follow the Poor Dad sometimes

If you spend any time on personal finance sites, you’ll hear about Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Personally, I would credit it with a tremendous amount of influence on my life since I read it in late 2003. This book changed the way I think about money, about priorities and even about life in general. I plan to review it in the near future.An important distinction, however, is that not all of this change was good. One of the main tenants of Rich Dad is ‘maximizing cash flow’, or attempting to push expenditures as far into the future as possible. A very common way of maximizing cash flow would be to take a balloon mortgage, for example, where payments are low or interest-only for several years then escalate.

At the height of the housing boom we bought our current house. Fervently embracing the concept of maximizing our cash flow, we attempted to get an interest-only monthly floating rate mortgage, which would (at the time) have resulted in sub-$1000 per month payments on our half-million dollar home. After 5 years, the payments would shoot up, but we were convinced we could easily refinance or move or somehow avoid that situation.

Fortunately for us, the neighborhood we were moving into did not meet the lender’s criteria for “aggressive” mortgages. It was too new, and there was not enough payment history for the neighborhood for them to measure the risk of default. Our mortgage application was rejected, and we proceeded to obtain a 30 year mortgage at 5.6%. This meant our payments were almost double what we had hoped, and we were not happy.

Three and a half years after being turned down for the adjustable rate mortgage, we still have regular payments. With the increase in interest rates we would be paying almost the same amount on the ARM that we are paying on our traditional mortgage, but it would all be interest. The balloon payment would be looming, and our cash flow would be no better than it is now.

So in retrospect we were saved from ourselves. Despite the fact that we think we are fairly savvy people about finance (she has a degree in finance and I have an advanced degree in accounting) we lucked out by being turned down for the ARM. I doubt we would have done much with the ‘maximized cash flow’ since our first thought would probably have been to invest in more real estate, again using ARMs. Doing so would have compounded our error, and now we would be facing a mounting avalanche of debt.

I think the moral I take away from this is that even when you follow a particular philosophy or guru, you should always consider a worst-case scenario. Sure, the traditional mortgage has cut into my income and made it difficult to consider vacations and larger purchases. That pales in comparison to the ARM worst-case scenario: being forced out of the house.

As a postscript, I still think that Rich Dad, Poor Dad is a critical read for anyone who lives in America. Kiyosaki makes excellent points about working for income versus investing, and made clear to me for the first time that what I wanted to be able to buy was time, not things. Financial freedom is the goal, although I had never heard it put so plainly. So please don’t read this as an indictment of his book. I highly recommend it, but as with anything else in this life you have to be cautious and conservative when dealing with your home, your family or your health. Without these three things all of the cash in the world will be useless.

Other reading:

Rich Dad, Poor Dad:  What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money–That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!

teaching risk tolerance

Re-establishing an exercise routine

I recently went to the doctor for a full physical for the first time in three years. I waited so long because I always had something “more important” to do: busy with a new job, Bubelah was pregnant, Little Buddy had arrived. If you have a newborn at home, you feel like you’re at the doctor far too much. Between shots and colds and the other hazards of infanthood, a visit to the pediatrician on a weekly basis seems normal. So after visiting the doctor and finding out that nothing was wrong other than a cholesterol level higher than ideal (but still within normal ranges) and the fact that I was overweight, I realized I have to get started exercising regularly again. I’ve been exercising but intermittently, and a bad weightlifting episode a few weeks ago really set me back. These tips are almost ‘live’ for me, since I am applying them right now to try to get back in a routine.

Any exercise is better than none. I have always enjoyed running and lifting weights (although a very specific method to build core strength, not muscle mass) and not much else. Running, when you are doing it well, gives you a ‘high’. I have been trying to motivate myself to do push ups or more ‘muscle building’ weightlifting, and I have a lot of trouble with these exercises. I realized that I need to focus on exercise I enjoy, because even if it’s not as effective for my goals, they will work much better than a planned and skipped targeted exercise.

Take it easy. I made a huge mistake trying to ‘lift to failure’ a few weeks ago. Lifting to failure means that you lift the heaviest possible weights you can, for as long as you can maintain good form. The most common sort of weight training is set training, where you lift a moderate weight eight times, then pause, then repeat for as many sets as you are able (usually expected to be 2-4 sets). When I lifted to failure, I was sore for days and didn’t feel like exercising again for almost a week. Before you write that off as a mistake, understand that my intention was to start building muscle mass, and lifting to failure is a good way to do that. After one session I felt some noticeable improvement in my biceps. But the damage done to my workout program from skipping a week makes it a bad idea.

Set public goals. Setting public goals is an idea proposed by many self-improvement gurus. Leo at Zen Habits is a particular proponent of this idea. Make sure people know you are planning on running the next day. Often a mild embarrassment at missing your run and feeling a need to sheepishly defend your decision to skip is enough to make you pull yourself on out the door.

Get ready beforehand. Little Buddy is a light sleeper, and his nursery is right next to the study where I keep my running gear. If I don’t get the gear out the night before, I have to tiptoe with an insane amount of effort into the study to retrieve my socks and running shorts and shirts without waking him. Fear of waking him early, which means a long cranky day for him and for Bubelah, means that I might skip a workout if I forgot and left my gear in the study. So getting everything out and taking it downstairs to the living room the night before makes a big difference! Eat. I have made the mistake before of launching a diet and an exercise program at the same time. For me, at least, this is a bad idea. Weightlifting in particular requires fairly substantial food intake. I try not to alter my eating patterns and my exercise patterns at the same time.

Enjoy. Too often people view exercise as a chore, but every time I work out I feel better afterwards. Even in the ‘lift to failure’ episode above I had a great adrenaline rush afterwards. Try to look forward to working out instead of dreading it. I think these basic tips make it easy to get restarted after a layoff. There are other things that make it easier. For example, right now it’s hot and muggy in New Jersey, which makes my 5:30 AM runs very pleasant. The sun is just coming up, it’s not dry, which helps the lungs, and it’s warm, so light running gear is plenty. When it’s February and freezing I feel much less motivated to run. The weather is always a big motivator, even if you go to a gym. Who wants to drive to the gym in ice and snow, even if the gym is heated? So wish me luck in reestablishing my training program in running and weightlifting (running first, then weightlifting). My goal is to get back in competitive race shape. I haven’t run a competitive race in more than a year now, so I want to get back to that rather than the halfhearted jogging I’ve been doing lately. There’s my public goalsetting!

