During the 1990s, my financial life was like a Caribbean cruise ship during hurricane season: I was in a cabin at the center of the ship, unaware of the storms approaching from the horizon. By 2001, I'd wandered onto the deck in the midst of Hurricane Debt and Failure; I found myself in financial and personal trouble. It took a few years, but eventually I discovered that I had more control over that cruise ship than I thought.
In 2006, I shared with Get Rich Slowly readers the circumstances that allowed me to start moving in the right direction. In short, I realized that I could no longer sit by and let external forces — the hurricanes: my bosses, a difficult situation at work, my increasing debt, a deteriorating personal relationship — control my life. I learned how to manage my own money, using the basic approaches of earning more and spending smarter. I removed the negative forces in my life — anything that worked against my long-term goals to improve my finances, my life, and my identity — and replaced them with positives.
In my old life, I put the blame for failure or the credit for success on outside forces, such as luck or the economy. But this just made me feel helpless about my situation. In my new life, I shifted my philosophy from an external locus of control to an internal one: the belief that the circumstances in my life were due to choices I made. (Or worse, the choices I didn't make.) This made all the difference.
Humans are wired to seek comfort, and as a result much of daily life is focused around familiar patterns and habits. When something threatens to break those habits, we feel uncomfortable and nervous. These negative feelings are easily avoided by continuing to live life the same way, rejecting change. If given the chance to enter uncharted territory, a situation where life's future is unpredictable, people often prefer not to change, clinging to a comfortable situation.
I still remember the summer before I left my home and family to attend college out of state. Although I'd spent summers away from home before, I didn't feel ready to live without the immediate support of my parents on what seemed to be a more permanent basis. I considered postponing my college education or attending a community college for a year to ease the transition.
Realizing that millions of kids my own age had the courage to attend college while living on campus hundreds or thousands of miles away from their family, I decided to follow through. I convinced myself I was at least as capable as millions of other kids.
Success, financial or otherwise, comes from within.
According to studies by psychologists and researchers, people with an internal locus of control are more apt to plan for long-term goals, delay gratification, and accept more risk for the promise of more reward. These qualities should sound familiar to readers of this site because they are precisely the characteristics needed to "get rich slowly."
The locus of control is a way of looking at your circumstances and assigning cause. The difference between external and internal is the difference between saying, "I didn't get the raise because the company is tightening the belt," and, "I didn't get the raise because I didn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt I deserved it." It's also the difference between, "I got the promotion because it was finally my turn after being here long enough," and, "I got the promotion because I performed well on that last project."
In the very early days of 2002, I realized I needed to change a few things about my life.
My girlfriend and I returned from a vacation in Phoenix, Sedona, and the Grand Canyon in the middle of December 2001, having had an excellent time despite some nervousness about flying so soon after 9/11. Upon returning, four things happened to me that forced me to change my outlook. I suppose the older, more rational me can look back and say on some level I caused them to happen.
- My girlfriend left me.
- I lost my low-paying non-profit job in the arts — a job for which I had just moved to a horrible apartment in northern New Jersey.
- My car was impounded by police. Unbeknownst to me, I had been driving with a suspended license due to my failure to pay a years-old speeding ticket I don't remember receiving.
- My landlady somehow got the impression that I was moving out at the end of December (although no such decision was ever communicated). While I was out one night, she removed my belongings from the apartment so someone else could move in.
I moved in with my father so I could take some time to look for a new job and to contemplate my existence for just a couple of months. It was during this time I realized that I was losing money every month while working at that non-profit. It cost me more to travel to the job and pay rent and other necessary expenses than I was earning. I decided to start focusing on my financial situation (among other things). Continue reading...