Stefan Sagmeister: Things I Have Learned

Designer Stefan Sagmeister did another TEDtalk titled Happiness by design where the best part was when he shared the list below of “Things I have learned in my life so far” (which later became a book of typographic artwork).

  • Complaining is silly. Either act or forget.
  • Thinking life will be better in the future is stupid. I have to live now.
  • Being not truthful works against me.
  • Helping other people helps me.
  • Organizing a charity group is surprisingly easy.
  • Everything I do always comes back to me.
  • Drugs feel great in the beginning and become a drag later on.
  • Over time I get used to everything and start taking it for granted.
  • Money does not make me happy.
  • Traveling alone is helpful for a new perspective on life.
  • Assuming is stifling.
  • Keeping a diary supports my personal development.
  • Trying to look good limits my life.
  • Worrying solves nothing.
  • Material luxuries are best enjoyed in small doses.
  • Having guts always works out for me.

Non-Traditional Retirements, or DIY Sabbaticals

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NPR Morning Edition featured a story today about non-traditional retirements: Seeing The (Northern) Light: A Temporary Arctic Retirement. Instead of waiting until 65, Winston Chen decided to stop working for an entire year mid-career and moved his family to a small Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle with only 180 residents.

The whole family got to do many things they’d never do otherwise. Financially, they offset their mortgage by renting out their Boston home completely as-is for a year to another family on a temporary work assignment. His wife Kristin was able to get a job teaching elementary school in Norway for a year, as it was a remote area that needed teachers. They could keep expenses low as the tiny village had no need for a car, no malls, and no restaurants. One of his pursuits ended up being an iPhone app that took off and now supports their entire family, although that wasn’t the goal.

The inspiration came from the TEDtalk “The power of time off” by designer Stefan Sagmeister. Here’s a screenshot (sorry for the poor quality) illustrating the traditional working timeline: learn for 25 years, work for 40 years, then retire for 25 years.

A commenter pointed out that this shows that our society seems to feel that education is for the young, work is for the middle-aged, and leisure is for the elderly. But what if you decided to snip 5 years from those retirement years and sprinkle them between your working years? This is essentially the idea of sabbaticals, usually associated with tenured professors taking a paid year off from their usual teaching and research duties. Every 7 years, Sagmeister completely shuts down his popular design shop for an entire year.

Both Sagmeister and Winston Chen add that if you do this, you shouldn’t just give yourself a year of nothing and expect to figure it out along the way. At the minimum, you should make a list of all the things that you want to try and/or accomplish (Chen’s included oil painting, photography, reading, learning Norwegian, and learning how to play the ukulele). Both broke it down into a daily schedule as well (Chen’s is below).

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David Foster Wallace “This is Water” Commencement Speech

Graduation season is here again, making it the perfect time for The Glossary to create a short film out of a great commencement speech by the late writer David Foster Wallace. It has great application to life, and thus great application to those seeking financial freedom.

Consciousness. Conscious living. Conscious spending. All things that sound simple but are so hard to actually do on a daily basis.

The speech is abridged above, I enjoyed reading the full version.

A Beach Less Traveled: From Corporate Job to Flip Flop Perfumer – Book Review

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The book A Beach Less Traveled sounded like just the thing to read during a winter weekend… an American couple shares about their true story of going from “corporate chaos” to living in a tropical paradise where they run a small perfume shop. I love travel non-fiction, especially the work of authors like Peter Mayle and Bill Bryson. So accepted a free review copy of this book, hoping to be re-energized in my ongoing quest for financial freedom.

We meet the Berglunds, a very hardworking and reasonably successful couple living in the US. He was a lawyer, a lobbyist, and a trade association executive. His wife ran a small bed and breakfast. During their vacation travels, they fell in love with the small Caribbean island of St. Martin. They drew up a 10-year plan to create a perfumery and move there, as Berglund enjoyed chemistry as a hobby. Over the next 15 years, they saved up the million dollars that was necessary to make their goal happen – create and test their fragrances, buy a property for their store, buy inventory, market to tourists, etc.

