I hope there’s something in here that is helpful to you. But as you can see from reading this list, it’s a little bit contradictory.
Ultimately, this is a list that shows what I have learned and how I live my life. It may be completely irrelevant or even immoral to you. But I invite you to make your own list of lessons to show what matters to you. I’d love to read it.
Due to simultaneously having a high salary and spending a middle-class one, by next year, I will have saved an amount that equivalent to what a lot of young FIRE (financially independent and retire early) bloggers have saved per person for retirement. And honestly, I could live at home right now and have basically no expenses so I could retire early already.
It’s just that I have no desire to do so.
It’s not that I love love my job and I’m not saying I’m going to work until I die. But for the time being, working full-time at a challenging job with a steady paycheck is the goal, whether I have enough money to live on a beach for the rest of my days or not. Here’s why.
1. I don’t have wanderlust.
A gorgeous beach with a beer in your hand – could you imagine anything better?
I’ve seen all these FIRE bloggers discuss how they vacation. Hanging out at beaches, cooking at home, cute insular family time. I enjoy going to the beach. For a few hours every year. It won’t bother me to go more often, but I don’t yearn to go more.
I could take the beach life for a few days. This is not how I am used to vacationing. Our family has always been type-A vacationers. We pack many cities and countries into every visit. We take crash courses on the language and the culture. We ask the locals for the best restaurants and try all the specialties. We spend a lot of time in museums.
The problem is, you can only go Type-A vacation for so long. I’m pretty tired at the end of a week in unfamiliar surroundings, eating unfamiliar food, speaking an unfamiliar language.
And you could say, we could do it easier, but I’ve tried that too. I’ve lived abroad for a year. I could see how life as an expat would, but to be honest, all I wanted to do was go home and set roots down in America. I have no desire to knock out more countries off a bucket list or live the life of a traveler. I wanted to get my “real life” started.
2. The lifestyle is not enough for me.
Not only is a short-term beach vacation not that enticing for me in the short-term but I also don’t see it being enticing in the long-term. As Jordan Peterson described this path: “‘I see myself retired, sitting on a tropical beach, drinking margaritas in the sunshine.’ That’s not a plan. That’s a travel poster.”
It reminds me of Penelope Trunk’s advice that what people (particularly stay-at-home moms) want is not to quit their jobs, but to obtain part-time jobs that are meaningful. Unfortunately, those don’t exist. To get the meaning, you often need to put in the hours and the sacrifice.
Many articles about FIRE try to sell both the freedom from constraints/stress and the freedom to pursue passions. Worried about being bored? Well, you can still get a job. The thinking is that if you work at your passion, you won’t have any stress! But it’s not really true that you can get all the benefits and none of the downsides. Not working would greatly reduce your stress but you might lack meaning in your beach-life. Working might give you back some meaning but you would add back some stress.
Of course you can have a stressful job without meaning as well, and that’s the worst scenario. But getting rid of your job doesn’t mean you lose stress and gain meaning either. What’s the solution? Penelope Trunk (who has written a lot on this topic and I recommend all of it) suggests, maybe it’s not the job that makes people unhappy. Maybe people would be happy with the job they had if they were happier with themselves outside of their job.
I guess I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth in this one. You are ultimately the one that gives your job meaning, ergo you can imbue even a part-time job with meaning. But one cannot just assume that getting rid of the job is a stress-free, meaning-filled existence. You are responsible for adding the meaning – and you probably have to start adding meaning while you still have a job and not expect it to materialize the day you quit.
3. I wouldn’t change anything about my life now.
A lot of people talk about how retirement would mean spending more time with family. Well, I am very happy with the amount of time I spend with my family. And friends. And generally how much time I have to vacation.
Because I understood that I would need to work, I had already put the onus on myself to enjoy my work and my life outside of work as much as possible. It’s like how everyone I know says they don’t make New Year’s resolutions because if it’s something that they want to do, they’re starting today, not waiting until the New Year (why are all my friends so self-improvement-y?).
The same thing goes with creating a life you love before you FIRE: if you want to spend more time with your family, figure out what you’re doing that’s keeping you from spending time with them. If you’re working 80+ hour weeks, then yeah, you’re probably not spending time with your family and well, that’s going to take a toll real quick. But most people aren’t working that much. If you are working 40-50 hour weeks, you should still have time to spend with your family. If you’re not doing that, having even more time doesn’t mean instant time with your family.
People think FIRE is a magic bullet for their problems. But just as you don’t instantly get meaning, you don’t instantly stop wasting your time. Winning the lotto doesn’t mean you’ll develop fiscal responsibility. More time doesn’t equal time responsibility. And when you develop time responsibility while you’re working a job, you have less reason to yearn for more time – you’re already doing all the things you want to do even with a job.
4. It’s really not an achievement for me.
I can see people doing FIRE just to impress others. Dude, I’m not even judging. I ran two marathons just to say I ran marathon[S] with an ‘s’. I can be a prestige-whore as much as the next guy. But if you make a good salary and you live a middle class lifestyle, you’re basically par-for-the-course in my social circle. A lot of my friends are high achievers from middle class upbringings. Most people I know live very reasonable lives with high salaries. There’s no “gotcha” that I can rub in anyone’s faces. Pretty sure everyone has basically the same or more savings as me. None of them would be impressed with my savings and I’m pretty sure they’d all think, well you’ll be bored. And they’d be right.
5. It’s too individualistic.
Compared to American culture, Chinese culture emphasizes the community over the individual. You can see this in the art where the subject of a piece isn’t as large as one might see in Western art. You can see this in the language with the extensive use of passive voice. You can see this in many Chinese people’s relations with their family. Compared to American kids, Chinese kids tend to give their parents’ and extended family’s needs and desires a lot more weight in their own personal decisions.
This goes back to it not being an accomplishment for me. After my friends tell me I’d be bored, they’d probably ask, well what about your family? My family is fine. My parents are retired comfortably with a pension. My brother has saved way more money than me, having never been to grad school and having lived at home for quite some time. My sister has 3 kids, and I’ve started 529s for them. Currently, everyone’s self-supported, but I am never looking out just for my own interest.
A life where I cannot contribute to my family’s stability is not a stress-free life for me. A life where I can’t contribute to my charities of choice or my community is an empty one. Sure, I could fund my own lifestyle, but I want to be able to have back-up reserves if my family ends up needing it. I want to be able to support more than just me.
