A Walk in the Woods: A New Metaphor I Thought Up During a Difficult Evening

This particular “walk in the woods” was taken in the Sam Houston National Forest.

I’ve been pretty open about my struggles with depression in the past. Many people who deal with this very stubborn affliction know all too well how it can make even the best of times in life seem bleak. It can color current events darker than they actually are and it can barrage you with obsessive thoughts about the worst moments of your past. And it can even be life threatening if it gets you to the point of thinking the only way out of the fog might just be to stop being alive at all. But over the last several years of my life, I’ve been having more and more success fighting back against all of this.

Today, although things are mostly pretty good, I’m dealing with a somewhat difficult moment. My job is in jeopardy and even my employer may be. And while my finances will most likely withstand whatever comes, our current economic conditions and trajectory make this an unfortunate time to be in such a predicament. Additionally, I’ve been frustrated by my lack of progress in building up a social life here in my new home of Houston, Texas. I think a big part of the problem is the paradox of the big city – or at least this one. While there are tons of people around, most of them seem to be here for a very specific, career oriented purpose. The norm seems to be to come here for a new job or a promotion, hang around for a few years, and then leave for the next one. Of course there are people who stay long term too. But they tend to be family oriented, which means they have neither much spare time, nor much in common with me. That said, I’m making some progress on these problems.

On the career side, I’m working on finding a new job, even as more companies go into panic mode and hiring rapidly decelerates. I’m taking things day by day in my current job. I actually had a record month in May in spite of increasingly dismal economic conditions, so all is not lost just yet. And finally, I’m working on expanding my side business in the hopes of moving it closer and closer to capable of funding my living expenses by itself. The good news there is that the worse the economy gets, the more opportunities there are likely to be in the real estate market – even as rent is likely to keep going up.

On the social side, I’ve kept trying and have had some successes. I’ve met people through a local financial independence oriented group, even as I’ve grown increasingly frustrated that most of them have kids and are almost exclusively interested in activities oriented around them. I’ve met people playing sports like basketball and tennis and particularly with tennis, I appear to be gaining traction in terms of getting a regular group together. Finally, I’ve met people doing random activities. The reality is that I enjoy spending time with a fairly small percentage of people and as a result, meeting people has a very low success rate, meaning it’s the dreaded “numbers game.” But I’ve definitely made progress.

Overall, I’m in a solid mental place. Life is never going to be problem free so that is the wrong thing to hope for. Working towards being capable of handling as many problems as possible successfully is a much more viable goal. And I’m proud to say that for the most part, the problems I’ve described above are not threatening me. I believe they’re each putting an appropriate amount of stress on me to keep me actively working on solving them without being overwhelmed or obsessed.

So what is messing with me now? Somehow, my past has crept back in. 2016 and 2017 both held some pretty serious disappointments, particularly romantically. So that is always an easy place to find myself mentally mired, especially as I get tired in the evenings, since it is relatively fresh. And then, of course, there is my childhood. Historically, I’ve avoided thinking about it as much as possible. To this day, simply speaking to my mom or my sister can be enough to get me down because it reminds me of a time I so desperately want to forget. Freud may not be quite the widely revered figure he had been anymore, but he was definitely on to something with his focus on childhood.

Anyway, last night I had a bout with some of these past oriented negative thoughts. But thankfully, rather than the nightmare of insomnia, it was ended with a revelation I think could be really valuable. It’s a simple concept and it may seem silly, but within maybe ten minutes, it completely pulled me out of what could had been a spiral into a bad place I’ve visited way too many times and helped me relax and get to sleep. For anyone who doesn’t already know, good quality sleep is probably the ultimate weapon against depression and a host of other struggles, both mental and physical. I’ll be talking more about that in another post very soon.

But for today, what was this revelation? It was a metaphor. The world, both spatial and temporal, is a giant wooded area that I’ve been walking through with the resulting paths being my life so far, and my current location my life today. It’s true that some of the paths I’ve followed up to this point have led me through ugly terrain I would have preferred not to traverse. But I don’t have to go backwards and experience those things again. I can, but it is a wildly ineffective way to live. Instead, I should be using the lessons I’ve learned and my mental capabilities to plot a better course from here based on what I really want. So much of my pain has resulted from not having much of a plan at all. How can I complain about where I’ve wound up if I haven’t even had any particular destination?

I think this concept could have great potential in combating depression and even suicidal thoughts. Whenever I’ve thought about suicide, it has been for primarily two reasons. One, I have felt that the pain I was in would never subside and the only escape was death. Two, I have felt that I had screwed up my life so badly that there was no possibility of “coming back” and making it into something I wanted it to be.

Let’s go back to the woods. If you’re thinking about suicide, this is what I would say to you. You feel you’re in a bad place now, which is a result of the paths you’ve taken. But is there a place you would be happy to be in? If there isn’t, then chances are you need more help than this metaphor can provide and I suggest you get it. But if there is, think hard about that place. What does it look like? What about it makes you happy? And here is the most important question. Is there ANY way you can get there from where you are now? If there is, why kill yourself? You have just admitted that a path exists that will make you happy if you follow it. And sure, you may be facing long odds of success. But dying will reduce your odds to zero. Plus, if you try to follow this path to the place you believe would make you happy, it’s very likely that you will find some measure of happiness even if you don’t end up making it all the way there.

Maybe this concept will work for you and maybe it won’t. But I’m telling you, it worked for me last night. My favorite part about it is that it didn’t just turn me away from darkness. It turned me towards light. If you follow the thought process I just described, it should be much more difficult for you to think about negatives when you’re finished because you will have replaced them with positives. Instead of thinking about bad paths you’ve already walked down, you will be thinking about a place you actually want to be in and what it will take you to get there. And sure, Rome wasn’t built in a day. I get that. But if you map out this path to this particular place you want to be in, you will have a mission. And if you work on chipping away at that mission, you’re going to have less room in your head for thoughts that don’t relate to it. Maybe I’m way off base with this. But it helped me through a dark evening and I intend to revisit it as necessary in the hopes of repeating that success. If you’re struggling, maybe it’s worth a try for you, too.  

