A self-made man

Dad at the LatheMy father died twenty-four years ago today.

As I drove to the airport this morning — I’m on a short trip to San Diego — my mind drifted back to him and what he was like.

I don’t think of Dad often anymore, and when I do it’s mostly superficial stuff: Dad was fat. His hair was wild and wavy. He could be gruff. He was funny and had a contagious laugh. Sometimes he wasn’t a very nice guy. Sometimes he was. But it’s tough to remember what Dad was like as a presence, you know?

What I remember most about him was how Dad could do anything he set his mind to. This isn’t nostalgic hero worship. It’s how he actually was. My father could teach himself to do anything he wanted. And he wanted to do a lot.

A Self-Made Man

I’m not sure where my father’s love of learning and experimenting came from. His parents were a simple, devout Mennonite couple.

When I knew Grandma and Grandpa, they managed a small farm. They had milk cows. They raised blueberries. They grew and canned vegetables. Grandpa cut his own wood. He’d been a janitor at the local high school, but by the time I was around, he was retired. Every night, he and Grandma sipped Sanka and played Scrabble. Their existence was simple, ordered, and serene.

My father wasn’t simple. His life wasn’t ordered. He was not a serene man. He was complex. He was messy. He was boisterous. He was a force of nature. (I come by my ADD honestly.) He had many interests, and he liked to indulge them all. Continue reading

Permission and Control

As children, we’re conditioned to ask permission whenever we want to do something. You need permission from your parents to leave the dinner table or to go outside and play. You need permission from your teacher to use the bathroom.

Even as adults, we feel compelled to request permission. You need permission from your boss to leave work early. You need permission from your spouse to grab drinks with your friends instead of weeding the garden. You need permission from the city to build a shed in the backyard.

As a result, most of us have developed an external locus of control. That is, we subconsciously believe we need permission to do anything.

In personality psychology, the term locus of control describes how people view the world around them, and where they place responsibility for the things that happen in their lives. Though this might sound complicated, the concept is actually rather simple.

  • If you have an internal locus of controL, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by your own choices and actions. You believe that you are responsible for who you are and what you are.
  • If you have an external locus of control, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by forces beyond your control, by your environment or luck or fate. You believe that others are responsible for who you are and what you are.

Most people respond to the system of rewards and punishments that has evolved in the culture that surrounds them. If your culture prizes material gain, wealth becomes important to you. If it emphasizes familial relationships, family becomes important to you.

But when you live like this — when you make decisions based on your social environment — the only happiness you can obtain is fleeting. As a result, many people suffer some degree of angst, of anxiety or dread. “Is that all there is?” we wonder, when we pause to reflect upon our lives. “Isn’t there something more?”

There is something more.

Lasting happiness can be achieved, but not by being a puppet whose strings are pulled by situation and society. To achieve long-term happiness (and meaning), you have to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of your external circumstances. You have to create a system of internal rewards that are under your own power.

Like most folks, I grew up with an external locus of control. I thought my fate was largely at the mercy of the people and events around me. This wasn’t a conscious belief, but the notion was always there, underlying everything I thought or did. I waited for things to happen. I needed permission to take risks or try new things. As a result, I felt stuck. I was trapped in a world I did not enjoy. I wanted something more, but something more never arrived.

In time, I realized that if I wanted something more, it was up to me to obtain it. Gradually, my locus of control shifted from an external focus to an internal focus. I decided that I am responsible for my own destiny and my own happiness. It’s up to me to live a life I love.

I am responsible for my own well-being, and you are responsible for yours.

If you’re unhappy, nobody else can make things better for you. You must make things better for yourself. Focus on the things you can control, and use that control to fix the other things that are broken. In this way, you’ll gradually gain confidence and greater control of your future well-being.

You live in a world of your own design. You have the power to choose. You create your own certainty. Life as you want to live, and do so without regret. Give yourself permission to do so.

Caveat: It’s okay to seek happiness by changing jobs or moving to San Diego. It’s not okay to steal your neighbor’s television or to drive on the wrong side of the road. Remember the Golden Rule. Enjoy your life without diminishing the ability of others to enjoy theirs.

