Paperback Writer

Last week, I wrote about how I’m trying to focus on just one thing at a time in my professional life. Instead of tackling many projects at once — preventing me from giving my full attention to any of them — I’m instead devoting my attention to a single job. It makes me happier and more productive.

This new productivity method doesn’t keep me from dreaming, however. I still have lots of ideas on the backburner, and I’m eager to get started on each of them.

One idea that really has me excited is a return to writing fiction.

You see, I never set out to become a personal-finance writer. I stumbled into that career. And as much as I love it, there’s a part of me that still wants to write poetry and science fiction and literary short stories.

I wrote a lot of poetry during high school and college, but this urge has faded in adulthood. I think this is the last poem I wrote myself (in March 2005):

Like a Lion

The coming of Spring is a violent thing:
The tulips proclaim their riotous hues
While peas and then carrots have thrust their way through
the crust of the earth (swollen and muddy).

The apples and cherries and plums are now budding.
The camelias are flinging their petals en masse
Bright-colored habits for shaggy-haired grass.

The Earth’s in rebellion! Again has grown bold!
Has dethroned Old Winter, destroying his hold
On daylight and sunshine and the world out-of-doors.
Spring has arrived: Hear how she roars!

As my poetical self has diminished, a different sort of writer has emerged. I want to tell stories. For several years, I took writing classes intermittently at the local community college. As a result, I produced half a dozen short stories like this one [DOC file].

I used to think my writing sucked. I don’t think that anymore. I’ve been writing full-time for nearly a decade, and I’ve had a lot of practice. Sure, there’s more improvement to be had, but that’s why I’m constantly reading writing manuals, and that’s why I want to take another writing class when January rolls around.

This time, I want to try something different. This time, I want to write a novel. Perhaps a children’s novel.

I’ve always loved a certain type of book, one that describes the adventures (and/or misadventures) of a group of smart kids living in a small town. Examples include The Mad Scientists’ Club by Bertrand Brinley (holy cats! look at those Amazon reviews — 61 five-star, two four-star, and one three-star!), The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (another five-star book at Amazon!), and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I think it’d be fun to tackle a similar world, although I’m still not clear on what sort of conflict/plot my story would involve. (I do have some characters and scenes in my head, though. And because Kim also grew up in a small town, I listen to her stories with great interest!)

So, my goal for 2014 is to return to writing fiction. I have a lot of other things that must get finished first. I have to finish my ebook. I have to start a digital magazine. I have to help Kim launch her website. I have to start a new website (or two) of my own. And I have to begin organizing a retreat with Harlan and Jim. But after all that? Yeah, I’m going to write a novel.

One Thing at a Time

Balance

I wrote recently that I’ve begun the Scrawny to Brawny fitness regimen. After ten days, I like it — but I also find it a little frustrating. I want more to happen NOW! but instead must wait patiently as the program guides me through gradual change.

You see, the folks who designed Scrawny to Brawny are clever. Instead of giving participants a basket full of changes and asking us to implement them all at once, they instead ask us to modify one thing at a time. After we’ve had time to build one habit, they add another. And another. They want us to get fit slowly.

Intellectually, I recognize that this is the right way to do things in order to achieve lasting change. Research indicates that both attention and willpower are depletable — each of us has a finite supply of them. If we try to do too much or try to make too many changes at once, we’re less likely to succeed than if we make small moves or tackle only a few things at a time.

So, it makes sense for the Scrawny to Brawny system to first ask participants to get in the habits of going to the gym and drinking three “super shakes” every day first before diving deeper into the program.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to apply a similar principle to my own life.

Every January, for instance, I choose one major goal for the year. Instead of creating a list of resolutions, I pick one thing that I’d really like to improve, and that becomes my focus for twelve months. That’s how 2010 became the “year of fitness”. (To be honest, I’ve actually found that I can handle a few things at a time — as long as these goals are from different domains. In other words, I can handle one fitness goal, one finance goal, and one professional goal simultaneously, but not three finance goals.)

In 2012, I tried something a little different. It worked.

My friend Castle told me she’d started a new project. Each day, she tried one new thing. Maybe it was a new food. Maybe it was a new exercise. Maybe it was a new TV show. One day, she decided to try making more eye contact with people. “It was amazing,” she told me. People responded much more positively to her.

