May 18, 2019 · 2 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

One of the suggestions that financial advisors often make, for purposes of motivating people to save for retirement, is to imagine how an older self would view today’s decisions. That is to say, at 80 or 90 years old, will we feel confident about our finances and believe that we planned well in our younger years?

I haven’t actually done anything that resembles conventional retirement planning because I look at saving in more general terms, as being about future flexibility to make choices. Trying to construct a detailed list of everything that I might need or want, many years from now, doesn’t strike me as useful in such a fast-moving world. The future could—and likely will—turn out to be very different from whatever we envision now.

It’s a pretty safe bet, though, that having more money will improve just about any potential scenario set in this century. Even if the future turns out to be a sci-fi utopia in which robots cater to our every whim for free, it’s going to be a long time before we get there. That being so, I decided to go ahead and try the older self exercise, given the fact that I already have an imaginary 119-year-old self—known as Fannie on this blog—with whom I’ve had several creative conversations.

At first I thought about picturing Fannie at a bank, to be consistent with the topic; but she had her own ideas about that. I found her taking a leisurely walk along a well-kept path in a public park. It was a cool spring morning, and she wore jeans and a light sweater. New leaves and lush grass made everything around us look beautifully green and refreshing.

Path surrounded by greenery in a park.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

A black poodle trotted next to Fannie, with impeccable grooming and a remarkably even gait. It had no leash. A closer look revealed that there was no need for a leash because the poodle was, in fact, a robot. Fannie turned toward me and smiled, opening her hands as if to embrace the surrounding landscape.

“Seriously, a brick-and-mortar bank? I can’t remember when I last saw one of those. Decades ago, I’m sure. Don’t you think this is more pleasant? I was transferring funds with my phone just now, before you arrived.”

I took a breath of the fresh air, which was fragrant with spring blooms, and had to agree that managing bank accounts while taking a stroll in the park certainly was more pleasant than doing it the old-fashioned way.

“So, would you say that the money I saved was enough for you to be comfortable?” I asked.

“That question has both a simple and a complicated answer, as with most things.” Fannie grinned. “By now, you’ve had enough conversations with me that you probably already figured I was going to say something like that.”

A bird trilled cheerfully from somewhere in a nearby tree, as if to share in a little good-hearted amusement.

“The simple answer is yes, I live comfortably, and in part that’s because of your discipline in saving, which I do appreciate. As you know, I have a self-navigating flying car; they’re pricey even in 2083. And of course Maxie here,” and Fannie reached down to pat the dog, “wasn’t cheap, were you, sweetie?”

The robot dog gave a very realistic happy-sounding yip and wagged its tail.

“But the more complicated answer,” Fannie went on, “is that the culture of your time had tremendous uncertainty about the future, and nobody had a clue how to deal with it. Although people had started living much longer, they hadn’t yet created new stories to shape their expectations. So they tried to plan for everything imaginable, which of course stressed them out. Let me turn this conversation around for just a moment, if I may, and give you a question instead: Do you feel totally responsible for my comfort?”

“Well, yes, or at least mostly. Sort of. What I mean, I guess, is that I wouldn’t want to mess things up and leave a future me stuck in a bad situation. You know, this question is a lot harder than it seemed at first.” I made a frustrated gesture, which caused a squirrel in the grass nearby—though evidently unafraid of the robot dog—to hop back a few steps.

“That’s why I asked it,” Fannie calmly informed me. “Now, what would you say to past versions of yourself who felt afraid of making bad decisions about raising children, for instance, or finding the right job?”

“I’d tell them not to worry because the kids and the job turned out just fine.”

There was a comfortable-looking bench to our left, and Fannie took a few steps off the path and sat in it. She gave me a smile. “Sit down and take a load off your feet, both here and in real life. Just relax—you know it’s going to turn out fine, right? You’ve got this.”

Maxie, now sitting next to the bench, yipped again as if in emphasis. I sat down next to Fannie as the scene began to fade; and then, just a moment later, I found myself back in my own time.