In Order to Lead, First You Must Follow

To prepare for two upcoming projects (an Entrepreneur article on work-life balance and my upcoming Pioneer Nation presentation on time management), I’ve been re-reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

This morning, I happened upon Franklin’s story of starting the Philadelphia public library. When he publicized the “scheme” (as he calls it), he had trouble selling subscriptions. (In 1730, libraries were formed by pooling mutual collections of books and then asking people for donations or “subscriptions”.) Eventually, he found a way to get more members.

The objections and reluctances I met with in soliciting the subscriptions made me soon feel the impropriety of presenting one’s self as the proposer of any useful project, that might be supposed to raise one’s reputation in the smallest degree above that of one’s neighbors, when one has need of their assistance to accomplish that project.

I therefore put myself as much as I could out of sight, and stated it as a scheme of a number of friends, who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought lovers of reading. In this way my affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practised it on such occasions, and, from my frequent successes, can heartily recommend it. The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid.

If it remains awhile uncertain to whom the merit belongs, some one more vain than yourself will be encouraged to claim it, and then even envy will be disposed to do you justice by plucking those assumed feathers and restoring them to their right owner.

This passage gave me a flash of insight.

Interviewers often ask me how it is that Get Rich Slowly became successful. I generally attribute its success to the power of story and my willingness to interact with the audience. But this anecdote from Franklin made me realize there’s another piece to the puzzle.

One of the reasons Get Rich Slowly became successful is because for a l-o-n-g time, I claimed no special knowledge about finance. Instead, I merely relayed the work of others. Sure, my articles were espousing particular viewpoints — “debt is bad!” “index funds are awesome!” — but I wasn’t presenting these viewpoints as my own. Instead, I was summarizing the work and opinions of outside authorities.

By doing this, I kept my ego out of the equation. It wasn’t an intentional thing (other than the fact that I had no special knowledge to impart), but it was beneficial nonetheless.

This reminds me of a lesson that I learned at a leadership camp in high school. We were talking about how to build consensus and how to get people to buy into your vision. As an example, we looked at Watership Down, the story about a band of rabbits searching for a new home. Our instructor pointed out that Hazel, one of the two rabbits that headed the group, had an interesting leadership style. He never took credit for anything. Instead, he let other rabbits make suggestions and then Hazel pushed the agenda forward. He was certainly acting as a leader, but he was taking no credit or glory.

Another example: Kim and I started watching Survivor: Nicaragua last night. Early on, Marty decides he doesn’t like former football coach Jimmy Johnson and wants him eliminated from the game. Marty asks several people to vote Jimmy J. off the island. But when he speaks with the ego-centric Jimmy T., he takes a different approach. With Jimmy T., Marty acts submissively. “What do you think we should do?” he asks.

Jimmy T., who hasn’t an ounce of humility in his body, says he wants to get rid of Jimmy Johnson because he feels like the latter doesn’t respect him. Marty agrees, of course, and he makes Jimmy T. feel like he’s the owner of the idea. (Jimmy T.’s arrogance — hell, it’s hubris — leads him to be the next player eliminated from the game.)

The bottom line: If you want to persuade, don’t put forth ideas as your own. Remove your ego from the equation. Even if you have no desire for attention or glory, don’t claim ownership of ideas when you can attribute them to another source.

The Lottery of Life

Note: Today, as with every Monday during 2014, I’m publishing a short “chapter” from my unpublished ebook about fear, happiness, and freedom. Astute readers will recognize that much this particular chapter appeared as blog post at this site last September.

My work nowadays involves meeting and chatting with folks from all walks of life. They email me to say, “Want to have lunch?” and I say, “Of course!” (After all, I’m all about the power of yes.) We talk about podcasts or travel or bicycling or comic books. Whatever strikes our fancy. When we’ve finished our tea or our Thai noodles, nothing seems to have happened — not on the outside, anyhow.

What’s happened, though, is that we’ve both received lottery tickets. By meeting and chatting and sharing ideas, we’ve been given tickets in the lottery of life.

Exchanging lottery tickets with Jim and Pete

I also get a ticket whenever I try something new. (Because I now try new things all of the time, I’m accumulating a lot of lottery tickets.)