“I don’t keep all of the changes I make,” Castle explained. “The goal is just to try something new for one day. If I don’t like it, I don’t need to continue. But it doesn’t hurt me to try anything for just one day, right?”

In 2012, instead of doing one new thing each day, I decided to focus on doing one new thing each month. But I tried to make these changes bigger.

  • In March, I had lunch or dinner with a different friend every day. This let me reconnect with some people I’d been missing.
  • In April, I embarked upon an Extreme Dating Project. My goal was to date as many different women as possible. April was a fun month.
  • Then I made it a goal to go to the gym every day in May.
  • In June, my aim was to eat “no junk in June”. I focused on my diet, which helped me to lose five pounds and two percent body fat.

Perhaps my most successful month-long experiment came in January of this year, where I went “chemical-free”. I gave up caffeine and alcohol for thirty days to see how I felt. I felt great — something I’ve been reminding myself lately as I feel run-down. (Maybe it’s time to try that experiment again?)

Lately, I’ve applied the “one thing at a time” idea to a different part of my life. In general, I tend to take on too much work. I’m usually juggling several projects at once. As a result, I don’t do any of them to the best of my ability.

Kim was listening to me list the various things I want to do — write an ebook, write a real book, produce a conference, hold a retreat, start a new blog, start another blog, start a third blog, start a consulting business with friends, and so on — when she offered a suggestion: “Why not just do one thing at a time and then move on to another one?”

Obvious, right? Not to me.

Since returning from Ecuador, I’ve put Kim’s advice into practice. I’ve been focusing on a single project: an ebook about money. Even with this constant focus, the work has taken longer than I’d hoped (and anticipated). I’m not sure what would have happened if I’d allowed myself to try to tackle several things at once! Still, I know I’m doing quality work, and that offers solace. If I’m focused on only one thing and I’m doing the best I can do, there’s not much more I can ask of myself.

I’m now a convert to the “one thing at a time” approach to my work.

A few weeks ago, Kim gave me a small stone into which was carved a single word: Balance. Kris used to urge me to find equilibrium too. I have a tendency to be “all or nothing”, as many people have noticed — even blog readers. The “one thing at a time” method is a sort of lifehack to force me to stay balanced when my natural tendency is to take on too much.

Ideally, of course, I’d find a way to integrate a couple of ongoing projects into my life at the same time that I tackle a single major project. To an extent, I do this. I continue to write my weekly column at Get Rich Slowly, for example, and I’m doing my best to make it to exercise every day. But I’m only able to do these things because they are habits, deeply ingrained into my daily life. I don’t have to think about them. They don’t add much to my mental burden, don’t deplete my attention or willpower in the same way a second or third major project would.

In time, maybe I can incorporate another blog (or two) into my daily routine in such a way that they don’t seem like major projects. Or maybe I can make it one of my major projects to set up systems to “harvest” information about Animal Intelligence and Awesome People efficiently so that writing these sites doesn’t take too much time and attention.

For now, however, I’m going to stick with what’s working. I’m going to tackle one thing at a time.

Giving Without the Expectation of Return

Well, it’s official. Yesterday I signed the contract to resume writing at Get Rich Slowly. I’ll be supplying a minimum of two articles per month, though I hope to write more. In return, I’ll be paid nothing.

To some, this seems crazy. To others, it seems like I’m being a sucker. To me, it sounds like fun. Often my favorite projects are the ones done solely for passion, the ones where there’s no expectation of an immediate payoff or return.

No Immediate Payoff

Last January, I had a phone conversation with Seth Godin. I was excited to pitch him on the idea joining us at World Domination Summit as a speaker this year.

“Why should I do this?” he asked.

I explained that it was a chance to share his message with 3000 receptive influencers. He was unconvinced. (In retrospect, I understand. Unlike many of our speakers, Seth already has a huge platform. While I still think he’d benefit from speaking at WDS, he’d get less from it than other speakers might.)

Seth had another objection. “You’re asking me to do this for free,” he said. “Would you do this for free?”

“Yes. I did it for free last year,” I said.

“And how much are you paid to help organize the conference?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“See, I don’t get that,” he said. “Why would you do that? I understand why Chris does it. There’s a payoff for him, even if it’s not financial. He’s gathering his tribe. But what’s in it for you?”

