Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Living a life of quiet desperation


Henry David Thoreau, in his book Walden, said this very famous quote:
Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.
Having talked with many people over the last several years I have discovered that too many people fall in this category.  And I think I am understanding why – finally.

As a child growing up, the message I most often heard from my parents, and all of their adult friends, was “go to school, get good grades, get a job and you will be successful”.  I listened and then I did.  I am now in my fifties and living a life of quiet desperation.  What is it that is causing this feeling?


I think most of it has to do with defining and living your life’s purpose.  Coupled with that, I think our modern lives rob us of the time and energy to do this.  One of the things I’ve noticed is as I get older, I have more and more responsibility at work.  I also have more and more responsibility at home.  If I tracked a typical progression it would basically look like:
  1. Age 25 – start career, get married
  2. Age 30 – continue up the career path, larger family, larger house
  3. Age 35 – continue up the career path, larger family, larger house
  4. Age 40 – continue up the career path, more family activities/events
  5. Age 45 – continue up the career path, more family activities/events
  6. Age 50 – hold on to the career path, more family activities/events
  7. Age 55 – hold on to the career path, more family activities/events, kids weddings, college, etc.
  8. Age 60 - hold on to the career path, maybe start downsizing
  9. Age 65 - hold on to the career path, figure out how to retire
If I were to show this visually as a graph of Time vs. Effort it would look something like this.  While we have become more and more successful in our career, we have become more and more detached from our spouse.  With an about 60% divorce rate here in America it is the rare bird indeed that is able to grow their marriage as well as their career.  And this does not even take into account all those things we wanted to accomplish when we were cutting the strings from our own parents. 

What happened to those dreams?  What ever happened to that purpose most of us had coming out of High School?  What happened to that crazy feeling when you first saw who later became your spouse?  Is it because the perceived effort to get the assumed reward seems to go up every year of our life; and we never quite seem to get as much reward as we thought we would?  I think that might have quite a bit to do with it.

I have several friends who have traded away their security in the employment and small business worlds to become big business entrepreneurs.  After picking their brains for the last several months I have discovered that the Effort vs. Time graph looks completely different for them.  The amount of effort up front is several times what we face as an employee.  However, there comes a point in time where a tipping point is reached and the amount of effort sharply decreases!

While my first graph shows a typical progression in age from 25 to 65, the second graph is a yearly progression.  This is important as most people don’t start down this route until “later” in life.  However, that does not inhibit an 18 year old from doing something like this.  And in fact, in several ways, I think our youth should do something like this before they are taught by society to take the less successful route.

Another thing to note, and this really got my attention, is the amount of time needed to hit that tipping point.  My graph shows 5 years and this is a rough average of the dozens I have talked with.  Some hit that point in as little as 3 years while others hit it in about 7 years.  And somewhere along the way to the tipping point they were able to walk away from the job scene and start devoting their time to their purpose in life.

Time and Money

I could go into all the different studies on how to make money but I don’t have the time.  I will leave that as a piece of research for you to do dear reader.  However, I will state simply that there are 3 main ways to make money:
  1. Trade hours for dollars.  This is the typical employee and small business owner route.  Here you are limited by several factors like how much the company is willing to pay for a particular job description, how much time in a day there is and what the market will bear.
  2. Compound money.  You will recognize this as stock market portfolios, 401k, and other investments.
  3. Compound time.  This is the big business model.  Earning income from other people’s efforts.  If you want more money, involve more people in your enterprise.

Now what I find curious is that only #1 is taught in school.  As we start climbing the career ladder we will find out about #2.  The sad thing is, most of us will mortgage something to try to get into #2.  Whether it is our time, working more and more overtime, getting a loan so we can invest, chipping away at our own income to sock money away in stocks and retirement plans, or what have you.  The sad fact is we are never taught how to invest money wisely and so end up losing most, if not all, by the time we are ready to retire.  #3 is not taught at all even though most of us work in a big business setting.  The owners keep getting richer and we struggle to climb a ladder where the top rungs are already full.  We have to wait for someone to leave or die before we have a chance to move up.

Another interesting set of questions that I am dealing with goes something like this:  On a sheet of paper, write out your ideal lifestyle then set it to your left.  On another sheet of paper, write out your ideal job the set it to your right.  Now compare the two.  What do they have in common?  If you (and your spouse) were honest, I would guess that they have very little in common.  In fact, most of your ideal lifestyle would be centered around time; time with your spouse, time with your loved ones, time to pursue your purpose, time to relax and finally, supporting all of that, enough money to support all the things you need time for.  Most of your ideal job would be centered around money; more money for what you are doing, more money for retirement, more money to get out of debt, and finally, at the bottom, would be less time at work.

Now you are starting to see a bit of the dilemma.  While working as an employee you have no control over either your time or your money.  Small business owners are in the same boat.  Do you think that is a basis for living a life of quiet desperation?  Do you think there is more, or less involved?

More soon dear readers…

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