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.”

The Opportunities in Life’s Challenges

My new, temporary traveling companions

And just like that, I’ve come crashing right back down to earth – quite literally in fact. I tried not to be too over the top as I celebrated my good fortune in my last post but the universe noticed anyway. Literally the next morning I suffered a severe ankle sprain in a basketball game and I’ll likely be on crutches for at least a month or two. That’s the way life goes sometimes. I’ve found that particularly if you haven’t faced any difficult situations recently, you can expect that to change before too long. And no amount of money will exempt you.

I get frustrated with these situations like anyone else. Crutches certainly aren’t very convenient for a guy who spends a lot of his time driving around; and neither is a painful right ankle the size of a softball for that matter! But life isn’t any more willing to take a break for me than it is for anyone else. So I’m driving very gingerly and maintaining a much longer following distance than usual. And yes, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a few choice words for the couple of folks who forced me to slam on my brakes today in spite of my efforts to avoid having to. To be fair, they weren’t singling me out; they’re just as reckless and negligent around the vast majority of people on the road whose ankles are healthy. But this post isn’t about the horrible drivers in this town so I digress.

When I’m forced to deal with a situation like this, I try to focus on being thankful for things I normally take for granted. For example, it’s awfully nice to be able to walk to my car without crutches and carry items in my hands instead of in the backpack I’m using now. It’s a privilege to be able to seek out extra exercise through the course of a day rather than having to avoid it. I know these things every day but today, they’re right in my face to the point where I have no way to ignore them. Normally it’s fun to be able to play a round of golf or even a game of pool but today any attempt at either would be painful and futile. All day, I’ve been mentally adding things I would never give a second thought to otherwise to this list and although I’m annoyed that I can’t do them right now, I’m doing my best to look on the bright side.

After all, there are people who will never walk again – not even with crutches. Hell, there are people who have never walked at all and never will. This experience gives me a window into the perspective of someone living that kind of life. I will be fully functional again before too long but hopefully I will have this in the back of my mind the next time I see someone who isn’t and have more empathy than I did before. This isn’t my first time living the temporary crutch life. But I’m older and wiser than I was last time so I believe I will learn my lessons more effectively than ever before. If I’m able to look at this experience with the right attitude at least part of the time, it can be an excellent opportunity to improve myself.

And that is the case with every challenge you face in life. Every single one. My divorce was far and away the most difficult one I’ve faced so far. But I’ve easily grown more as a person in the years since it happened than I had in the entirety of my life leading up to that point. I understand myself, others, and life itself much better than I ever could have before I went through that. I still remember a guy from high school who had been paralyzed from the waist down, was confined to a wheelchair, and even with his hands had only limited motor function. But I don’t remember him for any of that; I remember him because he was simply phenomenal. He couldn’t change his past or even a lot of his present but he was absolutely determined to make the most of what he did have control over and it came out in a seemingly unstoppable positive energy that immediately lit up any room he entered. At that age I barely understood what I was looking at in him but he had taken an incredibly unfair event in his life and used it to turn himself into someone truly awe inspiring. Most of us will never have that caliber of bad luck but all of us will have some and we would do very well to handle our situations with the attitude he handled his.

We all know a perpetual victim. Something is always happening TO him or every time you talk to her, she has something to complain about. Those people are never going to grow unless something wakes them up. I know because for many years, I was one of them. Your life literally IS all of the things that happen to and around you, whether good, bad, or anywhere in between. Eat and drink the joy of the good moments with all your heart but when the bad ones come, those are the opportunities. If you take advantage of them, you will turn even the bad moments into more good ones and yourself into a better, stronger, more capable person. If you add it all up, it equals a better and more significant life. It isn’t easy. But what worthwhile thing is?

A Day of Triumph and Reflection

It was immediately rewarded with a tasty fortune cookie so this fortune was, in fact, correct

Today was a very big day for me. This morning I was informed that I recently achieved one of the sought after milestones of people in my line of work: a five figure payday from a single deal! So I’ve been enjoying the hell out of my moment all day and now I want to reflect a little bit, both to mark this for myself and to hopefully inspire someone else to keep fighting the good fight even when it doesn’t feel like it’s accomplishing anything.