I get tickets when I say “yes” to things that are scary or difficult too. When I spoke at World Domination Summit in 2012 — something that scared the hell out of me! — I got a lottery ticket. When I flew to Ecuador last September to talk with people about Financial Independence, I got a lottery ticket. When I introduce myself to strangers or “important people”, I get a lottery ticket.

But note that these tickets are rarely handed to me. To get them, I have to take risks. I have to move outside my comfort zone. As much as I enjoy sitting on the couch in the evening watching “Downton Abbey” with Kim, neither one of us receives a lottery ticket for doing so. To get tickets, we have to do things.

Colleen earns a lottery ticket…

The prizes in this lottery are many and varied.

When I learned Spanish, for instance, I received a winning lottery ticket that has paid off in all sorts of ways. I made new friends (my tutor, my English student), traveled to new places (Perú, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador), read new authors, tried new food, watched new movies, and so much more.

When I was in Quito last fall, I rode the teleférico, the cable-car that carries visitors 4000 feet up the side of a nearby volcano. During the fifteen-minute ride, I chatted with two couples that spoke only Spanish. If I hadn’t learned Spanish, I couldn’t have understood them, much less conversed. But because I do speak Spanish, I enjoyed a pleasant chat about one couple’s life in Venezuela and the other couple’s life in Quito. Plus I garnered a restaurant recommendation for later that evening. yet another small prize I won simply because I took the time to learn another language.


Any time I do something — especially something new — there’s a chance my life will be vastly improved in the long run.

Not every meeting and not every experience pays off — in fact, some are disasters — but many do provide a reward. Often enough, those rewards are enormous. Winning lottery tickets are so common and so fruitful, in fact, that I’ve almost become addicted to playing the lottery of life. I relish making new acquaintances, going new places, and trying new things.

I used to think I was unlucky. Good things happened to other people, and never to me. Everyone else had more fun than I did. Now, seven years since learning to say “yes” to life, I know the truth. Wishing won’t make you happy or wealthy, and good things don’t just happen. Luck isn’t magic or a gift from the gods.

You make your own luck.


Winning the Jackpot

Seven years ago, taught myself to say “yes” to the opportunities life presented. My newfound willingness to meet people and try things has paid off in some big ways.

In 2008, for instance, I received an email from a blog reader. He’d be in Portland the following week and wanted to know if I had time to meet for lunch. “Sure,” I said. “Let’s do it.”

I met the reader and his wife at a local Thai restaurant. We had a great conversation. I was impressed by his story and his drive. I gave him blogging tips. He told me stories about traveling the world. His wife showed me how to stretch my injured hamstring.

Over the next year, my new friend shared a couple of guest posts at Get Rich Slowly. He stayed at my house one night when he got stranded in Portland.

Eventually, this guy — whose name was Chris Guillebeau — moved to Portland. Our friendship grew. In 2010, I joined Chris for a train ride from Chicago to Portland. On that trip, he shared a crazy idea. “I want to create a conference and hold it in Portland. I want you to be on the planning team,” he said. For the next three years, I helped to organize the World Domination Summit, which has grown into a grand party for 3000 people.

Success breeds success. When you do something well, you open doors to new opportunities. When you fail to act, doors remain closed.

In my case, saying “yes” to lunch with one stranger has had a ripple effect that continues to spread throughout my entire life. Because of that one action, I’ve met hundreds of incredible people, some of whom have become close friends. I’ve traveled to Norway. I’ve spoken on stage before one thousand people. And so on. This very article — and the ebook I’m currently scrambling madly to finish — is a direct result of me overcoming my fears and taking a tiny risk. The downsides were negligible, but the payoff has been enormous.

This is only one example of the huge jackpots I’ve received from saying “yes” to opportunities that I would have ignored before. At times, it feels like I’ve won the lottery. In fact, the lottery is the perfect metaphor for what happens when you embrace new experiences and new opportunities.

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?


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.


“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!

The Gift Economy and Social Capital

On Friday, Kim and I had dinner with Jason and Kyra Bussanich. Jason is a chiropractor in Lake Oswego and his wife Kyra owns a popular gluten-free bakery. (Kyra also won an episode of Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars”.)

