Have you ever made a mistake? Of course you have. Like me, you have a few doozies in the closet to air out, too, if you are honest. Mistakes come in all sizes. From the minor mishap to the really stupid to the criminal, we all have our moments of ignorant brilliance.
As luck would have it, mistakes do not define us. Maybe you were drinking and driving and got caught or have been convicted for possessing an illegal drug; maybe you ruined a relationship due to infidelity or sheer apathy; maybe you trusted someone and they betrayed you; maybe you made an investment and after it was too late suffered a major financial setback to your early retirement plans. None of these mistakes define you; how you deal with the mistake does.
The Wealthy Accountant’s Inferno
Before we start talking about you or solutions, I need to confess a great sin I once committed. Many years ago my commercial tax software provider branched into DIY tax preparation. Accountants using their software in their office were given a free license to market the online program. Needless to say, I was excited. I developed a business plan to take it to TurboTax and all the other online DIY tax programs. I would compete on price and quality.
As tax season approached I put my marketing machine into action spending $80,000 in TV, radio, and online advertising before I discovered this was not working as planned. When the dust settled the revenue from my little project netted a bit over $3,000. I took a $77,000 loss on an idea I thought really had potential.
I made one huge mistake and a bunch of smaller ones. The mistake did not define my business or me. It certainly hurt the pocketbook, but I was lucky to have an established business where the investment came from cash flow; no borrowed funds were used.
The first person I had to admit I made a mistake to was me. Accountants also understand the psychological risks of ‘sunk cost’ where you keep pouring money down the drain to try to make up for previous losses. It was a major loss with a lot of lessons learned. First, I needed to stop the bleeding. In this kind of business venture the upfront spending was high so I ended up too deep, quickly. Realizing the advertizing was not generating the expected results I pulled the plug. If I did not closely monitor the traffic and revenue daily I would have been in much worse shape.
The idea was solid; my business plan sucked turnip greens. It happens to the best of us. All my experience did not guarantee positive results. It was a massive financial mistake. But was it really? I lost $77,000 in less than a month on a business idea with awesome potential. A few problems I identified were: my price was too low (people don’t always respond to price alone) and the software, while commercial grade, was still a first year program (call it a beta version because it was).
That financial loss had me tasting blood in my mouth. I might have a dollar or three tucked away, but $77,000 is a lot of money. (On the bright side, I had a nice tax deduction. (At least I can laugh about it now.)) I finished that tax season and reevaluated. Yes, I lost a pile of money. I still had the software and the software company was improving it by the day. Rather than cry I started writing articles for content farms online and putting in a plug for my online tax program wherever I could, all at no cost except time. Each year I brought in another $500-$800. Still a far cry from recouping my losses, I was at least learning as I went.
As the years passed, my software firm made massive improvements to the program until it became one of the best if you had a firm knowledge of tax preparation. Because I never quit I was always looking for opportunity. I learned my lesson from the initial loss, yet never lost sight of the possibility for gain. Remember when I said a mistake doesn’t define you; how you respond to a mistake does? Well, if it were not for that tremendous loss ten years ago I would never have met Mr. Money Mustache and this blog would never have seen the light of day. You see, I went to Camp Mustache to present an idea to Pete and instead of selling him on my idea he hired me as his accountant and plugged my DIY tax program on his site. That led to over $8,800 in revenue this year. Still not back to breakeven, it is a lot better than it was with plenty of future opportunity.
By focusing my attention after a huge mistake I gained more than I could ever have imagined. This blog is not profitable as I write, but it is growing and daily revenue went from pennies to a few dollars per day. My guess is it will have a small profit by year-end with larger future profits. I also meet awesome new people and do something I love doing, writing, which is a fancy way of saying I get to talk a lot to a large group of people. I’m good with that.
Steps to Fixing a Mistake
This is where I provide a magic bullet to fix all mistakes. Sorry. No one solution fixes every problem for every person. There is a template I can share to make the process easier, though.