Pay down debt or invest


There’s a debate you read often on personal finance blogs: if you have a large sum of money, should you use it to pay down debt or invest? The answer is usually dependent on the person’s risk tolerance, but I think it also depends on the nature of the debt.

Debt is a bad thing in most cases. Something you “own” like a house is actually not owned by you. The house is owned by a bank. The bank is just letting you use it. Why? Fail to pay for a month or two, depending on the mortgage terms, and the bank will take back the house. The bank can’t just take 1/360th of the house back for each month you miss, so they will repossess the whole thing and the law will be on their side. To me, this means the bank owns the house.

However, there are better kinds of debt; take a student loan. If you pay for your education with a loan, it can’t be taken away later. You will have that diploma and although you can have your credit rating wrecked or your wages garnisheed by failing to pay that debt, you’ll always have that education. That’s quite different from using debt to own things.

Now if you have credit card debt, pay it down before you spend a dime on almost anything else in your life except maybe health insurance. Any debt where you pay 18%+ in interest is bad debt.

In comparing debt to investing, no investment in anything, ever, is guaranteed. We could plunge into a 20-year depression in October of this year. Unlikely, but the US has a number of unfavorable situations that could cause this to happen, so it is not impossible. If that happens, all of my index funds and money markets won’t be worth much. Investing has no guaranteed rate of return, and in fact can have a negative rate of return quite easily. If you bought Enron stock, your net return was -100%. If you have a stock paying 2% dividends per year with a stagnant price per share, you are not doing as well as you could parking that money in a high-yield savings account.

However, if you can pay down debt you have a guaranteed rate of return. If I have a 5.6% mortgage (I do, lucky me), then every bit of principal paid early is a reduction in the amount of interest I’ll eventually owe. Once that payment’s in, that interest is gone. This makes wonderful sense for something you want to ‘own’, like a house. However, if you look at my student loan example, what’s the advantage of paying early? Nothing, really. I already fully “own” the asset (my knowledge and diploma).

To sum these examples up, what really matters is ownership. If you can pay down debt to own something, I think that will beat investing any day. Sure, the investment might return 11% per year for 15 years. However, it might not, and many, many students of the market have been burned trying to beat it – better students than I. So I think the goal is to look at whether paying down debt increases your “true” assets or just stifles your cash flow by hurrying up payments for something you already own.

So that’s my opinion in the debt vs. investing debate. It does depend on the individual, but I think I would rather be debt-free and investment-poor than highly leveraged with a huge portfolio. If that was a smart idea, people would be using their home equity loans to invest in the stock market, right?

weight gain behind a desk

I am not a dietician, a nutritionist, a doctor, a trainer, etc. Please consult a doctor before beginning any diet program.

supermanweight
photo credit: swruler9284

As promised, a continuation on my story of woe. Once I graduated from college, I got a job with a Big 4 (Big 6 at the time) firm. A job at the Big 4 is a little different from typical desk jobs. You move from client to client every few weeks. As you progress upwards, you may have more clients and so begin to go to one on Monday and another one on Tuesday. By the time I finished my career in the Big 4 I had eight clients (seven small to medium and one massive, year-round monster client). Then I switched to internal auditing which was much the same, only within a single company. So from 1994 to 2000 a typical day for me involved several very negative factors for fitness and only one good one:

  • Long hours. During busy season I would work 80 hours without thinking much of it. I once worked 110 hours during a week, including two days staying in the office until 4 AM. During “slow season” I would still probably put in 50 hours a week or so.
  • Random food intake. Part of the long and very hectic hours was a tendency to do one of two things for meals: either zip off to a restaurant for a long “working” meal with colleagues and try to unwind over rich food, or eating a hurried lunch designed to tide me over until I could “eat properly.” A joke explains it perfectly: “How do you know you work in public accounting? If in the last week you ate at least one meal at a five-star restaurant and at least one meal from a vending machine.”
  • No exercise routine. I never exercised. To put this in perspective: if you work an eighty hour week, your weekdays are probably about 12-13 hours each and your weekends are probably something like 10 hours on Saturday and 6 hours on Sunday.  To put that in further perspective, if you have a 30 minute commute (and I seldom have had one that short) if you leave home at 8:30 am on a weekday morning, you will typically return to your home at 9 or 10 pm.  Tell me where you jam exercise into that schedule, plus do the wash, pay the bills, etc. It’s just not happening.  I joined a gym from time to time, but my main use of the gym was to go sit in the sauna on weekends.
  • Stress, stress, stress. I was stressed almost all the time. Stress causes weight gain.
  • Caffeine. I kept inhaling diet Cokes during this time, and no matter what you may read on the bottle or hear from the company, I don’t think you can drink 10 of them per day and not gain weight.
  • The only good aspect was walking. I did have to walk a lot – back and forth from my desk to the client’s desk, between different clients, to the office, up and down stairs if we were on different floors from the client and often in Russia back and forth to the subway. Walking did not help as much as you would think, unfortunately.
  • So what was the result of this lifestyle? While in the States, immediately after college, slow weight gain. While in Russia, I started piling on the weight. After I returned to the States and started traveling frequently for business (lots of rich paid-for-by-the-company food) I hit my maximum of almost 315 pounds. At that point I was eating out of control and had almost no physical exercise.
    In August 2000 I was walking up a single flight of stairs from the New York subway when I had to pause and catch my breath once I reached the sidewalk. I realized at that point something had to change, and it did…

    15 things I’d say to high school BB

    I read an interesting article at Lazy Man and Money this morning entitled “15 things..”. It got me thinking about what I would tell myself, aged 18 or so, if I could travel back in time and give some advice to myself. So here goes:

