What’s Your Very Best Life Advice?

Over the last couple of months, I’ve begun to use Reddit as my morning wakeup site. Over a cup of coffee, I scroll through pages of funny photos and interesting links until I’m fully functional and ready to work. One popular feature at Reddit is the AMA (Ask Me Anything) interview series, where famous folks (and not-so-famous folks) answer questions from the Reddit community.

A Reddit user named uberlad always asks the same question in these interviews: “What’s your very best life advice?” Many of the answers sound as if they’d fit perfectly with our current year-long exploration into fear, happiness, and freedom.

Here are some notable responses to “What’s your very best life advice?” (Apparently, uberlad likes to ask this question of comedians.)

  • Norm Macdonald: “Let what you have make you happy. But never let what you don’t have make you happy.” In other words, be happy with what you have, and don’t covet what others have.
  • Alex Filippenko: “Find a profession that you really love, that you’re passionate about…To the degree possible, do something that brings you happiness and fulfillment.”
  • Skrillex: “You are the company you keep. If you surround yourself with creative, hungry, and productive people, it will make you step up your game. If you’re around lazy people who complain, then you’ll never grow as a person. Keep good people close!”
  • Ken Burns: “This [too] will pass. Get help from others. Be kind to yourself.”
  • Geoff Rowley: “Always get back up.”
  • Piper Kerman: “Know that you can learn more from your failures than your successes.”
  • Jon Lovitz: “Happiness is a choice…Are you willing to do what you have to do to get what you want?”
  • Drew Carey: Learn how to set goals. That’s the key to everything. That includes designing your own success. You define what the goal is, it’s not somebody else’s goal, it’s yours…All goal setting is figuring out what you want to do with your life.”

I shared my own “very best life advice” with you last month:

How to be happy

Now it’s your turn. What is your very best life advice? If a young person were to come to you and ask bout the keys to success and happiness, what would you tell her?

What Were You Wrong About? Wisdom That Comes with Age

On Wednesday, I listed the eleven common irrational beliefs enumerated by Albert Ellis and Robert Harper in their book, A Guide to Rational Living. This book served as the launching point for a recent discussion at Ask Metafilter. RapcityinBlue asked, “What have you been wrong about, realized it, and it changed your life?” This question generated sixty quality responses.

While many of the respondents had (knowingly or not) managed to overcome one Ellis and Harper’s irrational beliefs, each answer is unique. Plus, many other folks unique pearls of wisdom gleaned from years of hard knocks.

I’ve taken the time to collate some of my favorite responses, little pieces of insight that ring true to me based on my own experience. (I’m quoting excerpts below, and linking back to the extended answers at Ask Metafilter.)