What I Spend on Cash Donations and How I Do It

A bridge I encountered walking on a trail a while back – I don’t remember where exactly

Happy Monday, Everyone! This is the second post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, check it out here. I plan to go into detail on every category with a post on one each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $2100 on cash donations. In most areas of my financial life, I feel pretty comfortable that I know what I’m doing. But since I have only been relatively wealthy for a few years now, this is one area where I’m just getting started and as a result, I’m still figuring things out. For that reason, any feedback or suggestions would be greatly appreciated – even more than usual. So far, the money I’ve spent in this category has mostly gone to either charitable organizations or personal causes people had. I’m no expert on this yet but I have figured out a couple of things.

One, lots of charitable organizations are questionable at best in terms of the way they’re run and the percentage of funds that are actually put towards their causes. I’m not opposed to reasonable costs that are necessary to run an organization, including paying what the market necessitates to employ highly talented people. However, it is pretty clear that some of these organizations are excessively lining the pockets of individuals in one way or another, which is disgusting given that the money is donated for charitable causes.

Two, once you donate to a charitable organization, it will pursue you relentlessly trying to get more out of you. While I lived in Wisconsin, I donated to a couple of very location specific organizations whose mailers have followed me through two different Texas addresses already. It is baffling to me that no one in these organizations has made the connection that I’ve obviously moved and haven’t sent a dime since. I also wonder what portion of the money I donated they are going to spend on sending mailer after mailer before they finally (hopefully) give up. Is it really possible that the entirety of my donations will eventually be spent that way?

While I’m no expert at charitable giving, I have developed a few guiding principles for myself. First, I believe in making sure you are able to donate before doing so. After all, if you’re living on the edge yourself and you donate money, that could be the difference between your being independent and you needing help yourself, which would likely cost society more than your donation helped in the first place. As such, my donations have gradually increased as my personal wealth has and will likely continue accordingly. Second, I believe in helping those who either try to help themselves or have been dealt such a terrible hand that it is almost impossible for them to. I believe there is a distinct limit to how much money can help anyone – the “teach a man to fish” concept. I believe the capability to earn money is much more valuable than the result itself. So I’d be much more inclined to give money to someone who is dealing with a misfortunate setback or set of circumstances and would otherwise be a productive person than to someone who has never made a serious effort to do anything productive. Not only do I want to do the greatest good for society, but for the individual. I believe there is a huge psychological benefit to being self sufficient.

I don’t have any particular target in this area in terms of the amount I spend as it is pretty new for me. I think it is crucially important that people with resources help the less fortunate and I am certainly in that category. But trying to do so in a way that is both effective and not frustrating has proven difficult. I’ve had some success volunteering in local organizations, getting to know how they operate, and then donating additional money once I’m comfortable doing so. But that doesn’t stop the endless hounding from following me to the ends of the earth. I’m nearing the point where I will only donate money if it can be anonymous. I don’t itemize deductions on my taxes yet, so that isn’t an issue and I don’t care whether people know what I donate or not so recognition isn’t either.

Here is a particularly egregious example in my opinion. My alma mater has been after me since the day I graduated and I’ve never even given it a dime. My reasoning there is pretty simple. Tuition was raised by the state allowable maximum every single year I attended. This happened to be in the early part of the Great Recession and in spite of this economic backdrop, perfectly good buildings were constantly being torn down so fancier ones could be built in their place. This struck me as being very out of touch with both the mission of the school (presumably to provide a high quality education to people from a wide variety of backgrounds – including those who, like me, grew up relatively poor) and the reality of the times. A couple years after I left, it was discovered that the school had been sitting on a slush fund in excess of $100 million. I believe the tuition increases immediately stopped to avoid making the PR disaster even worse. But at no point was there any mention of doing anything to make things right with the students who had unknowingly contributed so much to that slush fund. Many of my former classmates seem to have similar reservations since they went through the school during the same timeframe.

If I were going to send any money in this direction, it would be directly to a student or group of students from a financially disadvantaged background who had already continued to demonstrate a good work ethic and continued to do so. I think both elements would be important for me and I would need a way to ensure that both were present to feel good about what I was doing. Additionally, I don’t think I would want to have my scholarship, or whatever form it took, be school specific. But I haven’t started looking into how to do any of that yet. Maybe it will be my first substantial charitable endeavor. For now, I typically donate a hundred or two when I see something that moves me to do so. Like I said, this area is a work in progress.

Happy Friday!

Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

We’ve nearly made it through another week – at least those of us who work conventional hours have. Here are some quick tips and recent observations to celebrate the coming weekend.

Listening is a lost, but crucial art.

Back when he was just a regular NFL quarterback and not the center of a controversy the media hasn’t completely stopped exploiting for ratings, page views, etc to this very day, Colin Kaepernick was in a commercial for some incredibly overpriced noise canceling headphones that involved him easily ignoring very hostile Seahawks fans. At the end, the slogan “hear what you want” is displayed. Much like paying a premium price for very pedestrian headphones, the slogan was rather unproductive.

This week, I had a conversation with a customer that made it painfully clear he had been taking this approach quite literally in numerous conversations we’d had over more than a year. Not only had he missed some fundamental, incredibly important points, but he had apparently been operating under the assumption that what he “didn’t know” (I put that in quotes because I’m still not sure I believe anyone could have every one of the conversations we had and still not know things that were repeated so emphatically, so many different times, in so many different ways) couldn’t hurt him, and that everything would work out in a very advantageous, but tragically impossible way. Based on this wildly inaccurate view, he wanted to make a decision that would likely have cost him tens of thousands of dollars over the remainder of this year and much more in the long run. I like the guy, but the sheer absurdity of what he apparently believed almost made my head explode. It was a visceral moment that forced me to understand that my efforts are simply not accomplishing anything in his case. Anyway, when I informed him of the almost certain consequences of the decision he wanted to make, he immediately changed his mind. But clearly this was the first time he had ever listened when I told him these things and he had managed to walk all the way to the edge of a financial cliff while ignoring me repeating them again and again.