I had no answer. There’s not anything in WDS for me — except that I love the event, and it makes me happy to help connect amazing speakers with a receptive audience. I get true joy from facilitating collaboration. It sounds hokey, but it’s true.

Ultimately, Seth didn’t speak at WDS, and I get it. He believes free speaking gigs undermine his industry, making it more difficult for him to find quality paid speaking gigs. He needs a concrete return on his investment of time. That makes perfect sense.

But I’m still willing to work on WDS — and other projects — without the expectation that I’ll receive anything in return.

Note: Before this conversation, I didn’t really “get” Seth Godin. He sounds a little mercenary from this anecdote, but that’s not the impression I got at all. Instead, I was impressed from the first moment by how sharp his mind was and how insightful his questions were. We spent twenty minutes on the phone, and in those twenty minutes I learned a lot, especially about business. Since then, I’ve read as much as I can by him. I “get” Seth Godin now. He’s a smart, smart man.

Connecting and Collaborating

For much of the past two years, much of my work has been built around giving without the expectation of return.

As I’ve mentioned before, I meet with folks several times each week. I receive lots of email from readers and colleagues and complete strangers who want to have lunch or coffee. I agree to meet as many people as possible.

These meetings have become my real work. I spend an hour or two at a time talking about whatever my companion finds important. Last week over dinner, for instance, I discussed soccer and careers and ice cream with a fellow financial blogger. The next day, I met a reader for tea and we talked about games, about getting out of debt, and about starting a business. And the following day, I spoke with two folks by phone, exploring topics like fear and rejection and knowing when to quit.

I have no agenda for these meetings, and often nothing comes of them. But that’s okay. Other times, I get a great idea. Or my companion gets a great idea. And sometimes, I’m able to provide an introduction that could lead to a cool collaboration. (“Ramit Sethi, meet Jia Jiang. Jia Jiang, meet Ramit Sethi.”)

These meetings make me happy. I feel like I’m doing something good in the world. Plus, who knows? Maybe someday all of this connecting and collaborating will lead to the Next Big Thing.

Ulterior Motives

My return to Get Rich Slowly isn’t completely altruistic, I’ll confess. There’ll be no immediate monetary benefit, but I’m hopeful that there might be future positives that come from it.

Last week, Kim asked me to make a list of all the crazy plans that have been running through my head. “You have so many business ideas,” she said. “It’s hard to keep track of them all.”

I spent an hour jotting down the different things I’d like to do, like write another book (or three), start a new business, open a store that sells financial advice, and so on. When the list was finished, I was surprised to see that in order to pursue many of the ideas — especially those that matter most to me — it would helpful to write at Get Rich Slowly again. That sealed the deal. (Though, really, I was planning to return anyhow.)

Plus, I’ll admit: I’ve met a lot of cool financial bloggers over the past year (bloggers like Paula, Joe, MMM, and Kathleen), and I’m excited about interacting with them on a daily basis. Again, it’s a chance for connecting and collaborating. It sounds like fun!

I believe that a lot of good can come when you give without the expectation of return. You produce good in other people’s lives. Often, you receive unexpected benefits. But most of all, you make the world a better place.

Note: Some might wonder how this will affect my writing here at More Than Money. The answer is: It won’t. I’ll still be writing here about my favorite non-financial topics. I have lots more to say in coming months about overcoming fear, traveling the world, and discovering happiness in everyday life.

Expertise and Expectations: Thoughts on Success — and What Comes After

wds2013-0783-IMG_8762One of my favorite parts about working on the World Domination Summit is getting to know the speakers.

This year, for instance, I fostered friendships with radio journalist Tess Vigeland and blogger/entrepreneur Jia Jiang. Earlier this month, both spoke from the WDS main stage. Tess shared her story of leaping without a safety net; Jia talked about his project to actively seek out (and learn from) rejection. (Update: The video of Jia’s WDS talk is now available!)

Today, I spoke with both Tess and Jia by phone. Jia and I mostly talked about business. And soccer. And collaboration. My conversation with Tess was more personal. She and I have remarkably similar experiences with (and reactions to) success and life. Her counsel this morning was both insightful and helpful.

