Freedom

 



                           CHAPTER 7

                 Freedom

 

Controlling your time is the highest dividend money pays.


The highest form of wealth is the ability to wake up every morning and say, “I can do whatever I want today.”

People want to become wealthier to make them happier. Happiness is a complicated subject because everyone’s different. But if there’s a common denominator in happiness—a universal fuel of joy—it’s that people want to control their lives.

The ability to do what you want, when you want, with who you want, for as long as you want, is priceless. It is the highest dividend money pays.

 

Angus Campbell was a psychologist at the University of Michigan. Born in 1910, his research took place during an age when psychology was overwhelmingly focused on disorders that brought people down—things like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia.

Campbell wanted to know what made people happy. His 1981 book, The Sense of Wellbeing in America, starts by pointing out that people are generally happier than many psychologists assumed. But some were clearly doing better than others. And you couldn’t necessarily group them by income, or geography, or education, because so many in each of those categories end up chronically unhappy.

The most powerful common denominator of happiness was simple. Campbell summed it up:

 

Having a strong sense of controlling one’s life is a more dependable predictor of positive feelings of wellbeing than any of the objective conditions of life we have considered.

 

More than your salary. More than the size of your house. More than the prestige of your job. Control over doing what you want, when you want to, with the people you want to, is the broadest lifestyle variable that makes people happy.

Money’s greatest intrinsic value—and this can’t be overstated—is its ability to give you control over your time. To obtain, bit by bit, a level of independence and autonomy that comes from unspent assets that give you greater control over what you can do and when you can do it.

A small amount of wealth means the ability to take a few days off work when you’re sick without breaking the bank. Gaining that ability is huge if you don’t have it.

A bit more means waiting for a good job to come around after you get laid off, rather than having to take the first one you find. That can be life changing.

Six months’ emergency expenses means not being terrified of your boss, because you know you won’t be ruined if you have to take some time off to find a new job.

More still means the ability to take a job with lower pay but flexible hours. Maybe one with a shorter commute. Or being able to deal with a medical emergency without the added burden of worrying about how you’ll pay for it.

Then there’s retiring when you want to, instead of when you need to.

Using your money to buy time and options has a lifestyle benefit few luxury goods can compete with.

Throughout college I wanted to be an investment banker. There was only one reason why: they made a lot of money. That was the only drive, and one I was 100% positive would make me happier once I got it. I scored a summer internship at an investment bank in Los Angeles in my junior year, and thought I won the career lottery. This is all I ever wanted.

On my first day I realized why investment bankers make a lot of money: They work longer and more controlled hours than I knew humans could handle. Actually, most can’t handle it. Going home before midnight was considered a luxury, and there was a saying in the office: “If you don’t come to work on Saturday, don’t bother coming back on Sunday.” The job was intellectually stimulating, paid well, and made me feel important. But every waking second of my time became a slave to my boss’s demands, which was enough to turn it into one of the most miserable experiences of my life. It was a four-month internship. I lasted a month.

The hardest thing about this was that I loved the work. And I wanted to work hard. But doing something you love on a schedule you can’t control can feel the same as doing something you hate.

There is a name for this feeling. Psychologists call it reactance. Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, summed it up well:

 

People like to feel like they’re in control—in the drivers’ seat. When we try to get them to do something, they feel disempowered. Rather than feeling like they made the choice, they feel like we made it for them. So they say no or do something else, even when they might have originally been happy to go along.

 

When you accept how true that statement is, you realize that aligning money towards a life that lets you do what you want, when you want, with who you want, where you want, for as long as you want, has incredible return.

Derek Sivers, a successful entrepreneur, once wrote about a friend who asked him to tell the story about how he got rich:

 

I had a day job in midtown Manhattan paying $20

k

per year—about minimum wage ... I never ate out, and never took a taxi. My cost of living was about $1000/month, and I was earning $1800/month. I did this for two years, and saved up $12,000. I was 22 years old.

Once I had $12,000 I could quit my job and become a full-time musician. I knew I could get a few gigs per month to pay my cost of living. So I was free. I quit my job a month later, and never had a job again.

When I finished telling my friend this story, he asked for more. I said no, that was it. He said, “No, what about when you sold your company?”

I said no, that didn’t make a big difference in my life. That was just more money in the bank. The difference happened when I was 22.

 

The United States is the richest nation in the history of the world. But there is little evidence that its citizens are, on average, happier today than they were in the 1950s, when wealth and income were much lower—even at the median level and adjusted for inflation. A 2019 Gallup poll of 150,000 people in 140 countries found that about 45% of Americans said they felt “a lot of worry” the previous day. The global average was 39%. Fifty-five percent of Americans said they felt “a lot of stress” the previous day. For the rest of the world, 35% said the same.