Listening doesn’t always have implications that expensive, but sometimes they can be even more important. How many relationships have broken down because one person stopped listening to what the other was really saying? How many medical mistakes has this caused? How many decisions that affected thousands of people have been made based on faulty or incomplete information as a result? The costs of this phenomenon aren’t even quantifiable. But one thing is certain; we can all do better in life if we go into conversations with the goal of gaining whatever information the other person is trying to share with us first. Not only will we make better, more informed decisions, but relationships will improve. I’m working on improving in this area myself and I recommend everyone do the same!

If you’re buying a greeting card, the dollar store is your friend!

Obviously if you want something to last a while, the dollar store is a questionable choice at best. But if you’re buying a folded piece of paper with canned words on it for the strict purpose of having something to give someone versus not, you’re about to save some money. Rather than paying the ridiculous amount of $3-5 (or more!) for something that will most likely be in the garbage within ten minutes of receipt (multiplied times goodness knows how many per year), you can buy the same damn thing for a buck – or even fifty cents if you choose certain cards! Will this turn your financial situation around on its own? Not likely. But it will save you 80% or more on this particular purchase, which happens to be repeated many times, year after year. And perhaps more importantly, it will help you stay in the mindset of being financially intentional – accomplishing 100% of your goal without spending more money than you have to. This mentality will save you a ton more money if applied to all areas of your financial life.

Game of Thrones is over.

The ending, along with the entire final season, was ever so slightly controversial. I don’t believe in ruining good entertainment for busy people so I’m not going to post my thoughts on it yet. And besides, my opinions are still swimming around upstairs as they form, almost solidify, break down, form again, etc. But rest assured, that post will be coming in the next couple of weeks.

Have a fantastic Friday and a wonderful weekend!

How I’m Learning to Be Excited When Things Don’t Go My Way

Now there’s some excitement for you. I’m not the biggest NBA fan myself, but I do enjoy watching that bearded gentleman make fools of even the best defenders from time to time. – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Anyone who knows me, or who has been reading this blog for a while, knows that I was divorced in 2016 and that while I was about as devastated as humanly possible at the time, I have since come to view it as one of the best things that has ever happened to me. No, that’s not a vindictive swipe at my ex-wife, who I still believe was (and likely still is) a very admirable and impressive woman in most ways. We are all flawed; she has things to work on just as I do. Anyway, without the inherent compromise of that relationship influencing things, my circumstances have since changed dramatically, in ways they likely never would have otherwise, and I have grown immensely in the process. Terribly heart wrenching sequence of events? Absolutely. Wonderful, life changing blessing? Also absolutely. Very few incredibly valuable lessons come cheap.

Recently I’ve had another apparent setback in the form of learning my days in my current job are numbered. Given that I mostly love it and regard it as by far the best job I’ve had to date, that could have been a devastating blow. But it didn’t hit me that way – not even when I first found out. And given what I’ve learned in recent years, I believe I’ve reacted correctly. Almost every time I’ve been knocked off course in life, I’ve soon found myself on a more productive one, and have usually enjoyed significant personal growth for having been through the experience as a bonus. I fully expect that this time will yield the same result and I firmly believe I’ll be writing a triumphant, ecstatic post about that in the coming weeks.

This got me thinking back to earlier parts of my life. For example, early in my grade school years, as most young lads do, I began to realize I was fascinated with certain aspects of women. Our school was small but there were a few young ladies I took a private interest in. At the time, I would have been thrilled if one of them had displayed a reciprocal interest in me – even if I didn’t understand exactly why I felt that way quite yet. But I was a shy, skinny kid with an acne problem and it didn’t happen. At the time, I thought that sucked. But thanks to the mixed blessing of Facebook, I’ve observed how time has treated most of them in the decades since. And you know what? Every single one of the women I’ve dated or had any sort of fun with has been substantially more attractive than the adult versions of any of the girls I lusted after as a boy. If my wish had been granted and one of them had shown an interest, who knows what would have happened? We may have turned into one of those “first and only love” couples and I may have missed out on the company of numerous much more attractive women – including ones I haven’t even met yet. My past disappointment has turned to present gratitude, and even relief. And as a side note, being a late bloomer rocks!

Fast forwarding to my graduation into the worst economy since the Great Depression, neither my then fiancé or I (yes, we did that way too young!) was able to get a good job. In fact, both of the jobs we did eventually manage to get were unfulfilling and paid around $20k a year less than the type of job a recent college graduate could expect to get in even a mediocre job market. However, we worked hard to differentiate ourselves, moved up steadily, and within only a handful of years, we both wound up making about double what great jobs would have paid had we been able to get them upon graduating – and with dramatic additional growth potential from there. Looking back, what if I had gotten that “good” job right off the bat? I see two likely outcomes. Instead of having a fire lit inside me, I probably would have gotten comfortable and even with better than average annual raises, today I would likely be making roughly half what I do now at best. And I definitely wouldn’t have benefited from the same “tough love” lessons that taught me how to not just stretch every dollar and save/invest the proceeds, but to do it almost effortlessly. I could literally have lost well over $100k of net worth in around half a decade if I had received the “good fortune” I wanted at the time.