Over dinner, we touched briefly on the notion of a gift economy. Wikipedia has a great definition of this concept:

A gift economy is a mode of exchange where valuables are given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards. In contrast to a barter economy or a market economy, social norms and custom govern gift exchange, rather than an explicit exchange of goods or services for money or some other commodity. Gift exchange is frequently “embedded” in political, kin, or religious institutions.

The next day, Kim and I joined Kyra and her mother to see the Dalai Lama speak at an environmental summit here in Portland. At one point, the moderator posed this question to the panelists: “On some level, the human experience is all about consumption. Life lives by consuming life. But how do we moderate our consumption to reasonable levels?” All of the answers seemed very similar:

  • Oregon governor John Kitzhaber said the challenge is to build an economic system that is not built on the assumption of unlimited growth and unlimited consumption. He pointed out (as I often have) that beyond a certain level, increased income does not increase happiness. Kitzhaber also stressed the importance of social capital, the mutual goodwill we create when we interact with our friends and neighbors.
  • Environmental activist David Suzuki said that because of the effects of the Great Depression, “The engine of our economy runs on consumption, and we don’t focus on the things that truly make us happy. We think of prosperity in a weird way. It’s not our things that make us wealthy — it’s our family and it’s our friends.” [For the record, studies show that health and the quality of personal relationships are the best predictors of personal happiness.]
  • Andrea Durbin, executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council, joined the chorus. “We need to make better choices every day so that our economy isn’t driving by our consumption habits,” she said. “Consuming less will not only help our environment but improve our quality of life.”
  • And, of course, the Dalai Lama took a very buddhist approach to the question of happiness: “Inner wealth is most important,” he said, “and that comes from human relationships. The ultimate source of a happy life and a peaceful life is within ourselves, not money.”
The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama actually has a great sense of humor. I like him.

A supplemental economy

As I listened to the panelists respond to this question, I was again reminded of the gift economy. This is a concept I first discovered while reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s science-fiction trilogy about the colonization of Mars. In the second book, Green Mars, the colonists grapple with constructing a new economy, one that’s neither capitalist nor socialist, but something more sustainable. As part of that, a sort of background gift economy emerges where individual outposts share their surplus with others. It’s an important part of a larger economic model.

There are some obvious pragmatic problems to the gift economy. It’s a utopian ideal that operates best in the rarified air of argument and hypothesis, and is less likely to succeed (let alone be implemented) in the real world.

But while such a system might not be practical for an actual global (or national or municipal) economy, a culture of gift-giving can be an excellent supplemental economy, a voluntary means of building mutual goodwill among family, friends, and neighbors. A gift economy builds social capital, bringing communities closer together.

Some examples:

  • If I have things that I do not use (as is often the case), and I pass these things on to people who will use them, I’m increasing their wealth and happiness at no cost to myself. This isn’t necessarily an altruistic action, but it is an action that improves the overall wealth of the community.
  • When I give, whether time or material goods, to another person, I’m not just improving her physical life. I’m also creating, for lack of a better term, positive mental energy. I’m fostering mutual goodwill.
  • When a group of people give together — especially when they give time — the result is often greater than the sum of the parts. Just as a group mentality can feed negative emotions and lead to negative consequences, the same group mentality can have positive results. After the Boston Marathon bombing, media outlets trumpeted the actions of the folks who rushed toward danger in order to help the wounded. My colleagues Nate St. Pierre and J. Money founded a group called Love Drop, a “a micro-giving network of people who unite as a community to help one person or family a month”. Etcetera.

Though I haven’t used it myself, I hear that FreeCycle is a great example of the gift economy. Here’s the group’s mission statement: “Our mission is to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources & eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community.”

Note: Here’s a short essay on how gift culture builds reputation among computer programmers.)

The extraordinary power of compound kindness

We don’t need to sacrifice our own interests to participate in the gift culture or to generate social capital. It’s not a zero-sum game. Often, we can create win-win situations that allow everyone involved to profit.

The older I get, the more I’m convinced of the importance of social capital.

Social capital comes from building a broad network of relationships, a network that you can draw upon to help yourself and help others. This isn’t networking in the smarmy, slimy sense, but in the authentic “I’m your neighbor and your friend” sense. A complex network of people will have thousands (millions!) of connections, creating a powerful web of support. (You can see great examples of this in Ben Franklin’s autobiography and in Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone.)

