One thing to my people (A prayer of thanksgiving)
I recently flew to Cincinnati, Ohio to attend the second-annual EconoMe Conference. I had one of the best weekends of my life.
I can't say that the conference itself was the reason for this peak experience. There's no question that I enjoyed interacting with the speakers and attendees. As the video below demonstrates, the main-stage talks were both entertaining and educational. The conversations at the venue were great too. I reconnected with old friends and made some new ones.
But while I enjoyed EconoMe, the conference was mostly incidental to making my weekend great. EconoMe was merely the vehicle for bringing everyone together so that I could experience the laughter and conversations I enjoyed for five days.
Turns out that EconoMe was also the vehicle for one of those oh-so-rare moments when all of the disparate strands in my life — all of my hopes and fears and recent objects of rumination — weave together to produce something spectacular, a sort of personal Big Bang.
The net result is that today I find myself with a clear sense of purpose for the first time in years. More importantly, I feel deep gratitude for all that I have in my life.
As long-time GRS readers have noticed (and commented on), I am a bundle of contradictions. I always have been. Even when I was a boy, I was a dilettante. I read widely, tried new things, started projects and abandoned them, and tried to do too much at once. This isn't a new phenomenon. (As an adult I now know that this pattern is a manifestation of my ADHD.)
A side effect of my scattered interests is that I can feel overwhelmed. I'm juggling so much in my head that I become, well, sort of confused and unclear about the direction I should take my life.
This happened to me in college. I entered Willamette University believing that I'd major in religious studies, then graduate and possibly attend seminary. (This is 100% true, although it's something I don't think I've shared at GRS before.) By the end of my freshman year, however, my faith was waning. And by the end of my sophomore year, it had disappeared entirely. I didn't know what to do with my life. I felt overwhelmed. That spring term in 1989 was rough for me.
Then, a number of things came together. I'm old now, and I can't remember all of the details, but I do know that I had begun dating Kris (whom I would eventually marry and be with for 23 years), I'd decided to major in psychology, and I had been accepted as a Resident Assistant for my junior year.
One warm evening in early May, as I was walking across the Willamette University campus, I experienced something new and unexpected. I was crossing the Mill Stream and the clock tower was tolling when all at once I felt utterly content and at peace with myself. Everything seemed right with the world.
It's difficult to express just how powerful this experience was for me. It was magical! Even after the intensity of the moment subsided, an afterglow remained — not for days, but for months. This moment of self-actualization (which is how I thought of it then) propelled me forward into my junior year and beyond.
In time, of course, the feeling faded. But I never forgot it. To this day, I can remember clearly those twenty or thirty seconds during which it felt as if I'd reached the pinnacle of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
My Archimedes Moment
Sixteen years later — in February 2006 — Kris and I were married, living with our cats in a hundred-year-old farmhouse on the outskirts of Portland. I was deep in debt. I was working at a job I hated — selling boxes for the family business. I was fat. My life seemed out of control.
But I had begun to take steps to turn things around. I had drafted a plan to get out of debt, and I was actually following through on the goals I'd set for myself. I was reading book after book after book about smart money management. Plus, I had begun to look for ways to make more money on the side.
One night, I was soaking in the bathtub while reading The Millionaire Maker by Loral Langemeier. Something in the book (I no longer remember what) hit me like a bolt from the blue. All at once, I had the same brilliant moment of clarity I'd experienced that May evening while walking across my college campus.
Please note that I don't necessarily recommend The Millionaire Maker. Yes, the book sparked something in me, but that doesn't mean it's a good book. It just happened to be in the right place at the right time in my life.
I had nothing to write with in the tub, so I climbed out, toweled off, then — no joke — sat down naked at the kitchen table, where a pen and notebook were waiting for me.
For the next half hour, I jotted down plans and ideas. I wrote down my path to the future. Kris wandered through a couple of times. “Why don't you put some clothes on?” she asked, shaking her head. But I was too focused to move. I had to get all of this out of my brain and onto paper.
You see, my Eureka! moment had granted me an understanding of what I should be doing with my spare time. Instead of wasting my life on videogames, I ought to channel my experience and enthusiasm into something that might make me money: a blog about comic books! And, if that didn't work, I thought that maybe I could start a site about money.
Obviously, the comic book blog failed. But my back-up plan? That website about money? Well, that website succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.
Even back in 2006, I was very aware that my bathtub brainstorm was akin to the my moment of self-actualization in college. They might not have been identical experiences, but they were close cousins. And during the fifteen years since I conceived Get Rich Slowly while sitting naked at my kitchen table, the connection between these two peak experiences has only become more pronounced in my mind.
I've always wondered: Will I experience anything like this again in my life?
One Thing to My People
You all know how difficult the past few years have been for me. From 2009 to 2016, my life seemed idyllic. (That's how it felt, anyhow.) I had my share of problems, sure, but mostly things were going great.
Then, in 2016, I began a slow slide into depression and despair. These dark days climaxed last winter, when my psyche became strangely entangled with my house — and with this blog.
I'm not going to belabor all of this because there's no reason to do so. It's enough to say that my 2021 has been the long, slow process of me figuring out how to dis-entangle myself from the habits and places that were bringing me down. I'm pleased to say I've made great progress, and I'm very excited for the future.
