How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Book Notes)

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Even though I spend a lot of time online reading through forums, blogs, e-mail newsletters, substacks, and so on, I don’t spend much time on Twitter or Facebook. Slowly reading a detailed review or educational article is one thing, but 100 different people making short, forceful, absolute statements within 5 minutes quickly overwhelms me. There is surely a lot of good discussion, but in a terribly noisy room.

I checked out How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell for a different perspective. This blurb was intriguing:

Odell sees our attention as the most precious—and overdrawn—resource we have. And we must actively and continuously choose how we use it. We might not spend it on things that capitalism has deemed important … but once we can start paying a new kind of attention, she writes, we can undertake bolder forms of political action, reimagine humankind’s role in the environment, and arrive at more meaningful understandings of happiness and progress.

While I didn’t agree with many of the arguments made in the book, as usual I just tried to find what was useful to me and leave the rest.

What is meant by the goal to “do nothing”?

The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.

From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of “doing nothing” is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.

What are we trying to avoid?

But the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.

Here’s what I want to escape. To me, one of the most troubling ways social media has been used in recent years is to foment waves of hysteria and fear, both by news media and by users themselves.

Meanwhile, media companies continue churning out deliberately incendiary takes, and we’re so quickly outraged by their headlines that we can’t even consider the option of not reading and sharing them.

People read a tweet or a headline, react, and click a button—thousands and millions of times over in a matter of days. I can’t help but liken the angry collective tweet storms to watching a flood erode a landscape with no ground-cover plants to slow it down. The natural processes of context and attention are lost. But from the point of view of Twitter’s financial model, the storm is nothing but a bounteous uptick in engagement.

An short bit about John Muir, “Father of the National Parks”:

Muir had already developed a love of botany, but it was being temporarily blinded by an eye accident that made him re-evaluate his priorities. The accident confined him to a darkened room for six weeks, during which he was unsure whether he would ever see again. The 1916 edition of The Writings of John Muir is divided into two parts, one before the accident and one after, each with its own introduction by William Frederic Badè. In the second introduction, Badè writes that this period of reflection convinced Muir that “life was too brief and uncertain, and time too precious, to waste upon belts and saws; that while he was pottering in a wagon factory, God was making a world; and he determined that, if his eyesight was spared, he would devote the remainder of his life to a study of the process.” Muir himself said, “This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields.”

On Epicurus, “epicurean”, and unhappiness:

More generally, Epicurus observed that people in modern society ran in circles, unaware of the source of their unhappiness:

“Everywhere you can find men who live for empty desires and have no interest in the good life. Stupid fools are those who are never satisfied with what they possess, but only lament what they cannot have.”

Quite contrary to the modern-day meaning of the word epicurean—often associated with decadent and plentiful food—what the school of Epicurus taught was that man actually needed very little to be happy, as long as he had recourse to reason and the ability to limit his desires.

On giving others (and ourselves) space to change our minds:

This is one of the things I find the most absurd about our current social media, since it’s completely normal and human to change our minds, even about big things. Think about it: Would you want to be friends with someone who never changed their mind about anything?

But because apologizing and changing our minds online is so often framed as a weakness, we either hold our tongues or risk ridicule.

Weird stuff happens when attention = money. Creating hate = attention = money. Creating dissatisfaction = attention = money. Creating distraction = attention = money.

There are many things going on in the book, but I support physically go outside and hang out with people in-person, and preferably both at the same time. I will put more effort towards these pursuits. (I would say it’s a cheap form of entertainment, but booking an AirBnb within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park was not cheap! 😁)

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The Four Core Types of Regrets + Thoughts on Financial Regrets

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According to the new book The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward by Dan Pink, only 1% of people say they never feel regret. Here are the most in-depth articles from the media tour: WaPo, BBC, Atlantic.

In 2020, the author Daniel Pink launched the World Regret Survey, the largest survey on the topic ever undertaken. With his research team, Pink asked more than 15,000 people in 105 countries, “How often do you look back on your life and wish you had done things differently?” Eighty-two percent said regret is at least an occasional part of their life; roughly 21 percent said they feel regret “all the time.” Only 1 percent said they never feel regret.

In the book, Pink identifies these four core types of regret:

  • Foundation regrets involves an irresponsible choice that changed the course of your life. This includes not saving enough money for retirement, not taking care of your health by eating well and exercising, or not putting in proper effort at school or work.
  • Boldness regrets come from being too cautious, and not taking certain risks. This includes staying in a “safe” job instead of going for a career changes more suited to you, or not asking out someone you liked on a date.
  • Moral regrets are when you don’t live up to your own values. You cheated, bullied, lost your temper, or didn’t stand up for something.
  • Connection regrets deal with lost relationships with family members, friends or colleagues. Too often, this happens due to neglect and passivity.

I used to think of regrets as equivalent to mistakes. In our household, we try to look at mistakes as a positive opportunity to “make your brain grow bigger”. This way, they are less afraid of trying something new or challenging. Regrets are simply mistakes, so we should just learn from them and move on, right?

However, now I see regrets as a special sort of mistake. They involve looking at the past and imagining different outcomes. Over time, you realize what kinds of choices are likely to lead to regrets, and what won’t. This can help guide you towards better future decisions. To me, the phrase “no regrets” doesn’t mean I don’t have any regrets. It means I know what will cause regret, and so I do things to avoid it. For example:

  • I won’t regret ditching a little bit of work for dedicated one-on-one time with a child. If you have kids, read The Family Board Meeting.
  • I won’t regret saving a few months of expenses to ride out life’s inevitable bumps.
  • I won’t regret waiting 24 hours to send that angry e-mail.
  • I won’t regret reaching out to a friend, whether it is because you need it or they need it.
  • I won’t regret taking the time to show or tell someone “I love you”.
  • I am much more likely to regret not taking a chance, than taking a risk and failing. In many cases, the downside isn’t so bad, while the upside could be limitless.

In terms of financially-related regrets, the two big ones are the foundational regret “I wish I saved more money when I was younger” and the boldness regret “I wish to took the risk to pursue a career better aligned to my personality and interests”.

A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that only 27% of college graduates work in a field related to their major. Career paths are long and winding these days. I remembering choosing my college major when I was 17 years old, since some colleges make you pick on your application. Even though I questioned my choice after a few years in college, I felt the “sunk cost” bias and didn’t want to risk the additional time, effort, and tuition to try and change majors. I was also “good” at the major, and so I kept going. That is one of my personal regrets.

In my view, finding the right career path where you get the trifecta of “I am good at this”, “I like doing this”, and “I get paid well for doing this” is like having a jetpack on your pursuit of financial independence. Once you have a job where you wake up and actually look forward to go to work and there is a small but increasing gap between income and expenses, you are ready to blast off and start compounding. You could try and pursue financial independence with a job that is missing any one of those three factors, but the journey will feel like a slow grind instead.