The Impostor Syndrome

Last week, Tess chatted with Carl Richards (the brains behind Behavior Gap). They discussed how strange it feels to be thought an expert when you only feel like a normal person. Carl told her about the impostor syndrome, the psychological phenomenon in which you’re unable to accept your success and accomplishments. While the rest of the world may tell you how well you’re doing, you don’t think you’ve done anything noteworthy. You feel like a fraud or a phony.

This reaction is surprisingly common among the successful people I’ve spoken with in recent years. The crazy thing is that in every case that somebody has confessed to me that they feel this way, I’ve been able to see that they’re wrong, that they are worthy of the accolades they receive.

Despite this, I still feel like I don’t deserve the recognition that I receive. Just yesterday, I met with a long-time Get Rich Slowly reader. “I want to thank you, J.D.,” this man said to me over hot tea and hummus. “You changed my life. You helped me get out of debt and save money. As a result, I was able to spend a year-and-a-half doing my own thing. Thanks.”

I accepted my companion’s approbation, but the whole time I was thinking, “Dude, it wasn’t me. It was you. You did all of this. I don’t have any special knowledge. I’m no expert.”

And that’s the thing: I’m not an expert. I’m not a financial guru. If I’m an expert at anything, it’s at conveying complex topics in simple terms so that they’re understandable to everyday people. I’m an expert at telling my own story and sharing the lessons I learn from it. But perhaps my greatest skill is self-awareness — and helping others to become self-aware.

Great Expectations

Tess is having a tough time enjoying her success. Right now, she’s terrified. The reaction to her talk at WDS was so overwhelmingly positive, and so many good things came out of it (job offers, a book deal, and so on), that she feels like whatever she does next cannot hope to measure up to what she just accomplished. She feels like nothing will be as successful as that speech. She feels like she’s reached the high point of her career.

Note: There’s no audio or video of Tess’s talk yet — soon! — but you can read a transcript at her website.

I’m in a similar position. I achieved success with Get Rich Slowly. Now, I’m ready to try other things. I have many opportunities. I’m a fortunate man because I can pick and choose what I want to try next. Yet I’m reluctant to commit to anything because I feel like I won’t be able to measure up to what I’ve done before. The perfectionist in me prevents me from being decisive.

“Sometimes I just want to walk up to Starbucks and take a job as a barrista,” I told Tess on our call today.

“Right. I get it,” she said. “Because then nobody will expect anything of you.”

“Exactly!” I said. “I can work a simple job, do it well, and come home at the end of the day with nothing to worry about but making coffee in the morning.”

“But at the same time, you know there’s more you can do, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “I have this desire to do great things, to continue helping people. And I have ideas of how I can do that while making a little money at the same time.”

“It’s that goddamn ambition,” Tess said — and we both laughed because it’s true.

The bottom line: We’re afraid of failing to live up to the expectations of others, but we’re also afraid of failing to live up to our own expectations. That’s quite a trap. How does one escape it?

Self-Respect

Tess and I also talked about those strange situations where you’re able to meet your own expectations but unable to meet the expectations of others. I’m experiencing this in my own life right now, and I don’t like it. It’s new to me. (Usually, if I’m doing a poor job, I know it and so do people around me. If I’m doing well, that’s obvious too. But to be told I’m doing poorly when I think I’m doing well? That’s a new one!)

During her presentation at WDS, Tess talked about being trapped by a good thing. In her case, she was working at her dream job — but her dream job wasn’t as fulfilling as she’d hoped. In fact, in some very real ways, it was bringing her down. After a lot of deliberation, she realized she had to quit.

It’s time to leave when you have too much self-respect to stay,” Tess said on stage in front of nearly 3000 people. That’s an important message, one that resonates with me right now.

wds2013-0788-IMG_8788

“Sometimes something will slowly chip away at your sense of self-worth,” Tess told me today. “It’ll chip away at your sense of value so much that even you begin to believe it, to accept that you’re not as good as you know you are. But you have to remember that you’re better than that. Life is too short to be treated like shit. Nobody deserves that. Don’t hang out with people who don’t treat you the way you deserve to be treated.”

In the end, Tess told me something I already knew: “Sometimes you have to know when to quit.”

What’s Next?

One reason it’s difficult to quit something (even when that something is a net negative) is that we’re wired to be afraid of uncertainty. We’d rather stick with the devil we know than the devil we don’t. That’s how women get trapped in abusive relationships and workers find themselves stuck in jobs that are unfulfilling or unprofitable.

