A giant leap for happiness

My book is almost finished. Actually it is finished, and I’m just touching it up, pruning and clarifying certain ideas. Here’s a short excerpt, just one single sentence from the book, to get a taste:

Small, consistent steps, taken with awareness, celebration, feedback, analysis and course correcting, will always get you further than occasional and mindless spurts, not to mention being more enjoyable than a single marathon for some pie in the sky moonshot you might never complete, and might not even want if you ever get there.

That’s the excerpt. Here’s the interpretation:

Today I was interviewed on the topic of saving for retirement: when to start, how much to put away, when to start reducing risk, what to forego in terms of consumption, what to plan for etc. Saving and investing money is much like investing in your own life. It comes down to getting the small things right – and the earlier the better.

But small and early, the wu wei concept, isn’t enough. What you do small and early is utterly crucial. Hence you need to pay close attention to who you are, what you truly like, and what effect your chosen small steps actually have, as opposed to what you meant them to cause. That’s what I mean by taking your steps with awareness.

Celebrate your successes. Better yet, celebrate your learning experiences, good or bad. Then reinforce your habits or course correct. Every completed small step is reason to reflect about what you did, why you did it, what effect it had. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the fact that you did something, that you had an experience, that you learned something, and that you’re still around to improve on your decision making process. Analyze what happened, and feed your conclusions back into your habits, targets and life direction.

Do it continuously. Acknowledge that the process is a success in and of itself. Sticking to a good habit is more of a success than actually reaching a long term goal. Sure, keep tweaking and updating your desired direction, and possibly ultimate endgame, with the outcome of your taken small steps. But avoid staking years of toil and effort on long term goals and potentially empty hopes of grand celebrations at the finish line. You’re most likely somebody else when you get there. In addition, with the goal behind you, you have nothing, not even a process. In effect when you reach your long term goal you have nothing to celebrate. The risk is you establish another, equally arbitrary and long term goal just to fill the void.

Striving for a million dollars or a 200 lbs bench press are such useless goals, with nothing but emptiness waiting for you. Using your body every day, or managing your savings a little better every day, are processes you can be happy about every day.

Life and finances work much the same way, and should be considered in context of each other. You can’t predict, but you can prepare. Establish good habits that resonance with your personality and every day will be reason to celebrate sticking to and improving on your habits and best practices. The inevitable setbacks will be nothing more than temporary and largely inconsequential stumbles.

You don’t need to finish the marathon under 3 hours, there’s no defeat in falling and missing the magic number. The joy lies in every step along the way. If marathon runners were only in it for winning or beating a certain time, there would be very few marathon runners around. No, it’s the small steps, the habits, the joy of the process that drive them. The same idea applies to your life and your finances.

Trying to spurt will only make you miserable. Aiming for the moon might or might not get you there; and maybe, just maybe you’ll get to celebrate once. And then what?

Becoming strong, fast, rich, accomplished or successful isn’t about reaching a final goal, it’s about the becoming in itself, i.e., enjoying and celebrating the process. If you save, invest, socialize and exercise in a way that’s sound, ever improving, and not least enjoyable – taking small steps in full awareness and with an effective feedback process – chances are you’ll appreciate your life so much more, than even if you did succeed in a one in a billion moonshot effort to become rich, famous or achieve some other form of externally validated status.

Robert Sapolsky says that your subjective status is at least as important as your objective status, and after a certain threshold level of living standards, what group you choose to compare yourself to is the main deciding factor of how good you feel about yourself. I choose to rank myself in the serenity and happiness group, and there I come out on top, which also means I actually come out on top in therms of how I feel. Win-win-win.

More excerpts are coming up. The question, however, is whether I should include these long winded clarifications in the book or not. What do you think?

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6 Comments

  1. I vote for including the clarifications. If you worry that it’s a bit repetetitive, I’d say that’s actually a strength. Repeating a concept with different examples and wordings makes it more likely that the reader will get it. As I recall Sunström has complained about “one idea books” that just repeat the same concept over and over for hundreds of pages. But I would rather have that than a book that doesn’t explain the concepts clearly because the author is worried about being too verbose.

  2. What do you think of the market this week? Is the longest bull market in history finally ending?

  3. Another vote for the ‘long winded clarifications’. And another vote for your thoughts on the market :). Enjoy the final steps of creating the book!

  4. Explanations and anecdotes are always a bonus – especially when drawn from your well structured mind, Mike.
    Thanks for sharing your experience and keep up the good work!

  5. “Trying to spurt will only make you miserable.” Check with Dr. Ruth about that…

    I think the clarification is good. Without concrete examples, the excerpt seems like a vague platitude. Everyone will agree and no one will grok your full meaning.

    Someone (you or Ludvig?) said that one should strive for goals that are realizable in about five years. I think this is good for *long term* goals – five years is not a tragic waste if you want to change course. Short and intermediate term goals are essential for the reasons you describe. A 200 lb. bench is fine if you don’t burn yourself out trying to reach it, but if you kill five years getting there only to realize that you’re a weakling and have to bench 300, it’s time to stop barking up that tree.

    I think you know how I feel about “retirement” – as a goal in itself, it’s a kind of living death.

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