    1. Save more. Echoing a comment by Lazy Man, I saved a lot but I could have saved a lot, lot more in my youth. There were a lot of gadget purchases and CDs and dinners out that I could have avoided that would probably pay for a year or two of my mortgage by now.
    2. Don’t stop exercising. The reasons for saying this should be obvious if you read some of my earlier posts on weight gain. I had a long slow period in the mid-to-late-90s where I never, ever exercised. The effects of that still haunt me today.
    3. Pay more attention to your tax courses. I have a master’s degree in accounting, but all of my specialization was in international accounting, audit and other ‘corporate’ areas. In taxes I whisked through a couple of courses simply because the university required it. I wish I had spent more time learning my taxes and building up my expertise in that area.
    4. Don’t move every year. From 1996 to 2000 I lived in 9 different apartments. Now part of that includes three brief stays of one or two months while “in transition” between cities, but I wasted a lot of time and money moving. While I was living in Moscow, it wasn’t so bad; I moved most of my stuff in one or two cars since I didn’t really own any furniture. In New York I wasted a lot of time and money moving, even though twice it was a somewhat involuntary move (Marriott bought my apartment building once, and 9/11 rendered another place I lived almost un-commutable).
    5. … and on a related note, buy a house when you start working and rent a couple of rooms out to roommates. I probably would be sitting on $300,000 of equity by now. And when you move to New York and think “who in their right mind would pay $600,000 for a two-bedroom in Manhattan?” the answer should be you. Some of that money wasted investing with priceline.com could have been spent on a down payment.
    6. Stay in touch with people. In the early 90s, it was tough to stay in touch with people. You had to call, or write a letter, or visit them. Then suddenly we got this neat little thing at work called ‘electronic mail’, or email for short. With a tiny bit of effort, I could have carried a little notebook with the email address of every colleague, acquaintance and friend of mine for the next ten years and dropped them a two-line email twice a year. I didn’t do this. I lost touch with a lot of good people – people I wish I still stayed in touch with for networking purposes, and some I just miss.
    7. Don’t work so much once you do get a job. I had a colleague in the got paid exactly the same as I did. Neither of us stayed with that firm, and as far as I know he went on to do just fine, as did I – but neither of us were making a future at that particular company. I had another colleague who smoked pot constantly and wouldn’t show up for days at a time. He didn’t get fired either. So I wasted a lot of time working very hard at a job I detested (I quit before I finished my three year contract). Who was the idiot?
    8. Don’t join a fraternity in college. Joining a fraternity seemed like a good idea, but other than making some very good friends it taught me nothing other than: (a) laziness, (b) racism, (c) sexism, (d) violence and (e) drunkenness. Sounds like a good deal, all for just a few hundred dollars a semester, huh? I basically spent three years surrounded by violence and ugly behavior that would make most people cringe. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
    9. Don’t worry about trivia. A major drama of my senior year involved a quiz for (supposedly) the smartest kids in school. I lost because of a difference of opinion over which battle of the Civil War was the “bloodiest”. I believe I answered Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the war; the correct answer was deemed to be Shiloh, the bloodiest battle of the war over the course of several days. Did losing the Brawl affect me in any way, shape or form? No. Don’t even enter the stupid contest, high school BB. Spend that learning Russian or just hanging out. It will be time better spent.
    10. Don’t waste a lot of time on TV. You will live in two of the world’s biggest cities, with a million possibilities for entertainment, the world’s best restaurants, cultural events and explosive nightlife, and you will often spend whole weekends watching football. You will even watch Notre Dame play, and you hate their team. Nice going.
    11. Buy a cell phone when you live overseas. I know $1000 for a mobile phone circa 1997 is a lot to pay, but it will be worth every dime not trying to coordinate your daily life from pay phones that never work. Your phone card cost $8 a minute, anyway.
    12. Be kinder to people, particularly women. I have never been cruel, I hope, but I spent a lot of careless years not worrying about how my actions might upset other people, particularly girls I dated or who liked me. I certainly ended quite a few relationships rudely and thoughtlessly, and probably created some real dislike if not downright hatred for myself. I was brutal in some of my work relationships both in my speech and actions. A little bit of compassion or even white lies to appear compassionate on my part probably would have made life better for everyone. I would have lost nothing by being kinder. I guess that’s just life, but I do look back and really regret some of the ways I lashed out at people where no lashing out was necessary. I particularly regret being cold and emotionless when I just could have faked a little bit of pleasantness.
    13. …and related, don’t worry too much about your relationships in the 90s and early 2000s. When you meet the right girl, things are going to be immediately and blindingly obvious. You may think you’ve met the right girl a few times in the late 90s, but when you actually do meet the right girl you’re going to realize that everyone up until her was definitely not the right girl.
    14. However, don’t do vodka shots with Russian mafiosos while out for a fancy dinner with your at-the-time-girlfriend and her friends. That will not end well on many, many levels. Oh, and make sure your visa paperwork is correct before you travel to remote Siberian cities. They don’t like it when foreigners show up with the wrong paperwork.
    15. Don’t work for the Big 4 or a corporation. This one is tough, because of course it has led me to the life I have today. But I do wish that when I was young and more or less free of responsibility that I had taken a few more chances. I wish I had gone to work at a smaller company, or a foreign company or even started a business. I spent a lot of my mid-20s – most of it, in fact – working horrible hours at decent but not exceptional salaries doing work I detested. I wish I had some of that time back, even if it meant I couldn’t afford a slightly fancier apartment or to eat out 5 nights a week. Working in the Big 4 gave me a lot of opportunities, but I always wonder what if…

    That’s actually a good exercise. Feel free to leave a comment if there’s anything you’d tell your high school self.

    10 suggestions for better writing

    I may or may not have any particular professional skills, but one I have is writing. The audit/consulting profession that I’m in requires a lot of very dry technical writing that has almost evolved into its own little niche language. Sentences like “ensure that the failed control has been tested and proven to be operationally effective (e.g. substantive control tests passed) for at least the consecutive number of required time periods” are quite common. The writing is often tortured and the underlying material is dry and brittle.

    George Orwell, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, had some very useful and succinct writing tips in his essay “On Politics and the English Language.” A few of them are:

    • Never use a long word where a short one will do.

    • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

    • Never use the passive where you can use the active.

    • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

    • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

     
    These rules are not often applied to technical writing. Perhaps they shouldn’t be applied, since part of the audience, at least, is technical and doesn’t want simplified language. However, the horrible level of writing I see in my daily work has led me to come up with 10 suggestions for solid professional writing. None of these are terribly difficult to implement, and if most people would take them to heart the quality of their work would certainly improve. I am not perfect in my writing style – I tend to the verbose – but I think these tips could work for anyone.

    1.  It’s the spellcheck, stupid. When did Microsoft Word start performing spellcheck? 1992? Word 2.0? I cringe to this day to get a document containing mistakes that could have been easily detected with spellcheck. I mistype the word “material” almost every time I type it; my fingers get crossed every time. But spellcheck catches my mistake and fixes it automatically. My favorite word processor, OpenOffice Writer, has a spellcheck function, and it’s completely free, so even if you can’t afford Word there’s no excuse.
    2. It should be noted that extraneous phrases like “it should be noted” or “it was noted” absolutely destroy a sentence. Don’t use them – ever. We note it, already.
    3. After about 2 or 3 lines stick a period in your sentence. Very few professional documents suffer from a lack of wording. Any time I see more than two or three lines in a sentence, or more than 4 or 5 commas, I go back and try to cut it into multiple smaller sentences. It makes it easier to read and to comprehend.
    4. Don’t use passive voice. You hear this advice often, but it’s trickier than it sounds. Usually in professional writing you are attempting to dodge assigning blame or responsibility. For example, you might say “The documents in question are prepared on a weekly basis for review by management” rather than “John Smith, accounting clerk, prepares the documents in question on a weekly basis for review by management.” However, writing that continually pounds away in passive voice is boring because it’s not the way we naturally speak: “This Guidance is intended to establish the minimum requirements” is not nearly as strong as “This guidance establishes the minimum requirements.”
    5. Don’t use slang language, or “slanguage”. You have to assume that your average professional reader knows many common terms and abbreviations. I assume in my audit world that everyone is familiar with COSO and the SEC and the AICPA and the meaning of the words materiality, attestationremediation. However, if the document is intended for anyone who might not know the technical usage of those words, I should take care to explain them. Nothing will cause someone to put down a document more quickly than failing to comprehend two or three sentences in a row because they didn’t understand a term. If I told you to remediate the LOB PP in accordance w/ the PY w/p’s, you won’t read much further if you don’t know what that means. and
    6. Read it out loud. I think a lot of people, myself included, never read their own writing out loud (or possibly at all). When you read some sentences out loud, they sound wrong. There is nothing grammatically or stylistically wrong with them, but they don’t sound ‘healthy’. Try reading a line or two out loud and see if it sounds natural. If not, tweak it until it does.
    7. Cut out the fat. I read a lot of technical writing with phrases such as “Thoroughly document the underlying controls explicitly.” While the writer may be making a good faith attempt to hammer home the need to be thorough, this sentence says the same thing: “Document the underlying controls.” Adverbs are unnecessary 99% of the time in professional settings (as are most adjectives).
    8. Don’t be afraid to talk like a human. Unless you work with near-sentient apes or dolphins or computers, I imagine all of your target audience will be human. Humans tend to talk in a fairly direct way: “I want you to finish that project,” not “Management should be made aware when the project has been finalized.” A lot of this style choice depends on the target audience, but whenever I’m writing I try to write like a human first – then if my client wants something tech’d and geek’d up I’ll give them the robot wording.
    9. Read. Try reading a lot. There are a number of good writers out there, both prose and technical. Read a few newspaper articles or blogs and figure out which ones work for you. I imagine if you examine them you’ll realize that often what you prefer to read is categorized by the writing style, not by the content. There are a number of writers I like more for their style than for their content – particularly in finance writing, where the subject matter is often horrendously boring but is made readable and even enjoyable by a light-hearted approach to the writing (Ben Stein and Penelope Trunk, for example).
    10. Learn to type. Another weird suggestion, since it’s a mechanical one, but trust me – if you can type at a high rate of speed your writing will improve. I guess there are great pen-and-paper writers still out there. But for technical writing, it’s almost impossible to write things out by hand. My ability to slam out a few sentences, look at them in Word or Writer and see if they look and sound right, then zip back and retype is critical for my writing.

    As a final note, one of the interesting things you get out of blogging is a release from dry technical writing. In any given day I may crank out 20 pages of audit babble at work – emails, memos, longer position papers, reports or project plans. All of them filter through multiple layers of review and revision, so the work is seldom mine and mine alone. My writing style is buried in avalanche of personal preferences and flat-out bad writing by my superiors. This blog, however, is straight out of my head, and I hope that it will slowly allow me to find a personal writing style separate from my work writing style. Now go home and write a two page essay on a topic of your choice and then read it back to yourself in two weeks.

    Consulting

    Consulting is a tough lifestyle for someone accustomed to the heights of corporate America. I was a fairly senior person in my corporate life, having zipped and lucked my way into a corner office overlooking downtown Manhattan. Only two people in my reporting chain separated me from the CEO of the company. But I had severe problems with the organization and with my boss, and eventually that combined with the incessant travel and never ending corporate politics wore on me. When I got married, I realized that there was a life beyond work and Friday nights.

    So I joined a consulting firm that provided almost no support other than locating clients and taking care of billing and collection. I don’t get a computer from my company, or any sort of review or office supplies or whatever. I rely on my client for that. However, I don’t have the headache of finding clients or chasing after invoices, which is no small thing. And most importantly, they pick up 50% of my health insurance costs.

    I went from commanding multiple teams in far-flung countries to commanding, well, myself. I am in charge of nothing and nobody, and I am often supervised by people who are junior to me and who would have worked one or two levels below me in the past. So I stop and remind myself once in a while about why I do it:

    I never travel. Travel is a lot of fun when you’re single. I visited half the planet while staying in swank hotels and eating rich food. However, after you’ve been to Paris for the fifteenth time it gets boring. The routine of plane-hotel-office-hotel-office-plane gets overwhelming after a while. I keep a journal, and on these business trips I routinely have entries that begin “Stayed up until 2 am drafting the final report in my room.” I wasn’t partying constantly. Now, if I don’t want to travel, I don’t work for clients who require it.