- Acknowledge the errors of your way. Never be afraid to admit you fucked up. Stop worrying about other people; you notice the pimple on your face 1000% more than anyone else. You made a mistake; join the human race.
- Take a break. Most people have a gut reaction to realizing they made a mistake. The shoot-from-the-hip response is probably another mistake. Take a page from the book of Stoics: sit quietly and reflect on what happened. Practice negative visualization. Image the worst that can happen. For me, the loss of money made me feel poor and stupid. By practicing negative visualization I was able to close my eyes and see all the worst things that could result. When I opened my eyes I realized none of that has happened yet. There was a way out. It would take time and effort. At minimum I had a passive $500-$800 annual income. It ended up much better as time went on. Can you imagine if I would have quit in frustration? You would have nothing to do at this moment since I would not have written this. (Wait a minute; bad example.)
- Take action. Let’s use some other examples. Imagine you betrayed the trust of someone you love and it was discovered. There are things you can do to make the situation a whole lot worse. There are also things you can do to make it better. The relationship might be irrevocably destroyed, but if you learned a lesson and do not repeat the same mistakes you will not destroy a future relationship. And who knows, sometimes the best things in life come from the greatest adversity.
- I made a plan and it backfired. That is not a character flaw; it is life. Get over it. Maybe you did something super-stupid like drink and drive and kill someone. There will be consequences, no doubt, but you can either spend the rest of your life crying about it or you can make a difference. In open court you can apologize for your actions and take the time in jail to improve yourself. Scientists tell us most cells in our body are replaced every seven years. Seven years from now the human being who made that massive mistake no longer exists! Always make the next version of you a better one.
- Have your pity party and then roll up your sleeves and use your experience from the mistake as a tool your do something positive. Think of it this way. Most millionaires are self-made. It is rare to see someone with an easy life doing remarkable things. From pain and loss come the greatest discoveries in human history.
- Learn from the experience. Read good books on the subject. An alcoholic can take steps to change her life completely. Joining a support group, getting involved in civic organizations or your church, and reading good books are all ways you can grow.
I wish I had a better answer, but that would make life too easy and end all the great accomplishments achieved through adversity. Never forget mistakes do NOT define you. How you respond and react to them does.
Back when Doc* was alive he played cards with us every Friday night. One night we got a call the police were at his house. It seems someone had broken into his home and may have started a fire. We thought the card game was over as Doc would head home to assess the damage. Instead he stayed tight in his chair and demanded the cards be dealt.
That night at cards I discovered the real priorities in life. The card game with family and neighbors was more important than stuff accumulated over a lifetime. Of course Doc never tossed anything out, but if someone wanted to steal his stuff, have at it.
My grandfather (Doc) was a Stoic without knowing it. He knew there was nothing he could do if his house was on fire or he was burglarized. He wasn’t going to grab a bucket and start tossing water on the flame; he was 88 years old. It seems it takes a lot of years for the wisdom to develop on what has real value, like a card game with people you care about. You can act like a chipmunk standing guard around your stash or you can value stuff at zero and relationships as priceless. Your choice will determine the level of happiness in your life.
How Much Is Enough?
The goal is earn more money so you can buy more stuff, also known as the moronathon. Before long you have a house filled to the rafters and a storage unit to hold all the stuff that does not fit in your home/apartment. You are living the dream. Now you add security to your home (don’t forget the storage unit) and bump your insurance coverage. People go to crazy lengths to dispose of money while complicating their lives. Worse, it costs money to have lots of stuff. And the work! All the work moving, cleaning, storing, and protecting the growing hoard of things in your fortress is an exercise in madness.
I have a distant relative who doesn’t lock his home, ever. His windows and doors don’t even have locks on them. “Why have’em,” he says. “What they gon’na steal?” He has a point. His home is Spartan to say the least. When you buy stuff you tend to want to protect your investment. “That is mine,” you say. Ownership. You own the stuff you buy and nobody can use it without your permission. So you swing the metaphorical rifle over your shoulder and pace back and forth in front of your fortress guarding your hoard. Crazy!