About two years have gone by since I rewrote my money story by sending my inner Cinderella away to start a new and happier life in the imaginary village of Channelwood. I’d say that the project was a success because I feel more confident about my finances now. Although my husband and I still have the same jobs with ordinary pay raises, we feel more comfortable talking about money. Expenses seem easier to manage, and in general, we have things better sorted.

Another area of my life that could benefit from revising outdated stories is health. I’ve thought so for a while, but my internal narratives are so jumbled and conflicting that it hasn’t been easy to get a handle on where to start. Objectively, I am in good health: I eat a reasonably good diet, get regular exercise, and have no serious medical issues. For the past few years, though, I’ve felt that my health is not what it ought to be. Annoying, persistent little aches crop up every now and again, for no apparent reason, in various places where I’ve had no injuries of which I know.

Many people would say that after age 50 aches and pains are normal, and I should just get used to that. But I suspect that some of it has to do with cultural expectations of decline—that to some extent they become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the body subconsciously adjusts its physical condition to match whatever image the mind perceives.

What was I to do, then, in rewriting my health story? The logical starting point was no different than with the money story—that is, identifying the archetypes that shaped the narrative and deciding how best to plot a new trajectory. There didn’t seem to be any single character who represented my health story when I thought about it, however.

One major positive influence on my view of aging has been a family history of longevity. My maternal grandfather, who was an active, ambitious world traveler, appeared to be in perfect health until he died suddenly at age 90 of a heart attack. If anyone had asked me then how I felt about getting older, I would have said that I expected good health and a long life. That archetype includes Star Trek’s Vulcans, who often lived for centuries and greeted each other with “Live long and prosper,” and the almost-immortal elves from Lord of the Rings, with their patriarch Elrond relating tales of long-ago battles: “I was there, Gandalf, three thousand years ago…”

Obviously that wasn’t my whole health story, though, or anything close to it. Our culture has such deeply ingrained expectations of failing health that it has become nearly impossible to think outside that box. Although I couldn’t specifically identify any older characters with aches and pains who might have taken up residence in my subconscious mind, the general old-woman archetypes have been around for millennia: the poor old lady hobbling around with a cane who depends on charity; the cackling village witch who stirs her cauldron with gnarled hands; and the Crone, who imparts wisdom to younger generations while sitting most of the day to rest her weary bones.

I decided to sit down and have some imaginary French Vanilla coffee and blueberry scones with the Crone in a sunny breakfast nook. The reason I chose coffee was because my judgmental younger self, who disliked the taste and never drank it, thought that if you needed coffee to wake you up, that meant you were old. I didn’t start drinking coffee until the long road trips to my daughter’s college soccer matches gave me more appreciation of its benefits.

Sunny breakfast nook with brightly colored cushions on a bench.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

While I brought the coffee and scones to the table, the Crone settled herself into the brightly colored cushions. She looked sort of like me, but with deep wrinkles and thinning hair that had gone mostly gray. On the table in front of her sat a big untidy handbag like my grandma carried.

She was not one of my older selves, to be clear on that point. Every once in a while, an older self shows up in a dream or while I’m half asleep and gives me a few words of advice, but I’ve never gotten a clear view of what a future me looks like. To be precise about it, the Crone, as I saw her, represented a present-day guess as to what my younger selves might have thought I’d be like when I got older.

“I don’t mean to bother you,” I said, as she picked up her coffee cup, “but I’ve been trying to get a few things sorted in my own mind, and I’d be grateful if you can help. May I ask you to share your thoughts on what people often call the aches and pains of old age?”

“That’s not something we ever talked about in our family,” the Crone calmly noted, highlighting yet another inconsistency in my internal narratives. It was true—when I was growing up, I never heard an older person say that in real life. Although I’d seen plenty of written descriptions of old folks who complained at great length about their many ailments, how much of that was reality and how much was stereotype? And to the extent that some of it was reality, that still left the question of how much was culturally determined.