Part of what’s happened here is that we’ve used our greater wealth to buy bigger and better stuff. But we’ve simultaneously given up more control over our time. At best, those things cancel each other out.

Median family income adjusted for inflation was $29,000 in 1955. In 2019 it was just over $62,000. We’ve used that wealth to live a life hardly conceivable to the 1950s American, even for a median family. The median American home increased from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,436 square feet in 2018. The average new American home now has more bathrooms than occupants. Our cars are faster and more efficient, our TVs are cheaper and sharper.

What’s happened to our time, on the other hand, barely looks like progress. And a lot of the reason has to do with the kind of jobs more of us now have.

John D. Rockefeller was one of the most successful businessmen of all time. He was also a recluse, spending most of his time by himself. He rarely spoke, deliberately making himself inaccessible and staying quiet when you caught his attention.

A refinery worker who occasionally had Rockefeller’s ear once remarked: “He lets everybody else talk, while he sits back and says nothing.”

When asked about his silence during meetings, Rockefeller often recited a poem:

 

A wise old owl lived in an oak,

The more he saw the less he spoke,

The less he spoke, the more he heard,

Why aren’t we all like that wise old bird?

 

Rockefeller was a strange guy. But he figured out something that now applies to tens of millions of workers.

Rockefeller’s job wasn’t to drill wells, load trains, or move barrels. It was to think and make good decisions. Rockefeller’s product—his deliverable—wasn’t what he did with his hands, or even his words. It was what he figured out inside his head. So that’s where he spent most of his time and energy. Despite sitting quietly most of the day in what might have looked like free time or leisure hours to most people, he was constantly working in his mind, thinking problems through.

This was unique in his day. Almost all jobs during Rockefeller’s time required doing things with your hands. In 1870, 46% of jobs were in agriculture, and 35% were in crafts or manufacturing, according to economist Robert Gordon. Few professions relied on a worker’s brain. You didn’t think; you labored, without interruption, and your work was visible and tangible.

Today, that’s flipped.

Thirty-eight percent of jobs are now designated as “managers, officials, and professionals.” These are decision-making jobs. Another 41% are service jobs that often rely on your thoughts as much as your actions.

More of us have jobs that look closer to Rockefeller than a typical 1950s manufacturing worker, which means our days don’t end when we clock out and leave the factory. We’re constantly working in our heads, which means it feels like work never ends.

If your job is to build cars, there is little you can do when you’re not on the assembly line. You detach from work and leave your tools in the factory. But if your job is to create a marketing campaign—a thought-based and decision job—your tool is your head, which never leaves you. You might be thinking about your project during your commute, as you’re making dinner, while you put your kids to sleep, and when you wake up stressed at three in the morning. You might be on the clock for fewer hours than you would in 1950. But it feels like you’re working 24/7.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic once described it like this:

 

If the operating equipment of the 21st century is a portable device, this means the modern factory is not a place at all. It is the day itself. The computer age has liberated the tools of productivity from the office. Most knowledge workers, whose laptops and smartphones are portable all-purpose media-making machines, can theoretically be as productive at 2 p.m. in the main office as at 2 a.m. in a Tokyo We Work or at midnight on the couch.

 

Compared to generations prior, control over your time has diminished. And since controlling your time is such a key happiness influencer, we shouldn’t be surprised that people don’t feel much happier even though we are, on average, richer than ever.

What do we do about that?

It’s not an easy problem to solve, because everyone’s different. The first step is merely acknowledging what does, and does not, make almost everyone happy.

In his book 30 Lessons for Living, gerontologist Karl Pillemer interviewed a thousand elderly Americans looking for the most important lessons they learned from decades of life experience. He wrote:

 

No one—not a single person out of a thousand—said that to be happy you should try to work as hard as you can to make money to buy the things you want.

No one—not a single person—said it’s important to be at least as wealthy as the people around you, and if you have more than they do it’s real success.

No one—not a single person—said you should choose your work based on your desired future earning power.

 

What they did value were things like quality friendships, being part of something bigger than themselves, and spending quality, unstructured time with their children. “Your kids don’t want your money (or what your money buys) anywhere near as much as they want you. Specifically, they want you with them,” Pillemer writes.

Take it from those who have lived through everything: Controlling your time is the highest dividend money pays.

Now, a short chapter on one of the lowest dividends money pays.





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