At what point do you say “enough”? How happy can guarding all the junk you acquired over the years be? You can downsize and declutter, but I am talking about something much more intense here. What I suggest is a commitment to living with very few items in your possession. Each person has different circumstances. Children will require having a few more things than a single person. But look around your home. How many things could go? Most belongings haven’t been touched in ages! Can you live with only 100 possessions? Until recent history, people did just that.
What Is Minimalism?
Minimalism is different than downsizing or decluttering. A minimalist will have an uncluttered life and can easily live in a smaller place than most, but a minimalist also works to have the least amount of possessions possible.
Here are some things minimalists have other don’t:
- Freedom to move where and when they want without a pile of stuff to pack or protect.
- Easier travel. No worries about someone taking care of your stuff when you are gone. You don’t have that much stuff.
- Less anxiety. All the effort and mental work to protect your belongings is driving you insane (and broke).
- Need almost no money to live. Stuff takes money to buy, store, use, protect, and later dispose of. No wonder people work until their bodies wear out.
- Peace of mind. Hey, who is going to rob you if you don’t have anything of value to steal? Minimalists find value in friends, family, and relationships. You can’t steal those.
- Follow their dreams. Nothing is holding you down. You can plant roots for a while or pull up stakes and head across country at will.
- Retirement is sooner and more fun. When you are spending less managing clutter retirement is possible a lot sooner. Retirement is also a lot more enjoyable when you don’t have to worry about the home fort when traveling.
There are more benefits to minimalism. It takes time to get there if you are the typical Westerner. Don’t worry. Help is on the way.
The Minimalist Lifestyle
All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
Minimalism is easier than ever. The library has all the books, movies, and music you could ever want. The internet replaces so much stuff today it is mind boggling. Music, movies, books, newspapers, and magazines are all online. Cloud computing means you can access important papers and family photos from any computer anywhere in the world.
Western culture causes us to yearn for the simple, uncomplicated minimalist lifestyle. Deep down we know our stuff is turning us into slaves. Where do you start when you have so many things to deal with? Decluttering is a start, but we want to get some minimalism in our life today. I have a suggestion.
Start with one room. Clean the entire room of all belongings, wall hangings, and any other distractions. This is your room of solitude. You can meditate here or sit against a wall reading a good book. Try adding a table and one chair or a sofa. You can sit comfortably thinking about your day, reading, or talking with family. There are no pictures allowed on the walls nor any ornaments on the table. A lamp for light might be needed, but make it a basic lamp with no frills.
It is hard adjusting to the Spartan nature of your new room. We are so used to distraction in our modern world we forget how to turn it off. Cell phones and computers are off limits in your room of solitude; they only replace the clutter we are so familiar with in our daily lives with disruptions. One book and a cup of tea while you sit quietly in your minimalist room with only a chair is a disturbing experience for many until they learn to accept the simplicity minimalism brings and the calm your mind feels when the clutter and constant distractions are removed.
Once minimalism starts growing on you it is time to start minimalizing another room. Before long your entire home will turn minimalist. As the disorganized, over-stuffed life is replaced by sanity you can consider taking the 100 item challenge. You might find you have too much home. The minimalist décor will help sell your home faster and for more. The extra money added to your investment account allows you the freedom to choose where you want to go. Stuff no longer holds you down. You can take the wife and kids out camping for a week without worrying about your belongings back home. Preparing for a trip takes about four minutes for a minimalist. (Just toss a few pieces of clothes in a bag and you are ready to go. No need to call your neighbor Charlie to watch the house, feed the cat, mow the lawn, on ad nauseam.)
Physician, Heal Thyself
A few days ago I enlightened you with my deluttering manifesto. As you know I am far from living the minimalist lifestyle. What you don’t know is I do have a room where I can go to think. The room is empty. I sit of the floor or lean against a wall. A small window is the only light in the room. I go there to think and to calm my mind. It is more empty than solitary confinement in prison, the only difference is I can leave whenever I want and I don’t stay locked in the room from years at a time.