First and foremost, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Only a few years ago, I was working a salaried office job where I didn’t get any bonuses at all. If that version of me could see me today, I don’t know if he would believe it. It was just impossible to see even the possibility of a day like this from where I was at that time. A very small portion of the population knows what it’s like to be able to make this much money this quickly – probably a single digit percentage. It is an incredible privilege to be among them and even more so given that this isn’t even a terribly unusual occurrence in my profession.  

Of course I have worked very hard to get here. This particular deal took weeks of back and forth and culminated in a whirlwind trip that included a flight to Memphis, driving halfway across the state to Jackson and back, and another flight to Chicago, all in about a twenty four hour period. And of course I have also had some good breaks. Those do typically come to capable people who work hard. But I also got plenty of help from some incredible people. One woman was willing to go to bat for me with a good friend of hers (now a good friend of mine) who happened to be a superstar with my current employer before I even knew the company existed. My manager treats me very well, works his ass off every day, and does an amazing job making everything I do possible behind the scenes. Most of my fellow sales reps have been welcoming and helpful but a few have treated me like family and provided endless mentoring, advice, insight, and support all along the difficult journey from brand new, first time sales rep to whatever it is that I am today. Obviously my life isn’t perfect and neither is my employer. But I have gotten better and better at focusing on the positive side of things and the results have been wonderful. I couldn’t be more thankful for the many people who have contributed to my ongoing success and I will be lucky to pay it all forward if I live to be 100.

Gratitude is obvious on a day like this. And of course part of me is incredibly excited. But I also surprised myself. Part of me just kind of shrugged this whole thing off. How does that make sense when I’ve been pursuing this day for almost three years? I think this is where the “it’s the journey, not the destination” quote comes in. Sure, longing for this “destination” has fueled a lot of my activities for a long time. But somewhere along the line, it became about something else. As I started to succeed with deals that led to big paydays, of course I was happy about the money. But I noticed that I derived more satisfaction from the personal growth that had allowed me to make it. These deals were the kinds of opportunities I had failed to convert on or possibly not even noticed at all just a year or two prior. I don’t think there is any feeling in life quite like the one you get when you realize you can do something now that you couldn’t before.

And today is similar. Yes, I scored a big one. But there is a very good chance I will do it again this year and possibly more than once. I have a handful of deals nearly as big in the works as I type this. I probably won’t close every one. But I will almost definitely close some of them. The incredibly fortunate reality is that I am on a relatively lucrative career path and am at the point where things are starting to go my way more consistently. The excitement I feel over this win comes from viewing it through the window of my past whereas the feelings of pride, contentment, and joy are from where I sit today.This can be an amazing life if you work hard and position yourself in such a way that it is likely to pay off. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t gotten myself a good education or taken advantage of the opportunities in the not so great jobs I had before this one. There were plenty of days when I felt like I wasn’t making any progress and sometimes I didn’t want to go to work at all but I did it anyway and did my best to learn more than my job required and go above and beyond in any way I could. I also wouldn’t be enjoying my current success if I hadn’t worked hard resiliently in this job. For every day like this one, there were probably a few dozen where I struggled mightily and didn’t come away with a win at all much less a big one like this. Even today, while basking in the glow of my good fortune, I was hung up on while making some cold calls. Life never stops being difficult but if you do the right things consistently, your capabilities will never stop increasing either and you will win more and more often. When I started this job, being hung up on would have bothered me. Today I simply shrugged and moved on to the next name on the list. That change didn’t happen by itself and it wasn’t easy. But if I hadn’t done everything it took to make it happen, today would never have happened either.

That’s all for now. Have a wonderful night, sleep well, and go out and be the best possible version of yourself tomorrow! You never know what might happen if you do.

