Life is a Series of Choices
A lot of years ago (and frankly I don’t remember when, okay?) my wife Renee quipped,“Life is a Series of Choices.”
The discussion topic at hand is lost to me as well, and it doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t know if she meant it seriously or as a clever remark at the time, but somehow the phrase stuck. This tidbit and others became part of our family litany. “Your Money or Your Life” is another (thanks to Vicki Robin). The third is “use a napkin”, but that’s somewhat off-topic for this discussion, so we’ll let that one be.
Anyway, choices. Every day, we each are presented with a myriad of choices: some easy choices, trivial, impossible ones, and others somewhere in between. Every one of these is an opportunity to decide. You see, choices are just the offer. Decisions are the really hard part. But it sounds dumb and obvious to say that, “Life is a series of decisions.”
Truthfully, I suck at choices/decisions. I typically have to over-analyze each option to prevent sub-optimal solutions. Sometimes I even go searching for more options, just in case I haven’t yet completely succumbed to ‘paralysis by analysis’. Knowing about this particular peccadillo, I do try to minimize the impacts of my prolonged dithering, but sometimes, it’s like Beg Week on Public Radio, it’s just gotta run its course.
Albert Camus wrote, “Life is a sum of all your choices.” So, full disclosure, this apparently isn’t radically new thinking. But while Al was concise and totally quotable, it lacks specificity.
You see, not all choices matter that much. Let’s focus on the more significant ones. Financial choices are pretty important. Renee’s message is particularly apt for that topic. There are about a zillion financial choices in our lifetime. We’ll return to that topic in a bit.
Even back to childhood, we are taught to “make good choices” by our parents. My sister Karen used “Make good choices!” as her parting remarks whenever one of her teenage kids left the house. All evidence indicates that they did indeed make good choices, or at least effectively hid the poor ones.
In a famous Stanford University study in the 1970’s, children as young as four years old were given a choice: “You can have this one marshmallow right now, or, if you wait until I get back, I’ll give you a second marshmallow when I return in a few minutes.” Of course, some of the kids snarfed that one right away, and others waited as long as they could before munching. About a third of the subjects waited the fifteen minutes necessary to get the second marshmallow. Follow-up studies with the same subjects showed the kids that were able to delay gratification were better students and even had higher SAT scores.
The corollaries to financial well-being are obvious, of course. People who choose to fund retirement programs like IRAs and 401(k) accounts, instead of burning through all the bucks in the weekend after payday, are arguably more likely to have a prosperous retirement. That said, people who squirrel away every cent and don’t spend anything are typically no fun at parties. Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with being frugal. Frugality is an common trait found in the Financial Independence (FI) community. But what’s the point of having assets if you never, EVER enjoy them? Like so many things, it’s a balancing act. What gives you energy? What provides rewarding experiences that last? Travel is obviously big at our house, but maybe you just love wearing designer sneakers and that’s what helps to make you really happy. Okay! (Weird, but okay!) We all need to have some fun, and within reason, it cool to drop some Benjamins now and then on the things that make your life meaningful.
So what constitutes the good choices? That’s an inquiry into your personal values. You get to decide (yay!) But how?
Readers of FutureStateRenee.com might see me leading into the central thesis of the Futurists’ ethos — the discussion of Future State Renee. But rather than restate what’s she’s already said so well, I’ll pivot to a different angle, the values.
Personal values are those things that are important to you and ideally they’re what drives your choices. Oftentimes, life gets in the way, and it’s easy to be distracted by idle diversions or shiny things. (Unless you discover that collecting all the shiny things is truly important to you — in which case, you just be you.) Discovering your own set of values might make some decisions a little more straightforward, and diminish the likelihood of those distractions. If your decisions are truly reinforcing/supporting your values, you may find yourself with fewer regrets and maybe a little happier. Of course, nobody is promising an easy time of it. One of our new friends we met in Ecuador has a tattoo that reads, “Easy Choices, Hard Life. Hard Choices, Easy Life.” I’m not quite convinced that’s an absolute statement, well, because doughnuts. But it works for him. Which is the point, of course. Do what works for you. If you value social companionship, then spending time with friends who support you is a good choice (there’s that word again). Conversely, if you find peace and contentment in your time alone, then solo activities or quiet meditation may be your thing. Obviously, these are simplistic examples, and your personal values are probably much more complex that that.
If the phrase “personal values” seems too high-minded or New Age for you, consider a different term like “guiding principles.” Regardless of what you call the idea, it’s a way to compare choices/decisions/opportunities against a personal standard that works for you.
Let’s try an example: One of my guiding principles (values) is a bias for action — that doing something is better than not doing it. So if we’re on the fence about whether attending a social event is a good idea, I’ll try to choose to go. Most often, I have a good time, and I’m happy we chose to go out. Does it always happen? Nope — I remain human and therefore fickle at times.
Your personal values are a stew for which no one else can give you the recipe. People will try — don’t let them. Owning your own values and your choices is pretty important to living the life that matters most to you, not to someone else. Our polarized society seems to be dividing people into one side or another, with media and political talking heads feeding a Twitter-fueled inferno. It’s vitally important to examine how you feel, what’s truly important to you and make your own decisions about your personal values, and own the choices you make because of them. Buddha said, “If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts, happiness follows them like a never-departing shadow.” That sounds nice, right?
Spend some time thinking about your real priorities. Thinking about your family, your health, creating your art, career, or sharing with others are all worthwhile starting points. There are tons of online resources you and explore to learn more about discovering your values.
Since this is a financial blog, I wondered: From a financial standpoint, how does your financial health influence your values? Or do your values influence your financial health? The latter seems more likely to me, but I think there may be a co-dependent relationship there. We have all experienced situations where financial health limited our choices, but I don’t think that it drives our values. Values are a higher-order concept, part of your identity, while your financial situation is your current circumstances, usually subject to change over time. In the end, when I make a financial decision that is in alignment with my values, it feels better than if I make a decision that runs contrary to my principles. (Important tangential point: I know there are people whose financial situation is pretty dire. Sometimes because of poor choices, but sometimes through no fault of their own. I won’t judge. This is not a critique of anyone’s values or decisions. Everyone walks a different road.)
Life IS a series of choices, and those choices are the path you lay out for your self every day. Nothing is preordained. You get to choose. Thinking about your values is a healthy way to influence your choices. Understanding those values may help you to make good choices you’ll be happy with later when you become Future State You.
“Choose to be optimistic, it feels better.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
(Note: This post originally appeared on FutureStateRenee.com, a Financial Independence, fun and travel blog authored by my lovely and brilliant wife Renee.)
P.S. Don’t forget to choose fun, whatever fun is for you. (Maybe a Buffet concert? Get your grass skirts and coconut bra!))
Invest in fun, share fun, create your fun. Nobody promised you a tomorrow, so remember to live this one day.