Why I’m Not Fire
I understand there are certain ways to define retirement that still involve working. Athletes retire from the sport due to age, but they’re not expected to rest on their laurels for the next 80 years. People retire from the military and go on to other jobs. These are all reasonable uses of the word “retirement” even if it can be strange to hear an 18-year old speak of “retiring” from gymnastics. Some FIRE bloggers “retire” from a job they hate to a job they love. To me, that’s called “changing jobs.” Will I switch jobs? Undoubtedly. But the term “retirement” in that scenario is meaningless.
I think you can work and earn money in retirement too. But not every single scenario can count as retirement – otherwise we could just call it “being financially independent,” which is basically the same as saving money. And obviously saving money is a good idea. To me, retiring means living a life where you have to rely on your financial independence and your job is not central to your life. You don’t have to want this lifestyle ever, but that’s what I consider to be retirement.
My parents have retired and they spend their days watching their grandkids, doing hobbies, puttering around the house and traveling a bit. They are very happy and stress-free. I think part of the bliss of their retirement is that their kids are taken care of, and they believe they’ve gotten as far in their careers as they desired. They also had a lot of stress at their work and find a lot of meaning in their current lives.
For me, I know the rat race is a little stupid. And I don’t aspire to be CEO of the world or have a super prestigious job. But I do want to see where my career takes me, and to me right now, that seems more fulfilling than lying on a beach.
I have read many off-hand comments by introverts making subtle digs at extroverts like:
“I’m an introvert so it’s hard for me to brag about myself” (extroverts don’t have a monopoly on bragging);
“I’m an introvert so I don’t like making small talk for hours with strangers at loud parties.” (actually, no one likes this);
“I’m an introvert so I lack self-confidence” (those are completely different things).
I think something about introversion and extroversion got lost in translation. It’s great that people are finding out more about themselves and their personality tendencies. It seems that in learning about ourselves, however, we can often incorrectly attribute our own tendencies to all people like us, and assume that the opposite is true of all out-group people.
So an introvert that likes to Netflix and chill may assume that extroverts can’t stand the solitude. (Truth: everyone likes to Netflix and chill). Or an introvert that hates people thinks that all introverts hate people (nope! That’s called misanthropy, not introversion).And so on.
Here, I’d like to clear up some myths that I see all too often.
1. Extroverts vastly outnumber introverts.
Most introverts seem to think they’re in the minority and this creates an us vs them mentality. The truth is that there are no hard statistics. Some researchers estimate that 50-75% of the population are extroverts. Of course, that leaves open the possibility that there are an even or close number of extroverts and introverts (50-50, 60-40). Other research suggests that between one half and two-thirds of the population is ambivert – that is, both introvert and extrovert. So introverts and extroverts BOTH might be in the minority.
And even if most people were extroverts, there’s a wide variety of introverts and extroverts. It’s a spectrum; most people are in the middle of the spectrum. Being a complete extrovert or a complete introvert is rare and honestly, weird. We are all a little bit of both. We are actually much more similar than those personality tests would have you believe.
2. Everything social is easier for extroverts.
People often confuse introversion for shyness, anxiety, or lack of confidence. Likewise, people confuse extroversion with talking too much, fearlessness and arrogance. The actual dichotomy is that introvert and extrovert brains function differently in response to dopamine and acetylcholine. Dopamine rises when we take risks and seek novelty. In contrast, when we read or use our minds, our brains release acetylcholine, which makes us feel relaxed and content
Extroverts lack dopamine and thus need to seek it out via social settings. Extrovert brains also aren’t as sensitive to acetylcholine. Introverts, conversely, have a lot of dopamine already and are sensitive to acetylcholine. This is why introverts tend to avoid crowded places — introverts can quickly become overwhelmed with dopamine. Also, because of their sensitivity to acetylcholine, they will get quite a lot of contentment from quiet activities. Extroverts and introverts are just responding to the chemicals in their brain that give them the most rewards.
Based on this description, it’s clear that extroverts have no natural advantage in social situations – it just explains why they seek it out more. And again, everyone’s reactions to dopamine and acetylcholine are a little different so it may be true that extroverts seek a little more stimulation than introverts but not necessarily much more.
As I discussed with an introvert friend, he sometimes felt exhausted by the idea of getting ready to go out for a social situation, even though he liked being social. I, an extrovert, relished the idea of preparing to go out, even if it was not to go to a social situation. It’s not the social aspect, necessarily, but sometimes I need a little more external excitement than an introvert.
3. Extroverts hate silence and being alone.
The optimal balance of chemicals that differentiate introverts from extroverts is different for each person. I’m an ENFP, which is one of the most introverted types of extroverts, so I need time alone. I live by myself and can read for hours with no music or external noise. I work in a very quiet office without much social interaction. This is not something that all or most extroverts, or even introverts, can handle, but I love it and need it.
I know introverts who need to be in the presence of other people but don’t want to interact with them. They like the din of noise that others bring. It would, however, be very stressful to me never to have absolute quiet for some part of the day. This is all to say that there’s just a wide variety of introversion and extroversion. Somewhere in the middle, there’s quite a bit of mixing – with extroverts appreciating silence and introverts appreciating some fuss. You can’t really assume that one likes or dislikes science based on whether someone is an extrovert or not.
4. Extroverts aren’t shy.
I’m an extrovert and I’m a little shy. Most people are at least a little shy. Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, people are afraid of strangers and of rejection. Most people hate networking and few people have mastered the art of small talk (or like it).
My sister and brother are both introverted but they are not really shy. I could point them to a (nonthreatening) stranger and say, go introduce yourself and they would walk straight up to that person and extend their hand. They don’t need the social stimulation of talking to other people but they have less social anxiety than I do. Personally, I’m not sure how my siblings do it, but I know that shyness and extroversion can exist as easily as boldness and introversion.
5. Extroverts are [negative connotation].
I think it’s great that people are talking about introversion and extroversion and learning about themselves. But I think it can be dangerous to use this introversion/extroversion as a lens to understand everyone and everything .
Maybe you meet someone extroverted who is arrogant and loud. Maybe you meet extroverts that are great at parties. These anecdotes are not indicative of all extroverts. Some extroverts are arrogant and some are modest. Some are loud and some are quiet. Some extroverts have natural charisma, some worked very hard to develop those people skills and some are awkward and weird. The same is true for introverts.
The other side of this coin is that introverts see their own social weaknesses and attribute all introverts as having the same problems. Introverts think that they can’t be good at networking, public speaking or any other “extroverted” endeavors and that couldn’t be further from the truth. These are all skills that need to be learned and practiced.