These networks are usually built through everyday kindnesses. These actions compound (just like compound interest) to yield larger returns in the future.

The broader your circle of friends, the bigger your family, the better you know your neighbors, and the more involved you are in your community, the more social capital you have. (And the more social capital you contribute to others — it’s a reciprocal thing!)

“Building community is the adhesiveness that holds us together as a society. Without community, we break down into individual consumers.” — John Kitzhaber

Four Years Later

Four years ago today, my best friend killed himself. Paul (aka “Sparky”) and I didn’t see each other much in the years leading up to his death, but every time we did, I learned something about myself and about life. I miss him. To commemorate Paul’s passing, today I want to share the eulogy I wrote for his memorial service.

Paul was one of my best friends for 25 years, but we never could remember when we’d met. It must have been in junior high school. In my eighth grade yearbook, he wrote: “Your a nice friend and a good bud”

Despite this, we had no real memory of each other until sophomore year of high school. We were seated together in Mr. Nichols’ second-period American Lit class. Paul was sat behind me on the left edge of the classroom where we quickly formed a coalition of wisecracks. Who knew John Steinbeck could be so hilarious?

Before long, Paul was my best friend. We shared a locker. We shared music. We shared clothes. And we began to share ideas. From the start, Paul and I had radically different world views, though that did not stop our friendship. Instead, we each saw it as a challenge: how could we persuade the other fellow that he was wrong.

1987-senior-class-willI remember one night I drove Paul to a football game in Newberg. I don’t know if we ever got out of the car. We sat in the parking lot and debated the existence of god and the nature of the universe. When the game was over, we drove home, more satisfied than if had actually sat in the bleachers and showed school spirit.

We shared soccer together, too. Paul was always the better player. He had more passion. He was more competitive. At one soccer practice at the start of our senior year, the coach had us play a game of “mob tag”. Paul took it upon himself to tag me, which he did by throwing me to the ground and falling on top of me. I was angry with him after that. He tore up my knee. For the rest of the season, he ran up and down the field while I hobbled on the sidelines, walking on crutches.

I forgave him for that, though. How could I help it? His laughter and enthusiasm and spontaneity were the perfect counterpoint to my own contemplative nature. He was yin and I was yang. He dragged me to see Frankie Goes to Hollywood in concert. I roped him into joining me for Bible study. He convinced me to go out dancing on a Friday night. I persuaded him to stay at home and watch foreign films with me the next.

We went to different colleges, but we still made time to see each other. During our freshman year, we managed to scrounge up enough cash to buy tickets to see U2 play in Vancouver, B.C. We boarded a bus in Portland at 9am, rode all day, watched the concert, and then rode back home all night. We were dead tired, but it was a transcendent experience.

As we grew older, I settled down. I got married and bought a house. Paul did not. Paul was a nomad. He worked odd jobs and traveled. But a few times every year, we’d get together to play racquetball or to go play videogames at the nickel arcade or to ride our bikes. Sometimes we’d argue about philosophy. Paul was always challenging me, and I tried to challenge him.

Summer 1998 — Paul and I rode our bikes 50 miles through the Oregon countryside

In 2002, I began to play soccer again for the first time in 15 years. I joined an adult league in Portland. My career was short-lived. In the second game of the season, my knee gave out, that old high-school injury coming back to haunt me. The doctor told me I’d torn my ACL and would need to have surgery. Soon after this — but before the surgery — Paul came up to see a movie with me. We were climbing a wet and grassy slope to reach the theater when my knee gave out. I fell to the muddy ground. “This is your fault, you know,” I said angrily over my popcorn. But I couldn’t stay angry for long. We laughed about it, and before the previews began we were reminiscing about the high school soccer team.

And that’s the thing about Paul. He always made me laugh. He pushed my comfort zone, and made life fun. He encouraged me to try new things, and to be better than I was. He believed in me more than I believed in myself. He made me a better person.