Sunlight streamed in through the broad window as birds twittered riotously in the shrubs. Branches waved in a gentle breeze. I ate one of the blueberry scones, which were fresh-baked and still hot, while I worked on untangling my thoughts.

“Whether or not something is part of a family story,” I said, talking as much to myself as to my companion, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it is real for people in general, or even for those in the same family. There’s so much that goes into our perceptions of reality—what we hear from family and friends, what we learn from teachers and others in authority, our own experiences, and the cultural stories that create a framework to hold it all together.”

The Crone quietly sipped her coffee, nodding as if to encourage me to go on, but not speaking.

“What I’m looking for is not so much to understand how people decide what weight to give each of these factors,” I continued. “That gets into psychology, and cultural anthropology, and the social sciences in general, all of which have their own particular research studies and metrics. Rather, what I have in mind is just to explore where I might have gotten some of my own ideas about health, and how they can be changed in the realm of imagination.”

“Ah,” the Crone exclaimed, now looking quite pleased indeed, “you want me to tell you a story!”

I thought about it for a moment before I realized that this was exactly what I was asking. “Yes, please.”

After I brought her another cup of coffee, the Crone arranged herself more comfortably in the seat cushions and began, “Once upon a time…”

(continued here)

When I wrote last winter on the topic of sorting out my subconscious narratives about money, I imagined packing off my inner Cinderella to start a new and happier life in the abandoned village of Channelwood from the computer game Myst. After she sailed off into the sunset, I thought that maybe I would feel more comfortable with spending money.

It didn’t quite work out that way, though. This winter, I still felt that my subconscious money stories weren’t what I needed to feel confident about my finances. What was I missing? Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t crafted a new story to replace Cinderella. Just sending her away was not enough; I needed to fill the space with something better, or else those old anxieties would creep back into their familiar haunts.

So I decided to go visit Cinderella and see how she was settling into her new home. I’d promised to bring her some playmates anyway, whenever I found similar characters wandering around in my mind. The journey began with a leisurely carriage ride through the foggy streets of nineteenth-century London, accompanied by young Sara Crewe from the children’s classic “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Sara was a well-mannered and thoughtful child, with dark hair and big green eyes, who had been left with nothing but her pride and her imagination upon being orphaned. All at once, she went from being the most pampered pupil at an exclusive private school to a bleak existence as a half-starved drudge living in the school’s attic with the rats. She never complained, but got through her days by pretending that she was a princess in a fairy tale and that there would be a magical happy ending (which of course there was, since this is an old-fashioned children’s story).

The author’s main point was that with enough imagination, anything is possible. When I read the book as a child, though, it also gave me the message that life is precarious. No matter how good everything seems to be at the moment, it all could vanish tomorrow. Fate is fickle, and even if the story may eventually have a happy ending, there’s no way of knowing how far in the future it could be.

Sun setting in orange clouds over the ocean.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Once aboard the ship, Sara gazed quietly out over the waves with a little smile, as if remembering happy travels in her past. We arrived at Channelwood just as the sun was about to set in a gorgeous orange sky. A small figure ran to greet us at the dock, with rosy cheeks, bright eyes, and strands of golden hair escaping from a simple bonnet.

“You’re looking very well indeed, Ella,” I greeted her. “The sea air and the peace and quiet certainly do agree with you! Here’s a young friend I brought to keep you company.”

After making our introductions, we walked up a neatly swept wooden path to the wicker tree houses of the village, set high in the branches above a bayou. Waves lapped gently at the thick trunks. Flower boxes at intervals along the path were bright spots of color in the fading sunlight. A breeze carried the inviting scent of ripe peaches from a well-tended orchard on higher ground not far ahead, where a windmill spun briskly.

“I’m used to keeping things tidy,” said Ella in a matter-of-fact tone, when I complimented her industrious work. “Really, it’s not that hard. There are oysters in the bay, and sometimes they have pearls, which I can trade for cloth and whatever else I need. The ship comes by often enough that I haven’t felt too alone. It will be lovely to have Sara here, though!”