Why It Matters that When Introverts and Extroverts Don’t Understand Each Other
It wouldn’t necessarily matter that introverts are wrong about extroverts except that often these assumptions cast extroverts in a negative light or fail to empathize the universal problems that all humans have. Introverts and extroverts all suffer a bit in social settings. It’s only natural now, when our society has moved away from tribes where everyone knew each other to live in huge cities far surrounded by strangers. (I actually heard about this when an author is describing why people are awkward.) Meeting people is hard. Putting yourself out there is hard. Being vulnerable is hard. If I’m good at any of these things, it’s because I forced myself to do them often- it didn’t come naturally from being an extrovert.
Your personality type is not your destiny. Nor is your personality type an excuse to keep you from advancing in your career/life. Everyone is still responsible for improving in areas that don’t come naturally to us, whatever they may be.
While it’s great to learn more about what environments are the most conducive for your own thriving, let’s try to be a little empathetic to people who are different to us, without assuming we know all those differences. We can all try to understand that it’s difficult for any stranger to extend their hand to us, so we can be the first to do so.
The first thing I told new guy as we sat down for drinks was that I’m a type-A nutjob. (I like to let my dealbreakers hang out as soon as possible to give the other person the chance to run). A lot of people think being type-A means you’re a jerk, and there’s definitely a correlation. There’s just something about Type-A people that makes them think that they are in a constant battle with time. Because of that, Type-A people are prone to stress and stress-related illnesses. And that can easily translate into being a jerk.
So I have a fair amount of built-in anxiety. Growing up, my piano teacher would always tell me to relax my shoulders. My doctor would tell me to relax my tongue; my dentist told me to unclench my jaw. Basically any part of me that could be tense, was tense all the time unless instructed otherwise. I was also a worried little kid. We spent a lot of time in Chinatown, Manhattan when I was growing up and whenever we would go shopping, my eyes were stuck on my dad’s back pocket, to make sure he didn’t get robbed. This was when I was 6, and it wasn’t that dangerous there – even for pickpockets. Even now, when I enter my apartment by myself, I check all the closets and the bathtub for murderers, just in case.
I only recently learned that this was not normal.
But rather than consign myself to a life of anxiety and fear, unhappiness and stress-related illnesses, I’ve really tried to fight it. I’ve tried to reduce as much stress as possible from my life. Here are some of the tips I’ve used over the years to make my life a little calmer and happier.
[This post contains affiliate links]
1. Waking up with sunlight.
I purposely picked an apartment that got a lot of sunlight and my blinds are always open. I don’t even own curtains (they get dusty anyway) . It makes it much tougher to stay in bed when there’s so much light streaming through. And even during the winter, I use a Light Therapy Lamp so I can wake up to a gradually increasing bright light (simulating the sun) coinciding with 6am. It’s a great way to start the day (and otherwise would be very jarring to wake up in darkness and then expose yourself to the sun). I don’t use an alarm but this habit helps me wake up at exactly the same time every day.
2. Drinking lemon water.
Lemon water just makes my body feel so clean in the morning (ahem, it helps with bowel movements). Plus I get tons of Vitamin C, which is helpful for iron absorption (I have an iron deficiency, like many women). Also, lemon water doesn’t make me hungry the way tea or coffee do so I can drink it throughout the day as a little flavor to my water without making me ravenous and hangry (and that means less sugar and less caffeine – for a calmer me). When I don’t have my lemon water in the morning, my body just feels sluggish.
3. Leaving my phone outside of my bedroom.
This might not work if I have kids who go to sleepaway camp, but while I still don’t have any real responsibilities, the phone is always outside my bedroom. My bedroom is a no screens place. No TV, no phone, no other electronics (except for the light therapy lamp). I wake up in the morning and have to leave my bedroom to check any devices and I can’t fall asleep to the boob tube, which is supposed to make falling and staying asleep easier.
4. Oil pulling, tongue scraping and sugar-free toothpaste.
Now hear me out, this is pretty weird. I use Baking Soda and Coconut Oil on my teeth with a little Peppermint Oil as my toothpaste. I make a batch every few weeks or so. But after using my own unsweetened toothpaste, regular toothpaste tastes like putting sugar on my teeth. And putting sugar on your teeth just makes you crave more sweets. I realize it’s “fake sugar” but even so, I don’t like having my mouth taste like candy in the morning. I have enough of a sweet tooth as it is!
Also, ever since I switched my toothpaste, done oil pulling and tongue scraping, I’ve had zero problems at the dentist, whereas before I would always have cavities. My dentist (and some of my friends) have all noticed my naturally white teeth (the oil pulling makes your teeth whiter). Additionally, it’s nice to start your day with a super clean mouth. (It’s kind of like that saying of washing your mouth out with soap, but this is much less terrible-tasting). When I forget to do these things, I worry about bad breath and just my mouth rotting in general (see, I can worry about anything).
5. Having everything in bulk.
It would be really annoying to run out of toilet paper in the morning. Or contact lens solution. Or any other thing you need to get ready before work. I shop at Costco (I will write another post some other day – why a single person without a car shops at Costco) because I hate running out of things.
I would see these money diaries where people would buy one chicken breast, 6 oz of rice and 1 potato on their shopping trips. What a waste of time! I buy 5 pounds of frozen chicken, 10 pounds of rice and 10 pounds of potatoes. I can skip shopping for weeks without worrying about running out of things. So this saves me a fair amount of time shopping because if I don’t HAVE to go to the store, I won’t. It makes it easier to cook, because I have everything I need, which means I’m healthier and saving money. And it means I don’t have this nagging worry about running out of things.
Some of the things that I buy in such large quantities that I consider them annual purchases – dishwasher detergent, garbage bags, Baking Soda (seriously baking soda is the best in bulk. You can also use it to make an abrasive scrub to basically clean anything you want, as well), swiffer refills, liquid soap, sponges, laundry detergent, Chlorox bleach wipes, and Coconut Oil. Other things I buy in large quantities – rice or grains, meat, frozen veggies, tea.