You Can Do Better than a One Sided Relationship

Since this blog is supposed to be written to the children I will never have, I want to write about an important lesson I’ve learned much too slowly in life. It has recently become relevant again with someone who was a close friend years ago but has long since drifted away. This is one of those things that can really hurt until you figure it out and feels like a weight being lifted off of your shoulders when you do. It may seem obvious to some folks but it didn’t come all that easily to me so in a way, I’m writing it as a reminder to myself. If it helps someone else, all the better.

There are so many things in life that are difficult to let go of but that require just that. Relationships can fall under that category as well and do for many of us. We all have that friend who only responds and never initiates. Sometimes even that can be too much to ask. Calls aren’t answered, text messages aren’t returned, plans you try to make never seem to be taken seriously. If called out on the behavior, these people will typically make all kinds of excuses about how busy they are.

For years of my life I let this kind of interaction bother me, especially since there are usually legitimate reasons I’m drawn to this person. Maybe she’s a lot of fun to get a drink with, maybe he gets exactly why I like a certain kind of music, maybe you have great memories together. But for whatever reason, there is less and less interaction or it’s consistently one sided. This situation used to really frustrate me and even occasionally had me questioning what about me was causing it. This usually resulted in me trying even harder to interact in a meaningful way. But thankfully, now I have a very different approach to these people. Fuck ‘em.

Here’s the thing. We’re all busy. I run from 6am to usually around 10pm with fairly few breaks in between. I have one very demanding job that often involves travel and a growing side business to run. I enjoy a long list of activities outside of my income generating pursuits. I have friends and family to keep up with. No matter what I’m doing, I’m choosing to prioritize that activity because I value it more highly than any other alternative at that moment. And that’s the only way anything gets done by anyone – if it is viewed as worthy of being prioritized. So when that “friend” tells you he is busy, he hasn’t finished the sentence. The completed version is: “I’m busy – with activities I prioritize higher than interacting with you.” Sorry, but it’s reality.

There are plenty of people on this earth. If one person isn’t willing to invest even close to as much in you as you are in them, there are over 7 billion others you can give it a shot with. I’ll bet everything I have that you haven’t met them all yet. So why are you trying so hard to make it work with someone who obviously cares less than you do? Rather than trying to shoehorn that person into your life or vice versa, you could be investing that time and energy into a mutually positive relationship with someone who truly values what you bring to the table.

Please don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not saying you should disown someone if a single call isn’t returned. What I am saying is that if there is enough of a pattern that it bothers you, it means you are trying to force something that isn’t there. You can try bringing it up with the person if you want. But you will probably find that any changes that result from the conversation won’t last long if it yields any at all. The reality is that whatever the person is doing without your intervention is what he is choosing to do and that is very unlikely to change if he is made aware that you prefer he do something different.

The good news is that you don’t have to have a falling out or a big confrontation with anyone. You can simply let nature take its course. If someone isn’t responding to you, divert your efforts to someone who is. If the first person cares, you will hear from her and you can resume the relationship. If she doesn’t, then you haven’t lost anything because there was no relationship to lose. Regularly look for new people to add to your circle – but only in cases where it truly makes sense. You will know without having to think about it because the interaction will make you feel good. And remember that people change and relationships change with them. Two people can be great friends at one time and have too little in common to support a relationship at another. And there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it’s the way life works.

While Facebook would have you believe differently, people are not items that can be collected. They are individuals who think and act however they choose to. You can’t simply decide who you want to “let in.” It has to be a mutual decision that comes from both of you or it will be exactly the kind of one sided relationship you want to avoid. If you try to collect people, you will become one of those people whose efforts are spread far too thin. You will have hundreds of Facebook “friends” and no interactions more meaningful than “happy birthday!” with anyone. I would much rather have ten truly good friends than ten thousand happy birthday messages from people I don’t legitimately know. So double down on the good investments and cut your losses on the rest. This is somewhat different from financial investing, mind you, but that’s another post for another day.