by J.D. Roth
Note: While working on the videos for World Domination Summit 2012, I had a chance to watch a bit of my own presentation. Because it does a good job of capturing who I am at this moment and what I believe, I wanted to share it here at More Than Money. The text version of this talk first appeared at Get Rich Slowly in July.
My name is J.D. and I am an introvert. Or at least I used to be. As a boy, my introversion created problems. I was awkward physically and I was awkward socially. I was strange.
My awkwardness only increased as I grew older. I hung around with the other strange kids. We were nerds. There was a band of us, about six boys, and as we progressed through the grades, we gravitated toward each other. In our free time, we’d hang out to read comic books or play Dungeons and Dragons.
This was back during the late seventies and early eighties, and we were among the first to have computers. While other kids were doing what other kids did, we were home learning to write our own computer programs, reading Superman and Spiderman comics, or pretending to be barbarians or wizards or trolls.
At the time, I didn’t know I was different from other kids. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I liked what I was doing and I liked my friends. Life was good.
Things changed, though, when I got to junior high school. Gradually I became aware of a certain social hierarchy. What’s more, I became aware that my friends and I were at the bottom of this social hierarchy.
We were always the last kids picked for kickball teams. Nobody wanted to be our lab partners in biology. When my pal Jeremy carried his Dungeons and Dragons books from class to class, the other kids would knock them to the floor if he got up to sharpen his pencil.
One day in algebra class, the girl behind me — Janine was her name — the girl behind me wrote something on the back of my shirt. I kept turning around to ask her to stop, but she kept writing. The other kids kept snickering. After class, I went to the bathroom to see what she’d written. There, in big block letters, was the word DICK. She’d written DICK on the back of my shirt.
That’s who I was. I was the bottom of the junior-high pecking order. I was a nerd. A geek. A loser. The other kids thought I was a dick. And slowly but surely, I began to believe them. In fact, as eighth grade progressed, I sank into a deep depression. I missed school. I withdrew. I became suicidal.
I remember coming home from school after one particularly horrific day — maybe even the same day Janine wrote the word DICK on the back of my shirt — I remember coming home to our trailer house, searching the cupboards for something to eat. I opened one of the kitchen drawers, and there I found a sharp knife. I took it out and sat at the table. For maybe five or ten minutes, I sat staring at the blade. I ran it over my wrist once or twice. “I could kill myself,” I thought. “I could kill myself and this would all be over.”
Fortunately, I didn’t have the guts.
Instead, I put the knife away and went to my bedroom to read X-Men comic books.
That was a turning point for me, a key experience in my young life. As I sat at the table with knife in hand, I made a decision. I knew I wasn’t a dick. I knew I was a good guy. Why didn’t other people? I decided to change. I decided that the next year, when I started high school, I’d do new things. I’d make new friends.
And so I did.
Making a Change
When I started high school, I intentionally made an effort to meet new people and to try new things.
Basically, I began to say “yes” to every opportunity that came along. I tried new things and then focused my energy on the things I enjoyed most, things like business classes and writing. I worked hard to become more involved with these activities. I edited the literary magazine, for instance, and took ninth place in the nation at Business Math.
The bottom line is I looked at who I had been, didn’t like what I saw, and then made the decision to change. At the age of fourteen, I underwent a personal transformation. As a result, life became more interesting and I became happier. Whereas a lot of people have bad memories of high school, I loved it. It was an amazing time in my life.
After high school, I went to college. I graduated. I got married. I went to work for my father. I grew complacent with my life, and as I grew complacent, I gradually became unhappy again, just as I had been when I was a boy.
By 2004, I had accumulated over $35,000 in consumer debt. But my debt wasn’t my only problem. My life was a mess. I was overweight, and had been for years. I hated my job. I wasted my free time watching TV and playing World of Warcraft. And I was beginning to realize that there might be problems with my marriage.