You hear this plenty but I’m here to tell you that I’ve seen it time and time again in my own life; if something doesn’t work out, something better is probably going to happen instead. In this post, I’ve shared just a few of my own examples. I’m sure if you look back at your past, you will find some disappointments turned triumphs of your own. I’m personally not at the point where bad news equals me being excited – yet. But if I can turn my recent career setback into a substantial upgrade, as it looks like I very well may, then the evidence supporting that mentality will be just about stacked to the ceiling. We will all be knocked down in life. Part of being the man I want to be involves viewing it as an opportunity, getting back up, and making something amazing happen. Mentally, I’m working on making that process automatic. I encourage all of you to do the same. Remember, successful people have bad days too. But they know how to turn present pain into future success. And that is what sets them apart from the herd.

My Discussion of Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019)


If that doesn’t beat the hell out of my zoomed cell phone pictures of gators I’ve seen! – Brazos Bend State Park – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Spoiler warning: If you haven’t seen this documentary yet and want to, you may not want to read this until after you have.

This is going to be a different post from any I’ve written before. I’m not exactly sure what it is. It’s not quite a review, although the documentary named above inspired it and is addressed. It’s also not quite a psychological evaluation as I’ve had no formal training in psychology beyond a handful of college classes, a lot of private reading, and some personal experiences that seem instructive in this case. But whatever it is, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

As a guy who is fascinated by the true crime genre, finance, dark triad personality disorders, and the uncanny tendency of all three to intersect with one another, the Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos story is a boatload of intrigue that I’ve been keeping a morbidly fascinated eye on for quite a while now. When I found out the best producer of movies that currently exists (even though the company technically produces tv shows) had done a documentary on the topic, I had to check it out. And it did not disappoint. I think this story is very important because it highlights a major problem I see in the collective psyche of much of our society today in a way that perhaps nothing else has yet. Specifically, people seem to care far more about recognition than about whether or not it is actually deserved. I’m not so naïve as to think this is a new phenomenon. But I do think the advent of social media has amounted to not just pouring gas on the fire of this human weakness, but throwing a stick of dynamite or two in for good measure.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Theranos was a company created by Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes for the purpose of making her famous in exactly the way Steve Jobs was, except with the added bonus of the halo that comes with being in the medical field. Note the way I worded that. It appears the end is the only thing that mattered to Holmes. The means were always negotiable. She was convinced she had solved the fairly minor problem of the pain people feel when blood is taken from them for testing purposes. Supposedly, her idea, which eventually took the form of Theranos’ Edison machine, could accomplish many medical tests using a tiny amount of blood relative to existing methods. Many people, including both one of her professors at Stanford and a renowned scientist she and her management team employed and subsequently helped drive to suicide via overdose of psychological abuse, told her in no uncertain terms that her concept was impossible; and at least as of today, they were correct. This minor detail failed to stop her, however, and she went on to use it to both bilk investors out of hundreds of millions and subject innocent people to medical tests she was well aware would not produce reliable results.

For me, there are two primary questions in this story. One, while Holmes certainly appears to score extremely high in traits of all three dark triad disorders, is she so out of touch with reality that she genuinely believes she and her company did nothing wrong? Second, how on earth did she dupe so many highly sophisticated people into investing huge amounts of money into, and staking their reputations on, an idea so unsound based on current science, without showing any sort of evidence that it could even possibly work? We’re not just talking about multiple past presidents, a respected general, and other extremely successful people here; we’re talking about the leadership of two massive corporations and the majority ownership of a third. This wasn’t some Nigerian royalty email scam targeting people who barely know who they are anymore, much less how the internet works.

As for me, I believe Holmes is absolutely culpable of her actions and was wholly aware of the reality of what she and her company were doing. I was so close to being prepared to admit she probably didn’t know her actions had been morally wrong because she was most likely incapable of discerning right from wrong at all. But one key pattern of behavior convinced me otherwise. For me, the smoking gun was the way she responded when the shit began to hit the fan. After the Wall Street Journal article came out and the whole world was talking about the fraud that was Theranos, she went into damage control mode. In particular, she denied having been aware that the Edison machine had been used in any commercial blood tests.

There is almost infinite evidence that she had been aware of that, but that’s not what seals the deal for me. Instead, I’m focused on the psychological subtext. If someone absolutely believes she is innocent, then she is almost certain to double down on her position in the face of any accusations to the contrary – no matter how many or how damning. But Holmes did the opposite; in attempting to disavow personal knowledge of certain activities her company was being accused of, she implicitly admitted the validity of the accusations that those activities had been morally wrong. Thus, at least on some level, she did have a moral compass and at a minimum, it did tell her she was in an indefensible position. Instead of fighting back as she had for virtually her entire life, usually by denying reality and convincing people that hers was better, her self-preservation instinct kicked in and her greatest delusion – that fame was absolutely the only thing on earth that mattered and that it was a bargain at any price – seemed to vanish. Could the sudden change have been the result of fervent advice on the part of an attorney? More than likely. But had she been totally, 100% insane, no advice could have pierced her perception of her moral invincibility.  

I believe I’ve seen the question about how she sold her idea answered more than once in my personal experiences and numerous times in books and other educational contexts. Over the course of my life so far, I believe I’ve encountered two very strong dark triad personalities. By the by, those who know me will be aware that no, my ex-wife is not one of them. Anyway, my experience with each of these two individuals could be summarized the same way. While I found their actions deplorable and had almost no doubt about that, I couldn’t help but feel so deeply drawn to these people that I ignored the blaring alarms going off in my head and made decisions that seem impossibly stupid in hindsight. Other people’s experiences with these two individuals appeared almost universally similar to mine. This is an important point to note. If you think you’ve met a Nelson Mandela or a Mother Theresa, take a good, long, objective look at how you arrived at that conclusion. The odds are at least equally good that you’ve met something closer to the opposite and are currently in significant danger. Remember, if Hitler hadn’t been able to charm a ton of people, we wouldn’t use his name as a superlatively pejorative term because almost no one would have ever heard it in the first place.

