Monday, October 15, 2018

Preparing for the Future

I always thought Divination Wizards would make a killing micro-trading on the stock market.
No big D&D article this Monday. However, some good news: This week, we'll be putting out a Failed Magic Items article on Wednesday and a Creature Loot article on Friday! This is mostly because I'm really pushing to wrap the blog by November 2nd, and there just aren't enough Fridays left in the month to cover anything. For those of you who enjoy my Wednesday mechanics and philosophy articles, don't worry, Will has been putting together a cool system for alternate spellcasting that will be up before the month ends.

Also, despite the long drought, there are finally some monthly games happening that will get full recaps! Hooray! Next week will be the latest chapter of Jandar's Lions, and after that we'll have the (possibly) last session of Chaos Quest. I can't say for sure, because I have no idea how this is going to play out. But I bet it will be fun!

For today, I wanted to step away from D&D and espouse a bit of personal life philosophy. Like any good life philosophy, it's a Frankenstein's Monster composed of various bits of material I've picked up from different places. The subject is: Long-term Planning for the future.

Life Plans


When people talk about life and the future, they often stick to vague plans and fearful suppositions. They want to travel, but don't really know where or how. They don't want to lose their job if the market crashes, so they find a safe bet and try to make themselves invaluable. They buy nice things for the moment (meals, cars, houses, D&D miniatures, etc.) because they don't know what will happen in the future, and they want to make sure their needs are met now. They have money now, they should buy things now.

The problem with vagueness and fear is that it can prevent you from actually accomplishing something. The old paradigm was that people would wake up from their office jobs and realize they were 50 years old, having spent their life dragging themselves to work and paying for minor, inane expenses. They then proceed to have a mid-life crisis, where they briefly break their routine and do something they want for themselves. A new car, a new home, a trip to Europe, whatever.

The new paradigm, espoused by "millennials", is that there's no need to wait until you're fifty to fear death and complacency. Stress out about your lack of planning right away! After all, being 25 is basically being a senior citizen if you live your life on the internet. Still trying to figure out your life and how to be an adult? Might as well buy a bunch of video games to deal with the stress. Go out for drinks! Buy experiences! Live now, because the world is ending and nobody can stop it.

Now, I'm not saying that either example is reacting to their situation poorly. Faced with uncertainty, it's human to cling to the things we are comfortable and familiar with. However, the problem is not with their reaction. The problem is with their planning and goal-setting. That vagueness and fear.

I struggled with this a lot as well. Like many young people, I had a plethora of interests and was asked to pick only one of them to base my life on. That's a tough question for a 17 year old. I read a lot of self help books, books about gaining skills and mastering disciplines, and spent a lot of time debating with myself what I really wanted to do with my life. The result of this introspection sent me to music school, despite my father's prophetic warning that such a degree would yield few stable jobs.

Sure enough, I graduated with a degree in Music Composition and immediately found myself working in a kitchen, writing music for theater companies who couldn't pay me if they wanted to. I moved out of my college town into the (relatively) big city, only to continue to work in kitchens and write music for those who couldn't pay me, though now it was a video game company which was neat.

I was doing a lot of soul-searching. Did I want to be a grill jockey for the rest of my life? I managed to get a job as a telemarketer, and as you might expect that only made things more stressful and sad. But I finally found a framework for planning my life, and planning my future. I devoured every post on the Mr. Money Mustache blog, finally realizing that my financial life needed to change. And I found this webcomic, which struck such a deep chord with me that I began to re-evaluate my entire future.

The premise of the comic is this: It takes about 7 years to master something. This coincides with the "10,000 Hour" rule from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which states that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice and study will grant you "expert" status in a subject. The key is that talent and income are secondary to this time limit. You just need to be able to put in the time. Obviously, this is easier if you don't have to work, but if you play it right you can earn income through your mastery.

Each 7-year stretch of mastering a topic, then, is one of your "lifetimes". You throw yourself at a subject, devote yourself to it, and then afterwards you can abandon it for your next endeavor. It says from age 11 to age 88, you get 11 "lifetimes" to explore. You can devote one to art, one to truth, one to health, one to wealth, whatever you want. But the point is, 7 years is a lot more manageable to think about than a career-long endeavor. It's a nice alternative to the paradox that you can do anything in the world, but you have limited time to do it.

So, by figuring out your interests, you can set yourself up to pursue different activities, and master them in different lifetimes. Of course, some things (like becoming a parent or doctor) require longer stretches of time, but you can still break them down into these 7-year chunks. Even if you work within a single company the rest of your life, 7 years is a good benchmark to move from employee to manager, and another 7 years is a good time to step up from manager to executive. Your lifetimes don't have to be radically different from each other, but they give you a concrete goal, a path to get there, and a release when the lifetime is complete.