6. Lifting weights.
I was always terrible with lifting weights, but I know I need to! Now I just have a short routine with simple Adjustable Ankle or Wrist Weights. No excuses, it’s in the routine now. Lifting weights makes me stronger and better able to face the day. It’s also a great stress reliever. I realize I’m never going to look like Madonna by doing a simple routine, but even a little boost of strength is better than nothing. As they say, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
7. Reading a chapter of a book in the morning.
I realize that a lot of people are very anti-Tim Ferriss but I find his latest books – Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors to be fascinating. They’re basically chock-a-block full of little life hacks from the most successful people in the world (perfect if you like reading lists like this). Also, the inspiration for my one-meal-a-day habit and the one-good-breath-a-day habit (below) came from Tools of Titans.
Problem for me is that 1) I own the books and I never read books that I own and 2) both books are incredibly long. But each chapter is only a few pages long. So I’ve decided to tackle each book by reading one chapter a day. Yes, it’ll take me the whole year to finish reading, but I will finally finish reading it. And I get to digest each chapter for the day. It’s like my mini-meditation and it makes me feel good that I’m learning new ideas in the morning, even if only bit by bit.
I would like to say I do this as precaution, but actually the last two massages I had were agony when the masseuses even touched my legs. They were so tight. It is a luxury to get a massage, but you can’t actually pay your way out of pain. You have to put in the work (unless you have a personal Thai massage assistant at your back and call every day). So in order to even appreciate having a massage, I have to get my body in shape to receive one.
I had read somewhere that you have to spend an equal amount of time recovering from your day as preparing for it. I’m not sure that’s true but I know that years of not recovering (not stretching, not breathing, constant stress and anxiety) has left me so tight that I couldn’t even get a massage. So now I’ve become proactive. I realize that getting a massage is like going to the trainer – the pro can only do so much. Most of your advancement is in the homework. Most of what will help you or kill you is your daily lifestyle decisions.
Stretching and foam rolling (I also like using these Therapy Balls) are activities that require repeated practice. It can’t just be “I’ll stretch today for 2 hours!” and then never stretch again. You have to give your body some time to rest in between and after, so that your body will be able to go further into the stretch. I like this book for its foam roller beginner plan. After mandating a little foam roller time, my hips aren’t constantly in pain! Small (but significant) gains.
9. Streamlining my clothing selection.
I like everything in my closet. Full stop. I can pick anything off the line and wear it and I wouldn’t hate my day.
My main closet is only for work clothes – casual clothes or workout clothes go in the dresser or in the other closet. So I face all my work clothes every day, with no other clothes in the way. They are organized by color.
In addition, I’ve divided my closet in half with a blue ribbon separating the middle. I only pick stuff to wear from one side of the closet. Once I wear something I move it to the other side of the closet. I continue until everything is on the other side of the closet. Then I just start over on the other side. Most of these items are dresses so I just pick a dress and go. If something is ripped or dirty, it goes in a separate area but everything in the closet is ready to go. As the system proceeds, my decisions get fewer and fewer. Decision fatigue is debilitating for me. This way, with fewer decisions, even if I become indecisive, I can just pick the next thing in line and I’ll be fine with my outfit.
It’s not the same as being a minimalist and only having 10 items of clothing, but it does streamline my decision making. Everything I do with regard to my work clothing is about reducing decisions. I said above I buy things in bulk, but that’s for things that are exhaustible. For things that don’t run out, and that you can only use one of at a time, I have minimalist-ed to one. I have ONE pair of work shoes. I have ONE work purse. ONE blazer. ONE pair of flat sandals that I use for commuting. ONE watch. No decisions required because there’s no selection. And that’s fine by me.
10. Avoiding certain stressful things.
My morning routine is as notable for what it doesn’t have as what it does. Of course I check my phone in the morning – I’m human.
But I stopped listening to the news. You learn over time that it’s not helpful and it’s not important.
I don’t drink coffee – coffee doesn’t work for me. I get jittery and then sleepy.
I don’t eat breakfast. Eating breakfast makes me so hungry. (But if I do eat something in the morning, I avoid sugar and try to eat protein).
Basically, I try to start the day with silence and peace as a stark contrast from what will soon happen at my job.
11. Getting rid of something everyday.
Whenever something gets in my way of finding something, and I can’t figure out why I would have this item anyway, I’ll just toss it. Also, if I hate something, I’ll throw it away. It seems like a small thing but I know I’ve gotten rid of a lot of little obstacles in my apartment every day because of this. I’m not very organized and I hate taking care of objects so I’ve learned to shop less. Not shopping means less stuff to take care of, organize, and then ultimately throw away because I can never figure out how to keep track of it all. Ultimately, for me, less stuff means less stress. And getting rid of stuff I hate is also less stress.
Also, don’t have a junk drawer. Just get rid of the junk. You’ll thank yourself.
12. Spending 30 minutes out in the sun/exercising.
I bike to work and try to bike home. It’s often the only exercise I get through the day. It is also meditative (I usually think of blog posts on my bike ride). If I bike to and from work, it’s an entire hour out in the fresh air.
I also bike everywhere to save a few minutes on places that are really close by but would be annoying to walk to (there’s that Type-A resurfacing). It’s really hard to stay stressed when you’re on a bike in the sunshine for half an hour. Nearly everyone is Vitamin D-deprived, and getting more sun is a great pick-me-up.
During the Day
13. Having all sorts of pick me ups in the office.
I always have red lipstick because seeing red puts you in a better mood. I have my favorite perfumes in my office because, the same thing with smelling something beautiful. I have lotion for my face so it doesn’t get too dry. I have dry shampoo and hair oil so my hair will look ok. I have hand sanitizer because, well, that’s just good sense.
I have things in my office that make me happy. I spend a lot of time there so it just makes good sense to have a way of picking myself up and feeling good about myself throughout the day.
14. Only exposing myself to good media.
My ex and I used to keep a blog. We have very strange religious and political views so we saw each other as refuges for discussing things. We would link articles that we wanted to discuss and then we would discuss them. We would always link at least three articles per blog post. So when I read stuff online, I would look at the articles very critically. I would wonder if it was good enough for the blog.
And it became clear which blogs were more fruitful for discussion, which ones produced articles worth discussing. I started to wonder why I would I want to read anything that had very little chance of being something I would want to talk about, to remember, to discuss. Why am I reading things when it’s clear that I won’t want to remember even tomorrow what Kylie Jenner is wearing, for example. If it’s not important to my future, it’s not important to my present.
Even now, though I don’t have that blog anymore, I do write down important things I’ve learned in a journal. And it’s a reminder that I want to fill my mind with stuff that I want to remember. I don’t want to fill my mind with stuff I immediately want to forget.