Going back to Elizabeth Holmes, much has been made of the fact that most of her “suckers” were old, white men. The implication, of course, is that a pretty blonde girl did what pretty blond girls are well known to do and used the men’s small heads to render their large ones useless. But there’s a problem. If any of these men were unusually susceptible to that brand of chicanery, they would either have failed to attain such levels of wealth and power or at least had both consistently chipped away at while developing certain reputations as a result. Aside from Bill Clinton, I’m not aware of any of these men possessing such reputations. And all of them are, in fact, rich and powerful, or Holmes would never have been talking to them in the first place, much less soliciting their investments or help in other forms.

Plus, as a man who often feels terrifyingly vulnerable to such female manipulation, I don’t see that capability in Holmes. She is just so thoroughly asexual. Aside from photo shoots, and even often then, she almost never appeared well put together and even if she did have a good body, no one would have ever known since she wore her Steve Jobs costume every single day. Then you have to factor in the fake man voice. Plus, she has a case of crazy eyes so severe I think the term would have been invented for her had it not already existed and I believe I would find that to be very de-arousing even if every other part of her were an LA 10 and she even had the kind of personality an LA 10 almost couldn’t by definition. Throw in an extremely self-righteous brand of absolutist thought pattern and that’s a hard no from me on the loneliest, most desperate night – and for plenty of reasons besides that I’m old enough to know to “never stick my dick in crazy” (again…). And bear in mind that while I’m doing pretty all right for myself in life, I don’t have anywhere near the number or quality of options that a Bill Clinton does.

What I do see in her is someone who hypnotized people into thinking she was something truly special. And again, this is coming from someone who has been taken by this type of messianic figure – twice – and has performed every bit of the obsessive post analysis one might expect out of someone who isn’t accustomed to being anyone’s fool. In only one of the two cases was I after sex and even then, sex was only a minor part of the equation. What I felt made even that most powerful of desires seem almost secondary. It was an irrepressible, unexplainable impulse to be involved with this person in any way I could – and against literally all logic. Based on every description of Holmes I’ve read, whatever “that” is, she has it. And it is a very common feature of a dark triad personality.

So going back to the documentary where this all started, do I think it’s worth watching? Unequivocally yes. It does a fantastic job of framing the story in context, bringing viewpoints both diverse and valuable (Dan Ariely’s brilliance is heavily featured, for example) into the discussion, and avoiding taking the easy road of outright indictment. It could have simply turned into a laundry list of charges and a mountain of damning evidence. But while even the most unbiased retelling of this story is going to have plenty of both in it, this documentary did the heavy lifting and as a result, it had more than just that. To the extent that people have positive things to say about Elizabeth Holmes and had the balls to do so on camera, they were allowed to. And some of the most viscerally shocking evidence was left out altogether. For example, the fake voice was entirely ignored and neither the constant canine sidekick, which was treated better than almost any human (another very loud dark triad alarm), nor daddy’s less than illustrious, and not entirely irrelevant resume, was even mentioned. I don’t believe those omissions, or any others, were due to a lack of thoroughness. Instead, I believe the people who made the documentary prioritized piquing the interest of the viewers so they would do their own research and come to their own conclusions above hitting every bullet point. I believe that was the most valuable approach and my personal conclusion is that as usual, HBO has done it again.

The Importance of Outlook – How I Still Struggle with the Scarcity Mentality of My Past

Navajo Bridge, Grand Canyon – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Howdy folks! I just got back from a couple days on the road and I’m exhausted. But I wanted to write a quick post about something I wish I had handled better today. I ran into a setback. I didn’t do anything wrong to cause it and no one else did either. It was simply bad luck and it will wind up costing me around $300 when the dust settles. The nature of the setback isn’t important and that’s not what this post is about. Instead, I want to discuss my reaction to the setback and why outlook is so important.

I didn’t have an easy childhood. While we didn’t live in poverty or anywhere close, we were squarely in the lower middle class category, with emphasis on the lower part. Money was a dirty word as far as I was concerned – a word that usually meant I couldn’t have something I wanted. At the time, it felt like a terrible burden. Today, I look back and see how lucky I was. I learned that if you want something, you have to work for it. And I learned that if you have something, you had better not waste it. I’m sure those harsh, but invaluable lessons have played a huge role in allowing me to get to where I am today. A lot of kids who seemed luckier than me at the time missed out on these lessons until later in life and if the statistics have anything to say about it, it cost many of them dearly.

But my successful mindset isn’t without its costs. And today’s situation was a great example. When I realized I was going to lose $300 and there was no way around it, I was furious. As I mentioned, there really wasn’t anyone at fault for what happened, so I automatically directed my rage at the same person who usually gets it – myself. For about an hour, I was in a terrible state. And unsurprisingly, Houston’s trademark rush hour traffic didn’t help. Luckily, business hours were over, or my rotten mood could have destroyed a deal and cost me significantly more money. But a bad attitude can cost so much more than that. If you allow that kind of darkness a regular place in your life, it can cost you relationships or even your health. It certainly contributed to the failure of my marriage and there is plenty of time left for it to do the latter in my case as well. And yet, even after having paid so much, I still don’t have this under control.

But there is still hope for me. After brooding for a while and cursing the traffic a little more than usual, I was able to use perspective to get beyond it. $300 would be a real problem for many people. It might mean having to choose between paying one bill or another in many cases. This could start a downward spiral that could be difficult to pull out of. But for me, this is an afterthought. Hell, I’m so fortunate in life that $3000 would be a minor setback and nothing more. I save/invest more than that every single month.

But in my head, I’m on a treadmill 24/7/365. In front of me is the financial independence I want. Behind me is the scarcity of my childhood. In reality, it would take a serious sequence of mishaps for me to go off the back of the treadmill. It’s certainly not an impossibility but at this point, it’s unlikely at best. Claiming financial independence, on the other hand, will happen in the next three to five years, or ten at the absolute most, barring any catastrophic setbacks. And I’m much closer to thirty than to forty and only started making significant financial progress in my late twenties. So I should really just throw the treadmill in the garbage and focus on enjoying the moments of my life while making sure I stay on track with the big picture stuff behind the scenes.