There are some things I do to minimalize my personal life. My cell phone has the volume off 99% of the time. I refuse to allow unfettered distraction into my life 24/7. My tenuous mental stability is unable to handle such an assault. Parts of my life have turned minimalist, but I still have way too many things to truly be a minimalist.
Decluttering and minimalism are things I always have aspired too. It is now a mantra. I have taken steps over the last few months to declutter and even minimalize my life. The feeling of freedom is strong as each weight is lifted from my neck. There is no doubt my life will change radically over the next year or two. I have dreams I want to live while I am still young. There are so many things to learn and explore. The best part is I always kept the awe a child feels when they see something awesome.
My world is changing; so is yours. It is time we walk that road with only the shirt on our back. We will meet wonderful people along the way. We will grow old; we will die. There will be nothing to clean up after we are gone. A minimalist is a traveler who leaves no trace when he leaves. But it was an awesome moment when we were there.
* Doc is the fond nickname we gave my grandfather because he read everything on natural remedies.
Ryan Holiday has come a long way since writing Trust Me, I’m Lying: The Tactics and Confessions of a Media Manipulator. From his personal experience and stories of great men and women from today and in history, Holiday outlines how the ego gets in the way of aspirations, success, and even failure in his latest book: Ego Is the Enemy. This book is a guide on how to live life well with a healthy dose of Stoic philosophy so you can live happily too.
This is the best book I’ve read on living right since reading A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. From the beginning to the end Holiday provides example after example of how ego has harmed great men and women over the ages. He also gives examples of ego as it applies to aspirations and success. Holiday is not afraid to expand the narrative to include his own failures in life, bringing a personal touch to the lessons taught.
At 29, Ryan Holiday has lived an eventful life filled with awesome successes and fantastic failures. His drive and understanding of human nature allowed him to become a massive success at a young age. He worked with Tucker Max, using reverse psychology to create controversy and hence, sales. Next he worked with Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, and other authors such as Timothy Ferris and Tony Robbins.
In the past Holiday used his talents to create controversy around a product or book to bring attention and sales to the product. His uncanny ability to understand the media world we live in today has made him a master of the trade. He has used underhanded methods of manipulating the media in the past to generate buzz. Billboards and press releases are not effective anymore according to Holiday. Getting the media coverage needed to sell a book or a company requires manipulating blogs, both large and small.
There is a tinge of regret in the tone of Holiday as he gives examples of aspirations, success, and inevitable failures in life. His prolific reading and writing makes his storytelling hard to put down. Each story has you nodding your head as you see a piece of yourself in the mirror. Heavy Stoic teachings are woven into the narrative so you can take the lesson taught and apply it in your life, creating happiness without anxiety or worry.
Ego Is the Enemy is a blueprint to avoid the failures of great leaders from the past. The lessons learned can help us lead a happier life without feelings of revenge, regret, or envy. By accepting you have enough you can put ego aside and live life for what it is worth.
Holiday watched up close and personal the destruction of an American company: American Apparel. The founder, Dov Charney, disintegrated before Holiday’s eyes while he worked as the Director of Marketing for the firm. Lawsuits began to unravel a fashion empire. The in-fighting and recriminations grew in intensity. Charney could not let it go. Instead of practicing a Stoic mindset or taking honest advice, he doubled down, then tripled down on failed policies. Eventually he was fired from his own company. He filed lawsuits against American Apparel, the former CFO, and multiple board members. By the time the fighting was done the company was gone.
Ryan Holiday was there to see American Apparel fail. He advised Charney, but Charney was in no mode for sound advice. Steve Jobs lost his company in a similar fashion, but took the opportunity to self-reflect and grow. Steve Jobs was hurt when he was ousted from Apple by the board; Charney destroyed the company in an avalanche of lawsuits so there will not be a company to come back to.