Eventually, the fact that I was missing the “I like doing this” starting bugging me enough, and I was ready to quit and go back to school. But the first thing I had to do was save up a year of expenses (also helped by minimizing those expenses). That little money cushion gave me the courage to make the leap. The “ROI” on that “emergency fund” was more than any index fund or rental property. So that’s what I plan to tell my kids: When you’re young, live simply and always create a cash cushion so that you can keep searching for the jetpack trifecta. This will minimize your financial regrets.

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Anthony Bourdain: Not Too Late to Change Your Direction

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[Programming note: Posting will be light through the end of the year. Hope you have a restful and rejuvenating holiday season!]

The WSJ article Anthony Bourdain: Feast of Memory (link should bypass paywall as I am a WSJ subscriber) briefly highlights four different books that all explore his life and legacy from different perspectives:

So far, I’ve only finished the first one. This observation hit close to home:

At the news of his death, millions of people mourned—and not the way that we mourn a commodity celebrity, with a sharp breath of sorrow and a fleeting salute and a sad-face post on social media. Millions of people mourned Bourdain the way you mourn a friend: primal, personal, disbelieving, unreal, unhealed.

A good Bourdain quote:

“I used to think that basically, the whole world, that all humanity were basically bastards,” he tells John W. Little, in a 2014 interview for Blogs of War. “I’ve since found that most people seem to be pretty nice—basically good people doing the best they can.”

On being an enthusiast:

I’m passionate to the point of being evangelical about things that I love, that give me pleasure, and make me excited. And, um, you know I didn’t really travel until I was forty-two years old, I spent my whole life in kitchens. I’d seen nothing of the world. So, this is all still relatively new to me. People have been very kind to me. I feel very, very, very fortunate.

[…] I don’t feel like I’m an advocate, or a spokesperson for anything. I’m just, you know, I’m an enthusiastic son of a bitch.

Bourdain made a huge dent in the world after the age of 44. I took special notice that he didn’t publish his breakout book Kitchen Confidential until he was 44 years old. He wrote the book as memoir of sorts, by someone who felt at the end of his career. I am now 43 years old. I also feel at the end of some things, and smack in the middle of other things. Perhaps the trick is to also feel at the beginning of something new.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Digital Minimalism Book Review: Parallels With Time and Money Management

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I initially stopped reading the NY Times bestseller Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport midway through because it seemed to target a problem that I did not have – I don’t spend much time on social media and deliberately avoid the front page news cycle. However, I’m glad that I went back as it contained many useful parallels with time management and financial independence.

Here is my favorite definition of digital minimalism:

A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

Read that quote again but remove “of technology” and “online”, and isn’t that just a good philosophy for life in general?

This thought process also aligns with the book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals:

A truly practical approach to making the best use of time demands that we stop trying to deny the undeniable, acknowledging not merely that we might not get around to everything but that we definitely never will. That we’re guaranteed to have to abandon certain ambitions, disappoint certain people and drop certain balls in order to make time for doing a few things that count.

I also appreciated this description of the digital maximalist:

Notice, this minimalist philosophy contrasts starkly with the maximalist philosophy that most people deploy by default—a mind-set in which any potential for benefit is enough to start using a technology that catches your attention. A maximalist is very uncomfortable with the idea that anyone might miss out on something that’s the least bit interesting or valuable.

Put another way: minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good.

This comparison of minimalism vs. maximalism was the most useful part of the book for me. You can apply it to everything – your monthly spending, your collection of clothes/gadgets/stuff, the food you consume, how you spend your time every day. Minimalism is about where to draw the line, and how that line is probably closer to “less” than you think.

Happily missing out. I am working to identify my maximalist tendencies, and I like the phrase “happily missing out” as the opposite of FOMO. Instead of trying to moderate your use on something that isn’t clearly awesome, it’s easier to simply cut it out completely. Delete the app from your phone. Cancel the subscription. Don’t let the junk food enter you home. End the toxic relationship. Get rid of the widget that didn’t work out (even if it was expensive). Sell the regrettable investment (even at a loss). After the initial shock, I usually end up saying “Why didn’t I do that earlier?”

If you are interested in changing your tech habits, here’s the basic actionable strategy of the book:

  • Perform a 30-day “Digital Declutter” where you completely stop using social media and other optional digital apps.
  • During this reset, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful. Socialize in-person, spend time alone without your phone, build something with your hands.
  • After 30 days, reintroduce the apps carefully into your life one-by-one. They should only return if they are the best way to help you achieve something you deeply value.

Even this could have parallels to personal finance:

  • Perform a 30-day “Expense Fast” where you stop every optional expense.
  • Experiment by replacing your expenses with alternatives. Think of ways to eat everything edible that is already in your house. Realize that you have 10 different subscriptions and you don’t need them all. Walk outside instead of the gym. Ask someone to walk with you. Talk with an old friend on the phone. Don’t buy a single piece of new clothing.
  • After 30 days, reintroduce each expense life one-by-one. Some things you may realize should be a high priority. That’s good. Some things you may realize are low priority. Happily spend your money on the high priority items, and happily miss out on the rest.
My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Four Thousand Weeks: Productivity Trap, Gratitude, and Paying Yourself First (Book Highlights)

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Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman is a relatively short book filled with thought-provoking observations about the constant pressure that we feel, how there never seems to be enough time to accomplish the things that we really want. I can work from home while having almost anything delivered to my doorstep with a few taps, but somehow I still feel exhausted. Upon finishing, my Kindle showed 156 (!) highlighted passages, but I’ve whittled that down to a dozen of my favorites below. Don’t have time for even that? Here is the entire book condensed to a single sentence:

You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.

Free yourself from the productivity trap.

The problem isn’t exactly that these techniques and products don’t work. It’s that they do work—in the sense that you’ll get more done, race to more meetings, ferry your kids to more after-school activities, generate more profit for your employer—and yet, paradoxically, you only feel busier, more anxious, and somehow emptier as a result.

…by any sane logic, in a world with dishwashers, microwaves, and jet engines, time ought to feel more expansive and abundant, thanks to all the hours freed up. But this is nobody’s actual experience. Instead, life accelerates, and everyone grows more impatient.

Convenience culture seduces us into imagining that we might find room for everything important by eliminating only life’s tedious tasks. But it’s a lie.

Fellow financial freedom enthusiasts should appreciate this quote:

As a result, they work harder and harder, and soon busyness becomes an emblem of prestige. Which is clearly completely absurd: for almost the whole of history, the entire point of being rich was not having to work so much.

Gratitude. Don’t start from a place of entitlement. Shift your perspective so that you start from a position of gratitude. Every day is a gift.

Why assume that an infinite supply of time is the default, and mortality the outrageous violation? Or to put it another way, why treat four thousand weeks as a very small number, because it’s so tiny compared with infinity, rather than treating it as a huge number, because it’s so many more weeks than if you had never been born?