For tonight, at least, the demon has been slain. I am calm and back to being thankful for how well my life is going. But even for someone as fortunate as I am, this can be very difficult. And it will undoubtedly be difficult again. However, it is important to look at this in a balanced way. There was a time when I could have gone into a tailspin of depression, anxiety, and anger over something like what happened today. But this time it only cost me an hour of misery. I will never fully escape my past or my tendency to occasionally let emotion cast a dark cloud over my actually sunny reality. But I can work at it and improve. In time, maybe I’ll get to the point of avoiding the negativity altogether.


Stop Ignoring the Opportunities in Your Life!

Frequent flooding doesn’t stop some of the brave souls in Houston!

I’d like to start today’s post with an old joke to illustrate a simple, but incredibly important concept.

A man is trapped in his house during a hurricane so he prays to God for help. God answers and promises to spare his life. Not long after, a man drifts by in a boat and offers to rescue him. “No thanks,” he replies, “God is going to take care of me.” So the boat leaves. The water gets higher and the man is forced up to the second floor of his house. Another boat comes by with another offer of help but the man turns it down as well. Finally, the water level gets high enough that the man has no choice but to climb onto his roof. A helicopter hovers over and a voice calls down, once again offering help. But once again, the man turns it down. Soon after, he drowns. Later that day in heaven, the man asks God why he hadn’t come through on his promise to help him. God sighs with frustration and says, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

I was reminded of this joke after dealing with a particularly difficult customer whose business probably won’t survive the year. I’ve seen plenty of other customers go through situations like his and come out better and stronger for the experience. But unless he changes his attitude, he won’t. Where the customers who ultimately succeed see opportunities, even as they struggle through setbacks, he only sees the odds stacked against him. Where members of the first group take responsibility for their situations, learn their lessons, and improve their tactics, he blames anyone except himself for everything that happens. I’ve tried to bring this to his attention in the most delicate manner possible, but I bet you can guess what the response has been.

Admittedly I’m not great at softening my tough love, but in his situation, I’m one of the men in the boats or in the helicopter in the joke. I’m offering him help but it isn’t the help he wants and he assumes other, more preferable help is going to come. Of course, it won’t, and even if it does, it probably won’t be quite the help he wants either. People like this very rarely succeed in the long run. And I’ve learned that once the initial offer of help has been offered and turned down, it isn’t worth losing any sleep over the situation. You can’t help someone who refuses to help himself and you can’t force someone to see an opportunity. If you could, far more people would be successful.

What I’m trying to say is that opportunity doesn’t usually visit us when we prefer, nor does it usually appear in the form we want or expect. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Opportunities are all around us. One of the major differences between those who succeed and those who fail is that some of us see opportunities, grab them, and make the most of them, while others simply complain that they don’t have any opportunities. Obviously most people want to be successful. I would have thought it was everyone at one time in my life but I’ve seen plenty of evidence to the contrary.

So my goal isn’t to help the people with zero ambition or zero personal responsibility. Unless they find at least some of both, I can’t do a thing for them. Instead, I want to help the people who want to be more than they are but simply haven’t figured out how yet. I also want to help people like me who are already successful but want to keep that going and/or increase it. Today, I’m trying to do that by reminding everyone not to be like the man in the joke. If you think you don’t have any options, you’re wrong. Understand that there are people who find options in absolutely any situation and with that in mind, look again. And don’t just look. Opportunities aren’t for ogling. They need to be taken and combined with effort. Only then will they turn into successful results. If you can change the way you think, you will eventually change the results you are getting out of life. I encourage you to be on the lookout for opportunities because they definitely will cross your path whether you spot them or not. It all comes down to who you want to be and only you can answer that.

Hello Darkness, My Old “Friend”

The view from the tower at Holy Hill in Richfield, WI – Wisconsin being a land of almost constant darkness in my decades of frustrated experience

Let it never be said that I’m using this blog the way most people use social media –  presenting a highlight reel as if it accurately represented the entirety of my life and there wasn’t even a hint of a struggle anywhere. On the contrary, my struggles are the only reason I have been able to attain the highlight reel moments and the only reason I have been able to enjoy them. Yes, I’m successful in many areas of life and I want to help others attain success of their own. But I believe I would be doing a disservice if I led anyone to believe that success would come without a price or that it would mean an easy life from that day forward. There is no utopia or lasting easiness in life and if you spend your time wishing for it, you will ruin your opportunities to enjoy the happiness that is actually possible.

In a recent post, I mentioned that I’ve dealt with depression for most of my life and that while the situation has improved dramatically, I’ve accepted that the disease will always be a part of me. And as it so happens, I’m contending with it today. It started early yesterday evening during a real estate investing webinar (that is my side business; as it progresses I may write about it here). It had been a very solid day. I wound up crossing literally every item off of my to do list, something that rarely happens because I aim very high. Just about every aspect of the day had gone well. Sure, there are some storms lurking on the horizon for me and yes, a couple of them are almost certain to get very ugly. But this is nothing out of the ordinary in my profession; with great privilege comes great responsibility.

I ended last night the way I always try to. I got to bed reasonably close to on schedule, I hit every point on my checklist, and my last thoughts before I fell asleep were about events of the day I was thankful for. It isn’t uncommon for me to get depressed at night but usually my regular routine, which is designed largely for this purpose, is enough to ensure that I wake up feeling back to normal. But this morning, the depression was still very noticeably present, pressing down on every inch of me like a giant, invisible lead vest. This is far from my first rodeo so I know what usually works. I ignored the feelings and worked through my routine, confident that by the time I finished my morning workout, momentum would have built and pulled me through. But again I was wrong. I had a good, solid workout. No personal records were set but it was a little over an hour very well spent. And yet, I still didn’t feel any better.