    I have no corporate political affiliation. My previous jobs had a high component of politics; alliances were formed, strategy meetings were held, whispered conversations in board rooms were standard, and after-hours meetings huddled over drinks were frequent. I was sick to death of these things. I was good at corporate politics, but I realized that what “being good” meant was that I was expert at ripping other people down without really lifting myself up. I did do some good – I often used my political scheming to help lift some great people who worked for me – but by and large it was all negative. As a consultant I have no stake in such things, since I have no hope of promotion or fear of demotion. It’s liberating to only worry about the actual work.

    I leave work at 5, both physically and mentally. As I said above, I used to carry my work home with me, and even into my bed and sleep. No more. I am not reachable once I leave work. I don’t check my work email before sleeping. I have no Blackberry. There are no weekend “catching up on my reading” sessions.

    I have no investment in the company. I used to worry about the success of my company. This may seem like a small thing, but as an auditor you have some ability to really seriously damage your company, either through missing something in the audit (Enron, anyone?) or finding something in the audit (Worldcom). This presented me with harsh choices at least three times in my career. Each time, I tried to raise serious issues to senior management and was overridden by my superiors, creating a real love/hate attitude in me. It’s not easy knowing you work for crooked people, because then even your honest efforts only serve to enrich them. Now all I do is my work – my investment is in me and the quality of my work that will be the basis for landing future clients.

    I get paid overtime. That’s no small thing. I used to work 80 or 90 hour weeks and wouldn’t get a dime more; in fact, 40 hours would have been considered slacking. Now if I work more than 40 hours my rate skyrockets. Most clients don’t like the higher rate, so they send me home after 40 hours. I can’t say I hate that – getting home at 6 or 6:30 gives me time to go a few rounds with Little Buddy before he goes to sleep. In my past life, when I wasn’t traveling I often wouldn’t be home before 8.

    I get to quit my job two or three times a year. This is the greatest thing. I had a client earlier this year that nauseated me. Their unprofessional attitudes, horrible physical offices and cruel treatment of their staff made it one of the worst places I’ve ever worked. However, rather than needing to go through the drama of worrying about quitting a job I’d just started, I simply wound down my consulting gig and moved on. I never have to give any of those guys another thought. Even at the good clients I only stay long enough to do good work; when they start making small talk about me coming on board as an employee I usually know it’s time to go

    boosting your career with an overseas stint

    When I was younger, I was largely unaware and uninterested in the world outside the US until I won a scholarship to study in Germany when I was 15. I had a terrific experience, both personally and academically, that inspired me to continue my German studies and someday return to live and work in Germany. One of the main reasons I went into accounting was the knowledge that it was a worldwide profession – business travel, international business, and so on made it likely that I would have a shot at going overseas sometime in my work life.

    During college I decided that I had studied German long enough and that I would fulfill my language requirements with courses in Japanese. This being the late 80s, Japan’s economy was blazing and knowing Japanese seemed like a good idea. However, when I showed up at the registrar to sign up for Japanese I found that the course was full. The university I went to had a fairly limited selection of languages, including mostly the usual suspects – French, German, Spanish and Italian. However, I noticed they had added a course in Russian, so I signed up for that, instead. I had some history with Russian, so I figured I could do fairly well in this language that was, at the time, a pointless diversion.

    In the late 80s there was no real reason to suspect that (a) Russia would ever be particularly open to Westerners or (b) a place that would offer any sort of opportunities to anyone other than academics and writers. That would of course change rapidly but at the time it did not seem particularly likely. So I studied Russian, and my professor – Dr. Don – was a real inspiration and one of the two or three best teachers I’ve ever had. He was young, enthusiastic, friendly and had a real passion for languages and linguistics. I stayed in the class past the minimum requirements and went on to be one of the first two Russian minors in the school’s history.

    So approximately five years later, in late 1995, I was approached by a partner in the Big 4 firm I was working in. I had told everyone quite frequently that I wanted to work in Germany, and the partners had told me they would keep an eye out. Of course, Germany didn’t lack for accountants so the idea of me working there had a slim chance of success. However, the partner told me that they had received an unusual request from the Moscow office for short-term assistance for any Americans. The partner knew I had a Russian minor, and asked if I was interested.

    Of course I was, so I jumped at the chance. I did a phone interview and was all set to go in February of 1996. I flew to Russia and realized on the taxi ride into Moscow that I didn’t even remember the word for snow (“snyeg” if you’re curious). My Russian was very, very rusty. I had a lot of adventures in Russia, both in my initial four month stint and in my return for a year and a half for a different company, and in further visits and business trips there. I will cover those in future posts.

    Today, however, I am going to focus on the five most important outcomes of my work in Russia as it has related to my career since. I think these outcomes are critical if you’re considering working overseas, or want a big-time corporate job. I’m not sure working in England would give you the same cachet as more exotic locations like Russia or Indonesia or China, but it might.

    1. I learned a foreign language really well – not just grammar, but some slang, intonation, and so on. This is only moderately useful if the language in question is Russian, but considering Russia has one of the hottest economies in the world and is used as a lingua franca throughout Central Asia, it is more useful than Italian or German.

    2. I embraced a culture and by doing so, became more open to all cultures. I wasn’t close minded or terribly parochial, but I really learned what it was like to be immersed in a culture fairly alien to one’s own. I can’t say I went native. I lived in an apartment that cost 10 times what the normal Russian could pay. I spent more on a meal and drinks on a date than most Russians would see in a month. I had an Internet connection and a state-of-the-art computer. But I did make friends, and spent time at their homes and talking with them and doing things with them on the weekends that a lot of my colleagues – who uniformly didn’t speak Russian – never did. And that experience made it that much easier for me to relax in the future when I went to other countries around the world (although I never got comfortable with midnight steak dinners in Argentina…)

    3. I learned true independence. If you want to learn how to deal with customer service problems in the US, try standing in line at the Russian phone service center and arguing with a 50 year old grandmother in Russian about your disconnected phone bill. And if that example’s too mild, try going cross-country in a four-wheel drive with two bodyguards to a former prison camp surrounded by radioactive wastelands, then eating lunch with a sobbing drunken bank director choking out patriotic Soviet songs while eating toasted pine cone seeds. If you don’t feel a little bit lost during that experience and a little bit more confident about handling yourself after it’s over.