The Man I Want to Be
During the summer of 2004, my wife and I bought a new house. It was the home of our dreams: a century-old farmhouse on half an acre close to Portland. It seemed expensive, but the bank said we could afford it, and we believed them. Things became problematic, however, when we were forced to spend several thousand dollars making repairs.
I felt overwhelmed. I was drowning in debt, and the expenses were flooding in. I’d been living paycheck-to-paycheck for more than a decade, just staying afloat as the water slowly rose around me. Now I felt myself sinking below the surface. I’d reached the end of my credit and the end of my cash.
Fortunately, a friend threw me a life preserver. He noticed I was struggling with money, and he suggested I read a book about getting out of debt. I read that book. And then I read another. And another. Within a few months, I’d read a dozen books about personal finance, and was starting to apply the lessons I’d learned to my own life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I noticed an immediate change. I paid off a couple of debts. I felt better about money and I felt better about myself.
In April of 2005, I wrote an article for my personal blog, an article I called “Get Rich Slowly”. It summarized all of the books I’d been reading about personal finance, and tried to explain what sorts of themes they had in common. For whatever reason, my little article on getting rich slowly attracted a lot of attention from around the web. It resonated with a lot of readers.
A year later — on 15 April 2006 — I started a blog about money, a blog I called GetRichSlowly.org. At the time, it just seemed like a simple way to make a few extra bucks. I figured maybe it’d help me pay off my debt a little more quickly.
I had no idea what it would become.
It took me three years of hard work, but that intense focus paid off. I’d dug myself out of debt and, in fact, had set aside a sizeable nest egg.
Who I Am Today
The thing is, it’s not just my financial life I turned around.
After I paid off my debt, I began to wonder how I could apply the lessons I’d learned to other parts of my life. If I could transform my personal finances, could I transform my fitness? My personality? My relationships? Turns out, the answer is “yes”. In fact, it’s a resounding yes.
Over the past few years, I’ve:
But the biggest change of all, and the most important one, is that today I’m happy. That’s probably the defining facet of my existence. A decade ago, I was unhappy. Even a year ago, I was unhappy. Not today. Sure, there are things I want to change, but have no doubt: I have an awesome life.
I feel lucky. I feel blessed. I want others to feel this happy too.
That’s enough background. You don’t care about my life. What you want to know is how you can apply this information to your life. How can you get started with change? I believe it all begins by learning to say “yes”.
The first key to transforming your life is to be open to new experiences, to let your environment change you. But most of us are too complacent. Or we’re afraid to try new things. I know that was certainly true in my case.
The Power of Yes
For much of my adult life, I was shackled by fear. This fear of failure confined me to a narrow comfort zone. Then, five years ago, I read a book called Impro by Keith Johnstone. It blew my mind.
Impro is a book about stage-acting, about improvisational theater, the kind of stuff you used to see on the show Whose Line Is It Anyway? I’m not an actor, nor do I want to become one. But several of the techniques the book describes are applicable to everyday life.
I was particularly impressed by the need for improvisational actors to accept whatever is offered to them on stage. In order for a scene to flow, an actor has to accept whatever situation arises and just go with it. Here’s how the author explains it:
Once you learn to accept offers, then accidents can no longer interrupt the action. […] This attitude makes for something really amazing in the theater. The actor who will accept anything that happens seems supernatural; it’s the most marvelous thing about improvisation: you are suddenly in contact with people who are unbounded, whose imagination seems to function without limit.
These ‘Offer-block-accept’ games have a use quite apart from actor training. People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding.
That passage had a profound effect on me. I thought about it for days. “What if I did this in real life?” I wondered. “What if I accepted offers and stopped blocking them? Could this help me overcome my fears?” I began to note the things that I blocked and accepted. To my surprise, I blocked things constantly — I made excuses not to do things because I was afraid of what might happen if I accepted.
