You’re Really Not That Special
I’m going to give some unvarnished, pure truth in this post.
I’ve seen my Twitter feed singed with the heat of discussions about what is and isn’t fair in the FIRE blogging world. What should be disclosed, who is an imposter because they had favorable life circumstances, who is more ‘real’, etc. Here’s the thing: life isn’t fair.
People are not equal in terms of intelligence, social charisma, or life circumstances and the sooner you accept that you are really not that special, the better off you will be. The universe does not particularly care if you are successful, nor does it care that you are unhappy about your circumstances. The only person who DOES care is you.
These are my words of wisdom to live your life accordingly.
Don’t Follow Your Passion
You know the trite phrase: “Follow your passion and you will never work a day in your life.” We’re indoctrinated with the slogan from our earliest days in preschool and it is a terrible, terrible thing to fill young heads with. It is a ridiculous slogan which convinces us that we must aspire to always find fulfillment in our professions or we have failed.
Can you imagine some medieval agrarian peasant society in the 1300s telling their children “do what you love” only to shatter their dreams with a “LOL JK” when the kids discover that survival itself depends on working the fields exactly as the generations before them had? What kind of example does that set for them?
My modified slogan would be “Find something tolerable that lets you live the way you want.”
Look, if I could make $5 million a year playing video games or reading about history (my particular passion), I would. I’d be rocking an Xbox controller with one hand while nosing through a history of the Thirty Years War with the other. But nobody pays living wages for things that I’m passionate about. And that’s totally OK. I could rant and scream about it, or I can accept it, put my head down, and try to find something acceptable that allows me to support all of my financial goals.
Work is not fun. There is nothing wonderful about spending day in and day out away from the ones you love or stuck on a smog-polluted miserable freeway for hours on end. There is nothing inherently noble about slogging away in corporate politics for decades doing work of questionable societal benefit. But compare that plight against someone on the Russian steppes born in 1900 who got to see lands looted by the Tsar, the Germans, the Communists, the Germans again (those damn Nazis), and the Communists again. Having a job that is just “tolerable” is “Pretty GD good” compared to some of the alternate outcomes in history.
Your passions are always there and you can always explore them. In my case, I write regularly about history topics on this blog even though readership on those posts is rather low. I mean seriously, who really wants to read about the economic impact on price inflation of the Black Death? I don’t blame you guys, either.
I’m not telling you to be absolutely miserable and sacrifice EVERYTHING to make more bucks. I’m just saying do the cost-benefit analysis about whether or not your combination of “work” and “lifestyle” are acceptable. Don’t despair and feel bad if you aren’t jumping out of bed with zest to head to your job. It’s OK to be “Just OK”.
College: Study Something Useful
This leads directly to the topic of higher education. Lifetime finance is a simple maximization problem: maximize income, minimize expenses, and education impacts both sides of the ledger. College is now simply too damned expensive to hope for a positive outcome. It takes some foresight and everyone should now consider whether or not college is actually correct for them.
For high chances to make a healthy living, the path to a 6 figure income is just 2 words long: STEM DEGREE. Really, it’s pretty much that simple. College is not about actual learning, it’s about signaling to future employers that you have a certain level of mental acumen and a certain tenacity to learn and apply difficult concepts. A STEM degree does this better than any other degree in the workplace. It’s not fair, but like I said, the universe isn’t fair.
I’m 100% positive that there are anecdotes of wildly successful people with liberal arts degrees (or no degree…more on that later). And of course anything is possible, but the numbers say that STEM majors are going to earn about 30% more than non-STEM majors upon graduation. I guarantee you that those numbers become vastly more lopsided in late career.
If STEM is not in the cards, study something that generalizes well. A generic business degree, an economics degree (yours truly), or similar. If you are passionate about something else, then do it as a second degree or just read books about it. You don’t HAVE to major in something to continue to read about it and pursue it on your own time.
College: Keep Costs Low
On the cost side, I continue to be astounded by the legions of students that pony up $60 or $70 thousand dollars a year to attend some small obscure schools that nobody has ever heard of. The scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon demolishes the Michael Bolton guy comes to mind. Unfortunately the quote probably needs an inflation update since the movie came out nearly 20 years ago and college tuition has increased faster than inflation:
See the sad thing about a guy like you is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doing some thinking on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin’ education you coulda got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.