    4. I gained tremendous work experience. I had to constantly work not only on accounting, but on three different types (US, Russian and international), all while constantly switching back and forth between two languages, managing clients and handling a huge workload. I had been managing a staff of maybe 1 person, auditing $2 million dollars in sales per year companies at home. The next year, in Moscow, I was managing 25 people on an audit of one of the biggest clients of my firm in Russia, with audit fees alone of $2 million.

    5. Finally, and most importantly, I created a massive shining bright spot on my resume that, ten years later, still draws more attention, more conversation and more interest than anything else I’ve ever done. I’ve worked since then in locations from Turkey to Argentina, and nothing compares to the shock and amazement your average corporate worker expresses to me when they found out I worked in Russia. It has gotten my foot in the door at several companies; it has wowed recruiters and it has become an endless source of anecdotes that seem to fascinate people (or it could be just that they are polite but I think I can tell the difference).

    If you’re planning on getting a job in the corporate world, you should consider a stint overseas, preferably someplace that isn’t ‘safe’. At every step of my career there have been people competing with me for positions, assignments and promotions. Many went to better schools, had more certifications, had better connections or frankly were smarter or better looking. But I have yet to encounter many who could top the conversational firestorm I can usually unleash by dropping “that reminds me of the time I got arrested by Russian immigration on a business trip in Vladivostok” or “at least no-one is getting assassinated like the general director of my client in Moscow” and so on.

    I suppose that despite my appearance, my mild southern accent or my calm outward appearance my willingness to go work in the wild East in the mid-90s, when things were just 30 minutes away from total chaos in Russia, makes me look like a super-confident, devil-be-damned risk taker to some people. It’s not true; I am a pretty conservative guy in most of my actions. However, the appearance is enough to provide an ‘in’, and that’s usually what it’s all about in appearance-conscious corporate America.

    Buddhism versus creative visualization

    Probably like a lot of other self-improvement junkies I have always been mildly interested in the idea of Buddhism if not the actual practice of Buddhism. I have not really been exposed to it very often, and honestly most of my knowledge of it comes via movies like Seven Years In Tibet and Little Buddha. I also was very fond of a book, Zen Buddhism, which helped me learn the practice of clearing my mind before sleeping. I don’t think that was the point of the book, but the ability to fall asleep in 5 minutes or less every evening has been a great gift throughout my adult life.

    There are a number of things that appeal to me about Buddhism. There are, however, just as many aspects of Buddhism that don’t appeal to me. Buddhism still has its feet firmly planted in the supernatural, an area that I more or less completely reject. I find that the Great Story, for example, is a million times more awe-inspiring. I look at the Pillars of Creation and think that if something like that is the result of the unimaginable complexity of the universe rather than simply the plot and plan of a supreme intelligence it’s actually more amazing rather than less so. That’s my own interpretation.

    The current Dalai Lama – who for all intents and purposes is the Pope of the Buddhists to someone like me – seems to be a man of the political/temporal world rather than a truly religious person. The idea of a truly religious person, to me, summons up a hermit. If you truly believed in prayer/meditation/etc. as the instrument of God, why would any fundraising or speeches or anything like that be necessary? Specifically for the Dalai Lama, why should he care about Tibet’s independence as a political entity? It seems to me that freedom of religious practice for all people would be a better cause, even if Tibet remained part of China, or an autonomous region like Hong Kong or Macau. In any case, the Free Tibet movement, to me, is about as meaningful as a Free Texas movement. That ship has sailed on off into the sea of history.

    That having been said, the Dalai Lama has some great quotes. I first read this one a few years ago and wasn’t impressed, but for some reason recently it has spoken to me a lot more:

    Today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.(link).

    That’s a nice thought. It’s probably as much as many of us can hope to achieve, and really other than maybe throwing in a little more family-specific phrase to be a good father and husband and son and brother and grandson and whatnot, there’s not a whole lot more to say. I think enlightenment for the benefit of all beings is a pretty tall order out of that list. I think it encompasses vegetarianism and pacifism, achievable goals, and maybe some sort of benign spiritual missionary type thinking, which for me isn’t so achievable (or desirable).

    Buddha himself had a great quote which irritates Bubelah to no end (I paraphrase): “Desire is the root of all suffering.” I think about this quote a lot. It directly contradicts the fundamental premise of creative visualization, a school of thought she follows. Creative visualization refers to the practice of seeking to affect the outer world via changing one’s thoughts. Although various spiritual traditions claim that our thoughts affect the outer world, the phrase “Creative Visualization” came from the New Age Movement. (from Wikipedia)

    Any way you look at that, it’s certainly not saying that desires (for love, for health, for security, for wealth, and so on) are something to be avoided and put aside if possible. So to my mind it more or less contradicts the Buddhist ideal. The question then becomes whether you can integrate these two philosophies into your life, or whether you should strive to attain one and reject the other.

    I look at it this way (today). Ask me a year from now and my mindset may have changed. I apply the Buddhist principle to the concept of wealth, and the creative visualization to health, lifestyle, goals and so on. I try not to desire material things. I do, because I buy new shoes or get Netflix or any one of a number of things. But I do make an effort to consume out of necessity (or what I perceive as necessity) rather than out of pure and simple desire.

    On the flip side, I may want a bigger house, or a different job or a stronger ankle. These aren’t bad things to want. Buddhism just argues that WANTING them is bad. Maybe the Nike “Just do it” slogan is most applicable – rather than desiring health, go exercise. Rather than desiring wealth, go invest or be frugal or whatnot.