Subduing the Ego
No matter how hard we try, no matter how good we are, regardless out intentions, there will be times when things go very wrong. Defeat does not define us, how we handle defeat does. Bad things happen to everyone. Preparing mentally for these difficult times starts now, when we are able to think clearly and can condition our minds to handle tragedy.
Ego is in every one of us. Ego wants to assert itself at the worst possible moments, when our pride is wounded and we want to control things we have no control over. Ego Is the Enemy illustrates the successes and failures others have experienced and provides solutions to destructive ego issues.
One of the most moving stories in the book is about Katherine Graham, the remarkable woman who ran The Washington Post for over two decades. Graham faced hardships most people would be crushed by. Graham was born into wealth and privilege and was unprepared for the hardships she would endure. Her husband ran the family newspaper until she discovered he was having an affair. He later committed suicide leaving her in control of a business with thousands of employees and no training or experience to run a company.
Family and advisors told her to sell The Washington Post and use the money to retire to a comfortable life. She could not do it. Her father started the business and she wanted it to succeed. The challenges got worse. She managed The Post through the Watergate scandal. When the board and advisors told her not to publish confidential documents she did anyway. The President of the United States made it a project to punish her for her audacity.
The Washington Post was the first Wikileaks and Graham the first Julian Assange. There is a price to pay when doing the right thing. A President was exposed and brought to his knees, but before the smoke cleared a crippling strike brought The Washington Post to the edge as millions in advertising revenue was lost. If this wasn’t enough an outside investor was buying shares of the company; Graham could be facing a struggle for control of her company.
The strike ended and The Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for journalistic reporting. The outside investor was no other than a young Warren Buffett. Buffett mentored Graham as they built the newspaper into the powerhouse it is today, even in an environment where newspapers are dying.
How can we have the same fortitude and toughness of a Katherine Graham? Is there anything special about people who face defeat in life and use the opportunity to excel? Without knowing it, Graham had a Stoic determination. Most winners in the world possess the same attitudes. Here are some final thoughts before you borrow a copy of Ego is the Enemy from the library:
- Problems make you a better person. Without problems it is impossible to learn hard lessons. As much as loss, difficulty, and challenges hurt, you must work through them. It is in this place where you are defined as a human being.
- An easy life is a curse. Struggles will happen and the more you deal with difficult people and situations the better you become.
- Accept you are blessed. We live in an awesome time is history where the poor are better off than ever before. A modest middle class American life is more luxurious than the wealthiest man’s life in 1930. Wealthy people today have luxury like never before.
- Engage in negative visualization. Close your eyes and imagine what it would be like if your significant other has died. Dig deep into the ramifications it would have on your life. Then open your eyes and realize how lucky you are to have such a wonderful significant other. Use negative visualization to fully understand all the gifts you have. Imagine life without hearing, then realize how lucky you are to hear the sounds of nature and the human voice.
- You have enough. How much stuff can one person have? You are alive; it is enough for happiness.
- Money is not the end game; happiness is. Wealth is important, but is worthless if you are miserable. Find happiness and you are already wealthy. For some reason the money keeps rolling when you live this mindset.
- Let go of hate, envy, thoughts of revenge or retribution, and lust. The greatest failures in history started with these negative, ego driven, emotions.
The day is April 2nd, a Thursday. A small bar attached to a bowling alley next to the college has Happy Hour until 7 p.m. A young man who would someday be known as the Wealthy Accountant attended Macro-Economics at the college across the way. Class was held on Tuesday and Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. A group of students, led by the junior wealthy accountant, ambushed the professor, convincing him to cut breaks short and end class at 6:50 so the group could race to the bar called The Image before Happy Hour ended. It was important to the students to make Happy Hour. The Image had free tacos if you bought a drink and a full meal for the price of one soda was one heck of a deal.