  • Ruthless Bunny wrote: “I thought being dour and sarcastic and always finding the problems with things was the way to go through life…Actually, solving problems, being upbeat and helpful to others is a MUCH better way to go through life.”
  • ottereroticist wrote: “I thought I was lazy and inherently broken when it comes to getting things done…I learned that unconditional self-friendliness is a much more effective productivity tool than a harsh and accusatory inner monologue.”
  • phunniemee wrote: “Most people aren’t out to get you. Most people aren’t sitting in silent, seething judgment of you. Most people are too busy worrying about themselves, just trying to get through this.”
  • rpfields wrote: “I thought I had to please everyone around me or something terrible would happen/be done to me. Conversely, I also thought that being “nice” to everyone meant they were “obligated” to do the same to me. At the same time I craved some kind of permission to pursue my goals, and harboured tremendous resentment for those who “got to” do things…I am a much happier person now that I allow myself to do as I please (within the bounds of kindness and legality, of course) and recognize that others have the right to do the same.”
  • sevenofspades wrote: “I thought that if something was hard work, it meant that I wasn’t good at it. Not true. If it’s hard, it just means I’ve never really worked at it before.” and “I thought that you had to impress people, win them over, or flat-out buy them somehow in order to get them to be your friend. Woah was that wrong. True friends just love your company.”
  • rabbitrabbit wrote: “I have learned that minding my own business has made me happier and made people like me more.”
  • kimberussell wrote: “If I mess up, I admit it. I’m human and make mistakes. That’s okay. If I don’t know how to approach a project, I’ll ask for help. If you think I’m stupid, that’s not my problem. I’m not going to get hung up on what people think.”
  • telegraph wrote: “There is nothing protective about pessimism. I was convinced for a long time that if you expect a poor outcome, it hurts less. It’s actually easier to cope with failure if you spend most of your time celebrating and expecting the positive, building up your reserves of happiness and strength, instead of creating huge unceasing loads of psychic stress based on assuming things will go wrong.”
  • changeling wrote: “I have learned that I don’t always need to prove I’m right, especially in casual conversation, especially about dumb crap that doesn’t matter.” also “I will change in ways I can’t even anticipate.”
  • St. Peepsburg wrote: “I was too prideful to listen to others, especially their feedback of me. I assumed they really didn’t understand, and if only I could explain it clearly they would see it as I do. Now, I love feedback.” also “I also believed other people caused my feelings of fear or anger, and that they needed to change in order for me to feel recognized and safe. Now, I don’t need people’s validation as much. I don’t need their constant reassurance. I know who I am. And when I feel angry, it is my anger. When I feel insecure, it is my insecurity.”
  • mono blanco wrote: “I learned it’s ok to be a dilettante. Nobody’s grading you. Since then I’ve learned how to play tennis, speak a smattering of languages, put up shower rods, draw sketches, and play some blues. All half-assed, but with huge enjoyment.”
  • still_wears_a_hat wrote: “I learned that I don’t have to prevent every possible thing I can from going wrong. That I can deal with stuff when it goes wrong instead of trying to prevent every possible problem. It’s made a huge difference.”
  • Sullenbode wrote: “Feelings don’t obey logic. Having no good reason to be upset doesn’t magically make me not upset anymore. Rather than argue with myself about my emotions, I’ve learned to recognize when they’re just passing clouds, and let them pass.”
  • JohnnyGunn wrote: “I have become much more transparent in my old age. I tell it like it is when it comes to how I am feeling and what I am thinking. That does not mean I get to be mean, but rather life is too short to play games. Here is what I am thinking. Love me for who I am because that is exactly what I will do for you. Accept you for who you are. Also, I try things now. Be it food, a book, an idea, a trip, whatever, try it once.”
  • FauxScot shared several gems, including: “I discovered that if I took my time, my quality really would go up.” “I also discovered that something was finished when I decided it was.” “Help people out. Even if it costs a buck or some time. Don’t always insist on a financial payoff or even acknowledgement or appreciation.”
  • sonika wrote: “The minute you realize that yours is not the only plot that is going on around you, it truly changes your outlook. I’m oddly much more ok with doing things that others might perceive negatively (such as distancing myself from unhealthy relationships) because I’d rather be “that bitch” in someone else’s plot than make my own more difficult.”
  • Turkey Glue wrote: “I’ve learned to ask questions about things I don’t understand.”
  • talldean quoted the Buddha: “Anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” talldean also shared this nugget: ” Lucky people aren’t as locked into a goal, so if something great happens to them, they accept it; it’s luck. Unlucky people pass by the great things to get to a more specific set of goals, but don’t always get where they wanted to go.”
  • Athanassiel wrote about the sunk-cost fallacy: “The falseness of continuing to do something which it becomes clear you should stop doing, simply because you have already invested a lot in it…Sometimes you really just have to cut your losses and walk away.”
  • Jandoe wrote: “I learned that staying in relationships out of a sense of obligation or pity was not a good reason.”
  • sio42 wrote: “Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and what you need, especially if it’s help.”
  • GorgeousPorridge wrote: “Status and money might make some people happy, but not everybody. If you’re not one of those people, it can be hard to live in a society where you are judged by your wealth or job title. But in the end, if you decide those things don’t matter all that much to you (and sometimes it’s hard to really conclude that they don’t), you’re wasting the only life you’ve got in order to fit in, and ultimately it’s a pointless sacrifice.”
  • Autumn wrote: “If someone is having a horrible go at life, you can’t swoop in and “save” them.”