I made a resolution. I decided that instead of saying “no” to things because I was afraid of them, I’d “just say yes”. That became my working motto: “Just say yes”. Any time someone asked me to do something, I agreed (as long as it wasn’t illegal and didn’t violate my own personal code of conduct). I began to put this philosophy into practice in lots of little ways.
Even to this day — five years after beginning the habit — I practice the power of yes. For instance, during the past few weeks:
Yes, these are small things. I know that. But, in time, small changes can become big changes. For instance, I’m hooked on the Bikram yoga. It might seem crazy, but I love sitting in a 105-degree room for 90 minutes at a time, sweating and stretching. I’m hooked. This feels like it could be a permanent part of my life.
Plus, the power of “yes” has led me to make larger changes to my life too. It’s exposed me to things I never would have done before.
These things will seem minor to the natural extroverts here. But I’m not a natural extrovert. I’m an introvert. For me, these were big steps. These experiences were new, and I wouldn’t have had them if I hadn’t forced myself to just say yes.
Overcoming Fear of Failure
Most of my experiences from the “just say yes” campaign have been positive, but not all of them. I’ve had some failures, too. That’s okay: I’ve learned more from the bad experiences than from the good.
A few years ago, for instance, a Seattle radio station asked me to do a telephone interview about retirement saving. “I’m not a retirement expert,” I told the woman who contacted me, but then I realized I was making excuses. I was blocking because I was scared. “But I’ll do it,” I said.
Ultimately my radio appearance was a disaster. I got stage fright and became tongue-tied. I was like a deer in the headlights. But you know what? I don’t care. I failed, but at least I tried. After the interview, I e-mailed the woman to apologize and to ask for advice. She was sympathetic, and gave me some great pointers.
Since then, I’ve done dozens of radio interviews. Each one has been better than the last. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was invited to do a ten minute interview with a station in San Antonio. The hosts kept me on for half an hour. After it was over, they e-mailed to see if I’d be willing to chat with them again in the future.
“Of course,” I said. After all, I’m all about saying yes.
Of course, saying “yes” to so many things can create complications. For one, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s easy to over-commit. Because of this, it’s important to balance your enthusiasm with a little bit of focus.
If personal transformation begins by being willing to try everything, it’s put into practice by choosing to do almost nothing.
A few months ago, my Spanish tutor said something else that surprised me. We were talking about the books I’ve been reading and my plans for the coming months, including WDS. “Eres un mago del tiempo,” she told me. “You’re a magician of time.” When I asked what she meant, she said that I seem to do so many things that it’s like I can create time out of thin air.
Well, I can’t create time, of course, as much as I wish it were true. Instead, I’ve learned the power of focus.
On his blog, entrepreneur Derek Sivers once shared a great way to find focus. Instead of committing yourself to everything, instead of agreeing to things that only half-way excite you, 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!
The power of yes works hand-in-hand with the HELL YEAH! philosophy. You cast a wide net by saying yes. By casting a wide net, you’ll catch a lot of stuff you don’t want to keep — but you’ll also catch a few HELL YEAHS.
This is one of the secrets to personal fulfillment. There’s a great temptation to do it all. But you can’t do it all. You’re only human. You only have 24 hours in each day, just like the rest of us. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, find those few things you love and build your life around them. Maybe that’s your family, your friends, your blog, and your business. Maybe it’s travel and teaching. Or sports and speaking. Each of you has different passions. Your goal is to discover the things you love and to pursue these things above all else.
One of the core concepts of my financial philosophy is the notion of “conscious spending”. When you practice conscious spending, you give yourself permission to buy the things you value, but you also agree to cut costs ruthlessly on the stuff that’s not important to you.
For instance, I discovered that I like a certain type of physical fitness. I’m a fan of Crossfit. But attending a Crossfit gym isn’t cheap. Still, I budget $200 a month for my gym because it’s that important to me. In exchange, I don’t have a television; I don’t drive very often; and I buy a lot of my clothes at thrift stores. This is conscious spending: Giving up the small stuff so that you can afford the big stuff.