It takes a skilled writer to weave all of this into an inspiring story. Unfortunately, the reading was much more dry. Things cost more than expected. Don’t they always? I was hoping for some examples of creative frugality, but nothing especially interesting popped up. Buying property on a small island that happens to be a overseas collectivity of France? Slow. Plus you’re a US citizen? Even slower. House repair? Takes a while. Phone repair? I get it. Island life is slow. Now, perhaps this is a good lesson for someone actually thinking about moving to the island, but I was left wanting for a charismatic character, a humorous story, or that “oooo-I-wish-I-could-do-that-too” feeling.

I also couldn’t help but be slightly annoyed when they talked about “living like a local”, but kept throwing out excuses about how they live in the French (and French-speaking) side of St. Martin but refused to learn French. That doesn’t sound like living like a local to me. If this is your new home, why not learn the language?

The Berglunds sound like nice, energetic people and I’m very happy they achieved their personal goals. They should be proud of themselves. I hope they are profitable in their new business as I believe they do need it to succeed. (They were not financially independent first.) I’m afraid I just didn’t find any inspiration in the book. The takeaway lesson seemed to be that if you really want it bad enough and save up a million dollars first over 10-15 years, you too can own a small business on a Caribbean island.

Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

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Viktor Frankl was a respected doctor and therapist before he became a concentration camp prisoner during the Holocaust. After somehow surviving the unthinkable only to find that he had lost both his parents and his pregnant wife, he wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning.

I’ve visited the Dachau concentration camp, but reading this book was so much more vivid. You’re not just sent somewhere to die. You’re forced to relocate to a “labor camp”, and so you pack up your entire life into a few bags. Your bags are confiscated, so you hide some photos or jewelry in your clothes. You are stripped completely naked, and given a dead man’s rags to wear. You don’t even have a name anymore, you’re just a number (Frankl was 119104). And this is before the coming years of physical and mental torture.

With this background, Frankl introduces logotherapy, a form of existentialism that says that humans are driven not by the pursuit of pleasure (Freud) or the pursuit of power (Adler), but the pursuit of meaning. There are three ways to achieve meaning:

  1. Creating a work or doing a deed,
  2. Experiencing something or encountering someone (love),
  3. By taking a proper attitude when faced with unavoidable suffering

This last part is hard to explain unless you read the book, but the unavoidable part should be emphasized. We’re not talking about “pain is good”. In my mind, I think of it as maintaining honor and self-respect no matter what. Frankl writes:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

He also quotes Nietzsche, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”

How does this relate to personal finance and the pursuit of financial freedom? I think of it in two ways. First, in terms of yourself. We are all attracted to material things like houses, cars, clothes, and I’d include money. Imagine if all that was taken away. You’d still have your body, your mind, your unique meaning and purpose in the world. We should develop those things. The things you’ve learned, your memories, your experiences, your skills, all those can’t be taken away. All the good deeds that you have already accomplished, those also can never be taken away.

Second, it relates to motivation. Why do you want more money? Why do you want financial freedom? Is it enough to just want to avoid work? Maybe your goal is to spend time with your loved ones. Maybe you want to create beautiful art. Maybe you want to build an orphanage in Cambodia. Maybe you just want to try every ramen restaurant in Japan.

I have some meanings that I am pursuing, but I’m still searching for others.

Book Review: Bossypants Memoir by Tina Fey

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I have a goal this year to read and review more books, ideally a book per week on average. Recently, I’ve been into reading biographical books about interesting people pursuing their passions. Feel free to send me some suggestions.

Tina Fey’s Bossypants seemed like a funny auto-biography about someone who grew up in a “normal” working-class family and took a little while to become a respected writer, actor, producer, and comedian. Wealthy, too: Fey reportedly makes $500,000 per episode of 30 Rock and has an estimated net worth of $45 million. I should add that I have never seen a full episode of 30 Rock, although I have seen some SNL Weekend Updates, all the Sarah Palin skits, and a few of her movies.

The book was definitely Tiny-Fey-style funny and a quick read, but it wasn’t very revealing. I should have known, as the book is crosslisted under both “Humor & Entertainment” and “Biographies & Memoirs”. Indeed, I get the impression that she’s actually quite a private person and is reluctant to share anything truly intimate. She considered herself an ugly, unpopular nerd in high school. Well, that applies a lot of people. She worked a menial job at the YMCA while supporting her improv education. Eh, okay. Besides the funny bits, here are my highlighted quotes:

On being a leader:

It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.

On discrimination:

When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way.

On teamwork:
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