That’s nearly 2000 words of great advice. In these responses are a lot of the themes we’ll cover at More Than Money in 2014.

What about you? What things were you wrong about? What have you learned during your sojourn here on earth that’s caused you to change how you think and act? What lessons can you add to this list?

How Do You Find Your Passion?

Last night, I had dinner with a long-time Get Rich Slowly reader. Amy is traveling the West Coast with her mother, and they’ve made their way to Portland after stopping at San Francisco, Yosemite, and Crater Lake.

Amy and I spent two hours chatting about her life and about mine. As we talked, we realized we have a lot in common. We’re both divorced, comfortable in our own skins, make decent livings, and have ample free time to explore the things we enjoy in life. Though we’re both content, we’ve each been trying to find a bit of direction.

Note: I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: The best part of my job is meeting people for lunch or coffee or dinner. It used to freak me out to meet strangers, but now I love it. I learn something new from every person I meet.

“I feel lucky to have started my ADHD meds,” I told Amy. “They’ve allowed me to focus. And they’ve helped me rediscover my passion for writing. I love to write. I feel like that’s what I’m called to do. Over the past few weeks, it’s been awesome to throw myself back into my work. For instance, I spent five hours writing that short article about how to live a life you love, but it came out almost perfect. It’s exactly what I wanted. I love when that happens.”

Amy sighed. “I wish I knew what I wanted to do,” she said. “I haven’t found my passion. I like to read and I like to garden and I like to travel, but that’s not the same as liking to write. I love my job, but I’m not passionate about the work. I don’t feel called to do it. I wish I could figure out what I should be doing.”

I have this conversation over and over again with folks my age. People are dissatisfied. Maybe they’re content in their jobs, but they don’t find them fulfilling. They crave a greater sense of purpose, an alignment of work and values. We reach age forty, and we still don’t know what we want to be when we grow up.

“You know,” I said to Amy, “I think I have some resources that could help you as you’re thinking about what you want to do with your life. I’ll send them to you.”

The first resource is What Should I Do with My Life? by Po Bronson, which explores how people find meaning in life. The book features dozens of interviews and stories with people searching for a greater purpose. From what I gather — I haven’t read the book yet — Bronson poses more questions than he answers. Still, I think this book could provide fodder for Amy (and other folks) as she tries to figure out what her future holds.

The next resource I recommend is the work of George Kinder, who explores what he calls “life planning”, a more holistic approach to financial planning.

I’ve argued before that the road to wealth is paved with goals. Kinder doesn’t ask us to set goals; he asks us to examine our values, and to decide what’s important. To help clients discover the deeper values in their lives, Kinder poses three questions:

  1. Imagine you’re financially secure, that you have enough money to take care of your needs, now and in the future. How would you live your life? Would you change anything?
  2. Now imagine that you visit your doctor, who tells you that you have only 5-10 years to live. You won’t ever feel sick, but you’ll have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do in the time you have remaining? Will you change your life and how will you do it? (Note that this question does not assume unlimited funds.)
  3. Finally, imagine that your doctor shocks you with the news that you only have 24 hours to live. Ask yourself: What did you miss in life? Who did you not get to be? What did you not get to do?

Kinder says that answering the first question is easy. There are lots of things we’d do if money were no object. But as the questions progress, there’s a sort of funnel. They become more difficult to answer, and there are fewer possible responses. Life planning is all about answering the third question.

According to Kinder, the third question usually generates responses that follow five general themes:

  • Family or relationships — 90% of the responses to the final question contain this topic.
  • Authenticity or spirituality. Many responses involve leading a more meaningful life.
  • Creativity. Surprisingly, a large number of respondents express a desire to do something creative: to write a science-fiction novel, or to play guitar like Eric Clapton.
  • Giving back. Further down the list are themes about giving back to the community, about leaving a meaningful positive impact.
  • A “sense of place”. A fifth common theme (though nowhere near as prominent as the top three) is a desire to have some connection with place: a desire to be in nature, to live someplace different, or to help the environment.
Further reading: To learn more about George Kinder and his approach to life planning, check out his books Lighting the Torch and, especially, The Seven Stages of Money Maturity. I plan to re-read the latter over the next month.