Well, the same concept applies to your time. 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 the big things, fit the small things in — if you can.
Think of it this way: Imagine you have a jar. You want to fill this jar with a bunch of big rocks and with some sand. How would you do it?
One way is to put the sand in first and to add the rocks second. But if you did this, you’d quickly see that it’s impossible to make everything fit. With a layer of sand at the base of the jar, there’s no room for the big rocks.
On the other hand, if you start by putting the big rocks in to the jar first, you can then pour the sand into the gaps and cracks. Everything fits.
Do this with your life. Focus on your big rocks first. Fit the small stuff in around them. For me, my big rocks are fitness, friends, writing, Spanish, and travel. These are my five big rocks. If these aren’t in my jar, I’m not happy. So, I make sure to squeeze these in before anything else. Once these rocks are in place, once these things are on my calendar, then I fill the remaining space with the sand.
I know this sounds elementary and you may be tempted to ignore what I’m saying. Don’t. This one idea alone revolutionized my life. It made me happier. It made me more productive. By focusing solely on those things that were most important to me — by making room for the Big Rocks — I was able to reclaim my life and my time.
But sometimes you have to go even farther. Sometimes to make change, you have to focus on just one thing at a time.
One Goal at a Time
I used to be the sort of guy who loved to set lots of goals. At least once a year — usually around New Year — I’d sit down and make a list of all the things that were wrong with me, all of the things I wanted to change. I loved projects like “101 Things in 1001 Days”. That’s where you make a list of 101 goals you’d like to accomplish in the next three years. Sounds great, right?
Eventually I realized that making a long list of resolutions was a sure path to failure, at least for me. There’s a reason you see newspaper and TV stories every April about how most people aren’t able to achieve the resolutions they set at the first of the year. It’s because most of us try to do too much.
Nowadays, I do something different, something that’s actually proven to be successful. Instead of trying to change many things in my life at one time, I only try to change one.
In 2010, for example, I focused on fitness. In fact, I dubbed 2010 “The Year of Fitness”. My aim was to lose fifty pounds. Every decision I made was with that goal in mind. You know what? It worked. Though I didn’t lose fifty pounds that year, I did lose forty. (And I lost the last ten by the middle of 2011.)
I was able to do this because for the entire year, my only goal was to get in shape. I was focused. Nothing else mattered. I didn’t have any other big goals clouding my view or competing for my attention. I set one goal, and I worked hard to meet it. I picked the one thing in my life that most needed to change, and I committed to changing it.
This year, I’m doing something a little different. Instead of one big goal for the year, I’m working on one major goal every month.
The idea is that at any given time, you’re only worried about one major goal. Attack it from different angles if needed, but be tenacious about working on that single goal.
There’s a fun side effect to so much focus. It’s kind of counter-intuitive. I’ve found — as have others before me — that when you have fewer obligations, when you’re chained to fewer responsibilities, you have more freedom. It’s easier to change. You’re better able to say “yes” to new opportunities when they appear.
So you’ve decided to say “yes” to new experiences. And you’ve taught yourself to focus on only a few projects at a time. These are two of the three keys to personal transformation. But as important as these are, there’s a third key that’s more important still. That key is action.
Talkers and Doers
For a long time, I was full of hot air. Well, that and I was lazy. And depressed. This wasn’t a good combination for Getting Things Done. I talked a lot about the things I wanted to do, but I never did them. I found reasons not to. I even had trouble keeping up my end of the household chores, which my wife found very frustrating.
I was a Talker.
Maybe you know somebody like this. A Talker seems to know the solution to everything, has great plans on how he’s going to make money or get a new job. But the funny thing is, the Talker never acts on his solutions and his great plans. And he never gets that new job. He’s out of work or stuck in a job he hates. To everyone else, it’s clear that the Talker is full of hot air, but he believes he’s bluffing everyone along, or conflates talking with doing. When confronted, a Talker always has excuses for not getting things done: He doesn’t have time, he doesn’t have the skills, the odds are stacked against him. When a Talker does do something, he often takes a shortcut.
