Every so often I like to put money and career issues aside, and focus on The Bigger Picture. What’s The Bigger Picture? It’s life – as in life beyond money, careers, and success. If we’re honest, we should admit that just about anything related to money is a numbers game at its root. We also need to recognize that money concerns tend to be overwhelmingly future oriented. In this way, an obsession with the financial future can rob us of the pleasures of today. This is why it’s so important to enjoy life now.
We don’t know how much time we have
No matter how many – or how grand – our future plans may be, the biggest X factor is that we don’t know how much time we will have in our lives. Sure, if you’re 30 years old you may feel secure in the knowledge that you’ve got another 50 or 60 or even 70 years to go. But reality does not always cooperate with our plans. I’ve known more than a few people who never made it to 50 – or went shortly after. And even a few who didn’t make it nearly that far.
That doesn’t mean that we should live life with a mortal fear that we may die tomorrow, but rather that when we make our plans we need to be well aware of the possibility. And it should have an impact on how we live our lives.
It opens up the question what would I do with this time if I knew that my life would be ending very soon? Would you continue working at a job that you don’t like? Would you continue trying to build some sort of wall of security around your life? Would you continue to pursue career success at the expense of your health and/or your relationships?
It’s a cultural norm that most of us readily recognize the value of money, or those things in life that we can attach monetary value to. In the process, it’s very easy to under estimate the importance of time.
Many years ago, when I was in my 20s, I had good friend and mentor who was in his 70s at the time. He always told me “life goes by so fast”; I didn’t get it at the time – youth seldom does.
Here was a typical exchange:
Me: “It doesn’t feel like it to me.”
Me: “Until when?”
Him: “It starts at about 30, when the years start turning into decades.”
Me: “I just don’t see it.”
Him: “You will. You’re not 30 yet.”
He called it. It first hit me when I turned 30, and realized that three decades – at least one-third of my life – was already gone. I also realized that the years and experiences that had passed weren’t sitting in a jar somewhere in my closet to be accessed any time I wanted – they were gone forever.
On the surface, that realization may seem depressing. It’s not. It’s reality. And reality has a way of making you see what’s really important. If you embrace the shortness of life, you can really turn that into a positive.
We don’t know what the quality of our time will be
This is the “B” side to the limited time factor in life. Not only do we not know how much time we have, but we don’t know how good that time will be. There are more variables here and we can even imagine, but here’s a short list:
- A debilitating health condition could change the quality of your life overnight
- A difficult divorce could cause several disrupted years in your life
- Trouble with a family member – especially a child – could impair your time
- You could be drafted into the military at a time of war
- Incarceration (most people assume this could never happen to them, but in reality it’s now more likely than at any time in US history)
- An economic calamity, like the Great Depression, could impair a decade or more of your life
I don’t mean to rain on everyone’s good times, but understand that these are all possibilities that could compromise your life even if they don’t shorten your time. If life is pretty good right now, recognize that this is quality time in your life, that you need to live and use to the fullest.
Carpe Diem – Enjoying the people and experiences around us
I’ve never known or heard of a single deathbed episode where a person wished that they had worked harder, earned and saved more money, and had more security in life. (We can suppose that the immediate prospect of death tends to reveal the pursuit of security as an especially meaningless goal.)
On the flipside, I’ve heard and known of many people who wished that they had spent more time with family and friends, experienced more of life, did more of the things that they found pleasurable and satisfying, and had taken better care of their health. Some even express disgust for having too much concern for money and career.
Feel free to disagree, but I think that deathbed revelations are the most honest that will ever come out of a human being. I also think that we need to take this to heart.
In the end, how much power, prestige, money, and security a person accumulates is rarely a factor in how much they enjoy their lives. The problem is that those factors are mostly external – that is, they mostly serve to impress other people.
Another problem is that power, prestige, money, and security are all measurable commodities (another example of the numbers game controlling your life). If we could live forever, pursuing those objectives would certainly make sense. But how logical do they seem against the backdrop of a finite life?
The pursuit of money metrics as a measure of success in life can make us blind to the times, people, and experiences that are happening all around us right now. And it’s really what we do in life, rather than we have, that makes us happy.
The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman
Perhaps you’ve heard or read this short story before, but it’s an eye-opener, one that can make you realize that happiness may be right in front of you, rather than at the end of a long journey.
Read it and you’ll see what I mean.