The curriculum in most programs at nearly all colleges has not changed in decades, and it’s only you that will ultimately bear the burden of the cost. Outside of office college football fan allegiances, no one really cares where you went to school 10 years later, and El Cheapo State U will compare equivalently to Niche School With 1,500 Students No One Has Heard Of College. Consider attending community colleges to keep costs down.
College: Maybe Don’t Go At All
Maybe even take it a step further. There is value to experiencing different cultures, geographies, and experiencing the world. Why not save the 200 grand you’d drop on some obscure school and go work abroad for awhile? Stay cashflow neutral or positive and have all of the transformative young adult experiences that undergraduates normally get from their campus days of debauchery.
For many people, I think college is a mistake altogether. I continue to be surprised (perhaps depressed) by the generally poor service received by trade technicians. I once had a leak from a sink flow between the second and first floor in a house. The first technician which arrived reeked of alcohol and began drilling holes at random in the ceiling of my kitchen. (Additional word of wisdom: let no intoxicated technician in your house). I had to coach another one on rudimentary plumbing for drain lines from AC lines. It’s crazy.
A conscientious, ontime, skilled home contractor is easily worth their weight in gold, and startup costs for such a business are not prohibitive. Trade jobs ain’t getting shipped off to Pakistan, either, and can begin paying right after high school rather than deferring for 4 to 6 to 12 years. College just isn’t for everyone, and the ever increasing cost of it is altering the debate such that just getting ‘a degree’ is no longer a good enough reason to go on its own.
You Are Expendable To Your Employer
I remember the first job I left. I thought I was irreplaceable and things would go to hell in a handbasket once I was gone. I was shocked to find out that the systems and processes kept rolling on smoothly in my absence. In hindsight, that’s quite arrogant but I was young and dumb. It happens to all of us.
The reality is nobody, no matter how skilled or competent they may be, is irreplaceable.
Work is a simple business transaction. You show up to do a job that you agreed to at a specified price. That’s it. Your employer is not your friend, and they don’t really care how unhappy you are with whatever bureaucratic nonsense you are dealing with. If you leave, your boss will panic for about 2 days until he or she figures out how to re-optimize personnel and hire somebody else. I can also guarantee someone above you in the corporate hierarchy is looking for ways to ‘optimize’ you out of a job. It’s not personal, it’s just capitalism.
My advice is to look out for yourself. If you don’t feel that you are properly compensated, then either find someone else who will give it to you or deal with it. Advocate for yourself by looking around and maintaining a network, but have your landing spot pegged before you leap. Don’t get over-dramatic and quit in some kind of career self-immolation that hurts only yourself. Nobody will be impressed by you rage-quitting, walking out and a blaze of glory and leaving your family without health insurance or steady income. Next man (or woman) up will be called and life will move on.
Nobody Is Impressed With Your Stuff
When is the last time a neighbor bought a Lexus and as a result you went from thinking “that guy is a total douche canoe” to “wow he’s so cool!” Brand names, luxury products, and conspicuous consumption are a waste. They only exist to keep you plodding away ever longer on the wealth treadmill.
I recommend exercising frugality at every possible turn. Shop at Costco for non-branded clothing. Drive an old car. Hell, I’ve taken it to a next level and sell literally everything I can (including used electric razors, old shoes, and toilet seats) on EBay. The only way to win the game and beat the system is to obtain enough wealth to no longer need to be a part of it.
You Are Really Special To Someone
I know the tone of this post is a little harsh, but I think these are truths that the blogging community does a disservice by glossing over. I think there is a tendency to try to sugarcoat everything and that everything will turn up roses. Life isn’t a fairytale where we all get sunshine and unicorns.
With that said, I’d like to close with one more truth: everyone is really special to someone. Be it as a spouse, a parent, a sibling, or as a child, each and everyone has people that truly care about them. Nothing about the corporate world takes away that each and every reader holds a network of people whose lives would be immeasurably dimmed in their absence.
When the day arrives for each of us where our time on stage draws closed and we must reflect on the meaning of what we have done in our lives, I suspect that focusing on those bonds and appreciating the glow of the love of our friends and families is what is truly important.
My final advice: try to avoid any jeopardy of these bonds from being a financially miserable wreck. A little foresight and debt avoidance goes a long way to a fiscally happy life.