On Tuesday evening I gave my first-ever presentation about personal finance. I spoke to a group of about 70 graduating seniors from Western Oregon University. My talk went okay. It wasn’t terrible, but it certainly wasn’t good. It’s a start. I learned a lot, and I’ll do better next time.

I was the fourth and final speaker of the evening, though. Before I talked about personal finance, three WOU alums spoke about life after college. While my talk might have been mediocre, theirs were outstanding.

Brian Reick
The first speaker was Brian Reick, who described his experience moving from job-to-job. He began knocking on doors right out of school and eventually found work. But the job wasn’t perfect, and neither was he. He was fired after only two years. This experience taught him a couple things:

  • A job is not a marriage. It’s not “for better or worse”. It’s only for better. If it’s not working out for you or the company, then move on.
  • Treat your time as an investment. It’s more important to invest your time wisely than to invest your money wisely.

Later in his career, Brian found himself working in a job he didn’t like. He made a promise to himself: “I told myself that if I wasn’t happy with my job one year from that day, I’d leave. That was the best decision I ever made. After a year, I knew it was time to go. It was more important for me to be happy than to chase dollars.” Two other life lessons Brian shared were:

  • The people you work with are more important than the company. You want to work with people who have high integrity, people you can trust. It’s nice to work for a great company, but it’s better to work with great people.
  • Don’t rationalize your decisions. As you move through your career, don’t stay in situations that make you unhappy just because you think you’re obligated. Take some calculated risks.

Ron Clark
Next we heard from Ron Clark, a Portland lawyer. Ron shared three major points:

  1. What you studied in school does not matter. Students should major in subjects they enjoy. They should pursue learning. One of Ron’s colleagues is a brilliant lawyer who has a degree in music. He knows a judge with a degree in pharmacology. Your degree does not matter.
  2. Self-discipline is the common denominator among the successful. In order to get into college and to earn a degree, one must exercise delayed gratification. This doesn’t end after school. Delayed gratification and self-discipline are necessary for continued success in life.
  3. Be willing to do grunt work. By doing the entry-level jobs, you’re building skills necessary to move up. As you progress in your career, find things in each job to be passionate about.

Celia Kimbrough
The third speaker was Celia Kimbrough, a professional photographer. As a single mother, Celia applied for the interpreting program at Western Oregon University. She was one of 72 applicants for 16 spots. She didn’t get in — she didn’t let it bother her. “I’ve failed at a lot of things in life,” she says, “but they’ve made me who I am today. It’s okay to fail.” The important thing is to be working toward something, to have a goal.

Still, you should always keep your mind open for other options. Don’t be so locked into your goal that you miss opportunity knocking on the door. Sometimes life will lead you in directions you don’t expect. When she didn’t get into the interpreting program, Celia pursued a degree in Natural Sciences. She wanted to be a teacher. But then life led her in another direction, and now she owns a successful photography studio.

You’ve got to find your passion,” Celia says. “I changed my major six times. That’s okay. Everything you do leads you to the person you’re becoming. As long as you have some goals, you’ll be fine.”

Celia stressed that it’s important to think about the sort of life you want to live. Some of what she said reminded me of Tim Ferriss’ notion of lifestyle design, building your life and career around what you want to do. Entrepreneurship has allowed her to construct a fulfilling life.

“What’s important to you?” she asked asked the students. “Make your choices based on that. I wanted to be excited about what I do every day. If you’re complaining about what you’re doing, then try something else.

J.D. Roth
To conclude the program, I gave a short presentation on personal finance. Again, this was the first such talk I’ve given, and it was pretty rough. I actually tried to stress some of the topics Get Rich Slowly readers suggested last Monday:

  • Develop a basic budget. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Whatever you choose to do, make it a goal to set aside 20% for saving and investing. This sounds like a lot, but if you can start the habit young, it’ll be easier. (And will yield greater returns in the long run.)
  • Avoid lifestyle inflation. As your income increases, it’s tempting to increase your spending in proportion. The more you can resist this urge, the more successful you will be with money.
  • Do what you love. A low-paying job that leads to future prospects in a career you like is better than a high-paying job in a career that doesn’t move you in the right direction. Never stick with a shitty job. It’s easier to change jobs now than it will be in five or ten years.
  • The less you spend, the more flexibility you have. When I graduated, I bought a new car and developed credit card debt. I had to take any job I could find because I was tied to monthly payments. When my friend Sparky graduated, he had a lot of freedom. His debts were minimal. He traveled the U.S., taking whatever job struck his fancy. He spent time in Mexico. He spent five months traveling southeast Asia. He was able to do these things because he didn’t have expensive obligations.

With my speech, I handed out a one-page guide to personal finance, which contained supplementary material.

I felt pretty geeky during this dinner. When the first speaker began, I pulled out my pad of paper and started jotting notes. I couldn’t help it. Though these talks were ostensibly aimed at the graduating seniors, there was plenty of valuable information in them for anyone.

I was surprised and happy to discover that one theme seemed to shine through in all four presentations. Money’s a great tool, each of us said, but it’s not the only thing in life. It’s not even the most important thing. We each in our own way stressed one point above all: It’s more important to be happy than it is to be rich.