Though everyone’s course through life is different, most of our lives go through predictable stages. People are unique animals in many ways, but two of the most remarkable are how utterly dependent we are on others for survival, and how long this period lasts. It is typically a year before a person can walk, but other large mammals can walk shortly after birth. And even though a person is considered an adult in most cultures between the ages of 18 and 21, scientists say full brain maturity does not arrive until 25. Anyone who has raised a teenager would probably agree, based simply on experience. The fully developed human being can acquire a unique capacity for independent thinking, planning and action. These plans can span a lifetime, and beyond, if we make wise choices.
It is this unique capacity for choosing that enables us to envision our own future, and to prepare for it. Because our striving often runs in paths parallel to those of others, we learn from their experiences. How long does it take to get a college degree? How much does a typical professional earn? How do I buy a house? How much does an engagement ring cost? Should I pay for my children’s college? Will we have enough to retire? We choose, whether we know it or not, and each choice imposes consequences and tradeoffs.
Some people are endlessly searching for the bottom line, collecting more degrees, making more money, and buying more things. There is a famous trope, doubtfully attributed to Albert Einstein: Not everything that can be counted, counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. We start our working life wanting to get ahead by spending more time in the office, and we end it by wishing we had spent less.
What is even more discouraging? Our dreams compete. It is true that having more resources gives us more power to make choices, and few choose to live like flowers of the field or birds of the air. Despite what advertisers and some motivational speakers want us to hear, none of us can have it all, and none of us will live forever. So not only are there constraints in life, but there is urgency.
We can either choose deliberately, or let inertia carry us. Most people do a combination of these. Yogi Berra is quoted as saying, “if you don’t know where you are going, you will end up somewhere else.” es: whether and when to marry, have a family, and if so, when and whether to have children, or how many. When to go out on our own to rent or own a home, and how much home we can afford. Whether we will have friends, and how many, and how hard we will work to maintain those relationships. The same goes for a network of trade or professional relationships. How much effort to put into maintaining our health and fitness, both physical and mental. And how secure do we want to be, physically and financially? What risks will we take with our lives or our money? When or whether to stop working and retire. When we can no longer support ourselves, who will take care of us? Taken at once, it is overwhelming.
Finally, who will remember us when we are gone, and what will we leave, if anything, to those who will come after us? In my financial planning practice, I ask the question this way: when you come to my office, you are already successful. What are you doing to move from “success” to “significance?”
Our tangible or financial assets are debts that are owed to us, that can generally be repaid. If I invest in someone by lending or buying a share of a business, he can repay me, and that is expected. If I show someone how to do something he could never have done on his own, or could have done so only with great difficulty, that is a debt that can never be repaid. Those are things that make us significant, and do not require a lot of money. We do not have to be rich enough to start a foundation to do something significant. Simply teaching someone how to read, how to think clearly, or how to overcome their perceived limitations, can be acts of great significance.
In nearly all cultures, a seven-day week is observed. It does not have to be this way. The seven-day week is said to have its origin with the Babylonians. Some have tried to change it, usually after some revolution.
These nearly universal conventions, from the seven-day week to the milestones and tradeoffs of life, are rooted in our nature. One way to make wise choices is to examine our own nature, and by observing what others have done. One aspect of our nature is that our life is a finite thing. This lends a certain urgency to everything, whether a person realizes it or not.
Each of us is writing our own story. Knowingly or not, we make choices, and we must hurry, for time is limited. We do not own every plot twist; sometimes truly devastating things happen outside our control. For the most part, we can decide to let circumstances write it for us, or we can take up the pen, and write as much as we can, for ourselves.
(This is the second post of a series begun on July 18, 2020)