guest post: who am I?

Today’s offering is a guest post from frequent commentator Curmudgeon.  I’ve enjoyed his comments over the last year, and if you don’t read them then you’re missing out on some excellent thoughts and writing.  He’s provided some food for thought on many of my posts and I always look forward to reading his comments, and invited him to write a post sometime… so here it is!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Alun Salt

I’d like to thank Steve for letting me post on his blog. I’ve been reading him for about a year, and I find him a compelling and unconventional thinker on anything he cares to write on.

But I respectfully disagree with him on some important points. Here, for instance, he talks about writing down concrete financial goals and reviewing those goals on a regular basis to determine your progress. Here he relates specific, actionable ways to make more money. I disagree with these approaches. I tried lists of goals many years ago, but the necessary concreteness of those goals made me feel obsessive and grubby. They focused on the income or expenditure or savings, whereas I felt I should focus on my character.

At best, lists of goals are a poor substitute for what you really should be doing – figuring out who you are. Once you know that, and live as who you are, you internalize the goals and live them daily. You’re not dependent on any lists, and you don’t look over your shoulder in envy at the material goods of your neighbors. Most important, you don’t define yourself by what you own; instead, your definition is internal, and you don’t need the trappings of material goods to act in a way that doesn’t reflect your true self.

As young adults, we try on various persona, defined by our behaviors and job roles. Not surprisingly, some fit better than others. Hopefully, we gravitate into the roles that fit, gaining an understanding of our own preferences and character in doing so. In doing so, we’ll likely find that we don’t have a true taste for large and fancy homes, luxury automobiles, fine clothes, and corporate ladder-climbing. But many people engage in these behaviors, perhaps because others around them do so, or because of some ill-conceived notions of the meaning of success and belonging.

Once we know what behaviors and roles fit us best, we adopt them as a reflection of our own character. You will be surprised at how many of those roles don’t involve McMansions or BMWs or vacations to Provence. Fiscal responsibility flows naturally from that awareness, because material goods for the sake of our own image no longer make sense. We know who we are, and we don’t need an Armani suit to tell us or anyone else that.

I think Steve understands the need for self-awareness; here, for example, he takes on the roles of Morpheus and Trinity and Neo to tell us to shun the false material world all around us. But lists of goals don’t necessarily lead you to learning about yourself. Ways to earn money are simply ingredients in a larger cookbook. They focus you on dates and numbers, rather than on insights about yourself.

If figuring out who you are sounds more difficult than making a list of goals, recall Socrates’ words to the jury at his trial for heresy: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s not only your responsibility to do so; it is an essential fact of your being. A nice side effect is that it is the only thing that can bring long-term fiscal sanity to our lives.

9 Replies to “guest post: who am I?”

  1. True, but once you’ve gotten that far you still have to take action and lists are one way of making it happen. Let’s not get lost and wrapped up in the philosophical part (which I thoroughly enjoy) and forget about the action.

  2. This is a wonderful post, Curmudgeon, and I hope it will generate some interesting debate. There are so many points I’d like to address, but in the interest of staying on topic, let me comment on two.

    Your implication throughout the post is that, with time and maturity, we refine our approach not only to the more mundane facets of life (how to get a new car because the old one is falling apart) but to the whole of our being (how to be remembered). If, for instance, we have not learned a little patience and self-denial throughout the years, we are more likely to get a loan for the car (Hey, it was a low interest rate!!) rather than we are to start a dedicated savings account with a definite plan to save enough to buy that new car one year from now. Conversely, making that plan and sticking to it engenders even more positive character traits: perseverance, self-discipline, and the ability to delay gratification. As you so aptly point out, the building of character and a prudent financial life are inextricably intertwined.

    While I understand your hesitancy to have lists determine your life, I will agree with Steve that, at least for some people, writing down goals is a powerful mental stimulus. Many years ago, while I was in my mid-30s, I faced a large lifestyle decision. I made a chart with the various decisions that needed to be made, the possible options for each decision, and the putative consequences of each course of action. As the decision-making process unfolded, I was able to cross off options that had not been taken, and I refined the future options and consequences. This was an important way for me to keep myself on track and for me to visualize, when I was away from that chart, what I might do (for instance in an interview, I was able to remember that if I accepted a position in a certain place, it would affect my budget in ways associated with a longer commute). That chart was very helpful in that specific situation, but once a course of action was determined, its usefulness ceased. At the same time I made that chart, however, I made another list which I recently found while cleaning out some old files when my husband and I moved. That list was relevant then and relevant today, and it supports your advice to try different personae until we find the one that best expresses our character. That list was “How I Will Make Decisions.” In that list, I ranked the criteria, the “filters,” which I would use to make every decision. Before I made any decision, I would filter the consequences through those criteria in descending order. Those criteria were already part of my character at that relatively young age, but they weren’t deeply enough ingrained apparently to make me confident that I would always remember them in stressful situations, hence the list (which I remember reading every night before I went to sleep during those particularly uncertain months of my life).

    So, are lists of goals helpful? Yes, they can be, especially for certain personality types. Should they define your every move? Of course not. But, in my husband’s favorite dictum, you need “a goal, a plan, and a timetable,” or you often will end up drifting through life. The key, perhaps, is to make the goal something really worth attaining in life and, as a corollary, before you ever make a goal, a plan, and a timetable, know yourself and what matters to you. Know how you will decide what to do, and then the rest is just a matter of working through the details.

  3. Great post. I like the idea of finding balance between self-discovery and obsessive list-making. Now to actually find it…..

  4. Sometimes writing a list of goals or what you want out of life helps you figure out what kind of person you are. I am all pro lists. I started my list when I was about 14 y.o. and wrote definite goals like “passing a chemistry exam”, nothing vague like “be happy”. And every time I accomplished a goal I highlighted it. I still have that list, it makes me feel good to read it once in awhile. Unfortunately, I stopped doing it. But I am going to do it again. I got my new book out last night and wrote my first entry in the list.

  5. @Deepali and Writer’s Coin – Perhaps there is a happy medium. When I was younger, I tried making lists like “have $10K in savings account by December,” and it felt like I was nothing beyond crass and material. With a better understanding of myself, I have no lists of financial goals yet over $1M of savings and investments. I don’t think about it on a regular basis; it just seems to arise out of a realization that I don’t need a Beemer to be happy.

    @Bubelah – I think lists may work for me for non-financial goals. I’m trying to move forward with my fiction writing, yet because it doesn’t produce much income today it tends to fall to the bottom of my priority list. Setting goals on writing fiction may help me set aside time for something that is enjoyable and enables me to develop new skills.

    Thanks for the kind words all!

  6. Curmudgeon, yes, I agree the 10K in account by December is not a goal and should not be the focus. The goal is, for example, a safari trip for the whole family. And to make it happen you need to have 10K in account by Dec. The money is just the means to achieving your goal.
    I think money should never be a goal in itself.

  7. Figuring out who you are is very important.

    But, it’s also very important to figure out who you want to be.

    That’s where goals come in.

    Goals are not limiting in any way. If you grow incongruent with any of your goals, you can simply change that goal.

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