I’m reminded of Bronnie Ware’s article about the regrets of the dying. Ware spent many years working in palliative care, and she noted that at the end of their lives, people tended to express five common regrets:

  • “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
  • “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”
  • “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
  • “I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.”
  • “I wish I’d let myself be happier.”

So, readers, here’s a question for you: It’s great if you know your passion — mine is writing — but what if there’s nothing you feel called to do? What then? How do you find a calling? How do you know what you ought to do?

Postscript: Amy pointed me to a great site I’d never heard of: David Cain’s Raptitude. Cain is all about mindfulness. His goal is to “get better at being human”, and he writes about how to buy happiness, how to walk across a parking lot, how to deal with negative people, why your work disappoints you, and more. I plan to read the entire archives.

The Secret to a Rich Life

Every week at Get Rich Slowly, I devoted Fridays to reader questions. I’d select one reader email to share, provide my own feedback, and then ask blog readers to contribute their opinions. It was one of the most popular features on the site.

I hadn’t planned to do that here at More Than Money. For one, I didn’t think there’d be many reader questions. Turns out I was wrong. Less than a week after this site’s “hard” launch, I’ve already received three great topics for discussion.

First up, my long-time friend P. dropped a line after reading the transcript of my WDS talk about personal transformation. She wrote:

I enjoyed your post yesterday, especially as I had my own Ulysses experience this summer. I realize you took significant action steps to get to where you are financially, but the whole time I was reading, I kept wondering how much of what you were able to do was based on money. (Please understand this is not criticism of you or your talk; it’s really just a philosophical debate.)

Certainly there are actions people can take to make themselves happier that don’t cost money (such as your examples from today), but even something as simple as saying “yes” often comes with a price. And so many of your examples were luxury items: travel to foreign countries, skydiving, getting tutored in Spanish. Even going on a massive dating spree.

Standing before Torres del Paine
Money has allowed me to see some amazing places

But as I said, this isn’t about you. Beyond the philosophical, it’s about me.

Mostly, I would say I am happy and lead an awesome life. The one hiccup to me is my job. I can say nothing negative about my job: It pays buckets of money, it has great benefits, great hours, prestige, lots of vacation, and nice co-workers. But it’s not something I’m passionate about. I probably once was, but it’s too familiar now, or old hat, or, perhaps, boring. I feel like if I didn’t have to work as much, I could spend more time doing the things that truly add joy to my life. But many of the things that bring joy to my life, I couldn’t do if I didn’t make this money.

And of course with kids, the ability to take big risks decreases a lot.

Again, I’m not really unhappy, nor am I looking for you to solve my job issue (retiring Dec. 31, 2015!), but I wondered: If someone can’t make a living doing what they love, or make a lot of money, how much of what you talk about is unavailable to them?

This is a great question, and one we’ve tackled many times over the years at Get Rich Slowly. (For instance.) Fortunately, there’s actually a solid body of research into the relationship between money and happiness. Rather than re-invent the wheel, I’m going to share my summary of the subject, which was first printed in the July 2011 issue of Entrepreneur magazine.

The Secret to a Rich Life

There’s a strong correlation between wealth and happiness. Rich nations tend to be happier than poor nations, and rich people tend to be happier than poor people. But money’s impact on happiness isn’t as great as you might think. If you have clothes to wear, food to eat and a roof over your head, more money has only a marginal effect on your sense of well-being. Other factors are more important.

In a 2005 issue of the Review of General Psychology, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon and David Schkade looked at years of research to determine what contributes to long-term happiness [PDF]. They found that about half of our happiness is biological, determined by a sort of happiness “set point.” About 40 percent of happiness comes from the things we choose to do, like exercising, setting goals and building friendships. Only about 10 percent of our happiness is based on circumstances like age, race, gender — and, perhaps surprisingly, financial status.