15. Spending quality time away from my phone.
I was late to the smart phone game (I got my first smart phone in 2013) but I’ve finally started to get a phone addiction. Trying to circumvent this, I’ve stopped ALL app notifications. I also have an app to block me from using my phone – I usually block myself for an hour – it’s brutal. But it brings me a little bit of peace and productivity.
16. Taking one good breath.
People often hate it when you tell them to breathe in a stressful situation. For me, though, it’s helpful because I often hold my breath even during generally unstressful events. So normal breathing is something I still need to work on.
Deep breathing is the ultimate goal. I’ve heard that not only do you need to take a deep breath that fills your lungs, but when you exhale, you’re supposed to really squeeze your lungs to get all the air out. In any event, focusing on even one good breath is way better than the very shallow panic breathing I use throughout the day. It also oddly makes me feel accomplished – like hey, not all my breaths sucked today!
17. Keeping a drawer of chocolate at work.
This is just good sense. This one is my favorite. It’s not an affiliate link. Chocolate just makes me happy. And sometimes you want something sweet. And if you buy any kind of baked good around my office, it’ll run you at least $3. Having a little piece of chocolate satisfies the urge and gives me a moment of edible happiness.
18. Trying to get through all emails.
I try to touch everything only once in my inbox. And if I can’t respond immediately something I’m trying to do is take notes on why I don’t respond to any email immediately. But having too many emails stresses me out. It’s very calming to me to have a clean inbox.
I know it sounds really stupid but honestly figuring out what to eat was stressing me out. This was the real impetus for me eating one meal a day. Just having lemon water for breakfast and a snack for lunch has alleviated a lot of decisions I have to make. (And yes, even choosing what to order in a restaurant was giving me decision fatigue. Honestly eating out gives me more decision fatigue than cooking because there are so many choices. If you cook at home, you can really only cook the items you have, meaning fewer decisions).
With fewer meals, I could focus my decisions on making one awesome meal at home. Cooking at home means that I have healthier meals that remind me my childhood – which was a very pleasant healthy childhood that I’m ok being reminded of. On nights when I’m at home, I always cook. I never order takeout, which has always seemed like such a hassle, and delivery takes too long. Plus, because I buy in bulk, there’s always food to cook.
I tend to drink soup with my meal. I guess the kids call it bone broth. Chinese people are big on soup. I like the ritual of it myself, though I also stew a lot of chicken feet for their collagen. It’s a relaxing way to end the day. For dinner, I rely on simple strategies to always have a good meal.
20. Bringing a book everywhere.
For a type-A nutjob like me, waiting in lines can induce so much anger. Having a book is a way to self-medicate. I always have at least 8 books checked out from the library at any given time, because the book I may want to read today may be different than what I wanted to read yesterday. And as a practical matter, only certain books are small enough to lug around.
If I forget my book, I have devised other ways to entertain myself. I try to practice seeing without my glasses (ok I’m extremely nearsighted, so this is actually very difficult for me). I focus on breathing. I try to work through problems. Basically, I focus on ways not to think about how angry I am becoming while standing in line.
21. Having things to look forward to.
Anticipation is the real joy or the real dread, in my opinion. I generally have a hard time understanding how to feel joy during an event so the anticipation really is the best or worst part. It’s something I need to work on – feeling the moment. But for now, if I have something to look forward to, the time passes sooner and it’s much more pleasant. I try to do something fun at least every week and I keep a running total of these things to remind myself of what fun I had this year.
22. Taking the stairs.
I hate waiting. Taking the stairs is a little bit more exercise and keeps me from waiting. Honestly I do anything to keep myself from waiting. I use self-checkout. Sometimes I’ll put stuff back in the store that I don’t NEED to buy if I’m in a line without a book – so I can just leave the store without waiting in line. Any little movement – anywhere – makes me feel like my fight against time is less dire. I’m moving – I’m getting somewhere. That calms my Type-A tendencies. And if I’m honest, every time there’s a fire drill I’m stunned at how out of shape I am – thus the need to take the stairs more often. It’s like lifting weights – every little bit counts.
23. Having really stupid things in my apartment that make me smile.
My apartment looks like a college student dorm room. I have really junky furniture. It’s probably not befitting a lawyer who makes six figures. But I enter my apartment, I see all the things I love and I think, ahh I’m home.
24. Taking a bath.
I’m type-A so obviously I’m a shower kind of girl. But taking a bath is so soothing – I never regret it.
I add Epsom Salts because most people are low on magnesium and Coconut Oil so my skin is soft. Sometimes I’ll add this seaweed detox bath. The first time I used it, I slept like a dream, but it’s been only ok since then. No screens in the bath. Only a good book, some ice water, maybe an aromatherapy diffuser or candle and myself.
25. Packing my bag for the next day.
Even if it’s just throwing most of the stuff I need to pack in the general direction of my bag, it makes everything a little bit easier in the morning. Because I bike to work, it can get complicated packing for the day – because you have to pack everything for showering at work and your work outfit. This wouldn’t be a big deal if I didn’t bike to work because I’d just use the same purse day in and day out. But with a bike, and then sometimes taking the metro home, it can be a little more work. I don’t want to add stress to my life by biking to work so I try to pack ahead of time.
26. Keeping a list of daily and weekly items to move forward.
I have a list of things I need to do everyday. What? A list within a list? Yep. This list is actually how I started many of these activities. It’s a way for me to remember to make progress toward my goals.
Some of the items on the list don’t necessarily make me happier or less stressed (so not on this list). Actually they often make me MORE stressed but the end goal would make me happier. The idea of finishing a large task and taking steps toward that goal consistently make me happier. And I have to remind myself that no matter what, I don’t want a zero day. Every day is important. I have to make SOME progress every day.
I practice my Chinese and my Cantonese daily (and weekly with a tutor) though it can be difficult and annoying. I work on my Pinterest game (which I’m slowly starting to enjoy). I copy my journal entries into Word. I write these to-dos on a list and they soon become habits. And building those habits makes me happier.
I don’t know if it really works but to me, this feels like a collective sigh that the day is over. And because I always do this before bed, it reminds me to go to sleep, honestly. And it could just be me, but it makes me feel just a little bit skinnier after doing my inversions (ok I made that up but I do feel that way).
28. Writing my lessons for the day.
Every night I evaluate my day and think about the lessons that would have helped me do better. I don’t remember if this is the accurate quote but I think Coco Chanel said, every day I simplify because every day I learn something.