A boat docked in a tiny Mexican village. An American tourist complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his catch. “How long did it take you to get those?” he asked.
“Not so long,” said the Mexican.
“Then why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?” asked the American.
The Mexican explained that his small catch was quite enough to meet his needs and feed his family.
“So what do you do with the rest of your time?” asked the American.
“I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evening, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar and sing a few songs. I have a full life.”
The American interrupted. “I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat.”
“And after that?” asked the Mexican.
“With the extra money the bigger boat will bring, you can buy a second boat and then a third boat, and then more until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants. Pretty soon you could open your own plant. You could leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York! From there you could direct your whole enterprise.”
“How long would that take?” asked the Mexican.
“Twenty — perhaps twenty-five years,” replied the American.
“And after that?”
“Afterwards? Well, my friend,” laughed the American, “that’s when it gets really interesting. When your business gets really big, you can start selling stocks and make millions!”
“Millions? Really? And after that?” said the Mexican.
“After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a beautiful place near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take siestas with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends.”
The American tourist was leading the Mexican fisherman right back to the life he had here and now. Blinded by his cultural obsession with money and success, the American couldn’t see what was obvious. The story cuts off there, but we can assume that the fisherman wisely chose to ignore the American’s advice.
Retirement: the practice of back-loading your life
I want to focus on retirement planning in particular, since it’s the fascination du jour. This is likely due to the aging of the Baby Boom generation, in combination with a record – and seemingly unstoppable – stock market. What ever the cause, it deserves special examination.
A lot of people choose to use what are generally regarded as the best years of their lives to prepare for retirement, a time in life when all their cares will disappear and they’ll live the TV life of unlimited time of prosperity – at least in theory.
I realize that this flies in the face of conventional thinking, but I think that the uncertainties of life require that we prepare for different outcomes. When it comes to retirement, we’re not merely preparing for it – we’re also trying to predict the future. We do that by making certain assumptions, generally those that are favorable to the desired outcome of a comfortable retirement.
None of us can do that – and that’s the point. We can’t know what the financial markets will do over the next few decades, any more than we can know what inflation will do to the money we do save.
In preparing for retirement, what we’re really doing is back-loading our lives. That means that we’re accumulating the lions share of our financial resources throughout the majority of our lives in order to prepare for the last few years. But there is a lot that will be happening between now and the time that you formally retire, events that could require a lot of money, and be at least as important as retirement.
Preparing for retirement is something of Catch 22. Think about it – how much money will ever be enough to give you the kind of retirement that you want? If you reach a certain savings goal, you will most likely increase it, just because you can.
Still another issue is that preparing for retirement is extremely money centric. After a lifetime spent saving money – and concerning and worrying yourself over it – it’s not likely that you will stop fixating on money when you retire. The attitudes that you live your life with are highly likely to carry over into retirement.
That will hardly banish the worry that we hope to escape by retiring.
“The best laid plans of men and mice go awry”
That well worn saying is more than a bit humbling, isn’t it? And yet it’s true. A plan is nothing more than a goal that we set in our own minds, and then create an action plan to follow. But nothing guarantees that our plans will work. What makes this particularly concerning is that you could literally spend most of your life working on a plan that never comes to fruition, or might have even been doomed from the very start. What did you give up for the chase?
I love the saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t make plans – but rather that we need to be careful about making them too specific.
Using retirement as an example, it may be that rather than preparing for retirement – which is a single goal, with a specific date, that will require an enormous amount of money – we should instead prepare for a better life.
We can do this by adopting a broader strategy when preparing for the future:
- Save for greater prosperity in the future, and not necessarily retirement.
- Save for semi-retirement at an earlier age – the nearer our goals are, the more predicable they are.
- Save so that you will have enough money to make a desired career change – that could be in five years, rather than at 65.
- Save to create an entirely different lifestyle rather than specifically for retirement.
I realize that such a goal sounds fuzzy, but that will also help to build flexibility into your future plans. The fact that it is less specific means it is also more attainable, and will probably blend better with various changes that will happen in your life, whether planned or spontaneous.
So let me ask you a few questions:
- Do you ever set major plans, then question if the goal is really what you want?
- Do you ever “count the cost” – assess whether or not the price you will pay to achieve the goal will be justified by what you’ll get out of it?
- Do you ever worry that your goals are more cultural than personal, that you’re doing mostly what society says you should – rather than what you want to do?