Although your financial situation plays just a small role in your overall happiness, it does affect it. According to a paper published in the April 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, some financial habits bring greater satisfaction than others [PDF].

“If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right,” write authors Elizabeth Dunn, Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson.

They offer several principles meant to maximize happiness, including:

  • Buy more experiences and fewer things. Material goods depreciate. The day after you buy something, it’s probably worth less than you paid for it. Experiences, on the other hand, appreciate. Your memories of the things you do — vacations you take, concerts you go to — tend to become fonder with time.
  • Use your money to help others. Personal spending has only a small effect on happiness, but pro-social spending [PDF] — money donated to charity or used to buy gifts for others — consistently produces strong, positive feelings.
  • Buy many small pleasures instead of a handful of large ones. This one’s tough to hear on a personal level, because I tend to forego daily indulgences for big rewards. But, in the words of the authors, people are usually happier with “frequent doses of lovely things rather than infrequent doses of lovelier things.”
  • Pay now but consume later. Buying today but paying tomorrow leads to debt — and to unhappiness. Deferred gratification makes us happier, and not just because we avoid debt. It also builds anticipation (which is itself pleasurable) and usually leads us to make smarter choices.
  • Beware of comparison shopping. If you’ve read The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, you know that people tend to be happier with fewer options. With fewer choices you’re less likely to make a “mistake” while shopping, and there-fore less likely to suffer buyer’s remorse. Plus, it can be tough to know which features actually matter most. Find a good option, go with it and don’t look back.

What’s the best way to be sure money will make you happy? At the 2010 Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting — also known as “Woodstock for capitalists” — Warren Buffett’s business partner, Charlie Munger, shared a pearl of wisdom: “The secret to happiness,” Munger said, “is to lower your expectations.”

If you can’t be content with what you have, you’ll never lead a rich life, no matter how much money you earn.

Happiness in Real Life

DSC_1608All of that is theoretical, of course, and P.’s question involves the real world. In the real world, I’ll admit: Much of the change I’ve been able to accomplish, and much of the happiness I currently experience, is because I have the money (and the time) to spend on activities that bring me joy.

What’s more, having savings gives me a safety net. It comforts me. I know that if I take a risk and something goes wrong, I have options.

That said, the things that make me happiest have nothing to do with money. I enjoy writing. And reading. I love working out. And, most of all, I get pleasure from spending time with family and friends — especially time with The Girl.

Related reading: Just yesterday, Paula at Afford Anything published a nice look at how wealth buys time. In many ways, that’s what I’ve been using money to do recently — to buy time. And that’s not a luxury everyone has.

The bottom line? One of my fifteen money mantras is this: It’s more important to be happy than it is to be rich. Money doesn’t matter if you aren’t pursuing a meaningful life filled with family and friends.

Fortunately, P. is already doing that. She’s happy and wealthy. She’s in a good place, and she knows it. In a follow-up email, she wrote:

For now, I’m finding my happiness by getting through my work and living passionately on the weekends (and Thursdays, because I only work four days a week!) and through vacations. My plan is to retire in three years, four tops (my husband is stuck on five — that’s our one money argument). Having a “finish line” also makes it easier to get through.

Since this is my first “ask the readers” column here at More Than Money, I want to turn this around now and ask you what you think. What’s the secret to a rich life? To what degree do you need money to be happy? If you’ve experienced both wealth and poverty, how would you compare the two? What was happiness like in each state? And to get back to P.’s original question: What are some of the best ways to find meaning and joy on a limited income?

Note: Do you have a question for the More Than Money community? Send it in. I don’t have a contact form yet, but my email addresses aren’t hard to guess. (Hint: I have a gmail account.) And the great thing about doing “ask the readers” here? We can cover all sorts of topics, not just personal finance. If you want to ask about blogging or travel or dating or donuts, those are all fair game.