29. Wearing an eye mask.
If I used blackout curtains, I couldn’t wake up with sunlight (see #1). So I wear an eye mask. These Lovely Panda Face Sleep Masks Eye Masks are adorable. For whatever reason, these masks always come off in the night so my eyes are always greeted to sunlight, not to a mask. It’s probably a flaw in the mask, but it works out well for me.
30. Drifting off thinking of something positive.
I still always have nightmares (ugh to be type A) but fantasizing about wonderful things helps me fall asleep quickly. So go ahead and dream about your dream life, rather than worrying about what happened or what’s to come. This is your fun time.
It’s another way of creating a gratitude journal (which I never figured out how to do correctly because to me, it was writing 1. family 2. health 3. finances every day) except that the people I’m thanking actually get to hear the thanks.
2. Taking pictures of beautiful things.
I got the One Second Video app. (this is an example) I saw it in the Jon Favreau movie, Chef, and was so charmed by it. I still have yet to remember to record more than a few videos.
3.Giving up tracking my sleep.
Basically being type-A means you berate yourself for wasting time, even when it’s not a waste. For instance, I found that tracking my sleep meant I would berate myself for sleeping. And I don’t even know what that accomplished. If I’m tired, and because I don’t have a set start time at work, I can sleep in without repercussion. I don’t want to be someone who berates themselves for sleeping 7-8 hours like a healthy person. So I’m not going to track it.
You can see a consistent pattern of reducing disorganization and clutter, reducing decisions (for decision fatigue), typical stress relieving activities and other tiny little habits that are just meant to encourage a positive outlook on life. Those are the kinds of habits that have made my life better. There are obviously bigger things I also do to make a better life (spending time with family, removing toxic friends, reducing bad habits, increasing financial security) but these habits are things that almost anyone can start doing immediately without the need for other people or a lot of money.
New Guy was looking over my shoulder and noticed that the time on my clock displayed the seconds. He said, that’s needless stress. So I got rid of it. I can’t tell if it has made me that much less stressed but if there’s a way to reduce stress, I’m keen on it. I’m always looking for new ideas.
So you’ve decided to change or improve yourself in some way. Congratulations! Taking the first step is the most important and the hardest. In those beginning stages, it can be surprisingly easy to find motivation. You are buoyed by the excitement of starting something new. The gains are immediate and can be impressive.
But after the initial surge of improvement, you might hit a wall. Your end is still far away, but you aren’t improving at quite the same rate. Before, you could keep yourself going with novelty, adrenaline, and a sense of accomplishment. Once that progress slows down, your motivation also slows. They say that a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. You can cruise along for awhile, but when you’re on step 400, now you really know how far you have to go and you’re already tired. And it’s going to take ages! And there are obstacles! And there is boredom!
So how do you keep going when the end is still far and you can’t find incremental improvements to keep you going? How do you stay motivated when progress is slow, nonexistent or backwards? Here are some ways to reframe your journey to focus on the journey ahead.
You Struggle is Preparing You to Handle Success
When we picture success, we often imagine it to be instant and easy. We think failure is the slow trudge and struggle of hard work through the beginner courses. This is where many quit because we think success is going through the bunny slopes, but doing it with fanfare and paparazzi while wearing a mink coat and cashing in millions of dollars.
But success isn’t about navigating the beginner stage fast or slow; success isn’t overnight success. And overnight success isn’t really what we expect it to be. Overnight success is like getting pushed down the black diamonds on your first day skiing. There are a lot of pitfalls. We don’t even understand the pitfalls yet because we’re only at the bunny slopes-level in mentality. If we are still at the bunny slope stage, we should be happy that we aren’t going down the black diamond slopes because we aren’t prepared to have black diamond-level problems yet. We learn how to deal with those problems while working through the bunny slopes.
We see people who achieve success at a young age and then think nothing of watching them crash and burn. We think, we would do better if given the chance. But we have no idea. The problem with lotto winners or pro athletes is not that they’re dumber at finances than the average person with their upbringings; much of the problem is that that they get all the money in one go. The problem with overnight success is that you have all sorts of difficult situations and problems and you never had to figure more basic versions of the problems out when it didn’t matter. You can face a new obstacle on the bunny slopes and trip and fall and learn; it’s much harder to trip and fall on a more treacherous obstacle on the black diamonds with people watching and criticizing your every move.
If you can’t stop yourself from spending when you’re on a low income, it doesn’t become easier when you have money. It may take longer for you to get into trouble, but having more money doesn’t mean you have better control; it just means you have more to lose. This is the reason you need to start start saving before you make a lot.If your brakes don’t work when you’re going slow, they’re not going to work better when you’re going fast.
In this way, you can be happy with your beginner awkward phases because they teach you and prepare you for the big stakes games. You can be happy for your awkward early relationships because they taught you how to be better when you meet your future spouse. You can be grateful for your bad entry-level jobs, because you wouldn’t want to play around when you have the chance to prove yourself at your dream job. You can be thankful for beginner poker games, because when a million dollars is on the line, you will have developed a great poker face from playing for a nickel.
Chances are you will make more money later in life. We can be grateful that we are struggling when we have struggles now, because when we get more successful, we’ll know exactly what to do. When we are trustworthy with less, we can be trusted with more. It just takes time and trial and error.
Your Struggle Teaches You to Love the Journey
I don’t know where I’ve heard it first but I’ve heard it multiple times: you have to love the process. The people that become great musicians, loved learning how to be better musicians. They didn’t love fame. I mean, you can chase fame too and you might still be successful. But many people will flame out first. It’s like someone who loves crossing finish lines but doesn’t love to run. How far is that person going to go?
Recently, I made a joke about another blogger complaining about their page views:
And I got a surprising amount of pushback. Like, people can complain about stuff like this! And of course people can complain about anything they want. But it’s so weird to me to complain about blogging. This is a completely optional activity that for the vast majority of people makes no money. Most people are doing it out of love and with no intention of ever being famous or quitting their jobs over it. It’s like being angry that people aren’t appreciating the way you karaoke or read. Sure you can complain, but why are you doing this in the first place? If you want to make money, there are easier ways. There are probably ways that you would like doing not for the money. Maybe you should try one of those. Because the journey and the obstacles are definitely going to happen – “success” might not. If you hate the journey, will you ever be “successful?”
I think overall, the people who love the journey will go the farthest. Consider this response from Elementum Money.
