Getting free

I often find myself talking with people who are talented but unfulfilled in their career. I tend to ask them what they love or what frustrates them enough that they’d love to fix it. Those are the two ideas that motivate me. What can I make better or what pisses me off enough that I feel compelled to do something about it.

The conversation often follows the same route. The other person has some ideas. Who doesn’t? So I challenge them: I ask them why they’re not pursuing those ideas already. I tend to hear something like “I have a mortgage to pay”, “I’m in too much debt”, or “my wife/husband would kill me”. What do all of these have in common?

Most people are extremely attached to their standard of living.

“Money is a dissatisfier”, my father would tell me. When you don’t have enough to be comfortable, life is hard. When you have more than you need to maintain a comfortable standard of living, it is easy to fall prey to the notion that the crap that you buy is essential to your happiness.

Before I continue, just a little about me. I was raised in a simple middle class family. My father worked for the government (he’s retired since) and my mother is a piano teacher. Admittedly, my parents spoiled me to the extent that they could while I was a youngster. This probably contributed to my previously poor understanding of the value of money but don’t tell them that. They still feel guilty about it sometimes. But, hey, I turned out OK after all. I was more fortunate than some: my parents saved for me to attend college. Ultimately, this meant that I exited college without debt. I always pay my credit card every month, much to the chagrin of credit card companies. The only loan that I maintain is a modest mortgage.

Now back to my point.

Just before my wife and I relocated from Northern Virginia, we had a $450,000 home with a third-acre in Vienna, two cars, several computers, three cats, and a giant television. But it didn’t start that way. That’s just how we were three years ago.

When I made my decision to seek fulfillment over income, just over three years ago, I quickly learned that, unlike the US government, the private sector pays according to market forces. The US government, in its infinite wisdom, generally pigeon holes people into buckets based on years of experience and some other factors, e.g., how many and the specific kinds of acronyms following your name. Those buckets largely determine your earning potential.

Leaving the government sector, I had almost no “portfolio” to show, just a single tiny OSS project, and no presence in the market.

This left me with a decision:have a rewarding job that pays about half of my cushy government contracting salary or continue on as I was. I chose the former, took the paycut, and I have not regretted it even for a moment.

My great epiphany, in my first year of living here in Ocean Pines, MD was this: happiness is not determined by income or material possessions. I long held to this belief but I didn’t understand it, at a gut level, until two years ago. You probably don’t grok it either unless you came from a poor upbringing or have had to suddenly put the fiscal belt on much tighter due to circumstances.

You don’t need the expensive house. You can probably live somewhere cheaper. Your debt doesn’t keep you from saving money. If you’re reading this then you’re probably also self-identify as a “geek”, “nerd” or similar. You don’t need all of that fancy Apple hardware; you can get by on cheaper and use Linux. You don’t need that iPhone/Android phone with it’s nearly $100/month plan; a feature phone with a calling card will satisfy most emergency needs.

Write a list. Decide what is essential. I mean absolutely essential. Then write another list: what possessions will you be unhappy without. I mean genuinely unhappy. Now how much do you need to save each year to feel safe and secure?

If you got rid of everything else, how much less would you be spending per month? Congratulations! You probably just found a way to largely break free of the establishment.

Given a reasonable intellect, contemporary skills, and a reasonable but modest definition of “comfort”, the less money you need to spend. That means there’s less money that you need to earn. Less time spent earning means more time for perhaps the most important of preoccupations: realizing your potential.

Posted by evan on Sunday, August 28, 2011

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