Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A little success makes everything else suck.

Stop and think about the last time you had a win that was centered on one specific area of your life.  Maybe you got a promotion at work.  Maybe you met a new girlfriend.  Maybe you lost 5 pounds.

Yay for you.

Did that make it easier, or harder, to tolerate the stuff that was still in your lose column?  Sure, it made it all easier, for about a day.  But if you're anything like me, it probably made it all a lot harder after a little while if your win turned out to be a Real Win™ and not just a nice moment that gained you nothing in the long run.

During the summer of 2006, I got a major promotion at work.  It still didn't put me into the Real Job™ category, but it seemed pretty close at the time.

Suddenly my car was intolerable, so I went out and bought a 2005 Toyota for about $80 less than the asking price from a dealership, at 16% interest.  Better still, I bought gap insurance and an extended warranty (a.k.a. the worst values in the retail world).  Now, I love my little red Corolla, but that was a stupid move.  Between missed payments and extensions, the thing is still not paid off, although I am proud to say I haven't had a late or missed payment for a couple of years now, we just paid half the remaining balance, and will be paying it off completely in the next few weeks.

When we have one small win in our lives, it it makes us incredibly happy for about 5 minutes, but it does something much more powerful.  It makes us notice all the little areas where we're not winning right now.

We're about to pay off a loan that we've been struggling with since the day we got married, and I've been struggling with since '06.  That's a bowl full of win.

Guess how happy that makes me about my job...

Guess how happy that makes me about what the scale said this morning...

The trick here, is to use that dissatisfaction to get something done.  The trap says, "Hey, you're about to pay off your car.  This would be a great time to upgrade.  You've improved your credit so much you can probably get a much better loan than last time."  If you're incredibly stupid, it may say, "Hey, no more car payment!  Let's go max out a credit card at Best Buy on a new home theater system since we can afford the payments now."

Those are not grown up voices.  Those are your inner 17 year old.  If you really stop and think about it, chances are good that 17 year old you was a jerk.  17 year old me was definitely a jerk.  Now wrap your noodle around this one: 17 year old you, was really stoked to grow up.  That little inner 17 year old is the same jerk, but without the desire to grow up.  Do not listen to the inner 17 year old.

If you want to Be a Grown-Up™, look for things that actually matter to focus your dissatisfaction on.  You've got extra money coming in or less money going out; how about putting more money in savings?  You got a promotion at work? How about paying off your car instead of financing a new one?

Let's look at it another way.  I'm in the middle of a win with my car loan, but I know that once the glow wears off, everything in my lose column will sting just a little bit more.  Let's write out my lose column again:

  1. Crappy apartment
  2. Crappier neighbors
  3. No kids yet
  4. Underemployed in a dead-end job
  5. My photography business is only in the black by about $200/year
  6. Life fulfillment other than my wife: extremely low
In a couple of weeks, I'll have another $400/month in my budget thanks to my car loan being done.  The inner 17 year old wants me to focus on #6, and buy things to make me happy. My inner 12 year old wants me to listen to my inner 17 year old, but I think they can both shut the heck up because I want to Be a Grown-Up™.  So how do you choose?  What I'm doing is looking at each point on that list and looking at what happens if I invest my new found $400 towards improving that area of my life.
  1. An extra $400 towards rent would get me into an AWESOME apartment, or I could save more towards a down payment on a house.  Either one of these would take care of #2 as well.  The trouble is that this only moves the needle one step.  Once I'm spending a grand on housing instead of $600, the extra room in my budget is gone.  I will have shortened my lose list by one, but that'll be the end of it.
  2. I could just give that money to my neighbors to try to make them suck a little less.  The trouble with that, other than being completely absurd, is that my neighbors would just spend the extra money on more pot, and become even crappier.
  3. $400 will not buy children, and we've got a plan for them anyway, so that one is really just a matter of patience.  Patience and practice (wink).
  4. I could spend that money for just a few months on earning a couple of marketable certifications that will start me on the road to a better career.  On the down side, I don't get much in the way of immediate gratification.  On the up side, the extra $400 will be back in a couple of months to let me move on to something else on the list, and with some hard work, I'll eventually be able to earn more money and find work with a Grown Up Schedule™ which will allow me to spend my Saturdays doing more wedding photography instead of asking people, "do you have reservations this evening?"  It also means that if a career change means a short term pay cut, I've suddenly got the wiggle room to afford that cut.
  5. I could spend $400/month on promoting my photography.  Unfortunately, I'll still have to burn a vacation day for every wedding I shoot, and still won't be in a position to easily meet with clients.  
  6. Toys.  $400 a month can buy a lot of toys, especially if you do it with credit cards.  $400 a month is the the minimum monthly payment for $15,000 or more on a credit card.  That many toys could really replicate a lot of fulfillment.
When you start to lay things out like a Grown Up™, these decisions start to get pretty easy.  It's pretty clear that #4 is the way to go.  It's short term, with lot's of long term potential and low risk.  I wouldn't beat you up for picking #1 or #5, (and I'd love to watch the fallout from #2), but choices that move the needle and set you up to move the needle some more are always the way to go.

You want to tag along and be your very own Grown Up™?  Follow my lead the next time you have a win, and want to decide where to focus your time, energy and money; and lay out your choices and where they really lead you.  The world doesn't determine whether you move forward or remain a 30 year old child.

You do.