Elementum Money sees the value in the journey. She’s getting better at writing. She’s enjoying the process. And though, according to her, her pageviews are not where they could ultimately be, she knows that she hasn’t devoted the time to marketing. It’s something to work on in the future. And since she enjoys the process, there’s plenty of time in that future.
Make Sure to Celebrate Every Small Win
Similar to my articles on how the rich justify donating less to charity, or why frugality is for the rich there are many ways to look at your financial health. The main ways you can trick yourself, sometimes for the better, is to switch from looking at absolute values to percentages or vice versa. By switching to looking at charitable spending in absolutes instead of percentages, the rich could feel better about their charitable spending while spending less as a percentage than the poor. By looking at percentages, the rich could also spend a middle class salary and still call themselves uber-frugal.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with switching your thinking from absolutes to percentages or vice versa. It’s like looking at a glass as half full or half empty. Or seeing that dress that no one could agree on as blue or gold. It’s just a different way of characterizing something you see.
If you’re dealing with low level progress, you can shift your thinking to concentrate on the percentage change. If you look at the absolutes, you might think, oh I only saved $50 this month. That’s not a lot of money. If you look at your percentage, maybe that’s 10% of your discretionary income, and maybe that’s more impressive to you. What could be really motivational though is that maybe last month you saved $50, but this month you saved $100 – that’s a 100% increase in savings. 100% That’s quite a lot. And I’m not saying you should happily fall off the wagon, but if you backslide, think of the percentage increase when you get back on track again!
You need to celebrate the small wins.
Whatever progress you’re making, it’s ok if you celebrate the smallest increments – percentage or absolute. There is no one on high judging you for which you choose. It only matters whatever keeps you motivated to keep moving. Any progress is still good progress. Don’t let declines in progress distract you when they could just as easily motivate you.
What if Progress is Going Backwards?
Ok, so I hope this is encouraging you a little bit for when progress is slow. But what if it’s not just that you’re moving ahead slowly – but you’re actively on the decline. How do you stay motivated when you’re putting one foot in front of the other and you’re moving backwards?
The thing is, progress is not all in one direction. Two steps forward, one step back. Or one step forward, two steps back. It happens.
I heard this great line in a podcast The Art of Manliness by the Author of Make Today Matter: 10 Habits for a Better Life (and World), that the first rule of being a doctor is Do No Harm. So if you’re not having a great day, if you know you’re not making progress, that’s ok. You’ll have days like that. You can’t win them all, you can’t make progress on every day. Some days you’re just fighting not to drown.
The only rule for yourself that day is don’t harm your goals. If you’re trying to mind your anger, and everything is going wrong and you just don’t think you can be a GREAT person today, that’s fine. Just don’t cause any irreparable harm. Don’t yell at your family. Don’t send out mean emails. You don’t have to beat yourself up for not getting ahead; just try to contain the level of harm done.
Or if you get into a car accident while paying down debt – that’s going to slow down your progress and it sucks! But don’t give up the whole game just because you hit a pothole. Ok you’re not going to pay down as much debt this month because of this unexpected expense – but try to keep levelheaded and stay the course as much as possible otherwise. You can be on triage mode and just congratulate yourself for not digging yourself further into a hole. That’s a terrific win, even though it doesn’t feel like it. It’s overcoming these obstacles that will get you to the end. You’re a champion even if it doesn’t feel like it.
How to Stay Motivated when Progress is Slow, Nonexistent or Backwards
In conclusion, you won’t always be improving by leaps or bounds. That’s A-OK. Remember that you’ve made the first step toward your path of self-improvement and that it’s this vast middle area where it really starts to get fun. You learn to overcome obstacles, learn to love your craft and get better prepared for success. As long as you continue to celebrate your wins and keep the big obstacles from deterring you completely, you’re well on your way for your inevitable success.
I used to resent obstacles along the path, thinking ‘if only that hadn’t happened life would be so good.’ Then I suddenly realized, life is the obstacles. There is no underlying path. – Janna Levin
It can be easy to be caught up in pitying ourselves and the obstacles we go through. We think we would rather have everything handed to us on a silver platter. But we actually don’t. There’s the old joke about the guy who died and in the afterlife, he wins every game, can get any woman he wanted and owns everything. He gets frustrated and asks to see “the other place” thinking that he was in Heaven. Then he’s told, nope, the place where you get everything you want, is a kind of hell.
You are in the middle of your magnificent journey. Why would you want to skip ahead to the end? This is when it’s about to get really good. Good luck!
Being single seems like it would be an impediment to gaining wealth. Being a part of a couple means that you can share expenses with someone else (some people even share email addresses….for some reason). Also, if you date or marry someone who makes more than you do, you more than double your salary. A giant jump in salary and reduced expenses? Seems like a recipe for financial success!
For me though, if I had gotten married to any of my exes, I likely would not be in the field I am in now, have the career I do or have as much saved to my name. Here are the reasons being single helped my career and finances and ultimately led to wealth.
1. I Couldn’t Drop Out of the Workforce
I didn’t know any stay-at-home moms growing up. We grew up very middle-class and everyone’s parents seemed to work. I just assumed I would work as well. My adult life was very different – because of the move from middle- to upper-middle class.
I live in a very well-educated area, I’m a lawyer and well, I’m Asian. Most of my peers are lawyers, doctors and engineers. So I tended to date lawyers, doctors and engineers. And many of the women I know did the same. They did well in school, met their husbands, married and had kids, and many quit their jobs because they could. Their husbands made the equivalent of their parents combined salary and more than enough to support the family. The wives they didn’t love their jobs and they wanted to raise their kids. Why have the hassle of a full-time job when you don’t need the money?
My job can be demanding and stressful. The number of times I had thought of quitting – well it was basically every two weeks last year.
What made me keep going? Well, I would like to say that I was taught to Lean In, but futility was probably the most likely culprit. I’m single. You can’t be a housewife, without the wife part. And you still need to pay for that house! But if I had married and had a high-earning husband, it would have made a lot less sense for me to stay at a tough job.
I’m not an ambitious person. I never aspired to a high-paying or powerful job. If I knew I could stay at home and eat bonbons all day, I totally would (I’m not sure anyone would marry me knowing that, but hey, maybe I’d raise their kid as well). But as a single person, I have to earn my own bonbons! The point I’m making is that if I had gotten married, I likely would have married someone who made very good money and I would have had a choice – to continue working or stay at home. And I’m betting there’s a good chance I would have chosen to stay at home.