Paul is gone now — but he’s not. I’m reminded of him every day in countless little ways. First thing in the morning, when I get out of bed and walk downstairs, I have to shuffle sideways like a crab. My bum knee hurts. That’s Paul. When my knee hurts, I think of Paul, every single time. It’s as if a piece of him is in me. When I hear U2, I think of him. When I get on my bike, I think of him. And every time I meet and talk with one of you, I will think of him, too.

Four years later, I think about Paul all of the time. I think, especially, of the memorial service at the University of Oregon. An overflow crowd squeezed into a room in the library. We shared memories of our friend. A week later, after the church memorial service in Portland, a group of us went out for drinks. That brought a bunch of us together who hadn’t really reconnected in years. Four years later, we’re still in touch.

I’ve regained some old friendships because of Paul’s death. It reminds me of a Spanish proverb that means a lot to me: No hay mal que por bien no venga. In English, that would be “There is no bad from which good does not come.” Or, more colloquially, “Every cloud has a silver lining.” I’m grateful for the friendships that have been rekindled due to his departure, but I still miss Paul very much.

What is Love? Looking for a Definition of Love

For most of my adult life, I’ve been a pretty rational guy. I’ve prided myself in a scientific mind, one unclouded by spirituality and mysticism. Yet as I’ve experienced profound personal changes over the past few years, I’ve found myself more and more fascinated by abstract (or “spiritual”) questions, the likes of which I haven’t thought about in decades.

One topic I find especially fascinating is love. What is love? What does it mean to be “in love”? What are the different types of love? How can we show others that we love them? And what does it mean to love yourself?

While most of my exploration of love has taken place slowly and internally, I’ve also had some interesting external experiences with the notion of love. First, and most obviously, I chose to end a long-term marriage. That event forced me to dive deep into the nature of love. But there have been other experiences as well:

  • I have a friend who is conducting what she calls a “love project”. She’s methodically watching every movie she can find about love. She’s also reading books and talking to people. This project has no real purpose other than to help her understand what love is and how it manifests. Her only conclusion after six months of study so far? “Love is messy.”
  • I have another friend who seems to manifest love in nearly everything she does. It’s a very subtle thing, but if you watch her closely, you can see that in her interactions with strangers, in her relationships with friends, and even in her career choice, she’s motivated by love. A few months ago, I told her what I saw. She was surprised. “It’s true,” she said. “I do act out of love, but nobody’s ever noticed it before.”
  • As part of my work, I’m involved with a couple of large projects. One of them — which you can probably guess, but which will remain nameless — seeks to edify people, to move them to positive change. I was speaking with the man behind this project last summer, asking him what the project’s true purpose was. “It’s about empowerment,” he told me. “And love. Without using those words.” Suddenly everything made sense. Our work with this project is to spread love.

All this thinking about love has come to the fore recently because I’ve been reading (and enjoying) M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. I’ve mentioned this book before, and I’m sure to mention it again. It’s had a profound effect on me. It articulates much of my personal philosophy in ways that I’ve been unable to do. Plus, it’s pushing my own personal development in new and exciting directions.

The Road Less Traveled

The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott PeckBriefly put, The Road Less Traveled is about love and spiritual growth.

To begin, Peck explores the idea of discipline. “Life is difficult,” he writes, but we gain purpose and meaning in life through meeting and solving life’s problems. Mature adults are disciplined, and this discipline manifests itself in the following abilities:

  • Deferred gratification, the ability to put up with discomfort in the short-term to obtain a reward in the long-term.
  • Acceptance of responsibility, the ability to own up to your thoughts and actions instead of blaming others.
  • Dedication to reality, the ability to deal with the world as it actually is, the ability to be completely honest.
  • Balancing, the ability to be flexible, to handle conflicting demands and desires.

But why be disciplined? What is the motive to develop self-control? Peck says that the bottom line is love.

What is Love?

The first part of The Road Less Traveled is devoted to discipline. The last part explores the notion of religion (or, more properly, spirituality) and “grace” (or luck or happenstance). But the middle of the book is one long lecture on the nature of love.

According to Peck, Love is not a feeling. It’s an action. It’s an extension of the self, a conscious effort to grow the self — or someone else:

I define love thus: The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

I love this definition because it moves beyond the idea of romantic love (which Peck calls a myth) to something more profound. And because the definition emphasizes the importance of self-love. Peck writes:

We cannot forsake self-discipline and at the same time be disciplined in our care for another. We cannot be a source of strength unless we nurture our own strength.