…if it’s amazing to have been granted any being at all—if “your whole life is borrowed time,” as Cain realized, watching news reports of the Danforth Avenue shootings—then wouldn’t it make more sense to speak not of having to make such choices, but of getting to make them? From this viewpoint, the situation starts to seem much less regrettable: each moment of decision becomes an opportunity to select from an enticing menu of possibilities, when you might easily never have been presented with the menu to begin with. And it stops making sense to pity yourself for having been cheated of all the other options.

In this state of mind, you can embrace the fact that you’re forgoing certain pleasures, or neglecting certain obligations, because whatever you’ve decided to do instead—earn money to support your family, write your novel, bathe the toddler, pause on a hiking trail to watch a pale winter sun sink below the horizon at dusk—is how you’ve chosen to spend a portion of time that you never had any right to expect.

Personal finance parallels: Pay yourself first in both money and time.

If you take a portion of your paycheck the day you receive it and squirrel it away into savings or investments, or use it for paying off debts, you’ll probably never feel the absence of that cash; you’ll go about your business—buying your groceries, paying your bills—precisely as if you’d never had that portion of money to begin with. (There are limits, of course: this plan won’t work if you literally earn only enough to survive.) But if, like most people, you “pay yourself last” instead—buying what you need and hoping there’ll be some money remaining at the end to put into savings—you’ll usually find that there isn’t any.

The same logic, Abel points out, applies to time. If you try to find time for your most valued activities by first dealing with all the other important demands on your time, in the hope that there’ll be some left over at the end, you’ll be disappointed.

After years of trying and failing to make time for her illustration work, by taming her to-do list and shuffling her schedule, Abel saw that her only viable option was to claim time instead—to just start drawing, for an hour or two, every day, and to accept the consequences, even if those included neglecting other activities she sincerely valued. “If you don’t save a bit of your time for you, now, out of every week,” as she puts it, “there is no moment in the future when you’ll magically be done with everything and have loads of free time.”

Slow the rest down.

Just as there will be a final occasion on which I pick up my son—a thought that appalls me, but one that’s hard to deny, since I surely won’t be doing it when he’s thirty—there will be a last time that you visit your childhood home, or swim in the ocean, or make love, or have a deep conversation with a certain close friend. Yet usually there’ll be no way to know, in the moment itself, that you’re doing it for the last time. Harris’s point is that we should therefore try to treat every such experience with the reverence we’d show if it were the final instance of it. And indeed there’s a sense in which every moment of life is a “last time.”

I’ve probably watched too many time-altering movies, but I’ve started doing this weird thing where I imagine this is the last day of my life, except I’m not allowed to tell anyone. Somehow, it really does change my perspective and helps me enjoy the moment. It makes you take more pleasure in the mundane. I’m old enough that there has been the “last time” I’ve ever had dinner with multiple friends or relatives. I’ve now changed the last diaper on all three of my children, fed them their last bowl of mush, and so on. 😢

This quote is a good reminder:

“Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up,” Herzen says. “But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment … Life’s bounty is in its flow. Later is too late.”

I’ve been implementing many of these various happiness/perspective tips and they do seem to help, at least for a while, but the long-term effectiveness is still unknown.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Practical Time Management: The Won’t Do List vs. Must Do List

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80 years times 50 weeks a year is 4,000 weeks. If we’re lucky, that means we’ll have about 4,000 Mondays, 4,000 Saturdays, and that’s it. I’ve started reading Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, which suggests that all those productivity hacks look at this number the wrong way. “If only you did X, you could fit in Y more stuff into your day and then you’ll be happy!” But the more likely result is that even if you do X, and fit in Y more stuff, you’ll remain just as stressed and unsatisfied.

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandkids would work just 15 hours a week due to increases in productivity. Well, the productivity per worker did increase, but we still work close to the same number of hours per week. We can have food delivered to our door with an few taps, but how many of us feel an abundance of free time? Even worse, we are “busy” but not because we are working on the things we want to be working on. We have an ever-growing “some day” list, so that we won’t have to face the truth that it is actually the “never” list.

So what’s the solution? This FT article Endless to-do list? Here’s how not to waste your life is an excerpt from the book. Here’s a good quote:

A truly practical approach to making the best use of time demands that we stop trying to deny the undeniable, acknowledging not merely that we might not get around to everything but that we definitely never will. That we’re guaranteed to have to abandon certain ambitions, disappoint certain people and drop certain balls in order to make time for doing a few things that count.

In the words of the creativity coach Jessica Abel, borrowing an insight from the world of personal finance, that means “paying yourself first” when it comes to time. What she means is doing at least a little of what you care about now, as opposed to banking on finding time for it in the future, once the decks are clear and life’s duties are out of the way. Life’s duties will never be out of the way. And so if you really mean it when you say you’d like to write a novel or spend more of your time with your ageing parents or fighting climate change, at some point you’re just going to have to start doing it.

We need to remind ourselves to drop the relatively unimportant things in order to elevate the truly important ones.

Turning this into something little more concrete, here is my proposal:

  • Won’t Do List. Identify 2-3 lesser things that “would be nice” to do, but will simply end up a distraction from the really important things. Give them up. Leave them off your To Do list forever.
  • Must Do List. Identify one thing that you really want to do but have been putting off for too long. Do it for an hour early in the day, even if it pushes other things out of the way. You must work on it, even a little. It’ll probably be hard, which is why you put it off earlier. You may even discover that you really don’t want to do it after all, but at least now you know and can move on. (This is similar to the Charlie Munger “work for yourself an hour each day” advice.)

On a daily basis, I try to cut out the following things to add some time to my day. I haven’t solved my huge pile of e-mail, but I have given up on “Inbox Zero”, check it less often, and am more at peace that I will miss some things the first time around. This isn’t right for everyone, but I also limit myself to an average of 15 minutes a day on Twitter, 5 minutes on Instagram, and zero minutes on Facebook and TikTok. Social media just reminds me of junk food that tastes great in the moment but has little nutrition and I’m hungry again in 20 minutes. I believe Twitter has the most useful information, but filtering can be time-consuming. (I need Instagram to know where my favorite food trucks are at.) I finally decided cut cable TV and gave up following most live sports in 2020. I will miss watching it, but it does free up a lot of time.

Bottom line. You can’t have it all. Don’t fit more in. Cut things out, and lift a few key things up. The finance/time analogy is that you can afford nearly any one thing, but you can’t afford everything. Trying to do everything will keep you “busy” until you run out of weeks:

(image credit: Financial Times)

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

The Gift by Edith Eger: Combat Victimhood. Be Ready For Change. Forgive. Take The Risk.

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Edith Eger was only a teenager when she and her family were sent to Auschwitz. She never saw her father and mother again. While she showed amazing mental strength to survive those horrors, it took her decades more before should could fully process and heal. I’ve seen her book The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life on multiple reading lists, and now I understand why. She provides a new lens to view your own traumatic experiences and useful insights on how you can escape the prison of your own mind:

Eger explains that the worst prison she experienced is not the prison that Nazis put her in but the one she created for herself, the prison within her own mind. She describes the twelve most pervasive imprisoning beliefs she has known—including fear, grief, anger, secrets, stress, guilt, shame, and avoidance—and the tools she has discovered to deal with these universal challenges.