At that point, I decided I needed to take the situation more seriously. One of my favorite depression fighting techniques is called a thought record. Basically, it involves systematically pinpointing the thoughts that are causing the depression and weighing the evidence for and against them. Usually, I am able to conclude that the thoughts are not an accurate reflection of reality and disregard them, and usually the negative feelings dissipate pretty quickly. In this case, I put a lot of effort in, but it ultimately became clear that I was already thinking in a balanced way. There are plenty of legitimate concerns in my world right now and I am neither exaggerating, nor minimizing/overlooking them. For anyone who thinks life is easy once you’re doing very well financially, I can tell you that it isn’t. Yes, things get easier financially, although there is a strong diminishing return effect due to the progressive nature of our tax code. But the reality is that you’re being compensated for taking on additional stress. There is a great saying about this; if it was easy, everyone would do it. Only you can determine what makes the most sense for you, but many people choose to have less money and less stress and I’m pretty sure I will turn back in that direction in my own life eventually.

But as I said, I work in a high stress job and this is not new. On any given day, I’m likely to be at odds with customers, dealers, various service providing entities, and maybe most of all, people in my office. Conflict and high pressure comprise the medium in which most of our business gets done. Many people can’t handle it and in fact, my job was only open in this territory because the last man to hold it had a very public nervous breakdown. And that is not uncommon in this line of work; tons of people wash out. But the point is, I’ve learned to handle ongoing conflicts of varying intensity and I can’t remember too many times over the last few years when I’ve had none to speak of. It could be a situation where a long enough duration of fighting has worn me down to the point where I can’t handle any more, but I don’t think so. I don’t feel like I’m in that place or anywhere near it. I’ve been feeling consistently great lately, in fact. So while I can’t rule it out as a cause, I doubt my current bout of depression is coming from this particular source, even if it does appear to be the simplest and most logical explanation.

And that’s where I’m at now. I’m about to head downstairs for my evening cardio and certainly there is a possibility I will feel better after that. But it’s also very possible that I won’t and that it could take me a few more days, or even weeks, to get through this fog. I know a number of things that help me – exercise, fresh air, sunlight, doing the right things and building momentum to truck right through it, analyzing my thought patterns and challenging their logic as objectively as possible, and talking to people I love. I tried most of these methods during the course of today and I will continue to pursue them because the continuation of this particular episode of depression is not a foregone conclusion, like a minimum number of years to be served on a prison sentence. I can break out of this at any moment and at some point in the near future, I will. But sometimes the answers don’t come immediately and rather than present this as a problem that is easy to solve with a systematic approach, I wanted to use my present circumstances as an example of how it can be more complex than that. Just like anything else worth doing, breaking out of depression doesn’t always come easily, even if you have a lot of experience doing it. Be well, my friends.

The Opportunities in Life’s Challenges – Part 2

Hard to believe a tranquil scene like this one exists in the always belligerent environment of downtown Houston, but it does

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may be aware that I sprained my ankle and wound up on crutches a while back. I’m happy to report that last week, I was able to start walking without the crutches and for the last few days, I’ve been walking with no limp at all and have resumed my regular workout schedule – albeit carefully! I am very happy and excited to get back to full throttle in the gym and all other areas of my life very soon.

Over the years, I’ve been through a lot of these situations but I haven’t always handled them very well. This time, my attitude was much better than ever before and it really helped. For one thing, it made the whole experience feel like much less of an inconvenience. But also, while I certainly can’t prove this, may even have helped to speed up my healing process. This was a serious ankle sprain; we’re talking about a joint being in the wrong position when it hit the floor, going much further in that direction, and causing immediate and fairly severe pain. I was on crutches over a month as a result of a previous sprain of similar severity. The mind can be incredibly powerful and this has been documented plenty of times in medical contexts. In this case, I believe that by having mine in a good, healthy state, I put it to work on healing my ankle faster.

Whether or not that is true, the whole episode has been a great reminder for me. Each and every one of us has so much to be thankful for in life. It can be very easy to focus on negative things that appear more significant in the moment and ignore the positives. Believe me, I have spent far too much of my life looking at things that way. But when you lose something fundamental – like the ability to walk – you suddenly realize the fallacy in this. Or at least I do. There are plenty of people who would give almost anything just to be able to walk ever again. Temporarily experiencing a taste of their reality for myself gave me a valuable dose of perspective. Every morning, when I got out of bed and realized I would need the crutches to progress any further, I got a fresh reminder. Thankfully, this condition didn’t last long enough for it to stop surprising me when I woke up!

Of course this experience will fade to some deep, dark corner of my memory bank before too long. But this time around, my goal is to slow down that process. Remember my challenge from a few posts ago? It would make it much easier to get started and to excel at it if the threshold were as low as being thankful to be able to walk, run, jump, work out, etc. And why not set it that low? Gratitude can enrich anyone’s life to an almost infinite degree and if you can get the ball rolling, even just a little bit, you’re moving in the right direction. It doesn’t matter how you do it.

This is where I have to call myself out. As disappointing as it is, I’ve allowed myself to get bogged down with some frustrations in my work over the last week or so. I’m doing all I can to improve the realities of these few situations and while I wait for my efforts to hopefully produce results, writing this post is helping me to refocus on what’s most important. Writing this blog often does, which is a big part of why I enjoy doing it. And to keep that going, I’m going to lay out a new challenge for myself and for anyone who would like to join me.

The next time I get frustrated with a situation, I’m going to look at it as an opportunity to improve myself – because that is exactly what any problem is. My goal is to avoid reacting rashly and instead, to think about the situation logically – starting with taking responsibility, which is so crucial. What actions of mine led me here? What could I have done differently? What can I do now that is likely to make things better? Once I have a game plan for both current and future improvement, I can focus on executing it. This process will be much more effective than letting emotions take over and complaining about it. Of course, like so many worthwhile things in life, this is a simple concept that will be difficult to implement. I’m going to try my best to be up to the challenge – whenever I do get my next opportunity. Hopefully you will as well if you choose to do this with me!

