Earnings Beyond The Wallet: How Do You Measure Success In Life If Money Isn’t Your Thing?

Colleen Kong-SavageHow do you measure success when money is not your forté? Numbers overwhelm me. My fourth grader cruises about YouTube looking for videos on binary code, pi, and the fourth dimension. He does this for FUN at age nine, gets excited, and tries to share his newfound knowledge. When he speaks, I hear, “Ooglety bogfogf ones fndi zeroes ovoeicwi xmy diameter. Do you know what a hexadecimal system is?” No idea. For the life of me I cannot remember his height or weight. I only know that I cannot carry him anymore and that when he hugs me standing up, my chin is in his hair.

Like a lot of artists, I’m a little short on financial savvy. As a new divorcee I am all too aware that as a person without a job, I am completely dependent on the alimony my ex-husband provides. The situation is humbling—on dark days, humiliating. After nine unsuccessful months of applying for graphic design jobs, I shifted to plan B to find work as an illustrator. I figure if I’m going to spin my wheels, I may as well spin them in the direction I want to go. The clock is ticking as I struggle to establish a business before the spousal support ends.

In March I complete my first year of being an officially middle-aged person. Because I spend enough time flailing about in uncertainty, I am dedicating this post to the idea of Success. I asked friends, “How do you measure success in your life?” The most common response boiled down to “Happiness.” My friends are largely artists like myself—visual artists, dancers, musicians, film-makers. Those of us who haven’t been ground down by the pragmatics of earning a living, are still clawing our way towards professional recognition. Most artists aren’t rich, but life feels rich. While I feel shaky these days, I marvel that I am exactly who I want to be. How is that?

That Sinking Feeling Of Falling Further Behind

Sinking in sandDuring my days off from consulting work I tend to schedule other work to help me stay in touch with reality. I love teaching people who want to learn, but not so much those who are forced to learn. My tennis student is that ideal client who enthusiastically listens when I instruct her to step into her ground strokes or stiffen her wrist for a more impactful volley.

Before each lesson she politely hands me a check her mother writes for $80 dollars. I thank her without opening up the folded check and quickly place it into one of my tennis bag’s many pockets to not make things awkward. We warm up from the service line and gradually work up a sweat until the sun goes down at 6pm.

I often wonder whether she feels $80 for 1.5 hours is a lot of money as a high schooler. To me $80 feels like a healthy sum, even though I’ve been working since 1994. Perhaps it’s exactly because she appreciates her parent’s support that she’s so enthusiastic about her lessons. I remember telling myself there was no way I would do poorly in college since my parents insisted on paying.

At the end of each lesson I always feel a sense of satisfaction to have put in the effort to make a little more money and help someone get better. Often times I don’t even want to cash the check because it’s a physical reminder of accomplishment. Little wins are savored until bigger bills come due.

Moose’s gas light lit up on the way home so I decided to fill him up with some premium fuel. By the time the gas tank was full the meter flashed $79.55. It is as if the gods were mocking me. Oh, how nice it is to walk away from an evening of hard work with a net profit of 45 cents. I laughed the spite off and stopped by the grocery store for a freshly squeezed container of orange juice for $6. There goes all my earnings and then some. 

2013 Personal Year In Review On Financial Samurai

Baby mango tree

Planted a Himmayudin mango tree

Happy New Year! Time always moves faster the older we get. One day I’ll lose my mind and hopefully these journal entries will jog my memory. Although less than 20% of my life is discussed in my writing, I hope it’ll be enough to jolt the other 80% alive if I forget. If not, the thousands of pictures I take every year will.

2013 started full of promise and ended way better than expected. I was looking for a conservative 9% increase in the S&P 500 to 1,551 after a 13% year in 2012 and we closed up 30%! I became more bullish after my target was achieved in the first four months of the year and positioned more aggressively, but not enough unfortunately. It’s fun to keep predictions set all year so we can look back and see how we were feeling back then.