Like anyone, I’m apprehensive about the unknown. It makes me nervous to leap without a net. But the thing is, I have a net. I’m lucky, and I know it. If needed, I can take a long time to discover what life holds for me. I have the luxury of being selective about which course of action to take.

“You need to listen to your gut,” Tess told me. “Do what it tells you to do.”

She’s right.

After my conversation with Tess was over, I thought about my own talk last year at WDS. In that talk, I shared a lesson I’d learned from Derek Sivers.

Sivers says you should either be so excited by something that it makes you say “HELL YEAH!” — or you should say “no” to it. When you say “no” to the things that don’t excite you, you leave lots of room in your life to passionately pursue the few things that make you go HELL YEAH! If you want to be happy, if you want to become a better person, then focus first on the parts of your life that are most important to you. Make these your priorities. Once you’ve scheduled these things, fit the other, less important things in — if you can.

For the past few months, I’ve been exploring possible courses of action. I’ve been trying to decide what’s next for me. I need to follow my own advice — which is to follow Sivers’ advice. I need to look at all of the possibilities, and then only pursue those that make me say “HELL YEAH!”

Which direction will this take me? I don’t know, but I don’t need to know either. I’m ready to embrace the uncertainty!

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.

A Store That Sells Financial Advice?

A good friend emailed me looking for financial advice the other day. Pam wrote:

A friend of mine is getting married this summer and…blah blah blah. [The main story/question in Pam’s email isn’t germaine to this article. Plus it’s private.]

My friend really wants a financial planner-type person to help them, but she realizes those people really are for people with money to invest (and ultimately pay the financial planner) and her issue is a shortage of money.

Are there neutral party, financially educated people to advise those who are trying to make good decisions but need some help to see all the implications? Where should she look?

Responding to Pam, I was reminded of a business I wanted to start several years ago, just after I sold Get Rich Slowly. At that time, I had a number of friends and family asking for financial advice. It occurred to me that there was a market for a new kind of financial professional. Here’s what I envisioned:

  • I’d open a storefront in a small space in some sort of high-traffic area like a strip mall.
  • My store would sell personal-finance related material, including a library of high-quality books, magazines, and software. (Yes, I know the market for PF software has now vanished.)
  • The store would also offer workshops and classes about personal finance topics, including budgeting and investing.
  • One special focus of the store would be financial education for children. Another would be entrepreneurship.
  • The main feature of the store would be financial advice. People could drop in and/or make an appointment to chat with me about their financial problems. I’d listen to their situation, and then offer suggestions.

As I was writing to Pam this morning, I realized that this idea excites me even more today than it did four years ago. My skillset is well-suited to a business like this. I’d love to give it a go. There are, however, some problems.

  • First, I’m wary of the legal implications. I’d do my best to give sound financial advice, but what if a person took my advice (on investing, for example) but then lost a bunch of money. What’s my liability? Worse, what if they did not take my advice but still blamed me for losing a bunch of money. What then?
  • I’ve never owned a storefront before, and I’m not sure how much it would cost to run a place like this. (This is a minor concern, though.)
  • I’d love to offer my services for free and only charge for books and software, etc. In reality, this model probably wouldn’t work. I don’t need to make a lot of money with this venture, but I do need to make enough to break even. And, ideally, I’d make enough to live on.
  • I’m fortunate to have a free and easy lifestyle right now, one where I’m able to do what I want when I want. If I had a store, I’d have to be present when the store was open. (This could be solved by just being open whenever I wanted, but then that creates headaches for customers.)

I like the idea of creating and running some sort of “money store”, but I’m not ready to actually do anything about it. Maybe I should do some research. I could find out the legal ramifications of giving financial advice. I could figure out what sorts of products I could offer. I could learn how much it would cost to lease a space for the store.

Who knows? Maybe a couple of years from now, you’ll be able to walk into a store called Get Rich Slowly in your neighborhood…

Note: Do businesses like this already exist? Where do you find them? If you were Pam, where would you send her friend for financial advice?

On the Link Between Careers and Passion

“The path to a passionate life is often way more complex than the simple advice ‘follow your passion’ would suggest.” — Cal Newport

As one of my tasks for World Domination Summit, I recently rewatched recordings of every main-stage speaker. Though all of the speakers were great, Cal Newport’s talk has been most on my mind over the past couple of weeks.