I should warn you that this book describes some very graphic traumatic events that she and her patients have experienced. It will likely trigger some emotional memories of your own personal traumas, so be prepared and choose carefully when and where you read this book. (Not a light beach read in public!)

This is not a finance book. However, money is emotional. Fear, guilt, shame, avoidance. Right now, there is a millionaire that is too afraid to spend any money. Right now, someone is buying something they can’t afford to impress someone else and not seem “lesser”. How many bills are sitting on a counter unopened, with the debtor just hoping that ignoring it will make it go away?

We spend money on food and shelter, but we also spend money to satisfy our emotional needs of affection and attention. Buying a house is an emotional purchase. Your job ends up being more than money for a task. In this context, here are a few selected book highlights:

We do not change until we’re ready.

We do not change until we’re ready. Sometimes it’s a tough circumstance—perhaps a divorce, accident, illness, or death—that forces us to face up to what isn’t working and try something else. Sometimes our inner pain or unfulfilled longing gets so loud and insistent that we can’t ignore it another minute. But readiness doesn’t come from the outside, and it can’t be rushed or forced. You’re ready when you’re ready, when something inside shifts and you decide, Until now I did that. Now I’m going to do something else.

Always replace a dysfunctional habit with a healthy one.

Change is about interrupting the habits and patterns that no longer serve us. If you want to meaningfully alter your life, you don’t simply abandon a dysfunctional habit or belief; you replace it with a healthy one. You choose what you’re moving toward. You find an arrow and follow it. As you begin your journey, it’s important to reflect not only on what you’d like to be free from, but on what you want to be free to do or become.

Take the risk! Why not?

I’d been teaching psychology at a high school in El Paso for a few years—and had even been awarded teacher of the year—when I decided to return to school for a master’s in educational psychology. One day my clinical supervisor came to me and said, “Edie, you’ve got to get a doctorate.” I laughed. “By the time I get a doctorate I’ll be fifty,” I said. “You’ll be fifty anyway.” Those are the smartest four words anyone ever said to me.

Honey, you’re going to be fifty anyway—or thirty or sixty or ninety. So you might as well take a risk. Do something you’ve never done before. Change is synonymous with growth. To grow, you’ve got to evolve instead of revolve.

Freedom is about becoming your true self.

Finally, when you change your life, it isn’t to become the new you. It’s to become the real you—the one-of-a-kind diamond that will never exist again and can never be replaced. Everything that’s happened to you—all the choices you’ve made until now, all the ways you’ve tried to cope—it all matters; it’s all useful. You don’t have to throw everything out and start from scratch. Whatever you’ve done, it’s brought you this far, to this moment.

Much of our suffering stems from our misconception that we can’t be loved and genuine—that if we are to earn others’ acceptance and approval, we must deny or hide our true selves.

Survivors vs. victims.

In my experience, victims ask, “Why me?” Survivors ask, “What now?”

Suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional.

We’re going to be affected by environmental and genetic factors over which we have little or no control. But we each get to choose whether or not we stay a victim. We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we do get to choose how we respond to our experience.

I’ve skipped many more highlights for dealing with more personal issues. This a great book on helping you deal with your own mind prisons. It was hard to ask myself all these questions, and I didn’t always like the answers, but it definitely taught me some things about myself and my framing of past issues.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Richer, Wiser, Happier: Notes From 40+ Super Investors NOT Named Warren Buffett

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It was very telling that the first chapter of Richer, Wiser, Happier: How the World’s Greatest Investors Win in Markets and Life by William Green was a profile of Mohnish Pabrai. In other words, not Warren Buffett! If you aren’t a student of value investing, then you probably have never even heard of him before. He is best known for a being a “clone” investor.

“I’m a shameless copycat,” he says. “Everything in my life is cloned.… I have no original ideas.” Consciously, systematically, and with irrepressible delight, he has mined the minds of Buffett, Munger, and others not only for investment wisdom but for insights on how to manage his business, avoid mistakes, build his brand, give away money, approach relationships, structure his time, and construct a happy life.

That descriptor always seemed a bit derogatory, but after reading more about Pabrai in this book, I grew quite a lot of appreciation and respect for his approach. If you also like collecting outside wisdom (especially about investing) and incorporating into your life, you will likely enjoy this book as well. Green is an excellent writer and journalist that has managed to interview over 40 of the world’s greatest investors (many of which I’d never heard of until now), and this became the most heavily-highlighted book in my Kindle. Here are a fraction of them:

Mohnish Pabrai

Rule 1: Clone like crazy. Rule 2: Hang out with people who are better than you. Rule 3: Treat life as a game, not as a survival contest or a battle to the death. Rule 4: Be in alignment with who you are; don’t do what you don’t want to do or what’s not right for you. Rule 5: Live by an inner scorecard; don’t worry about what others think of you; don’t be defined by external validation.

Cloning Buffett, who once showed him the blank pages of his little black diary, Pabrai keeps his calendar virtually empty so he can spend most of his time reading and studying companies. On a typical day at the office, he schedules a grand total of zero meetings and zero phone calls. One of his favorite quotes is from the philosopher Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” […] He says it helps that his investment staff consists of a single person: him. “The moment you have people on your team, they’re going to want to act and do things, and then you’re hosed.”

John Templeton

To his credit, Templeton was especially demanding of himself. Take his attitude toward saving and spending. “After my education, I had absolutely no money and neither did my bride,” he told me. “So we deliberately saved fifty cents out of every dollar we earned.”

Distrustful of debt, he always paid cash for his cars and homes. He also claimed that his wartime bet was the only time he ever borrowed money to invest. During the Great Depression he’d seen how easy it was for overextended people to come undone, and he regarded fiscal discipline as a moral virtue.

Howard Marks

“Look, luck is not enough,” he says. “But equally, intelligence is not enough, hard work is not enough, and even perseverance is not necessarily enough. You need some combination of all four.

He plans to work indefinitely because he finds it intellectually rewarding, not because he has an “unquenchable” thirst for money or status. He recalls his Japanese studies professor explaining a Buddhist teaching that “you have to break the chain of getting and wanting”—an aimless cycle of craving that leads inevitably to suffering.

Irving Kahn

Kahn became Graham’s teaching assistant at Columbia in the 1920s, and they remained friends for decades. I wanted to know what he’d learned from Graham that had helped him to prosper during his eighty-six years in the financial markets. Kahn’s answer: “Investing is about preserving more than anything. That must be your first thought, not looking for large gains. If you achieve only reasonable returns and suffer minimal losses, you will become a wealthy man and will surpass any gambler friends you may have. This is also a good way to cure your sleeping problems.”