Our junior wealthy accountant had his own home at this time and spent his days reading library books. Years before he was engaged to be married and found his fiancé in bed with another man. He withdrew from life knowing how important it was to find the right woman to share his life with. He wanted someone in his life, but had given up hope there was “the right” woman out there for him. So he kept reading all day, attended a few college classes and enjoying life as it was.
* * *
A demure young woman ran a daycare out her parent’s home. Her fiancé attended college at a campus on the other side of the state. He informed our demure young woman he found someone else; the wedding was off. She withdrew from life, spending her days taking care of children. By now she was working for a larger daycare center so her parents could have their home back.
Our demure young woman had a sister-in-law that felt it was unhealthy for our heroine to spend so much time at home alone. After adequate harassing she agreed to go out for a drink at The Image. The day was April 2nd. It was 29 years ago.
* * *
Our junior wealthy accountant was not demure. After washing down a plate of free tacos with a glass of Sprite he noticed a quiet young woman sitting with a friend next to the dance floor. It was a Thursday night so the crowd was thin. He approached the young woman and asked for a dance. She accepted. After the dance he asked the young woman her name; she refused to answer. The accountant was unable to secure the young woman’s name, address or phone number. There was only one chance. “Can I see you here next Friday?” All she did was nod.
The next Friday our hero waited anxiously at The Image praying the young woman would return. When she walked in his heart stopped. They danced and then left the bar for a table in the bowling alley where you could hear a person talk. It did not take long for our couple to discover they had a lot in common. One year and six days after their first meeting they were married. They are celebrating 28 years of marriage this week; they have been married to each other longer than they have not been.
* * *
What makes a person happy? What traits do wealthy people have in common? Is there commonality between happy people, wealthy people and early retirees? The answers are so simple most people miss them.
Bill Gates recently revealed in an interview, marrying his wife, Melinda, is the single greatest decision he made in his life. I understand what he means one-hundred percent. Marrying Sue has been the single greatest thing I ever did. No amount of money could ever replace what my relationship to that demure young woman has brought me.
Happy people, early retirees and wealthy people do have a common thread running through them. Millionaires, according to The Millionaire Mind, by Thomas J. Stanley , tend to be married for a long period of time, tend to live in the same house forever (see Warren Buffet) and are frugal even after they achieve massive amounts of financial wealth. It seems wealthy people are happy for reasons other than money.
Keith’s Rule # 9: Money cannot make you happy, but it can make you miserable.
I love the story of the wealthy businessman who loved his wife so much he transferred a significant amount of his wealth into his wife’s name. He had his attorneys write up all the paperwork. He wanted the love of his life taken care of no matter what happened to him. Once the transfer was complete he told his wife what he had done. His wife smiles and says, “That is nice, dear,” as she continues clipping coupons at the kitchen table. The money meant little to her; she had her wealth sitting across the table from her.
Okay, Bill Gates tells us his best decision in life was marrying his wife; Warren Buffet has lived in the same home for decades. So is that the secret? Marry the right person and live in one home forever? These things can make you happy, but it does not satisfy the wealthy part or early retiring part. Happiness is the most important of the three so I think we have a trait or two happy people seem to possess in higher levels than the population at large. Now we need to dig further to find the best kept secret of all three types of people: the happy, the wealthy and the early retiree.
Keith’s Rule # 10: Be happy with what you have; it could be a whole lot less.
Desire, lust, coveting and ego are acid to happiness and wealth. Wanting something is one thing, but to always want more, to never be satiated, is the perfect prescription for unhappiness and poverty. Well-adjusted happy people tend to put up a hand and say, “Enough for me.” Happiness comes from inside not from out there. No amount of stuff will ever fill the void. I know a demure young woman that filled a void I had. I was never foolish enough to think money or stuff would do it for me. Good thing. If I did I would not be celebrating 28 years this week.
The secret is frugality. Think of it. People get divorced because they fall out of love or some other crazy reason. There are valid reasons to divorce, but those reasons apply to a very small percent of marriages. Frugal people are happy with what they have, including their significant other. If you are never satisfied with what you have you will eventually want a new person in your bed, too.