This comic changed the way I thought about my life. I thought about what I had done from age 18 to 25, how I had devoted myself to music and composition. Suddenly, I realized that it didn't matter if I couldn't get a music job. I had done it. I had lived a lifetime of studying and mastering music. And I had discovered that I wasn't quite as skilled as I had hoped, but I had gained friends, skills, and enough musical ability to continue my work as a hobbyist. I wasn't going to write the next great symphony, but I could certainly kick out some chill jams while gamers solved puzzles or beat up monsters.

However, my father's words came back to haunt me. I was pretty broke. Sure, I was becoming smarter about my money and learning to save and invest it, but my years at music school had left me saddled with debt and unable to find a high-paying job in a field I was skilled in. I realized there was more to this planning thing than just following your interests. Order mattered.

I had always been interested in math, and knew that the finance and accounting sector paid well. If I could spend 7 years doing that, get a job that paid well, and saved like a maniac, I could set myself up for an "early retirement" a la Mr Money Mustache. Of course, my early retirement would consist of me pursuing my other interests (and even making money off of them), so the prospect of not being chained to a job was very enticing.

So, I decided to put my other interests (writing, acting, business, politics, etc) on hold while I got a degree in accounting. I managed to land a nice job that paid very well after just getting an associate's degree. Being 27 years old and suddenly having a lot of money, I finished paying off my student loans and started devoting myself to saving money and learning about finance. Fortunately, in the meantime I discovered that I had quite a bit of free time when we weren't in the busy parts of the month, and I started this blog to keep myself occupied.

Now, I still have a few years of finance lifetime left, but hopefully by then I will be able to move on to another area of interest of mine (possibly business) and continue to make the money I need to save up for a solid retirement. Then, I can begin to explore my other interests, free from the constrains of work.

So, to summarize....
  • It takes about 7 years, or 10,000 hours, to master a subject.
  • You can master many things in your life. There's no need to stick to one.
  • By figuring out your interests and choosing when you will devote 7 years to them, you can plan out your entire life.

And some further tips from my own experience.
  • Some things will take more than 7 years. However, it's possible to break down the task in 7 year chunks. Raising a child to survive and have basic human functions takes about 7 years. Raising a person to think for themselves and pursue their interests with confidence takes another 7 years.
  • By putting high-paying jobs early in your life, you can set yourself up for later one, when you might be pursuing something that doesn't pay well or at all. If you like art, be a graphic designer first and an independent artist later.
  • Just because you've mastered a topic doesn't mean you have to abandon it completely. Each stage will bring additional benefits, friendships, and skills that you can apply to your next subject. Raising a child teaches you a lot about people, and would be a great precursor to community service or leadership. Not to mention, the things you learn can remain as hobbies later in life.
  • Take physical ability into account. If you are currently out-of-shape or weak, don't try to master something physically strenuous. Instead, focus on slow, habit-forming behaviors to build yourself up to the level needed to dive into the subject you want to explore. In the same vein, don't save physically strenuous goals until late in life, when your body may not be up to the task.
  • Just because you are devoting yourself to a topic doesn't mean that's all you can do. People are multidimensional. If you are pursuing a highly mental task like a degree in mathematics, make sure you keep hobbies to maintain your physical, social, emotional, and spiritual lives. Otherwise, you may find your studies cut short by stress, bad health, tumultuous relationships, or lack of purpose.

As a last point, I want to talk about the fear that a lot of people are feeling. After all, what's the point of planning your future if the economy will crash, or World War 3 starts, or the planet warms up and everyone dies?

Well, if everyone dies then you don't really need to worry about your future that much. But at the very least, you can die knowing you were spending your life wisely and pursuing things that mattered to you, instead of drifting along in an office job or sitting in front of a TV playing video games.

If the economy crashes, you might need to put your financial plans on hold, or find a new way to become stable in the post-crash economy. However, since you were already planning to change jobs in 7 years, you can easily begin laying the groundwork for a future pursuit instead of lamenting your dream has been ruined.

And what if nothing major happens, but the world simply conspires to deny you your goals? Perhaps there's no economic crash, but you finish your computer science degree right as an AI that can develop software on its own is discovered. Maybe you decide to become a YouTube creator right as the site gets shut down. Maybe you try your hand at writing a book but discover you suck at it.

Well, in that scenario, you have one thing that the non-planners lack: purpose. Yes, you failed, but you set a goal, you pressed towards it, and you came out with skills and experiences that you wouldn't have had otherwise. A failed writer may have no more books that a writer who never started, but the failed writer has the peace of mind knowing they made the effort, did the work, and proved they couldn't do it. The other person might die wishing they gave it a shot.

In the end, life is short. But you can live it in a way that brings you purpose, mental comfort, and perhaps success. It all starts with setting aside vague desires and making a plan to pursue your interests.

I enjoy writing this blog. In one of my "lifetimes", I want to write a novel. Of course, right now I'm devoting myself to learning about business and finance, but I feel a great sense of purpose in my life. I hope people benefit from my blog, from my music, from my knowledge of accounting and finance. In fact, I hope they pay me for it if they can. But at its core, this plan is about me pursuing my interests as deeply as I can. It's about me figuring out what my dreams are, then following them.

Thanks for reading!

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