Just think for a moment about those basic ingredients that helped to make for a richly rewarding life. Family, health, challenging and useful work, which involved serving his clients well by compounding their savings conservatively over decades. And learning—particularly from Graham, an investment prophet who, Kahn said, “taught me how to study companies and succeed through research as opposed to luck or happenstance.”

Joel Greenblatt

This raises an obvious but crucial question: Do you know how to value a business? There’s nothing admirable or shameful about your response. But you and I need to answer this question honestly, since self-delusion is a costly habit in extreme sports such as skydiving and stock picking. “It’s a very small fraction of people that can value businesses—and if you can’t do that, I don’t think you should be investing on your own,” says Greenblatt. “How can you invest intelligently if you can’t figure out what something is worth?”

These experiences have led him to an important revelation: “For most individuals, the best strategy is not the one that’s going to get you the highest return.” Rather, the ideal is “a good strategy that you can stick with” even “in bad times.”

Charlie Munger

Munger often preaches about the importance of avoiding behavior with marginal upside and devastating downside. He once observed, “Three things ruin people: drugs, liquor, and leverage.”

Asked for career advice, he opines: “You have to play in a game where you’ve got some unusual talents. If you’re five foot one, you don’t want to play basketball against some guy who’s eight foot three. It’s just too hard. So you’ve got to figure out a game where you have an advantage, and it has to be something that you’re deeply interested in.”

Survivorship bias! I would say that one of the dangers of this book is that it may make you want to be a stock picker. All of the people profiled are probably have a net worth of over $50 million if not much more. Many made a few bold bets, and they paid off big. I want an oceanfront house in Newport Beach, my own private jet, and a vintage car to drive across Asia too!

The rewards for investing intelligently are so extravagant that the business attracts many brilliant minds.

Beating the market means being different. Can you make “unconventional bets that the crowd would consider foolish”? Are you a good fit for the “bizarrely lucrative discipline of sitting alone in a room and occasionally buying a mispriced stock”? Do you have enough humility to make a good judgment, mixed with the self-confidence to bet big when you think you have an edge?

Even if you think you do, survivorship bias reminds us that there are many, many highly-intelligent, hard-working people who tried their best to apply these concepts, but did not succeed. They are missing from the pages of this book, and you’ll never read their stories.

The true goal is independence. The good news is that you don’t need be a great stock picker. Even if you just invest in low-cost index funds and can stick with it, you can do quite well and still achieve the ability to be independent and become in control of your time on Earth.

Buffett said, “If you’re even a slightly above average investor who spends less than you earn, over a lifetime you cannot help but get very wealthy.”

Howard Marks: “Most people should index most of their money.”

The pattern is clear. In their own ways, Greenblatt, Buffett, Bogle, Danoff, and Miller have all been seekers of simplicity. The rest of us should follow suit. We each need a simple and consistent investment strategy that works well over time—one that we understand and believe in strongly enough that we’ll adhere to it faithfully through good times and bad.

“You build capital and then you can do whatever you want because you’re independent.” For many of the most successful investors I’ve interviewed, that freedom to construct a life that aligns authentically with their passions and peculiarities may be the single greatest luxury that money can buy.

p.s. Here is a list of the people profiled in this book; I can’t guarantee I got all of them but it’s definitely close. A good source for additional research.

  • Sir John Templeton
  • Irving Kahn
  • Bill Ruane
  • Marty Whitman
  • Jack Bogle
  • Charlie Munger
  • Ed Thorp
  • Howard Marks
  • Joel Greenblatt
  • Bill Miller
  • Mohnish Pabrai
  • Tom Gayner
  • Guy Spier
  • Fred Martin
  • Ken Shubin Stein
  • Matthew McLennan
  • Jeffrey Gundlach
  • Francis Chou
  • Thyra Zerhusen
  • Thomas Russo
  • Chuck Akre
  • Li Lu
  • Peter Lynch
  • Pat Dorsey
  • Michael Price
  • Mason Hawkins
  • Bill Ackman
  • Jeff Vinik
  • Mario Gabelli
  • Laura Geritz
  • Brian McMahon
  • Henry Ellenbogen
  • Donald Yacktman
  • Bill Nygren
  • Paul Lountzis
  • Jason Karp
  • Will Danoff
  • François Rochon
  • John Spears
  • Joel Tillinghast
  • Qais Zakaria
  • Nick Sleep
  • Paul Isaac
  • Mike Zapata
  • Paul Yablon
  • Whitney Tilson
  • François-Marie Wojcik
  • Sarah Ketterer
  • Christopher Davis
  • Raamdeo Agrawal
  • Arnold Van Den Berg
  • Mariko Gordon
  • Jean-Marie Eveillard
  • Guy Spier
My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Greenlights: Why Matthew McConaughey Turned Down A $14.5 Million Paycheck

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Matthew McConaughey was productive during the pandemic, collecting his diaries and reflecting on his life so far to complete the NY Times bestselling memoir Greenlights. This was a highly-enjoyable book containing several great stories and providing a lot of colorful background to my limited view of this actor. I appreciated how he lived his life to avoid the thing that people regret most often on their deathbeds:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

He wasn’t one of those kids born into Hollywood, but instead a small town in West Texas. When he realized that he wanted to pursue acting, he received a great gift from his father, but it wasn’t money or connections. When McConaughey suddenly wanted to switch his college major from a pre-law to film, with the goal of pursuing acting as a career, his father replied:

“Well…Don’t half-ass it.” Of all the things my dad could have said, of all the reactions he could have had, Don’t half-ass it were the last words I expected to hear and the best words he could have ever said to me. With those words he not only gave me his blessing and consent, he gave me his approval and validation. It’s what he said and how he said it. He not only gave me privilege, he gave me honor, freedom, and responsibility. With some formidable rocket fuel in his delivery, we made a pact that day. Thanks, Pop.

Greenlight.

Interestingly, one of the defining moments of his life and professional career occurred after he became a rich, popular actor known mainly for his roles in romantic comedies – EdTV, The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch. He started to want different roles, but he couldn’t get them. He wasn’t seen as a serious actor. In order to change his position, he had to turn down multiple lucrative $$$ offers and risk being cast out of Hollywood.

…a year went by. Dozens of romantic comedy offers came my way. Only romantic comedy offers came my way. I read them out of respect but I stayed the course, stuck to the plan, and ultimately passed on them all. Just how puritanical was I about it? Well, I got a $5 million offer for two months’ work on one. I read it. I passed. Then they offered $8 million. Nope. They then offered $10 million. No, thank you. Then $12.5 million. Not this time, but…thanks. Then $14.5 million. Hmmmm…Let me reread it. And you know what? It was a better script. It was funnier, more dramatic, just an overall higher quality script than the first one I read with the $5 million offer. It was the same script, with the exact same words in it, but it was far superior to the previous ones. I declined the offer.

