On the importance of putting first things first
Holy cats! That was an interesting 72 hours.
For the past three days, I've been fighting a terrible cold. Or maybe the flu. I'm not sure which. It hasn't been fun.
On Sunday, while I was in Florida attending an early-retirement retreat, I woke with crap in my lungs. All day, I was coughing and sneezing and hacking. I still felt relatively strong, though, so I made sure to get in my four-mile training run. (I made two goals involving running this year: I want to run at least one mile every day and I want to run a half marathon at the end of March.)
On Monday morning, I felt worse. Still, I rolled out of bed and tromped the one mile I had scheduled for myself. It was a l-o-n-g mile, let me tell you. I was wheezing and gasping the entire ten minutes.
The six-hour flight home to Portland on Monday afternoon was miserable. I hate flying when I'm sick, and I know how much that sucks for other passengers. I huddled next to the window and tried not to breathe too deeply. Breathing too deeply rattled the crap in my lungs and sent me into fits of coughing, so I mainly zoned out and made an effort to take shallow breaths.
“You sound terrible,” Kim said when she picked me up from the airport. That night, she made me sleep in the guest room.
I spent all yesterday fighting a high fever. I tried to write an article, but it was a futile endeavor. I couldn't focus. I couldn't write or read or even watch TV. (I starting watching the new Blade Runner movie, but I couldn't focus for more than a few minutes at a time.) I could barely focus on videogames.
In the afternoon, I felt a little better, so I decided to take the dog for a walk. “I have a three-mile training run scheduled today,” I thought to myself. “I probably shouldn't do that. But surely I can do just a mile.” I put on my running clothes, grabbed the leash and the dog, and headed outside.
After two minutes of running — and less than a quarter mile — I pulled up short. I couldn't catch my breath. I felt like I was going to faint. I walked the dog back home and crawled into bed.
And that's how my goal of running at least one mile each day in 2018 came to an end.
Blind Pursuit of the Less Important
My example of blindly pursuing a small goal at the expense of the Big Picture is relatively minor. It's not a big deal. But it's not hard to find examples of people doing this on a grander scale, which can lead to all sorts of complications.
I've noticed, for instance, that many people who discover the ideas behind early retirement become laser-focused on their “number” — the amount they need to save in order to reach financial independence (a.k.a. FI). They rearrange their lives so that they can save 50% or 70% or 85% of their income, but never take time to figure out what they're saving for. Why are they saving for financial independence? What's the purpose?
Then a crisis occurs and they realize the goal they've been pursuing was a red herring. Financial independence and early retirement aren't the actual objective — and they never were. A happy life filled with meaning and purpose is what they really want; financial independence is merely a tool to help them achieve it.
I see this all of the time in the financial independence community. Everyone who reads FI forums can tell me what their number is — but only a handful can tell me why they're pursuing FI.
Here's a classic example. Yesterday, in the financial independence forum on Reddit, an anonymous user posted a heart-breaking story about losing the love of his life because he was too focused on money — too obsessed with how and what and not enough on why. Here's his story:
I should be clear, it's because I obsessed over FI and ignored my life goals.
Together for 7 years, living together for most of it. She was perfect for me and was also very frugal. I had it all.
I read the stickied post. “Find the life you want to live and save for it”, or whatever it's called. But I didn't take it to heart. I thought I was doing this. I didn't understand. I was so wrong. I was blind. I was living the life I wanted to but I was ignoring the life that my partner wanted.
I didn't spend money with her to do the things she really valued. I didn't buy plane tickets to go visit her family with her when she desperately wanted me to come. My whole life I said I wanted kids and then discovered FI and changed my mind because they were too expensive. I refused to buy nicer furniture for our apartment and made her embarrassed about our place and not comfortable in her own home. Over and over I made this mistake and we drifted apart. She wasn't asking for much, just for things she really valued. She is frugal. I was selfish. And I lost sight of the fact I always wanted kids.
I realize this all now but it's too late. I told her all of this but it's too late. Don't be me. Examine every facet of your life and think about it. I regret it all.
FI ruined my life, but it's my fault, not FIs fault. It was my obsession. So here's my advice. Focus on the life you want to live, but compromise with your partner too because I'd trade all the money in my bank for that relationship back. And once you are in the boring middle…focus on what makes you and your family happy today.
Don't be me. Don't get obsessed. Live in the present.
Goals are good. Goals keep us motivated. They give us meaning and purpose. They spur us to become better versions of ourselves. They help us learn and grow and develop into more interesting human beings.
But some goals are less important than others. Some goals are meant to support higher-level goals.
Putting First Things First
I believe strongly that financial goals ought not be top-level goals in your life. Your financial objectives are there to help you pursue more important things. Because of this, there are times you ought to set money considerations aside to attend to more important matters.
This isn't just true with financial goals, of course. It's true with all goals that support larger purposes.
In my case, running one mile every day this year wasn't my real aim. When I take a step back to look at the Big Picture, I realize that specific goal on its own was meaningless. That goal was actually representative of a larger goal — to get fit, to exercise more often. Running every day was merely a manifestation of a deeper desire.
In that context, it's no big deal that I'm going to miss two or three days of running while recovering from being sick. In fact, the time off is a good thing.
As you work toward your goals — financial and otherwise — please remember to place them in proper context. Prioritize the important stuff. Don't sacrifice a greater good for some lesser aim. Don't give up your long-term health to keep a running streak alive. Don't sacrifice a relationship to obtain some arbitrary savings goal.
Put first things first.
“Putting first things first means organizing and executing around your most important priorities. It is living and being driven by the principles you value most, not by the agendas and forces surrounding you.” — Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly-Effective People