2. There Was No Reason to Drop to an Easier Job
I dated an attorney when I was 23. I remember him telling me that he worked a lot but he didn’t see any reason to reduce his hours, as a single person. He didn’t have to go home to a wife or kids. I feel the same way today. I work a lot, but I don’t feel guilty. There are no kids waiting for me at home.
The career I’m in is not great for work-life balance or for women with families. Women certainly can succeed in a demanding job while raising their children but those women always seem superhuman. I, however, am decidedly human. And lazy. As stated above, I would have looked for reasons to quit my job if I could have. Having a family at home that I was neglecting? That would have been a good reason. Being single? Well, that’s no reason at all. I could keep working. I could still meet up with friends – after work. Without a family, I felt like I couldn’t justify working fewer hours. And because I continued to work at a job that required a lot of hours, I continued to be paid very well.
3. I Had the Freedom to Follow My Career
My parents were oddballs – my dad always moved for my mom’s job even though he made more. But in “typical” hetero couples, the couple will typically move for the man’s job, not the woman’s. I think I also would have leaned more towards this latter group.
I tended to date men who were very ambitious and had a lot of job opportunities. They also had jobs that would require a fair amount of moving (i.e. doctor) or jobs that wouldn’t offer the best opportunities in the DC area (software engineer, where Silicon Valley would beckon, or corporate lawyer, where New York has the brightest opportunities). I’m fairly certain that I would have followed my hypothetical husband in his career and I don’t know if or when they would have followed mine. That’s how it usually goes.
I went to law school in a small town. Of the married students, the men’s wives followed them there, typically having portable jobs like teacher or nurse. The women’s husbands typically stayed where they were and the couple was long distance for at least 3 years.
I knew a couple – she had finished her first year in law school. He had been accepted to a great program in the same city, among other offers. I assumed he would pick the school in the same city so she could continue her studies. Instead he picked the best ranked school to which he had been accepted and she transferred to a school in that city. After his first year, he transferred to an even better school and she quit law school (people usually don’t transfer their last year of law school and there weren’t other law schools in the area of the final law school). After he graduated, he worked for a firm for one year, and then quit the law altogether.
This is all to say that all around me I saw contemporary examples of women’s careers being put on the backburner. And though everyone likes to think of themselves as the one person who would buck the trend, I don’t think that about myself. I’m very typical. I doubt that I would have kept the flame going for my own job. Again, I never cared that much for a high paying job or any job at all.
I doubt I would have moved to a law school away from my husband or that he would have followed me there. And it just makes sense to put your eggs in the overachiever basket. So I would have stayed working whatever jobs I could find wherever my husband decided was best for his career.
4. I Couldn’t Stick My Head in the Sand About Finances
My mother always warned me not to be dependent on anyone. Well guess what? You can’t be dependent on someone else if there isn’t anyone else.
That link above is to the typical horror story of a wife who got divorced from her highly paid husband. That honestly could have been me. And though my dad is an accountant and I’m clearly interested in personal finances, I know that incentives have a huge role in creating who we become. Most people are content with the easy route. You’re more likely to become a better cook when you have to cook for yourself. You run faster when you’re being chased. You’re forced to put in the reps and when you put in the reps, it’s hard not to get better.
That’s how it was for my finances. If I had married someone who was really good with money (and most of my exes were), it could have been very easy for me to slip into complacency. I could have focused on saving money while running household chores but not investing or earning it. I could have huge gaps in my personal finance knowledge.
I’ve written a little about how I had hoped for being saved by a student loan act of God. But eventually I had to learn to become my own savior. I had to take control of my debt, of my finances and my career. Being single meant that I needed to support myself. There simply wasn’t anyone else to take the reins from me. So I took them for myself.
5. I Could Live a Simpler Lifestyle
The benefit of having a partner is that you would likely save money on rent. But there are a lot of other costs that can come with being a couple. For instance, when I’m in a couple, I eat much fancier meals. I put some extra effort into how I look on a daily basis. I would have to have nicer furniture, probably a nicer apartment and I definitely would have to have a TV and a premium sports package.
There are also some ways to save from being single. For instance, I can crash on my friend’s couch when I visit a city, instead of splitting a hotel room. I don’t have to visit his family or go to his friend’s weddings. My mom, when she was single, would only eat rice and soy sauce. Not falling too far from the tree, left to my own devices, I eat eggs and rice with soy sauce on the regular. This wouldn’t fly with someone else in the picture.
This is not to say that these costs would translate to the savings of shared housing. But there’s often a bit of a disconnect between what people expect in their relationships and what could actually happen. I have a very simple lifestyle because I live by myself and I have very simple desires. It would be difficult to find someone else who would want to live this simply. Being single helped me save money because I didn’t have to impress anyone with my lifestyle. I didn’t have to deal with all the hidden costs of coupledom.
How Being Single Helped Me Become Rich
My life would have been really different had I gotten married to one of my exes. I can’t tell if I’d have a greater net worth based on our theoretical combined net worth, but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be as big a contributor to our net worth. My hypothetical net worth would have been primarily his financial contributions divided by two. And in the event of divorce, I’m not sure how I would have fared.
It’s not a better or worse outcome – it’s just a different one. I probably also wouldn’t have started a personal finance blog because many of the stories that I wanted to tell – paying off my law school debt, dating as a rich woman – wouldn’t have made any sense in this alternate reality. Too many things would change given this one change in circumstance.
I should mention that I’m not advocating marriage or singleness. Neither path is a guaranteed path to …. anything. You can be rich or poor in either path. In my blog, I really want to champion singles. It’s easy to find articles about saving money if you’re a couple and it often seems like this is the only path to financial greatness.
But I don’t believe singledom is a worse position from which to achieve financial stability. Too often we see the positives of a relationship, without seeing all the other tradeoffs. We assume we would have a partner who would contribute equally, who won’t impair our own careers or won’t change us. None of those things are guaranteed.
For me, I could see all these societal expectations of being a stay-at-home mom, of supporting my husband’s career, of being content in a passion hobby while my husband earned the big bucks – and I would have given into these expectations. I’m not saying being wealthy is a better goal than any of these other goals – I’m just saying that my singleness affected the choices I had available to me and when I acted on those choices, I came up where I am now – in a very stable financial position.
If I had been married, I would have had more choices and I cannot guarantee that I would be in the same place that I am now. It’s not better or worse; it just is.
Getting married isn’t a sure pathway to wealth and being single doesn’t mean you’re going to end up poor. You can become rich as a single person – for some of us, it might be the only way.