He was voluntarily unemployed for over a year. He passed up nearly $15 million before he finally saw a script that he felt would put him in the right direction. But once that happened, within another two years, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Dallas Buyers Club, the most prestigious award in his profession. I personally never noticed this gap before, but you can see it in his filmography taken from Wikipedia.

Here are some book quotes that support the notion that we all have an inner compass to follow:

I went to a voodoo shop south of New Orleans the other day . It had vials of “magic” potions stacked in columns with labels defining what they would give you: Fertility, Health, Family, Legal Help, Energy, Forgiveness, Money. Guess which column was sold out? Money. Yep, money is king currency today. Money is success. The more we have, the more successful we are, right? Even our cultural values have been financialized. Humility is not in vogue anymore, it’s too passive. We can get rich quick on an Internet scam, be an expert at nothing but everything if we say we are, get famous for our sex tape, and attain wealth, fame, rank, and power, even respect, without having a shred of competence for anything of value. It happens every day. We all want to succeed. The question we need to ask ourselves is, What is success to us? More money? Okay. A healthy family? A happy marriage? Helping others? To be famous? Spiritually sound? To express ourselves? To create art? To leave the world a better place than we found it? “What is success to me?” Continue to ask yourself that question. How are you prosperous? What is your relevance? Your answer may change over time and that’s fine, but do yourself this favor: Whatever your answer is, don’t choose anything that will jeopardize your soul. Prioritize who you are, who you want to be, and don’t spend time with anything that antagonizes your character. Don’t depend on drinking the Kool-Aid. It’s popular, tastes sweet today, but it will give you cavities tomorrow. Life is not a popularity contest. Be brave, take the hill, but first, answer the question, “What is my hill?”

An honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind, and when we lie down on ours at night, no matter who’s in our bed, we all sleep alone. The voluntary obligations are our personal Jiminy Crickets, and there are not enough cops in the entire world to police them — it’s on us.

Can we live in a way where we look forward to looking back?

Here are a few more “life lesson wisdom” quotes in his own voice:

…biology and giddyup DNA and work. Genetics and willpower. Life’s a combination. Some get the genes but never the work ethic or resilience. Others work their ass off but never had the innate ability. Others have both and never rely on the first.

You ever get in a rut? Stuck on the merry-go-round of a bad habit? I have. We are going to make mistakes — own them, make amends, and move on. Guilt and regret kill many a man before their time. Get off the ride. You are the author of the book of your life. Turn the page.

I don’t have the physical looks, charisma, or relentless energy that McConaughey exudes, but I do believe that each of us knows the path that feels right for us, that aligns with our soul, that is “true to ourselves”. Each of us has to drum up our own form of bravery to find and choose that path, even when it pays less money or gives us less power/respect/status from other people.

By the way, McConaughey’s pivot is a great example of the power of financial freedom! Before McConaughey started turning down million-dollar offers, he called up with his financial advisor and was told that he was financially solid (at least for a while). He had F- You Money. Without that, he may never have been able to win that Oscar.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Die With Zero: How to Spend (All) Your Money

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You might be saving too much money right now! You need to spend more! That is the unconventional message of the book Die With Zero by Bill Perkins. Some delayed gratification can be a good thing, but it can be a very bad thing if you simply end up dying with a big pile of money. Life is about having as many positive experiences as possible, and dying with more than zero means you wasted potential experiences.

The main problem is that our incomes, free time, and health vary differently with age. Incomes generally rise with age. Yet, our health and physical ability generally drops with age. Free time is a bit different, as you tend to have more free time when you are either quite young or quite old.

Therefore, the idea that we should save all the money we can in order to spend it in retirement isn’t ideal. Certain experiences are best during certain seasons of life, and you should spend your money at the times when it has the most impact. That also means you shouldn’t save much money in your 20s, as that is the best time for many of those “valuable” experiences. Here are some suggestions from the book about how to fill those “time buckets” (click to enlarge):

While I agree with many of the messages in this book, the tone often rubbed me the wrong way. Too put it bluntly, this book felt written by a “really rich guy” for his really rich friends. The author lives in a different world. In one example, he was proud that he threw a party in the Caribbean island of St. Barts which involved flying out all the attendees, renting out an entire hotel, and hiring Natalie Merchant for a private concert. Huh?

When you write a book, you ask your friends to leave an Amazon review. Perfectly reasonable. But read this:

I have to start off by saying that I know Bill Perkins personally, and that is going to make my review biased. With that being said, in my 1 year of knowing Bill, Ive had the most amazing experiences of my life. Everything from travelling around the world to playing chess with Sir Richard Branson on his private island.

🤔

via GIPHY

My primary criticism is the implicit assumption that “valuable” experiences have to cost a lot of money. Hiring celebrities to sing for you. Dropping $100,000 on a birthday party. Is it really a great tragedy if someone doesn’t end up skiing in the Swiss Alps? I’m pretty sure I’m going to die without sailing the Amalfi coast, because I have no idea where that is!

Today, my three kids went to their great-grandmother’s and great-aunt’s house. My wife spent her youth climbing a large lemon tree in the yard. Her grand-aunt is 93 years old and the kids got to help her pick the lemons and made (very messy and sticky) lemonade together. My wife reminisced about how she used to do the exact same thing (including the messy and sticky part) with her late grandmother. That was also a priceless memory, but it has little to do with money. It was about love and making an effort to spend time together.

My secondary criticism is that the book doesn’t actually teach you how to “Die with Zero”. I was honestly hoping for some insights about spending down an investment portfolio in order to accomplish “maximum spending”. Unfortunately, the book contains little practical investment advice. There is only a quick mention to “look into” annuities, and to use a longevity estimator.

There was no rebuttal to the fact that with nearly every investment, you’ll need to leave yourself some wiggle room because you don’t know how long you’ll live, future expenses, future investment returns, future interest rates, and future inflation. The only safe solution might be a TIPS ladder, which would require a lot more money than what you might need with stocks.

Let’s end on a positive note. Here are the best takeaways from this book.

  1. The most valuable things in life are experiences shared with loved ones.
  2. Each stage of your life is special and unique.
  3. Make a list of truly valuable experiences that you want at each stage. Think about why they are different for each stage (health, free time).
  4. Make them a priority. If it costs money to make it happen, then spend it happily and consciously.