We both turned toward Sara, who had tilted her head to one side and was gazing up into the branches. She declared cheerfully, “These houses are so tiny, I think they were built by a tribe of monkey people. I can imagine them leaping along the walkways between the trees and swinging from the branches, can’t you?”

Ella’s momentary look of bafflement made plain she hadn’t imagined anything of the sort, but she gave Sara a good-natured smile anyway. “If there once were monkey people, they’re not here now. We have the village all to ourselves, and with two of us, we can fix it up twice as nice!”

The girls chatted enthusiastically by the flickering light of peach-scented candles, over a simple dinner of baked fish and vegetables, about all the things they could do with an entire village to themselves. Then we all slept comfortably, up in the trees, on wicker beds heaped high with down-filled cushions. (In real life, I took a break from writing this post to eat pizza for dinner when I wasn’t sure how the ending would go, and after a while I went to sleep in my usual bed.)

When I woke up much refreshed (in both this story and real life), I noticed a positive shift in my mental energy, which can best be described as an “it’s not that hard” feeling. At first I wondered where it had come from, and then I realized it was the change I had intended to set in motion with this story! After I left Ella’s description of her new life to sleep on last night, it soon found a place in my subconscious where I wanted it. Pearls and orchards—a world of abundance for the picking!

I thanked Ella for her hospitality, said my fond good-byes to both her and Sara, and returned to the ship to sail back into reality—which, as all good readers know, is always intertwined with the realm of imagination.

When my family was living in our starter house in 1998, our old washing machine broke. We decided to give the dryer to charity and buy a new matched set. I stepped outside to the driveway on a warm spring day while I waited for the truck that would collect the old dryer.

The house across the street was a mirror image of ours. They’d both been up for sale at the same time, and we picked the one that had an updated master bathroom (which meant there was a cabinet under the sink, rather than just the original bare sink). The neighborhood in general didn’t have much variety; it was mostly small bi-level homes, and the plat had been only half finished when the developer abandoned it, leaving weedy vacant lots and crumbling curbs just a few streets over.

The truck arrived, and the driver loaded the dryer into it. He was middle-aged and looked tired, like every day was a hard day at work for him. When I mentioned that we’d just had a new washer and dryer set delivered, he nodded as if that was what he expected; and then he said, “So you’re rich.”

“No, I’m not,” I said in astonishment, looking around at the cheap cookie-cutter houses and thinking about the rust-bucket Chevy Cavalier that my husband had driven to work until a few months ago, when he started getting overtime work regularly enough to feel comfortable buying another car.

“You’re giving away a dryer that still works,” the guy observed. “That’s what people do when they’re rich. So you’re rich.”

He drove off, and I went back inside to start a load of laundry in the dusty, unfinished utility area of the home’s lower level, which was all the space we had for the new washer and dryer set. “Rich,” I said out loud, almost laughing as I shook my head, looking at the cheap little water heater just a few steps away, under the harsh light of a bare bulb.

The washer and dryer gave us good service, both at that house and after we moved into our current home. By the spring of 2014 our kids were through college, and we bought the fancy front-loading set we’d been jonesing for. We thought at first that our daughter might ask for the old set, so we put it in a corner of the basement, where it looked quite forlorn with a carpet remnant tossed over it.
 

Old washer and dryer, unplugged in a basement corner. 

After a while we realized the old set was nothing but clutter, and we called the thrift store last fall to schedule a donation pickup. My husband put each piece on an appliance dolly and trundled them up the stairs and out to the garage.

A truck with two young guys showed up early in the day. When they saw that the washer and dryer already had been put in the garage, rather than being left in the basement for them to carry up the stairs, one guy turned to the other and said with a big smile, “This is a great start to the day!”

“Yeah,” agreed Dude #2, “it doesn’t get much better!”

They quickly put the washer and dryer in the truck and drove away, grinning like they’d won the lottery. I stood there watching them go, as I thought about how little it really takes to be rich.

I read a few blog articles last year about the subconscious emotional stories we tell ourselves regarding money, which can affect our choices and finances in the present even though they generally come from long-ago childhood experiences. That made sense to me; but when I first thought about it, I couldn’t identify any such stories that might have gotten stuck in my head.