I’m reminded of something my friend Sally once said to me: “Self-care comes first.”

Peck stresses that love is not dependency. It is not self-sacrifice. Nor is it the same as “being in love” (which he calls cathexis, or a collapse of ego boundaries where you lose your sense of self). Instead, love is a choice. It requires effort. Peck says that love is a form of courage directed to nurture spiritual growth in ourselves and/or another person.

The principal form taken by the work of love is attention. When we love somebody — ourselves or another — we set aside other concerns to devote attention to the object of our affection. When we love our children, we give them attention. When we love our partner, we want to spend time with them. When we love ourselves, we spend time on personal development. The most important way to express love, to give attention, is to listen.

But love involves more than just attention. Love also requires independence. When you love yourself, you develop the courage to leave behind the parts of your life that were broken. It also requires the courage to spend time alone, by yourself, apart from the ones you love. “Genuine love not only respects the individuality of the other but actually seeks to cultivate it, even at the risk of separation or loss,” Peck writes.

It is only when one has take the leap into the unknown of total selfhood, psychological independence, and unique individuality that one is free to proceed along still higher paths of spiritual growth, and free to manifest love in its greatest dimensions.

Commitment is the foundation, the bedrock of any loving relationship. You cannot foster growth in yourself or anyone else if you are not constantly concerned with that growth. This reminds me of Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability and Jonathan Fields’ writing about uncertainty. In order to love, you must be willing to be vulnerable in the face of uncertainty, you must give yourself without the expectation of anything in return.

Peck argues that love also entails the risk of confrontation, of criticism. “Mutual loving confrontation is a significant part of all successful and meaningful human relationships,” he writes. “Without it the relationship is either unsuccessful or shallow.”

He also says that love is disciplined. To love well, you must properly manage your feelings. You cannot love everyone. And, as has been said, you cannot love others if you do not love yourself. When you love, you must “order your behavior” in a way that contributes to your own (or somebody else’s) spiritual growth.

All of this builds toward one interesting argument: Peck believes that psychotherapy — the work of counseling — is love:

For the most part, mental illness is caused by an absence of or defect in the love that a particular child required from its particular parents for successful maturation and spiritual growth. It is obvious, then, that in order to be healed through psychotherapy the patient must receive from the psychotherapist at least a portion of the genuine love of which the patient was deprived.

Love in the Larger World

The Road Less Traveled starts with discipline, moves to love, and ends with religion. Peck writes:

As human beings grow in discipline and love and life experience, their understanding of the world and their place in it naturally grows apace. Conversely, as people fail to grow in discipline, love and life experience, so does their understanding fail to grow.

Peck says that this “understanding” is each person’s religion. You might call it spirituality. Or a blueprint for life. Peck says that our blueprints are constructed primarily from our childhood family life. Our maps of reality are “microcosms of the family”, and they’re useful only insofar as these maps reflect the realities of the world around us. The problem is that often these maps only work for the particular family in which we were raised.

Note: Long-time readers will recognize this as being exactly like the notion of financial blueprints, which I’ve written about for five years now. Our attitudes about money are formed largely by our parents’ attitudes about money. What Peck is saying is that our mental blueprints are about more than money. They’re about all of life.

Ultimately, Peck argues, our aim in life is continued personal development, continued spiritual growth, ongoing self-love. As part of that, “a major and essential task in the process of one’s spiritual development is the continuous work of bringing one’s self-concept into progressively greater congruence with reality.”

Over the past five or six years, I’ve been on a mission to discover who I am. I’ve been learning to love myself. And I’ve been learning how to love other people. It’s been a fantastic experience, and I’m fortunate to have (or, in Peck’s words, “grace has provided”) friends who are in similar journeys and who are willing to share the experience.

This process isn’t over. It never will be. My aim is to continue learning until I die. Next up, I’ll be reading Carl Rogers’ On Becoming a Person and How People Change by Allen Wheelis. When I’m finished with those books, I’ll share what I learn with you. Because I don’t just want to nurture my own spiritual growth — I want to nurture yours too.