Some things can wait, and others can’t. Maybe you want to learn how to surf, raise a huge family, start a nonprofit, or move somewhere warm and breezy. However, I would reiterate that I do not equate “valuable” with “expensive” or “rare”. Here are the most valuable memories that I can thing of:

  • Early 20s: I met my future wife, who is my best friend and inspires me every day. Finding the right life partner was so important to my happiness.
  • Early 20s: I did backpack around Europe and stay in hostels as a single person. The total cost was probably a couple thousand dollars and I paid cash (no debt). It was fun, but I would have also had amazing memories hiking the Appalachian Trail or teaching English in Japan.
  • Early 20s: I quit a well-paying job to take a risk and try to switch careers. It didn’t work out as I imagined, but it did work out.
  • Late 20s and early 30s: Once we had things lined up, we “spent” our energy mostly on many hours of work and high saving rates. No regrets as it set us up for the rest of our lives.
  • Mid-30s to Early-40s: We “spent” some of our money by choosing to work less and be able to raise our young children. I will never have to say the words “I wish I spent more time with them while they were young, and less time working”. We still work but our saved money gives us flexibility and the ability to choose what we work on. I am able to exercise and socialize regularly.
  • So what’s left? In my 20s, I wish I spent more time with my friends doing simple things like hanging out at bars. Today, I wish I kept in touch with them better as well. This book has strengthened my resolve to take the effort to meet up with them soon. It’s hard with everyone’s work schedules, families, etc. Something simple like go-karts, hiking, or bowling. We probably won’t stumble into Richard Branson, but who knows?

Looking back, it was more about constructing a daily life of purpose and happiness, rather than a bucket list of limited experiences. My “must haves” are based on the components of happiness, where I use money so that I can say things like:

  • I consistently lead a purposeful and meaningful life. I spend my time on things that are important.
  • I consistently become absorbed in what I am doing. Time seems to pass quickly when I am working.
  • I am in excellent health and am satisfied with my level of health.
  • I consistently receive help and support from others when I need it.
  • I am consistently excited and interested in things.
  • I rarely feel lonely.
  • I consistently feel loved.

It’s a good message not to hoard your money forever. We do have some bucket-list items like travel destinations, but honestly checking them off won’t change our lives from “good” to “awesome”. Our personal concept of financial freedom leads to a ideal lifestyle that wouldn’t change much if you were to give me more money to spend. We have “enough”.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Influence: How Salespeople Use Your Mental Shortcuts Against You

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Although not technically a “personal finance” book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini should be required reading if they ever create a standardized curriculum for personal finance. In addition to being a professor of psychology, the author was hired into several jobs where sales professionals have carefully honed the ability to use your own psychological tendencies for their benefit:

For nearly three years, then, I combined my experimental studies with a decidedly more entertaining program of systematic immersion into the world of compliance professionals—sales operators, fund-raisers, recruiters, advertisers, and others.

While a NYT Bestseller and on Warren Buffet’s reading list, I put it off as it seemed a little bit stuffy and dry, and besides I’d probably read about all the things discussed already, right? I was wrong! This book contained enough new and valuable information that I plan on making my kids read it as soon as they can. The amount of carefully-targeted marketing being thrown at them is only increasing.

These six psychological principles (mental shortcuts) have been used recently to influence your purchases, donations, and votes. I’ll still do my own brief summary below to help me remember the highlights, and there are many other summaries of the book online, but I recommend reading the entire thing in the original form. The book is older, so there are lots of copies at my library.

1. Reciprocation. If I do a favor for you, then you will feel the urge to repay me by doing me a favor in return. This tendency helps us work together in positive ways, but it can also be exploited.

  • Free in-home trials with “no obligation”.
  • Free samples at Costco.
  • Free custom mailing labels or even a nickel/dime in charity mailer.
  • “Free rewards” if you leave an Amazon product review.
  • “Free” steak dinners when selling expensive insurance products.
  • Upfront sign-up bonuses for trying out a credit card. (Ahem)

As a marketing technique, the free sample has a long and effective history. In most instances, a small amount of the relevant product is provided to potential customers for the stated purpose of allowing them to try it to see if they like it. And certainly this is a legitimate desire of the manufacturer—to expose the public to the qualities of the product. The beauty of the free sample, however, is that it is also a gift and, as such, can engage the reciprocity rule.

The confidential Amway Career Manual then instructs the salesperson to leave the BUG with the customer “for 24, 48, or 72 hours, at no cost or obligation to her. Just tell her you would like her to try the products…. That’s an offer no one can refuse.” At the end of the trial period, the Amway representative returns and picks up orders for those of the products the customer wishes to purchase.

For instance, the Disabled American Veterans organization reports that its simple mail appeal for donations produces a response rate of about 18 percent. But when the mailing also includes an unsolicited gift (gummed, individualized address labels), the success rate nearly doubles to 35 percent.

Defense? Mentally, you must redefine any “trial” or “gift” as a sales device. It is not a gift, and thus you owe them nothing in return. Choose to use a product or service on its own merits only.

2. Consistency. We are strongly wired to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done.

If you must leave your laptop in a library or valuables on the beach temporarily, your best bet would be to ask a single person directly “Will you please watch my things?”. Once that person has committed to that responsibility, your stuff becomes pretty safe, as indicated by experiment:

In these incidents, before taking his stroll, the accomplice would simply ask the subject to please “watch my things,” which each of them agreed to do. Now, propelled by the rule for consistency, nineteen of the twenty subjects became virtual vigilantes, running after and stopping the thief, demanding an explanation, and often restraining the thief physically or snatching the radio away.

Once you state something publicly, it becomes very hard for you to back down from it, even if later you realize your statement is wrong and refuted by nearly all evidence. Even worse, small wrong commitments can also open the door to larger wrong commitments. Answering “yes” to something as innocuous as “Are you a spontaneous person?” can get you do later do some stupid and dangerous things. “Why not do [dangerous thing]? You said you were spontaneous!”

What the Freedman and Fraser findings tell us, then, is to be very careful about agreeing to trivial requests. Such an agreement can not only increase our compliance with very similar, much larger requests, it can also make us more willing to perform a variety of larger favors that are only remotely connected to the little one we did earlier. It’s this second, general kind of influence concealed within small commitments that scares me.

Defense? Be very careful before agreeing to anything (even if it is small), especially publicly (like on social media). Don’t let a small commitment automatically lead you to more extreme commitments.

3. Social Proof. We tend to look to and follow the behavior of others, especially if we are unsure and/or they seem similar to us.

  • Infomercials will always have someone else come up and show an enthusiastic response.
  • During a sales presentation, there will usually be “plants” in an audience with a rehearsed response.
  • Immediately after a high-profile suicide, overall suicide rates will rise.

Bartenders often “salt” their tip jars with a few dollar bills at the beginning of the evening to simulate tips left by prior customers and thereby to give the impression that tipping with folding money is proper barroom behavior.

Defense? This shortcut can makes sense at times (Yelp/TripAdvisor/Amazon reviews), but be aware that sometimes it may be artificially generated. Also, be aware of how this tendency will affect others around you:

I have been sufficiently affected by these statistics to begin to take note of front-page suicide stories and to change my behavior in the period after their appearance. I try to be especially cautious behind the wheel of my car. I am reluctant to take extended trips requiring a lot of air travel.

4. Liking. We tend to say “yes” to people we like. We tend to like physically attractive people, as well as people that appear similar and familiar to ourselves, even though those factors may have nothing to do with why you should vote for them or buy a car from them.

