Things I wish I'd done much earlier – but glad I finally did.
I remember when my parents got their first credit card. It was like something from the future – a shiny wafer of plastic that let you buy things without money.
For years, they felt guilty using it. What did it say about them? Would people assume they were poor; that they needed this instrument of debt just to buy a new toaster?
Like a dieter who takes a nip from a muffin then tosses the rest in the bin; they'd quickly pay it each month then file the statement away.
Years later, I got my own piece of plastic. Then another one. And then another; until my letterbox became choked with red-coloured statements.
When the property market collapsed – and my marriage soon after – I had $140,000 in useless consumer debt.
Years of ultra-frugal living and 15-hour days finally saw it vanquished, and I vowed never to fall prey to easy debt again. I even wrote a book about it.
I returned to my early habits of buying only what I could afford, and my life took on a lightness and peace that I'd lacked for over two decades.
Today, I save for the things I want. Everything I own is 100% mine.
Investing on Autopilot
Investing is another skill I learned much later in life. I'd originally started in my thirties – accumulating three houses and two apartments, but I over-stretched and lost it all post-GFC. I understood the power of leverage and compounding (interest and equity) but forgot they also work against you if you lack a buffer.
Today, I'm in less of a hurry. I might have missed my chance to use Einstein's ‘eighth wonder of the world' to its fullest effect, but I'm also unlikely to lose everything again.
From the age of ten, I saved for everything, including three motorbikes, a car and various camera outfits. Had I maintained my youthful discipline and squirrelled away some money into an index fund each week, I'd have probably retired by now.
These days, a fixed amount is deducted from my income each fortnight and added to a Vanguard index fund where it'll grow. Just knowing this eliminates most of my anxiety about the future. When I'm old and crusty, I know I'll be fine.
Living more with less sh*t.
The flip side of the same coin is learning to ‘live more with less'. I recently discovered minimalism, and it opened my eyes to the scourge of compulsive consumption.
Wander through your local shopping centre or mall and count how many people are having a good time. Most look anxious, stressed or emotionless. They treat shopping like recreation – a chance to experience the briefest feeling of excitement. But it's an empty promise; a meaningless search for happiness through the acquisition of things.
When I want something, I wait a month. I live with the feeling of having the thing to see if it brings me joy. If it does, I wait another month. If the feeling is still there – depending on the cost – I might wait for longer still. Usually, though, the feeling goes – I've thought about it, read about it and lived with it in my head, and now its allure has waned.
Sometimes, the feeling doesn't leave me; I'm convinced the object will bring joy or utility to my life. It's only then that I make the decision to buy – perhaps next week; maybe next year.
Because of this approach, brochures and catalogues never make their way into our home. They go straight from the letterbox into the bin.
New Shiny Syndrome is western culture's biggest addiction, but it no longer has me as a customer.
Treating my Partner as my Equal
Spoiling your partner is no different to spoiling your kids. It creates an unsustainable baseline of expectations.
My longtime friend and mentor, Ken Fife, said, “I never saw a kid benefit from being spoiled.”
The trouble with treating your man like a hero all the time; or your woman like a princess, is two-fold:
1. It burdens them with an expectation to keep earning that title, or
2. It burdens them with a sense of entitlement.
Either way, it weakens the partnership. Because that's what a relationship should be – two people coming together to enable shared progress. A partnership.
My dad placed my mum on a pedestal. He bit his tongue, swallowed his pride, and did whatever she wanted. Until one day he didn't, and all hell broke loose.
Likewise, mum idolised dad; she vested her identity, her emotional wellbeing and financial security in him. In some ways, she conceded to him, too. Until one day she stopped, and all hell broke loose.
I made the same mistake over and over. I changed – often dramatically – to accommodate the person I was with. The effects were always the same. An entitled, resentful partner, and a loss of identity for me until my breaking point was breached.
Today, my wife and I are partners. Real partners. I love her, but I don't idolise her. She's amazing, but she isn't a princess. When we disagree, we don't fight; we talk about it. We respect each other. We hug every day. We discuss everything. We have no secrets. Each of us is better than the other at certain things, but we are equals.
Where Ego and Ambition Collide
Many of my earliest problems manifested through ignorance of ego and ambition. I was smart; I was ambitious, and I was in a hurry. I believed I could be anything and have anything.
What I forgot was that few things happen without the cooperation of others.
Everything we do throughout our lives is in the pursuit or avoidance of a feeling. Driven by our ego (who we believe we are) and ambition (what we believe we want) – and amplified by the 5,000 marketing messages we see each day – we become slaves to binary urges.
It's only through repeated failure and re-evaluation that we learn how to function with intention. Only through missteps do we seem to build the emotional intelligence to call bullsh*t on the signals we've succumbed to for so long.
I wish I'd learned much earlier to stand back and be the observer of my thoughts. To slow down and see what I'm about to do before I do it, then not do it. I wish I'd seen other people's behaviour in the context of their own history – to see the why in the what.
Thankfully, it's never too late to learn anything. I'm still learning, of course. But like that elusive prize called ‘happiness', it's all in the doing, not the having.
Paradoxically, when we do, you have.
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