All the same, I've given serious consideration to giving up my online life entirely. I came away from Fincon in September believing that maybe it was time for me to do something different. Maybe I would take art classes. Maybe I would get a job at a hardware store. Maybe I would become a real-estate investor.
That was my mindset when I flew to Cincinnati two weeks ago. As has happened in the past, I felt like I had no clear direction. I was aimless. I had no purpose. Life was complicated and confusing and overwhelming.
During those five days at EconoMe, the Universe (or fate or God or whatever you want to call it) decided to hit me over the head again and again and again with the same message. And that message goes something like this: “Get Rich Slowly is your life's work. Do it. As you work, follow your heart and your mind. Trust yourself. Most of all, ignore the haters.”
That last part is important. For whatever reason, I've become more and more concerned about what other people think as I've aged. It's dumb. Most people experience the opposite as they grow older. They stop caring what other people think. Not me. I became obsessed with it.
Sunday in Cincinnati, I had brunch with my friend, Amy Finke. Amy attended the first F.I. chautauqua in Ecuador in 2013. We've been friends ever since. And while we don't see each other often, we have great conversations when we do see each other in Oregon or northern Kentucky.
As we ate, I talked about my recent struggles. I told Amy about my depression and anxiety, and about my issues with internet feedback. I told her that I had thought about quitting. “It's not just the negative stuff that gets me down,” I said. “I find that I'm also driven to pursue the positive stuff. It's like I'm looking for the next hit of a drug or something.”
Amy's response was kind. It actually made me a little misty. “You play an important role in the world of personal finance,” she said. “Your writing at Get Rich Slowly is human and nuanced and it's not dogmatic. That's what sets it apart. You aren't perfect and you don't pretend to be. You don't have all the answers.”
And here, over coffee and omelettes, Amy said something that — for the third time in my life — triggered a transcendent moment for me.
“You know I work in market research,” Amy said. “I inevitably have the same conversation each time I work with a brand. Like you, they get lost in the weeds, they lose their way. And when that happens, I ask them the same thing I want you to ask yourself: Do you want to be all things to all people? Or do you want to be one thing to your people?”
Boom! All at once, everything was clear to me. With this one question, Amy had cleared away the cobwebs and the clutter and the chaos in my head. I could see the futility of trying to be all things to all people. It's impossible to please everyone, impossible to have everybody like me. It's a ridiculous goal. A foolish one.
But what I can do is continue to share my experience. I can continue to share what I learn about personal finance as I'm learning it. I can continue to be honest about my mistakes in an effort to help others avoid them. I can continue to amplify the voices of other folks in the personal-finance community who are doing honest, sincere work. I can continue to be goofy and creative and real.
I cannot articulate who “my people” are, and I'm not sure I want to. But perhaps you are one of them. Maybe you're not — and that's okay. What I do know now is the path forward for Get Rich Slowly — and for my life. As I did in 1989 and 2006, I've had a flash of insight, a moment of clarity, and I intend to use this revelation to direct my actions for the foreseeable future.
Before I conclude, I want to point out something that is probably obvious to some of you. These rare moments of insight and clarity — of which I've had three during my 52 years on Earth — don't exist in a vacuum. They're a culmination, a climax.
Amy's question sparked something in my because of everything that had come before, both the good and the bad. And it's really all of the conversations and meditations I've had throughout the course of this year — the hikes with Jeff Boyd, the phone calls with my cousin Duane, the glasses of wine shared with Kim — it's all of these moments that made the flash of insight possible.
Years from now, I'll remember the brunch with Amy as the instant I achieved insight. But I'll forget about all of the other work that actually made that insight possible.
A Prayer of Thanksgiving
When I crawled into bed Sunday night in Cincinnati, I felt warm and alive. I felt grateful to everyone and everything. I then did something that I haven't done in many, many years. Whispering to myself, I gave thanks for all of the good things in my life.
“I'm so thankful for this weekend,” I said quietly to myself. “I'm thankful to have such great friends. I'm thankful that my work has helped people. I'm thankful for my good financial fortune. I'm thankful for Kim and our beasts. I'm thankful to have work that I love.”
My litany of gratitude lasted only a minute or two, but it felt longer. And it felt profound. It was as if I were returning love to the universe. (I know that sounds woo-woo, but that's how it felt.)
Growing up, prayer was an essential part of my life. As a devout Mormon (and then a devout Mennonite), I was taught that payer was a core part of being faithful. When my faith waned in college, so too did my habit of prayer.
Falling asleep in that hotel room, it occurred to me that prayer isn't just for the pious. Prayer is for everyone. Prayer doesn't have to be directed at a diety, and it doesn't have to be some sort of mystical experience. Prayer can be exactly what I enjoyed that evening in Cincinnati: A heart-felt outpouring of gratitude directed toward the unknown. There's plenty of value in that simple act.
I can't say that I've made prayer a daily habit since returning home, but I have remembered to whisper my gratitude twice in the past two weeks. At night, as I'm falling asleep, I list the things I'm thankful for. And one of those things is you.