Cal Newport is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He’s the author or several books, including the recent So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. He also writes a blog called Study Hacks, where he explores best practices for work and learning. (In his words, he’s attempting to decode “patterns of success”.)

At World Domination Summit, Cal explored the age-old wisdom to “follow your passion” when choosing a career. You’ve been told you should follow your passion, to do what you love and the money will follow. But how sound is this advice? He argues that it’s astonishingly wrong: It’s not age-old wisdom; in fact, it’s a recent idea, and one that does more harm than good.

Here’s his complete talk:

For a quick highlight from Cal’s talk, watch from 7:56 to 14:43, where he describes how Steve Jobs did not follow his passion when building Apple Computer into a world-wide brand.

As a young man, Jobs was passionate about philosophy and eastern mysticism — not electronics. Building computers was just a way to make some quick cash. But eventually, this scheme morphed into something more. And eventually, Jobs did become passionate about computers. He didn’t start out that way, though, and he certainly wasn’t following his passion when he started Apple.

In much the same way, I fell into writing about personal finance.

Money was never a passion of mine. Even today, I don’t really care about the stock market or budgeting or how to find the best savings account. I care about writing. I like to tell stories. Somehow I fell into a career of writing about money, of telling stories about personal finance. For some reason, I’m good at this, and I’ve been able to make a career out of it. But it’s not my passion.

I’m not ready to argue that you shouldn’t follow your passion. I still think that’s good advice for many people. But I think Cal Newport is on to something when he says that happiness and fulfillment are much more complex than adhering to a simple maxim. In reality, if you choose to excel what you do, the passion will often follow.

Better Use of Leisure Time: Self-Improvement Tips from 1950

I’ve written before about how profitable it can be to use your free time to engage in money-making hobbies. But even if your hobbies don’t earn you money directly, you can still use them to develop useful skills, skills that may help you earn more down the road. From 1950, here’s a short film describing the advantages of making better use of leisure time:

Time. Leisure time. Did you ever stop to think how much leisure time you really have? Some of us put our leisure time to good use, and some of us — Ken Michaels, for example — spend most of our leisure time just moping.

“Moping” has many modern forms: idle television consumption, World of Warcraft, surfing the internet. There’s nothing wrong with doing things for pleasure on occasion, but I agree that everyone can profit from a productive hobby. The film points out that better use of leisure time offers three advantages:

  1. It’s a pleasant change from work. Some people have jobs they love, but most of us just tolerate work at best. A productive hobby can provide a sense of accomplishment while being enjoyable.
  2. It improves the body and mind. Whether you build a cabinet, knit a sweater, or write a blog entry, a productive hobby can help keep your mind sharp. Hiking or biking are great ways to stay physically fit.
  3. It provides long-range goals. In the film, Ken’s father plans to build furniture for his entire house. My wife likes to can fruits and vegetables, giving us inexpensive and healthy food year-round.

After watching this video, I began to wonder: how much leisure time do we have? I found an article on the number of hours worked throughout U.S. history. From table five, here’s how a typical American male household head spent his day in 1880 and in 1995:

Activity 1880 1995
Sleep 8 8
Meals and hygiene 2 2
Chores 2 2
Travel to and from work 1 1
Work 8.5 4.7
Illness .7 .5
Left over for leisure activities 1.8 5.8

 

In 1880, the average man worked 182,100 hours during his life and had only 43,800 leisure hours. In 1995, he worked 122,400 lifetime hours and had 176,100 hours at his disposal for leisure.

This article is fascinating, by the way, though you may have to wade through some dull spots to find the good stuff. Take a look at the postwar international comparisons to see how much time Americans spend working in comparison to other countries. (And while you’re at it, compare the workloads of men and women.) Or read the section on the shorter hours movement in the United States.

Drama in Real Life: “You’re Fired!”

We just fired an employee.

Letting a person go is never an easy thing, especially at a small family business like ours. We treat our employees well, and relate to them as real men and women instead of cogs in a machine. But there are times when an employee just isn’t working out, and we’ve got to let him go.