That, my friends, was the man I used to be.
But something changed in the autumn of 2005. I began to read a lot of books. Not just personal finance books, but also self-help books and success manuals. And gradually I began to take the advice in these books to heart.
I began to take small steps, began to be more active in my world. Instead of just talking about doing things, I did them. I stopped looking for shortcuts and started actually doing the work required to get things done. Shockingly, this worked. By doing the work, I got the expected results. By doing instead of talking, things started to happen.
I became a Doer.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient at something. What separates the pros from the average people like you and me isn’t that they’re talented. It’s that they’ve spent so much time honing their skills.
Change is like that too.
You might not need 10,000 hours to lose weight and become fit, but I guarantee that the more time you spend on it, the better your results will be. In my case, I’ve probably spent an average of 90 minutes a day for the past two years working on fitness. That gets me to about 1000 hours of exercise. One thousand hours isn’t 10,000 hours but I’m not aiming to be an elite athlete. I just wanted to be fit. And now I am.
The same is true for my Spanish. After WDS last year, I decided to learn Spanish. I started on June 20th without knowing a thing about the language. Now, a year later, I’m not fluent but I am proficient. I’m a solid intermediate learner. What did it take? Four-and-a-half hours a week of lessons and probably an equal amount of time studying on my own. So, maybe 500 hours of study and now I can speak Spanish well enough to strike up a casual conversation with the man making my tacos down at the food carts. He likes it, and so do I.
My point is that to make a change, you have to put in effort. Change is not effortless. You can’t use the “Think Method” to achieve change. Instead, you have to devote blood, sweat, and tears to the cause. In The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck writes:
What makes life difficult is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one…Yet it is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning. Problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure.
I don’t have any bullet points for you here. There aren’t any bullet points for taking action. Taking action is the bullet point. Taking action is the most important component of change.
Thinking about change is not change. Talking about change is not change. Attending conferences about change isn’t change. Do you know what is change? Change is change. Until you actually alter your behavior, you haven’t changed a thing.
This, more than anything else, is the key to personal transformation: Action. There are no shortcuts. You have to do the work.
So, these are the three keys to personal transformation:
I believe that if you take the time to develop these three skills, you can change your life. You can transform yourself into whomever it is you want to be. But it won’t be easy.
You Against the World
You see, our society doesn’t really like change. We value constancy. We celebrate things that have remained the same for years. Or decades. Or centuries.
Take politics, for example. Sometimes a politician will change her mind. To me, this seems like a good thing. It’s a sign of maturity. It shows courage, intelligence, and an open mind. If I believe one thing but then get new information, of course I’m going to believe something else. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s common sense.
But in our world, if a politician changes her mind, she’s criticized for it. She’s accused of flip-flopping. In politics, it’s dangerous to change who you are and what you think.
But it’s not just politics. I can name three friends off the top of my head who are proud that their belief systems have remained essentially unchanged for twenty years. They see it as strength of character; I see it as a lack of adaptability.
There are other examples too, of course. On Tuesday night, for instance, I went out to Thai food with my friend Paul. I was looking forward to a good, hearty meal. But when I looked at the menu, I was disappointed to see the restaurant had removed my favorite dish. “I hate it when restaurants change their menus,” I told Paul, and even as I said it, I knew I was part of the problem. I’m part of this society, and I don’t like change either.
Think of all the ways we celebrate sameness and longevity:
Our society just doesn’t like change. But that shouldn’t stop you from changing, if change is what you want.