My finances seemed okay—both my husband and I had fairly good jobs, which we had been able to keep through the recession, and a nice house. The only issue was that we had spent a lot on our kids’ tuition, room and board, etc., while they were away at college, and before that we had sent them to Catholic schools. As a result, there never had seemed to be quite enough money left over for me to feel comfortable spending it on clothes or other fun shopping for myself.

So I asked myself, what kind of story from my childhood would fit that pattern? The houses where I lived as a child were all good places, with plenty of space for me to run around and play. My parents were divorced in the ’70s, and after that I lived with my mother and stepfather. I often wore hand-me-down clothes from a cousin when I was little, without thinking much about it at the time.

The internal narratives that we rely on to make sense of the world are drawn in large part from archetypes—that is, familiar characters representing various aspects of the culture. When I thought about what character might have taken up residence in my head, Cinderella came to mind. Although Cinderella lives in a nice house, she is a stepchild who doesn’t have much that she can call her own, and the money always gets spent on other family members.
 

Girl dressed as Cinderella in old-fashioned clothing with a pumpkin.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Whether or not there had been any reasonable basis for such feelings when I was a child, they certainly didn’t need to be part of my life now, especially after my kids had graduated from college. So I decided to have a little chat with my inner Cinderella and explain a few things to her.

I found her playing with a rag doll family she had made to console herself for being left at home, with the village hag as the babysitter, while her stepsisters enjoyed a lavish trip to France. Sitting down on the rug in front of the fireplace with her, I said, “You know what, Cinderella, it’s time for you to grow up and find a place of your own.”

Dropping the dolls, she stared at me fearfully, no doubt imagining herself cast out to be eaten by the hungry wolves of the forest. After all, she wasn’t the Disney Princess version of the character, but instead came out of the old-fashioned books of fairy tales that I had read before modern revisions took out the gruesome and violent stuff.

“Don’t worry, I’ve found a good place for you to live,” I quickly reassured the poor frightened girl. “There is an abandoned village called Channelwood on an island that’s no longer inhabited. It has lots of pretty houses built high in the treetops, safe from wild animals; and you can gather fruit and vegetables from the village’s old overgrown gardens, catch fish and dig clams. All yours, with nobody around to take it from you or bully you, and a lovely ocean view to give you more perspective on the world. I’ll even send you off with a suitcase full of brand-new clothes for the trip. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

She gave me a hesitant half-smile. “But how…”

“Oh, it’s easy to get there!” I told her cheerfully. “I’ve already made arrangements with the captain of a cargo ship that sails past the island regularly. I know him well—he often carries away my shipments of emotional baggage and my consignments of mental clutter. You’ll be in good hands. And there’s no need to worry about getting lonely; I’ll send you a few nice playmates after a while, as soon as I discover where they have been playing hide-and-seek in my psyche.”

The fire crackled loudly, sending up bright sparks. Cinderella stood up, straightened her ankle-length skirts, and began putting on her big wooden shoes. She still looked just a bit worried as she asked, “Please, may I bring my pet mouse?”

“Yes, of course you may. I wouldn’t dream of leaving him behind.”

An investment advisor that offers its services through my employer’s tax-deferred savings plan tried to drum up more business recently by sending employees a retirement evaluation. Mine had a cutesy red-light graphic and criticized my investment choices as too aggressive for someone my age. Having more stocks rather than bonds apparently means that I can’t be confident of turning into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight upon reaching the magic age, or something of that sort.
 

Pumpkin with carved face and skeptical expression.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

At the risk of branding myself a modern-day heretic, I’ve never had any desire to create either a bucket list or a retirement activities list because no matter what I might put on such a list, I can’t see myself staying interested in it forever. I contribute regularly to the investment plan because it’s always good to have savings, no matter what I might decide to do with them, and because the company match is free money. But I never could make sense of the cultural expectations that every responsible adult should work like a beast of burden for several decades, with the goal of never working again, and that everybody’s life should be fully planned out.