    Everyone has to get to a point where they are comfortable with their desires (or lack thereof). Failure to do this will just make you miserable. I have desires which are somewhat unrealistic that cause me a great deal of stress, and I try to eliminate them. Some are very petty – I’d like a neat handheld computer or the full HBO package. Those desires cause a great deal of stress, since you know they are “doable” and only your own self-discipline prevents them from becoming reality. Other desires, like the desire to be fit, may actually be good since the stress derived from them could drive you to overcome obstacles.

    To separate desires, there are a few tests you could apply (bad desire, good desire):

    • Is this something other people would consider selfish or altruistic to desire? (a CD of music your family doesn’t like vs. a CD of singalong songs)
    • Does this desire require a material thing or an action in order to be fulfilled? (wanting to buy a new chair versus learning for yourself how to upholster an old one)
    • Does fulfilling this desire create a new desire, or will it end this ‘type’ of desire? (wanting a new video game machine, creating an unlimited desire for new games for it, vs. buying a book you’ve wanted for a while)

    I’m sure there are other tests, but I think the pattern is clear.

    Tennis

    I wasn’t the greatest tennis player in the world, but I played on a team that was usually in the top 2-3 in our district and the top 10 in the state. Mississippi was a pretty competitive tennis state, so that wasn’t a small achievement. I was on the varsity team in the 10th grade, playing mixed doubles (basically the #4 guy on the varsity team). I just missed the cut to letter, but by my junior year I was up to the #2/#3 guy on the team, playing men’s doubles, and a few times I even played at the #1 position. By my senior year I was pretty much in a good position to challenge for #1 although there were definitely two guys much better than me on the team (both seniors, like me), and one junior who was probably better although not really “into” it that much – he tended to skip practices and miss tournaments, which obviously meant the coach didn’t trust him much.

    I had a love/hate relationship with tennis throughout high school. It dominated my daily life more than anything except my studies, really. However, the day I played my last tennis match as a senior, I more or less quit forever. I think I played sporadically that summer but basically I quit playing for anything more than just idle “hit-arounds” at that point.

    Things I like about tennis:

  • Tennis is an incredibly athletic sport that requires dexterity, strength, flexibility, speed, endurance and focus. I can’t think of another sport that is so demanding in terms of total physical workouts, except maybe – maybe – basketball as played on a “street” level. A lot of pro basketball and even college basketball is standing around passing the ball back and forth.
  • It’s a fairly simple sport. The rules aren’t that tough to understand and at its base the rule is basically “hit it back over the net before it bounces twice”. Nothing like baseball, for example.
  • It’s international in appeal. There’s nowhere in the world where tennis, or some form of it, isn’t a fairly-well recognized sport. There are other sports that approach it, such as basketball, and one that transcends it, football (soccer), but generally it is one of the few worldwide sports.
  • It’s not a team sport. I’m excluding doubles tennis, which I always hated, from this, but basically you’re on your own. If you miss tackling a receiver in football, the cornerback may save the touchdown for you. If you miss a baseline shot in tennis, there is nobody backing you up.
  • Anna Kournikova played tennis.
  • Things I don’t like about tennis:

  • It’s elitist. Now, golf is far more elitist, but in much of the US you still see tennis restricted to similarly well-to-do areas. Where I live in New Jersey, for example, the tennis courts are few and far between. Most of the ones I’ve seen are in pretty poor shape. It’s not a sport like soccer that you can just pick up in the backyard.
  • It’s strenuous. My wrist still aches today from the pounding it got in high school. Heard of tennis elbow? It’s real. It hurts.
  • It’s not a team sport. I learned a lot playing lacrosse that I didn’t learn from tennis. Even though I was on a team, you don’t really learn the ins-and-outs of reliance on others that you get from a team sport. I sincerely loved the camaraderie of a team sport. I never had that with tennis. Sure, I had friends on the team, but they were my friends from school, not because of tennis.
  • It’s boring. This is the main reason I don’t follow it today or care about any of the players or even really want to play it myself, anymore. Although I played it for years, watching tennis is almost exhaustingly boring. I can’t think of a way I’d less like to spend 6 hours than watching two guys thunder 100-mile-per-hour serves at each other with one/two stroke volleys. Dull, dull, dull.
  • Nowadays I don’t watch sports like I used to; I don’t see much except late-night football after Little Buddy hits the sack. I certainly don’t follow tennis, and my nagging wrist problems keep me from being anxious to play again. When I was in college, and had not played in about three years, I was challenged by a fraternity brother of mine who thought he was pretty good and had never seen me play. So I borrowed a racket and beat him 6-0, 6-0. But the painful ache in my wrist the next day made me decide that was it, period, and to the best of my recollection it’s been about 17 years since I played a set. I tend to imagine that unless Little Buddy takes it up I won’t ever play it again. Better to play golf.

    College beer bash, or how to launch massive weight gains

    I am not a dietician, a nutritionist, a doctor, a trainer, etc. Please consult a doctor before beginning any diet program.

    So in my earlier post I discussed my high school exercise and eating habits. I came to college determined to take a break from athletics and concentrate on studying and fraternity life. Both decisions would, in a sense, be terrible mistakes.

    You may read that and wonder how studying could be a mistake. I think, looking back on it now, that in the grand scheme of life studying in college isn’t terribly important. I’m not sure how other professions would view it, but certainly my lack of stellar grades in my major (mathematics) didn’t keep me from being accepted to a well-known major university for a PhD in mathematics, skipping the master’s program. I certainly don’t think that a B in history hurt my eventual career working in the Big 4 accounting arena. There’s a limit of course – making straight Cs would have ended my chances of graduating eventually. But in retrospect, the lack of exercise and poor nutrition that I might have passed off to “being too busy” studying probably hurt me more, in terms of my energy level, appearance and overall ability to impress people (clients, employers, etc.)

    Frat life and its horrible effect on fitness and health goes without saying. A culture of indolence, heavy drinking and late-night food binges is the usual portrayal in the movies and it is not far off at all. I drank a lot of beer, ate food I didn’t need, and certainly felt no pressure from my peers to do much of anything else. I’m sure that others have had perfectly good experiences with college fraternities. Some of my best friends today are ones I made in the fraternity. But the overall effect on my health was negative. Heavy drinking and poor diet took a real toll on me.