Several years back I had a personal trainer help me rehabilitate a bicep I blew out while butchering chickens. After a while she started saying rude things about Mrs. Accountant and suggestive things to me. It did not take long to find a different personal trainer. It ended badly for her. Her fiancé (ring and wedding dress already purchased) found out she was playing the field (she was sleeping with the assistant manager of the gym) and promptly ended the engagement. Do you think she found happiness? Now she is marrying the boss, but deep down inside all parties know she is willing to exchange men in her life at the drop of a hat. Until she is happy with what she has she will always be miserable and in fear of being found out.
Happy people do not need more stuff; wealthy people are wealthy because they realize they already have enough; and early retirees achieved their goals by saving first and spending only a fraction of their income. I encourage my clients to save 50% of their gross income. They usually give me a look. I am more the Crazy Accountant to them than the Wealthy Accountant. It is a truism that frugality will get you through almost any challenge you face in life. Desire for stuff leads to debt and debt is a terrible taskmaster to have.
Here are a few guidelines for a life of happiness, wealth and even early retirement if that is your goal:
- Marry the right woman (or man). I understand some people do not want to be married or in a relationship. It is okay to live single. Instead, have good friends. Most of us want a significant other in our life. Choose well and make it last a lifetime.
- Keep the spark in your marriage. After 28 years I still chase Mrs. Accountant around the house. (Was that TMI? Sorry. I still find my wife the most desirable woman on the planet. I refuse to change or even entertain the idea. I have what I want.)
- Save first, spend later.
- Be happy with what you have.
- Don’t house hop. It is okay to move as long as there is a valid reason. Transaction costs on the transfer of any asset digs into your net worth so move only when it makes sense to do so.
- Always know you have “enough”.
- Meditate every day on how lucky you are. You are lucky!
- Read good books!
- Love the significant others in your life. Kiss and hug your wife (or husband) every day no matter what. Do the same with your kids; I kiss my girls on the cheek or forehead every day and tell them I love them; Mrs. Accountant gets a big sloppy smooch. Tells your parents how much you love them while you still can. Tell your friends how much you care while you have the chance.
- Take your loved ones on a walk and hold hands.
- Gaze into each other’s eyes.
- Accept the gift of life you already possess. You have already won.
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Several years ago my office building was burglarized. Two young men used a tire iron to break a window and enter the building. Tax offices do not have a lot of stuff worth stealing so they settled on two monitors and an old safe with an empty coffee can in it. People pay their bill by credit card or ACH in the majority of cases; a few still pay by check and cash comes in during tax season and is removed each day.
The young men caused thousands of dollars in damage for the massive haul of two monitors worth maybe $20 each. (New monitors are under $100.) So what were they geniuses looking for? Well, it seems they remembered I had a soda machine outside my building a decade ago and they assumed I moved the machine inside the building. Yes, they burglarized my building for some of that lucrative soda machine money.
They did not find the soda machine. I retired the machine years ago. The police were so excited to gather evidence. A few days later the young men were in custody. The police and district attorney informed me I was a victim. I replied ‘I am not the victim. My building is the victim; they kicked the shit out of it.’ For some reason I did not feel violated; I can’t speak for my building since I was not the one sodomized.
The damage was repaired the same day and life went on as normal with one exception: the district attorney’s office keeps sending me ‘victim’ mail. Anytime a court date approached I was invited to ‘get involved’. I never went. The two men were convicted and sentenced to a combines 10 years in prison. Now I felt like a victim! It costs $40,000 a year to house a prisoner. The government in their infinite wisdom squandered nearly a half million dollars protecting my three thousand bucks of building damage. Really?