Of course, some folks are indeed happily retired and enjoying the activities on their list. If that’s you, well then—more power to you! But all too often, people retire just because they were told it’s what everyone should want, and then they have no idea what to do with themselves. Maybe they thought they’d enjoy something, but then it ends up not being as much fun as they imagined. It’s a sad fact that depression and suicide rates spike among the newly retired. Shifting gears all of a sudden and leaving behind a busy career can result in feeling lost and adrift, with no meaningful purpose or identity.

Instead of making conventional plans for retirement, Millennials tend to prefer the “financial freedom” approach of keeping their expenses low while they’re young, so that they can build up hefty savings and change jobs or start businesses whenever they feel like it. Buying a house is not the major accomplishment that it was for past generations, but is an expensive burden to be avoided. This works great for people who enjoy frequent travel and the challenge of becoming acclimated to new environments, as well as for minimalists who are not emotionally attached to their stuff.

I would describe myself as somewhere in the middle. I like the comfort and stability of owning a house and keeping a job for a longer period, but I also value new experiences and flexibility. I wouldn’t want a lifestyle of constant travel, but it might be fun to live and work in another country for a year or two. At some point I’ll want to build a new house (I sketched out a floor plan for fun last month). With so many career possibilities in the modern world, it seems likely I’ll develop other work-related interests.

So, what’s my best approach to finances? Never doing any work again is not my goal, and I can reasonably expect to be around for another half-century because of a family history of longevity, so all those computer models based on actuarial tables are not much use to me. Freedom to pursue any interests I may develop is a much more appealing prospect, but how can I put a number value on choices I haven’t yet made?

I suppose finances are like anything else—moderation and incremental changes generally tend to work best, while making course corrections as the need arises.

What does it mean to deserve?

Today’s culture is always telling us that we deserve more. Advertisers deluge us with images of shiny new products, declaring that we should indulge because we’ve earned it. Self-help authors say that we can attract great success by repeating affirmations along the lines of “I deserve to be happy” or “Next year I’m going to earn X amount of money because I am worth it.”

While that’s better than going around with our heads full of negative messages about not being good enough, it still leaves us measuring our worth against what other people have. Because deserving has to do with merit, if one person deserves something and gets it, then by implication others who don’t have it are not as deserving. Maybe they didn’t work as hard or couldn’t stay focused on those happy thoughts. From there it’s just a short step to believing that if someone is poor, unhappy, or sick, it must be their own fault.

Nobody ever wins that blame game, though. It doesn’t matter how many new cars we have in the garage, how well our investments are performing, or how healthy and happy we feel at the moment. Simply put, there is no way anyone can go through life always having more health, wealth, and happiness than the other seven billion people in the world. So if we’ve got the attitude that those who have less are to blame for their own misfortunes, then we naturally end up blaming ourselves for not being as rich and famous as those who have more—and there are always plenty of billionaires and celebrities in the news to make us feel undeserving, if we’re so inclined.

Who needs all that judgmental drama? We’d do better to take the concept of deserving back to its roots—to the original Latin word meaning “serve.” Historically, a deserving person was a good servant. Earning money had nothing to do with it—most servants earned little more than their keep, and many were slaves. Deserving, in its original root meaning, was about being loyal to one’s master and devoted to one’s work.
 

Roots of trees in a forest.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Although we no longer live in a world of masters and servants, we still spend much of our time serving others. Whether it’s by working for wages, owning a small business, caring for our family members, creating beautiful art, or volunteering with a charity after retirement, there are many ways to be a good servant. Giving our work to others is in our nature as human beings, as members of a social species. That’s how we create meaningful accomplishments and leave the world a better place for having been part of it.

Money measures something else entirely. In a capitalist system, money is supposed to be a means of efficiently allocating resources. When sales of a product or service increase, more people invest in it. Some of the profits go toward developing more advanced technologies; then new industries emerge and create jobs, more people can afford to buy products and invest, and the economy keeps on expanding. Of course, it’s not always as efficient as it could be; but that is generally how it functions.