The fellow we just fired was our 21-year-old truck driver. He’s been a little shaky since he started last year, but we attributed that to youth. While on the job, he’s been in an accident, got a ticket for running a red light, and had a total stranger call to complain about his behavior. These are not good things. But we recognized that he had potential, so we tried to foster him along.

Then his attendance — which had never been stellar — began to suffer. His girlfriend broke up with him, so he missed three days to move out of her house. His car constantly had problems. He often left early after he finished deliveries instead of staying to work in the shop. He frequently called in sick.

When he missed the first three days of work this week, we felt we no longer had a choice. This wasn’t working out. We fired him.

Firing an employee is a messy business. No small business likes to do it. There are the headaches — and risks — involved with losing that person, of course, but there’s also the trouble of finding somebody new. The cost of employee turnover is high, both in terms of time and money.

The thing that wrenches at my gut, though, is that this employee just called back in tears. “I’ve lost everything,” he told me. “If I lose this job, I’ll have literally lost everything.”

My heart was breaking for him, and as a person I wanted to say, “Come back, come back,” but I couldn’t do it. We’ve already given him a second chance. And a third. Instead I said, “I know. This sucks. It sucks for us. It really sucks for you. But we don’t have a choice.”

“You don’t understand,” he said. “I’ve lost everything. I’m living with my aunt and uncle. I don’t have a job. I’m going to lose my car on the first if I don’t have the money to pay for it. I’ve lost everything.” He sobbed.

I wanted to tell him that even if we didn’t fire him, he still wouldn’t have money for the car. He’s only been here half a day this pay period, so his paycheck would be close to zero dollars. That’s the same as being fired from a financial perspective. I didn’t say that. What I said was, “What can you do to get money quickly? Do you have anything you can sell? Isn’t there some job you can find where you could start right away?”

He sniffled into the phone.

“I’m serious,” I said. “In a case like this, you’re probably going to have to find something short-term that you feel is beneath you. Flip burgers. Pump gas. Do whatever you can do to make money. We can’t give you this job back, so you’re going to have to do what you can to find some other source of income.”

I continued: “But you should also think long-term. You’re young. You’re only 21. I know you feel like your world is crashing around you, but you’re just starting in life. The best thing you can do right now is decide what your goals are. You like cars, right? And music? Have you thought of doing something with either of these long term?”

“I don’t know,” he whimpered. “I don’t have the education to be a mechanic. I don’t have the schooling. And working in a music store doesn’t pay shit.”

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” I said. “You’ve got to think long-term, but start at the ground floor of whatever it is you want to pursue. If you really love music — and from talking to you I know you do — then start out working for cheap. It’s the best way to achieve your long-term goals. And if you need money right now, you’re going to have to do stuff you don’t really like.”

He sighed deeply. “Man, I know I’ve let you down,” he said. “But I really really really need this job. It’s all I’ve got. Everyone told me I was going to lose it, but I have so much going on in my life right now, you don’t even know. The job is my top priority, but I have so much other shit going on.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. Should I tell him about the time my father died? He started this business and was its guiding force. In the summer of 1995 he died from cancer. Since we’re a family business, everyone here was affected. But you know what? Each of us was here every single day, picking up the pieces. Should I tell him how the guys in the shop all have “so much other shit going on”, and yet they’re here every day, on time, and work a full day? Should I tell him how the foreman went through a divorce that tore him up inside, and still had perfect attendance? I didn’t tell him any of this. Instead I said:

“I know you think this job is your top priority, and I know that’s how it feels to you, but the truth is that the things that are priorities in our lives are the things we actually do. It’s one thing to say something is a priority, but it’s another thing to do it. If this job really were your priority, you would have been here instead of taking three days to move out of your girlfriend’s house. You would have done that after work. You would find another way to get here when your car is in the shop. If this job really were your priority, you would be here.”

“Look,” I said, “I know this is tough. But you have to understand that we have no choice. You’re at rock bottom right now, but you’re only 21. You can recover. You can get back on your feet. But you’ve got to make smart choices.”

We spent fifteen minutes talking. Ultimately the call wasn’t satisfying for either of us. From his perspective, he didn’t get his job back. From my perspective, he didn’t seem to understand that he needs to take responsibility for the things that happen to him. I do not deny that “shit happens”, but it’s how we react to this shit that makes up our character, and determines how successful we’ll be in life.