As I See It: Asking The Right Question
January 11, 2016 Victor Rozek
Ah, a brand new year, blinding with possibility and so fresh with optimism it can make your eyes water. For most of us, it’s another opportunity to commit to resolutions that will never be kept beyond January. Nevertheless, for the next few weeks, sugar is the enemy, credit cards will be shredded, and every gym in America will be full of people testing the limits of Lycra.
Making resolutions is the national binky, pacifying with false promise. And every January millions resolve to manage two of the more important aspects of their lives–fitness and finance–through a firm, if fleeting, commitment to change.
It’s a curiosity of human nature that people who would not dream of breaking their word to friends, think nothing of breaking their word to themselves.
Americans favor quick, purchasable solutions and the Fitness Tracker is the perfect device for those quasi-committed to fitness. It really does nothing to actually make you fit, but it gives the comforting illusion that something good is happening. The average American walks about 5,900 steps per day, but there is nothing magical, or scientifically supported about reaching 10,000 steps. Just about anything you do above your normal routine is a plus. You don’t need a computer chip to tell you that. The idea of 10,000 steps actually dates back to the 1960s when a similar product was marketed in Japan. It was called “manpo-kei” which, by happy coincidence, means “10,000 steps meter.”
Financial health, like physical health, is a lifelong endeavor. Assuming IT professionals, like the majority of Americans, will have multiple careers during their working lives, here are some illuminating statistics on what people can expect to earn at different times during the course of their careers, courtesy of Motley Fool contributor Brian Stoffel.
Regardless of age, women will earn less than their male counterparts, often substantially less. Entry-level personnel between the ages of 16 and 24 can expect a median income of $26,900 for men, and $23,000 for women. From 25 to 34, earnings jump to just over 40,000 for men, and $36,000 for women. The pattern continues through ages 35 to 44, with men making nearly $51,000 and women earning $10,000 less. The gap widens slightly between the ages of 45 to 54. The median income for men is $53,000 and women linger at $41,300. The gap continues to grow through the next decade, with men pulling in $56,000 and women stuck at $41,000. Finally, if you work beyond age 65, men can expect earnings of $53,700, while women drop to $39,000.
On the surface, the figures aren’t totally discouraging. IT professionals are generally well compensated and contribute to the higher end of the median scale. Their peak earnings may be measurably higher than the average. Also, the discrepancies between male and female earnings will not be as pronounced. Plus, most enjoy decent benefit packages.
However, those figures only represent the actual working population, not those who have retired, or been laid off, or became ill, or simply could not find employment. The reality is that while peak earning years can stretch into the 60s and beyond, only 51 percent of men and 39 percent of women work between the ages of 55 and 64. That percentage drops dramatically to 11 percent and 7 percent for people over 65. So in the later stages of life, most are un-employed or under-employed and earning little or nothing at all. The message is: Save as much as you can, while you can.
An important and often overlooked aspect of financial planning has nothing to do with how much money you accumulate, but how you feel about what you do have. Morgan Housel recounts a story that illustrates the point. Writers Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were once allegedly at a party hosted by a billionaire hedge fund manager. Vonnegut mentioned that their wealthy host made more money in one day than Heller ever made from his novel Catch-22.
Heller responded: “Yes, but I have something he will never have: enough.”
If, like Donald Trump, you believe it’s Never Enough (his most recent and most telling book title), then you become a slave to the chase. And it’s a slave master guaranteed to work you to death.
It’s been said that the quality of the answers we get depends on the quality of the questions we ask. And author/thinker Mark Manson makes a strong case that when it comes to identifying what we want–or in the case of New Year’s resolutions, identifying what we want to improve about our lives–we’re asking the wrong question. Pretty much everyone wants to be rich and healthy, there’s no distinction in that. But most of us would prefer to attain those goals with minimum risk, effort, or sacrifice.
A more useful question, argues Manson, is “What pain do you want in your life?” The answer to that question will tell you what you are likely to achieve. If fitness is your goal, do you want the pain of the gym? The pain of running? The pain of pushing through fatigue? The pain of denying yourself unhealthy foods, and addictive habits? Because if you’re not willing to endure that pain, wearing a sophisticated wristwatch won’t help.
Likewise, if you want financial security, are you willing to endure the pain of delayed gratification? The pain of working 60-hour weeks? The pain of disciplined saving? The sacrifice of discretionary time? The risk involved in market fluctuation?
Ultimately, if you can endure the pain, you don’t need a New Year’s resolution; if you can’t, a resolution won’t help you.
I would argue that Mason’s most excellent question has an important corollary: When do you want to experience the pain? Robert Louis Stevenson famously said: “Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.” Look at it this way: Whatever decisions you make about your health and finances, either way you’re choosing pain. There is also pain in being a couch potato, or a spendthrift. It’s just that the pain comes later.