I am in a unique position. At 35, I no longer have to work for anyone.
It’s just a matter of priorities. It has always been ridiculously important for me to free myself from the constraints of career and employment and to be able to pursue my own interests and passions. Where I am now is the sum of my choices. Some of those choices were very difficult, especially when they required taking a road less traveled (or sometimes forging a new road altogether). For example, I could have been a partner at a law firm by now but made the decision early on to abandon the hectic attorney lifestyle. Opening doors sometimes requires closing others.
Now I’m free. Unowned. Some admire my freedoms; some envy them; some just want to know how I did it. So here are a few guiding principles that have allowed me to escape from the rat race.
- Create wealth. Wealth is that which people value. When I practiced patent law, I came into contact with hundreds of inventions that were patentable – that is, they satisfied the patent law requirements of being both new and not obvious combinations of other inventions – but were simply not valuable, despite the insistence (and delusions) of the inventors. I found that the inventors who succeeded, unlike the vast majority who failed, had a clear understanding and realistic assessment of the value that they brought to the table.
- Keep your wealth in assets you value. Money is paper. Literally. It is backed by nothing. The only reason people value it is because they think other people value it. If for whatever reason nobody wanted dollars anymore, would you still want them? For most people, stocks are no better. Instead, put your money into something you love. If you love cookies, invest your money in a bakery. If you love the beach, buy beach-front real estate that you either live in or rent out. If you love wine, invest in your collection. My only rule of thumb here is: choose an asset that maintains its value, appreciates in value, or produces income.
- Be frugal. Perhaps a better word is: efficient. I’m not cheap, but I am observant. Resources like time, money, and energy are limited; efficiency is about getting the most value or return for those resources. In the grocery store yesterday, I noticed a 16-ounce bottle of juice near the check-out lane for $1.99. Two aisles away was a 64-ounce carton of the same brand of juice, on sale for $2.00. I make these kinds of comparisons every day in every aspect of my life, from buying real estate to choosing travel destinations to deciding how to spend my weekend.
- Stop envying. There is no limit to how much can be owned or consumed; the ladder we climb has no end. The top 1% envies the top 0.1%, who in turn envies the top 0.01%. Dr. Madeline Levine discusses in her book, The Price of Privilege, a study comparing the self-reported happiness levels of people across different income levels all the way up to the Forbes 100 wealthiest Americans, and concludes that “the accumulation of more money or goods has essentially no impact on how we feel.” So if luxury, diamonds, and designer labels don’t actually bring happiness, what’s the point of working for them? Further, envying others and lamenting what we don’t have tears valuable attention away from what we do have. If we don’t demarcate a clearly defined comfort level – above which we will no longer strive to achieve – then we relegate that responsibility to those who stand to profit from our envy.
- Consumption is consuming. When I first heard of The Container Store, my initial thought was: Wait, an entire store devoted to selling you stuff to contain the stuff you bought at other stores? Wouldn’t it have just been cheaper not to buy the other stuff in the first place? Shopping is no longer a necessity; it’s a pastime. People voluntarily spend entire days allowing other people to convince them that they don’t have enough. The problem is always temporarily solved with a swipe (or ten) of a credit card, but over the long run the American love affair with consumption is paid for by working long, frustrating, joyless careers.
- Finally, recognize that “rich” is a relative word. In The Pursuit of Happiness, Dr. David Meyers discusses an experiment in which subjects were asked “How much money would you need to be happy?” People who made $30,000 a year said $50,000 on average, while those who made over $100,000 said $250,000 on average. No matter how rich or how poor a person is, he rarely feels rich but believes he can change this with more money. I think the solution is not more money; rather, it’s taking stock of what one does have and learning to feel rich without needing more.
You are already rich. It’s not a matter of reaching a certain net wealth or income level. It’s a matter of waking up. Stop envying what others have; relish what you have and what you are. Done. End of story. Seriously, that’s the only way anyone can ever feel rich.