The clearest illustration I know of the professional exploitation of the liking rule is the Tupperware party, which I consider the quintessential American compliance setting. Anybody familiar with the workings of a Tupperware party will recognize the use of the various weapons of influence we have examined so far: reciprocity (to start, games are played and prizes won by the partygoers; anyone who doesn’t win a prize gets to reach into a grab bag for hers so that everyone has received a gift before the buying begins), commitment (each participant is urged to describe publicly the uses and benefits she has found in the Tupperware she already owns), and social proof (once the buying begins, each purchase builds the idea that other, similar people want the product; therefore, it must be good).

Defense? Acknowledge this tendency, and try to focus solely on the merits of the situation.

5. Authority. We tend to follow symbols of authority as a mental shortcut, for example titles, uniforms, business suits, and celebrities. The problem is we do this even in situations where it shouldn’t be applicable. Why should an athlete tell me what life insurance to buy? Think of the many instances of abuse and harassment performed by people in positions of authority.

Planes have crashed because the junior pilot didn’t want to question the senior pilot. In one study, nurses were convinced to administer a lethal dose of a drug by an unknown stranger that simply firmly and urgently claimed to be a doctor over the phone.

There were four excellent reasons for a nurse’s caution in response to this order: (1) The prescription was transmitted by phone, in direct violation of hospital policy. (2) The medication itself was unauthorized; Astrogen had not been cleared for use nor placed on the ward stock list. (3) The prescribed dosage was obviously and dangerously excessive. The medication containers clearly stated that the “maximum daily dose” was only ten milligrams, half of what had been ordered. (4) The directive was given by a man the nurse had never met, seen, or even talked with before on the phone. Yet, in 95 percent of the instances, the nurses went straightaway to the ward medicine cabinet, where they secured the ordered dosage of Astrogen and started for the patient’s room to administer it. It was at this point that they were stopped by a secret observer, who revealed the nature of the experiment.

Defense? Don’t shortcut your own thinking and power by allowing the authority figure to take over. Question authority. Sometimes, it is your duty to be a safety check and protect others.

6. Scarcity. Simply being scarce makes something more desirable. This may also be linked to loss aversion – we hate losing something more than we like gaining something. “While supplies last.” “Limited-time offer.” No matter what time you land on the website, the sale will always be “ending in only 23:54 hours!”

For similar reasons, department stores holding a bargain sale toss out a few especially good deals on prominently advertised items called loss leaders. If the bait, of either form, has done its job, a large and eager crowd forms to snap it up. Soon, in the rush to score, the group becomes agitated, nearly blinded, by the adversarial nature of the situation. Humans and fish alike lose perspective on what they want and begin striking at whatever is being contested.

Defense? Question the actual amount of scarcity, especially in high-pressure environments like a live auction, Black Friday, or car sales department. Buy now or lose it forever? In reality, another train may arrive shortly.

Final thoughts. An important point in the book is that these tactics won’t always work, but they will alter the odds of success. The tactics will often be used in combination with each other for added strength. Finally, we are more likely to fall back on these mental shortcuts without thinking when we are stressed, rushed, tired, or hungry. Hopefully, the ability to identify these tactics in action will help us avoid making poor decisions, including financial ones.

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Eat and Run: On Moving Forward and Taking True Risks

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Scott Jurek is a well-known ultramarathoner that I first learned about in the book Born to Run (my highlights) by Christopher McDougall. Jurek later wrote his own memoir, titled Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. I’ll probably never have the physical and mental endurance to run 100 miles in a day. But perhaps I could learn how to push myself farther outside of my comfort zone?

As the title suggests, Jurek attributes much of his racing success to his plant-based diet. Some folks still claim that it’s too hard to get excellent nutrition just from plants, but Jurek’s performance is the perfect counterpoint. However, he isn’t overly preachy on the subject, and I appreciated that he sprinkled his favorite vegan recipes throughout the book. The few that I tried tasted pretty good.

He shares about his challenges as a child and teenager, and how that really shaped him. His mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was very young, and he had to juggle the responsibilities of being head of his household by the time he was a teenager. In addition to schoolwork and sports, he had parenting and housework duties as well. Yet, he still managed to graduate as the valedictorian of his high school.

In my valedictory speech I said, “I would like to leave you with four messages to help you and others benefit from life.” (I still have the speech.) “First of all, I ask you to be different. “Second, find a way to help others rather than thinking solely of yourself. “Third, everyone is capable of achieving. Never let anyone discourage you when trying to pursue a goal or a dream. “And finally, do things while you’re young. Be sure to pursue your dreams and goals even if they seem impossible.”

He also learned that being physically able should not be taken for granted. He provides some simple, practical advice about taking up running as a beginner:

Running efficiently demands good technique, and running efficiently for 100 miles demands great technique. But the wonderful paradox of running is that getting started requires no technique. None at all. If you want to become a runner, get onto a trail, into the woods, or on a sidewalk or street and run. Go 50 yards if that’s all you can handle. Tomorrow, you can go farther. The activity itself will reconnect you with the joy and instinctual pleasure of moving. It will feel like child’s play, which it should be. Don’t worry about speed at first or even distance. In fact, go slow. That means 50 to 70 percent of your maximum effort. The best way to find that zone is to run with a friend and talk while you’re doing so. If you can’t talk, you’re running too fast and too hard.

On the importance of the journey:

We focus on something external to motivate us, but we need to remember that it’s the process of reaching for that prize—not the prize itself—that can bring us peace and joy. Life, as countless posters and bumper stickers rightly attest, is a journey, not a destination.

On finding your path over time:

It’s easy to get wrapped up in deadlines and debt, victory and loss. Friends squabble. Loved ones leave. People suffer. A 100-mile race—or a 5K, or a run around the block—won’t cure pain. A plate filled with guacamole and dinosaur kale will not deliver anyone from sorrow. But you can be transformed. Not overnight, but over time. Life is not a race. Neither is an ultramarathon, not really, even though it looks like one. There is no finish line. We strive toward a goal, and whether we achieve it or not is important, but it’s not what’s most important. What matters is how we move toward that goal. What’s crucial is the step we’re taking now, the step you’re taking now. Everyone follows a different path. Eating well and running free helped me find mine. It can help you find yours. You never know where that path might take you.

My favorite highlight – On paying respect to the true risk-takers. Jurek is known for staying at the finish line after winning an ultramarathon and cheering on every other single runner until the last one has crossed. Every single one! For an ultramarathon, this could be another several hours or longer. Here is part of his reasoning:

Every single one of us possesses the strength to attempt something he isn’t sure he can accomplish. It can be running a mile, or a 10K race, or 100 miles. It can be changing a career, losing 5 pounds, or telling someone you love her (or him). I can guarantee that no one at the Western States knew they were going to finish, much less win (including me). A lot of people never do something great with their lives. A lot of people never attempt it. Everyone here had done both. Staying at the finish line and greeting those runners, I could pay tribute to the pain and doubt, fatigue and hopelessness, that I imagined they had pushed through.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.