My FIRE Problem and Why It Doesn’t Matter – At Least Not Right Now

Something is definitely on fire in the distance; picture taken at the battle site of Sabine Pass

More and more folks have likely heard of the FIRE movement. Lately it seems to be a popular target for potshots from mainstream media personal finance hacks who want the average person to keep reading their recycled bullshit advice and fueling their viewer/reader numbers without ever being able to graduate to something better. And FIRE advocates have “fired” right back. Sorry, it had to be done. FIRE stands for Financial Independence Retire Early. You might be surprised to learn that I am not 100% on board. I had been at one time. But my perspective has evolved a little over the last few years.

I love the FI in FIRE. In the richest society in the history of the world, we can all aspire to be financially independent if it is a high enough priority. Sadly, it will never happen for most people because shiny objects, slick sales pitches, lifestyles they feel obligated to live or provide, neighbors that have to be kept up with, etc, always seem to be more important. But for anyone who ever wishes he could say no at work with zero fear of potential consequences, financial independence would make it possible. For anyone who wants to go on vacation without planning it months in advance or having money be a limiting factor, same thing. I could keep going but I think you get the idea. There is nothing you can buy on this planet that is quite as satisfying as knowing you will never again have to make a decision based on such a crass factor as money. Or put another way, if you can think about money for long enough, you can reach the point where you never need to again. The FIRE movement is mostly about reaching that day as soon as possible so you can enjoy the rest of them more.

I think most people can agree that financial independence is a worthwhile goal. But many seem to object to the RE part. There is even a lot of disagreement about the exact definition of the term. Some FIRE detractors say it’s cheating if you work in any way, shape, or form after retiring early. Others say it’s not worth “living like you’re poor” your whole life just so you can retire at a young age. My take is that the term can be useful to anyone regardless of exactly how you choose to define it. If it makes sense, you can think of it as “retiring” from money being the most important factor in what you do – or a factor at all, for that matter. I would also say that your living standard is your choice and no one else’s. If you are happy and you aren’t hurting anyone, tell them to go pound sand. The FIRE community welcomes people all along the spectrum, from one extremely disciplined, analytical blogger who lives on about $7k a year all the way to another rather neurotic one (I mean that with love, Sam – and yes, it takes one to know one!) who seems to fear that even the $200k+ his investments earn annually, combined with his incredible intellect, might somehow not be quite enough.

Bottom line, FIRE can be whatever you want it to be. Unlike with religion, where it could be considered a little hypocritical to be on the ala carte plan, this is a very open and welcoming school of thought. Take what you like and use it to make your life better; ignore what you don’t. I enjoy hanging out with a local FIRE group and some of them take frugal to a level I would never want to approach. Others seem to live higher on the hog than a man of my humble origins is likely to ever want to – although I reserve the right to change my mind on that point. It doesn’t matter. Everyone brings something to the table and everyone benefits from both building relationships with similar minded people and from being exposed to a wide range of ideas and insights.

What is my personal FIRE struggle? At some point in your life, a guidance counselor probably asked you what you would do if money didn’t matter at all. That’s it for me, right there. Unless I veer pretty far from my current path, I’ll reach financial independence in the next five to ten years but I have absolutely no fucking clue what to do with my life when I get there. My job has its tough moments but it is also incredibly rewarding on many levels. Should I keep doing it and simply start finding ways to spend more money? I suppose a mansion or two, a garage full of high end vehicles, or any number of possible luxuries might grow on me. Or if I didn’t want to spend the unstoppable excess on myself, I could give it to causes I care about. Altruistic or not, that could be a great way to maximize the financial value of my life and put that value into whatever I want to impact most. After all, the argument could be made that if you can make a lot of money and benefit humanity in some way in the process, you should. Or maybe I should tell the boss I’m retiring when I’m roughly twenty years his junior and still younger than the vast majority of people who do my job in any territory, or at any company for that matter. I don’t hate the man by a long shot but something inside me wants to correct him and say “no, I’m not resigning; I’m retiring” and demand a gold watch, or at least a cake. And of course, there are a few choice people within the company who I would absolutely love to see turn some shade of green at my party.

But what would I do then? Sure, this is a good problem to have and I am immensely grateful for it. But that doesn’t make it any easier. Sometimes it feels like a personal failing that I have a difficult time deciding on a way to spend roughly half of my life without money being a factor. Sure, I could go lay on a beach and drink beer somewhere or I could travel the world and see all kinds of amazing things. But I have a feeling I would get bored pretty quickly. And I’m not alone. Studies regularly show that this can be a problem for lots of people – even at more traditional retirement ages. One’s sense of purpose tends to get a little wrapped up in something if you spend half your waking hours doing it year after year. And I think that’s to be expected. If I had to guess, I’d say that there are probably a lot more mes out there than there are Elon Musks. And a sense of purpose is an enormous part of what makes life worth living, no matter who you are.

So I wrestle with that problem all the time and until I get it figured out, I’d be lying if I said I don’t use it as an excuse to justify the occasional large expense. After all, there’s no sense rushing to get to a destination if you don’t know if you will like what you find when you get there. This was a lot easier when I was in love with someone and genuinely wanted to spend the rest of my life with her, no matter what we were doing. Even if I meet someone who means just as much to me somewhere down the line, I don’t think I can ever put that much stock in another human being again – and that’s a good thing. But it’s only one more thing I’ve realized does not answer what will probably ultimately be the most important question of my existence.

But all that said, my general financial philosophy is currently that as long as I stay on the path to be financially independent by 40 at the latest, I doubt it will lead anywhere bad. I consider staying open minded, especially about trying new things, to be a crucial investment in my future. My advice to anyone else is really about the same. I’ll end this post with an excellent quote from Martin Luther King, Jr: “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”