One of my biggest challenges all year was maintaining focus. It’s way too easy to sleep in every day, binge watch shows on Netflix, stuff my face with donuts, travel for weeks on end, and have days blur together with so much free time now that I no longer have a day job. As a result, I set one year, three year, and five year business revenue goals to minimize the amount of meandering. So far, so good. But to be quite frank I’m losing my desire to make more money. I just don’t care anymore, which is part of the reason why I left Wall St. I just want to feel useful.

Feeling Down And Out In This Perfect World

Frowning French Bulldog On A LeashYou can’t deny how someone feels. They just do and you’ve got to accept it. Maybe the color blue looks different between two people. We’ll never know because we can only know ourselves.

I started this site as a way to deal with the agony of the financial meltdown in 2008-2009. I needed to find a way to let the pain escape in a healthy way. Drugs and booze were not an option although tempting they were.

This site has always been about introspection. To understand why we think the way we think. To understand our inconsistencies. To talk about issues that are on so many people’s minds but cannot be publicly discussed due to fear of persecution.

Since my very first post over four years ago I’ve been able to reconcile the stupidity of my multitude of financial mistakes. I’ve met many friends online who are also on uncertain paths to financial independence. We’ve shared victories and defeats, but I thought there would be more people like me who fear being alone, going broke, or being a failure to our family. Lately, I feel like I’m the only loser around.

THE PERFECT WORLD FULL OF PERFECT PEOPLE

The Best Way To Get Ahead Is To Tell Yourself Hard Truths

Beautiful lake with reflectionIs it better to tell someone what they want to hear or tell them what they should hear? I choose the latter because sooner or later the fairy tale will end. Between the ages of 10-16 I started reading a lot about Eastern philosophies, particularly the concept of karma. I used karma as an excuse for everything!

Examples:

“If I’m meant to get into a good university, I will, so don’t worry about my studies mom and dad!”

“If I’m going to die young, I will, so let me buy the 600cc Honda CBR motorbike OK?”

“I cannot change whether I’m going to be rich or poor, so let me have some fun while I’m still alive.”

“I can’t do anything about this bully. Let fate handle him.”

“We’re either destined to be together, or not. I’m not going out of my way to woo her.”

Karma is a pretty neat way of rationalizing not having to study, be safe, work hard, fight back or go after what you want. My dad finally knocked some sense into me when I asked about the motorbike for the umpteenth time. He said, “Son, don’t be stupid. A colleague of mine just drove his motorbike into a wall and died. You want that to happen to you before your life even starts?”

“Oh, OK. Maybe I’ll stick with riding my bicycle to school then,” I remember saying. I actually did end up buying a mini-50cc replica racer motorbike without them knowing in high school. Its top speed was only about 45 mph so I figured if I did hit a wall I’d survive. Too bad it ended up getting stolen because it was sweet!

My father also said something that really deflated my enthusiasm for tennis during high school. When I didn’t win some difficult match sophomore year he consoled me by saying, “Well, I guess you’re just not good enough.” That was a zinger because I stayed after school every day during tennis season to practice for 2.5 hours. By the time I got home all I wanted to do was sleep, but I had another 3-4 hours of homework to complete. Even my hero at the time, Andre Agassi loses, so why can’t I? For about a month I didn’t do jack shit because I was depressed.

It was hard to hear “just not good enough” at the time, but the reality is I wasn’t good enough to take my game to a Division I school. It was better I spent that extra hour practicing for my SATs instead of on my backhand. I did end up getting a small scholarship to play for a Division III school, but I passed to go to a better institution.

The one thing about sports is that scores don’t lie. You are either a winner or a loser. I’d like to think I’d come to my senses on my own about not being good enough after losing one too many difficult matches, but who knows. Maybe I would have stayed in a long state of denial that would have been detrimental to my life.

At the end of the day, I think we need to know hard truths so we can focus on areas that will bring us happiness. Here are three truths I plan on reminding myself every so often to make sure I’m on track.