Before sentencing I was asked what I thought would be a fair sentence. I responded. These two young men needed money to fund a drug habit. I gathered that when they said they were looking for a haul from an imaginary soda machine. Prison would not solve the problem. They needed drug treatment and a new set of skills. I informed the court I thought requiring successful drug rehabilitation treatment and a thousand hours of community service would go a lot further than taxing me more to fill the prison a little bit more. I recommended the community service be served working with Habitat for Humanity. My thought was, clean these guys up and teach them a trade.
The court disagreed. The judge and prosecutor felt a deep desire to protect the community. The truth is soda machines everywhere rose up and demanded justice. They never seriously considered my recommendation and $400,000 of hard-earned taxpayer money was pissed down the drain. Most people say ‘put them in prison’. I prefer a more logical approach that does not include wasting money. You know what we think about wasting money around here.
Enter the Stoic
Why do I tell this story? I think about it a lot. I wonder about the two men raped by the system. They did some really stupid stuff. Who hasn’t? I wonder if they have made changes in their lives for the better. Will society be safer when they get out? I doubt it.
Most of all I wonder why I did not feel violated. The police wanted me to know they will keep an eye on the place and protect me. I shrugged my shoulders. The DA’s office sent me huge packets in the mail informing me of my rights as a victim. I was not the victim, the building was. Nobody would listen so I stopped explaining myself.
My emotions over the break-in are puzzling to many people. I examined my thoughts to figure out why I felt the way I did. After a short time of reflection I came to the conclusion my stoic nature was to blame for my settled mind. From a young age I had stoic tendencies before I knew what a stoic was. Later in life I discovered Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. One of my favorite books is A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.
For the first time I realized I had internalized the truth about stoicism. Little things did not bother me. Beating the shit out of my ‘stuff’ was not a concern; I should downsize anyway. Of course, I still have feelings and emotions; a stoic is not dead inside. Events that cause most people to worry were water off a duck’s back for me.
A practicing stoic knows he is never perfect. “Stuff’ does not bother me; serving my clients does. I take serving my clients very seriously. I am bothered if I am unable to help all the people I promised to help.
It all comes down to focus. I live at a time in history where people have it really good in Western countries. I can walk/bike/drive millions of miles of roads for free. Do you know how many books I can borrow, movies, music CDs, and internet I can play with all for free at my local library? It is humbling to know I have millions of dollars of knowledge and entertainment all available for free at the library. How awesome is that?
Enter the Zen Master
I read a small number of blogs on a regular basis. Mr. Money Mustache and Zen Habits are my two favorites. Both blogs teach about living life right. I have talked about Pete over at Money Mustache already. Today I want to introduce you to Leo Babauta. Unlike Pete, I have never personally met Leo. Just like Pete, Leo seems like a hell of a nice guy.
Leo talks less about money than Pete does. Leo has taught me to relax, instead. For an excitable wealthy accountant with OCD that is saying a lot. Learning to breathe is a lesson more people need to learn, especially me. To the best of my ability I take one piece of Leo’s advice: upon waking in the morning I drink a full glass of water and then sit and meditate for 5 minutes, eyes closed. Only then can I enjoy a cup of tea.
Water cleanses the body; meditation cleanses the mind. I tell people I am retired in a convoluted sort of way. Outside tax season I have a lot of free time. I take on projects that appeal to me. I keep busy in my retirement. My desire for knowledge and experience is vast. Everything interests me. However, no one can have every experience or learn everything there is to know. I have to pick and choose.
In a world of never-ending distractions, focus is a commodity. Zen meditation, as taught by Leo, has helped me focus. The added focus has allowed me to experience more, learn more, enjoy more. The world of distractions will not end. The phone will ring, friends will visit, email will call and text messages will interfere. By practicing your stoic skills and Zen meditation you can find meaning in the life you live, as I have. When you focus you see, sometimes for the first time, the beauty all around you. Enjoy the simple pleasures: the smell of fresh mown grass, the singing of birds and the color of the sky. Take a moment every day to relax for at least five minutes. Don’t let the small stuff worry you. Focus on the important and enjoy the wonderful life granted you.