A Part of All That I Have Met
In his poem “Ulysses”, Tennyson describes the unhappiness of Ulysses (or Odysseus) after he’s returned to govern his kingdom, Ithaca. Ulysses spent ten years fighting in the Trojan War — the Trojan Horse was his idea — and then spent another ten years sailing home. No surprise: After blinding the Cyclops and skirting the Sirens, after dodging Scylla and Charybdis, after twenty years away, Ulysses has changed. He’s undergone a profound personal transformation. In the poem, Tennyson describes it like this:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades
For ever and ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
I love that: “I am a part of all that I have met.” It’s true.
Everything I see or hear or do becomes a part of who I am. In some small way, every event changes me, and it changes how I see — to quote Tennyson — it changes how I see “that untraveled world”.
And you are a part of all that you have met and done. You are the sum of your experiences. If your life is constant, if it’s filled with sameness, that’s fine. But then you will remain the same. If you want to change, if you want to do something different, you have to fill your life with new experiences. You have to find your own Cyclops and your own Sirens. You have to build your own Trojan Horse. The more you do, the more you’ll grow. And, I’ll wager, the more you’ll realize there are other things to do and experience.
At the end of Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses reaches out to his former shipmates. He calls them to action. He wants to leave Ithaca, to sail the seas again, to find some purpose greater than their day-to-day life. Tennyson writes:
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” There’s a kind of magic in those words. They urge us to say “yes” to what life offers. They ask us to focus. They call us to action.
But there’s more. This poem isn’t just about the changes Ulysses has been through; the poem is also about the way he has changed the world, and the way he wants to continue changing the world.
Change the World
The official theme of the World Domination Summit is: “How do we live a remarkable life in a conventional world?” But I’ve privately given this year’s conference a different theme. And now, after having spent the weekend meeting so many passionate people and listening to so many thought-provoking talks, I think this unofficial theme for the weekend is apt. It’s simple:
One of the awesome things about personal transformation is that it changes how you view the world. It gives you perspective.
It used to be that I did no volunteer work. I didn’t contribute to charity. Everything I did was for myself. But the simple act of learning Spanish has changed me. It’s caused me to grow. As part of that growth, I’ve begun to see the world in a different light. I’ve become passionate about immigration issues. I’ve been moved to act. I don’t care how or why people reached this country; once they’re here, I want to help.
I have been changed inside, and now I want help to change the world outside, if only in some small way.
To start, I volunteered at a local grade school. Twice a week, I work in a Spanish/English second-grade class, helping the kids with their reading and writing. Next, I volunteered to teach English to Spanish-speaking immigrants. And a few weeks ago, I taught a budgeting class to 20 migrant women.
I’m not telling you these things to brag. I have nothing to brag about. My point is that by allowing myself to be changed, I discovered that I have the passion and the skills to give back, to help change the world, at least in a few small ways.
Only you can change yourself. We’re lucky to live in a society that allows this to be true. Other people aren’t so lucky. They want to change, they want to be happy, but external forces prevent them.
I think Scott Harrison made that clear in his talk about Charity: Water. Some people can’t focus on self-improvement because they’re too busy worrying about survival. Basic needs come first.
You and I are fortunate. All of us here today are fortunate. We’re in a position where we can focus on self-improvement, where we can pay $500 to spend a summer weekend in Portland sharing ideas and meeting new friends. Our survival needs are met, and we can pursue higher aims. For us, I think it’s our responsibility to do what we can help others reach this point too, to help them improve their lives.
Ask yourself: What could you do to improve the world if you had a few extra hours every week? Not what could you do to improve yourself, but what could you do to improve the world? What could you do to improve the world if you had an extra hundred dollars? How could you invest that $100 to bring about change?
I’m just beginning to answer this question. After spending nearly a decade changing myself, spending so much time and effort to become the man I want to be, I’m finally ready to look outside myself and ask, “What can I do to make the world a better place?” Right now, that means teaching English to Hispanic immigrants. It means talking to people here at the World Domination Summit. But who knows where this could lead?
And who knows where personal transformation could lead for you?
Say “yes”, my friends. Stay focused. Take action. And after you’ve changed your self look for ways to change the world.
Updated: 22 October 2012