    Finally, I gave up athletics. Without the structure of a team, I didn’t really have the motivation to exercise. I did, fitfully, from time to time, but not enough to make a difference. I played flag football or some shootaround basketball but certainly didn’t spend time running or sprinting or doing weight training. I didn’t return to organized athletics until late in my junior year when I started playing lacrosse. By that time, I still had some athletic ability left but had certainly packed on some pounds. In a way, lacrosse had the same effect tennis had had in high school – it gave me a false sense of fitness that would roar out of control once I started working.

    So once in college I spent most of my time partying or studying or playing in a sport that required some physical activity but not nearly as much as tennis. I was a goalie/defender in lacrosse, which does involve some running, but also involves long periods of standing and waiting. I also didn’t train much. It was a club sport, meaning the university supported us with equipment and travel money, but our coach was also a player and we didn’t have the forced structure of an athletic team in high school.

    College wasn’t too bad, though. I definitely bulked up, but I was still moderately fit and certainly not out of control weight-wise. The real problem was that the habits I picked up in college would destroy me over the first 6 years of my working life. In college I still had to stay somewhat active (playing lacrosse, walking to class, etc.). That kept my pizza-eating beer-drinking habits somewhat in check. My lack of money also helped – I had plenty of money but not enough to blindly indulge in whatever I wanted nonstop. I drank a lot of Coors Light, for example.

    In my next post in this series, I’ll go into the years when I really spiraled out of control: getting behind a desk, working insane hours and finally going overseas to work.

    Turn off the TV

    About a month ago I decided to quit watching TV, more or less, and quit reading anything related to “news” or “current events” on the internet. I’m not sure why, but a few stories bothered me to a pretty fundamental level: child soldiers in Somalia, unspeakable cruelty to babies (don’t click on that link unless you want to be horrified) and of course the never-ending fount of joy that is the WPE.

    I still watch movies. I have always loved the movie format – 2 hours of character development, special effects and plot (hopefully). The best actors gravitate to the movies, much as the best athletes gravitate towards sports (as opposed to areas where athleticism might be useful but not noticed like firefighting, say). People want to share their gifts and movies reach the widest audience. But I digress. The two media are fundamentally similar but one is much, much, much, much more enjoyable and took a lot more work to create.

    Back on track. After spending some time reading Leo’s really excellent blog Zen Habits and his comments on TV and how to spend your time I realized that the time I spent reading news, watching news, following politics, writing politics, etc. was helping no-one and bringing a lot of negativity into my life. I worry about Darfur, I do. I worry about living in a decaying country. I worry about the world my son will grow up in, and whether he, like my Bubelah’s father, will someday be faced with a crumbling, hostile and shifting homeland that ejects its best and brightest out into the world without anything but the clothes on their backs. I sure hope not, but I want to prepare myself and my descendants for that possibility. They won’t be ready if I’ve been obsessing on Iraq instead of teaching them how to guard their own health and wealth.

    I see more reason to invest that time into improving my knowledge of health, or how to build wealth, or how to raise a child, or frankly into just playing with Little Buddy than I do spending it on the horrific minutiae that is American news. Reading about Israel for the millionth time will bring no-one closer to peace – not them, not me. I plan to vote for Democrats until a viable third-party candidate comes along (in about the year 2854 at this rate). But I won’t spend 3 hours a day reading about the still-one-year-away presidential primaries. Life is too short and I still haven’t managed to read Crime and Punishment past the first chapter.

    Here are my list of 10 self-tricks to ending your addiction to TV and the news.

    10. Quit turning on the TV, period. Let someone else do it. Just set a rule for yourself that you don’t touch the remote. If they do it, fine, allow yourself to watch it. I found that very quickly I didn’t really want it on. I have very quickly learned to appreciate silence, light music, or just the quiet babbling of Little Buddy over the constant blare of the television. I say that as someone who has always wanted “background noise”; I would have the TV turned on even if I was doing something else just to have that hum in the background.

     9. Get a lot of novels. Read a book. Load up at the library or at amazon.com. It will distract you, trust me.

     8. Get a Netflix subscription. Only watch “happy” movies, and don’t rent season 3 of the Sopranos. I think that’s OK, unless you really want to just eliminate all time in front of the TV. I personally think that movies are OK since you can watch a little bit higher level of art in movies (if you so choose) than on TV. Watch “The Fountain” on DVD and compare it to “Deal or No Deal” and you’ll get my point.

     7. Get the LeechBlock browser add-on for Firefox (if you don’t use Firefox, what are you waiting for – it’s a million times better than Explorer). Block these sites: cnn.com, nytimes.com, msnbc.com, etc. If you’re a conservative, block Fox News.

     6. Read a lot about one subject that’s not news that interests you. Using RSS feeds is great for this. I loaded up my Google Reader with RSS feeds about personal finance and self-improvement and that exhausts my interest in reading every day before I even think of reading the news.

    5. This may seem obvious, but don’t buy newspapers or magazines. It’s a waste of money here in the internet age, it’s environmentally wasteful and most of them are trite.

     4. Watch CNN, FoxNews and the Daily Show one last time. Realize that of the three of these, only one is giving non-propagandized news. It’s on Comedy Central and that says something about the “news” you pay attention to, doesn’t it?

    3. Read some blogs. Read the ones that are opposite to your point of view: read Daily Kos if you’re a conservative, read Instapundit if you’re a liberal. If you do this for several days, you’ll realize that all of the reading in the world won’t change anyone’s opinion, improve anyone’s mind, or improve anyone’s mood.

    2. Play with a toddler. OK, this is sort of a simplistic suggestion, colored by having my own toddler at home, but you’ll realize that there is a lot of pure joy in the simplicity of not knowing anything about the world around you. Just play, enjoy the moment and try to postpone the grim world as long as possible.

    1. Sleep. Instead of staying up to watch TV, just go ahead and go to sleep. You can thank me tomorrow.

    Give it a shot. Life is short. Don’t spend it watching this.