Most investors, with the notable exception of socially-conscious funds, couldn’t care less about whether a company’s goods provide a benefit to humanity. They just want quick profits. A company may have a wonderfully innovative product that would solve many of the world’s problems; but unless enough buyers can be found at a high enough profit margin, nobody’s going to invest in it just because it is deserving in the abstract. The free market is not about making moral judgments and rewarding those who have faith in their products; it is only about getting bottom-line results.

Doing our work with passion and love—being good servants—is not measurable in terms of money or fame. All other things being equal, a passionate worker would make a better impression on people and would be more successful in the conventional sense. But of course, all other things are never equal. We live in a very complicated world where unexpected stuff happens all the time, so why blame ourselves or anyone else for not reaching some arbitrary level of success? When we stay focused on doing our work of service, other things will fall into place in due course.

It’s in the air. We can taste it on every breath—all that restless energy flowing through the culture, dancing wildly into the future, calling us to expand into infinite possibilities and create all the beautiful things in our minds that are just waiting for us to make them real. Life is supposed to be joyful, it tells us. There is so much more we can create and become. We only have to imagine it.

So we meditate, we visualize, we say affirmations, and we believe it’s within our grasp. We try to harness that wonderful creative energy to run before us like the chariot horses of the Roman arena, hooves pounding in a glorious cloud of dust as the finish line nears. We read self-help books that encourage us to follow our passions, whatever they may be, and trust that the Universe will reward our devotion—by sending a big fat bank account our way.

And I’m left wondering just how the passionate desire to create beautiful things got tangled up in our minds with Wall Street-style greed. Why are we so tempted to visualize ourselves quitting our jobs and effortlessly raking in a gazillion dollars from the books we haven’t written yet, the songs we haven’t composed yet, or the movies we haven’t produced yet? Why does everything have to be monetized on a grand scale? Seriously, are those sparkling joyful surges of creative energy telling us to grab the most toys? What’s going on here?

In general, whenever a narrative spreads so widely through the culture, it reflects something that already exists in present-day reality. I don’t mean to say that we’re all ruled by greed, but that we live in a time of vastly expanding possibilities. Modern technologies and cultural changes have empowered us to pursue careers we couldn’t have imagined in the past. So naturally we’re not willing to resign ourselves to a lifetime of soul-numbing drudgery just because people once thought there was nothing better. That, I believe, is what’s at the root of the “financial freedom” narrative—it’s not so much about old-fashioned greed, but about seizing those shiny new potential-filled moments and making the most of them. Money represents possibility.

And that’s all very well in itself; but the downside of equating money with possibility is that when the gazillion dollars never actually show up, it can feel like a personal failure, rather than simply reflecting the fact of a sputtering global economy that still needs time to expand. All that amazing creative energy takes a backseat to obsessively visualizing the big fat bank account and wondering what went wrong.

There is also a subtler trap, which is that we have been culturally conditioned to use the word “dream” to describe doing what we enjoy on a regular basis. That language puts it into the realm of distant fantasy, rather than within reach in everyday life. As a result, we can’t just be happy writing a blog or a novel or whatever because that’s what the creative energy calls us to do in this moment—no, that’s not good enough, we’ve got to have the glittering fantasy of being a super-wealthy celebrity. Otherwise, the culture might always dismiss our efforts as insignificant and leave us stuck forever in a dismal wage-slave existence.

Of course, we don’t really need that big fat bank account before we can take control of our lives. Nor is there any requirement to be a glitzy celebrity before anyone appreciates our creative projects. In fact, there are many celebrities and rich people who are notorious for their totally messed-up lives and always get laughed at in the tabloids. So if wealth and fame aren’t really where control, possibility, and respect come from—then how do we go about getting them?

Simply put, it’s all in the details. Not so much in those bright gleaming visualized details of future grand accomplishments, but in the words and images we use to frame our everyday acts—the details in present tense. I don’t, for example, dream of being a writer. I write stories. Fact. I write a blog. Fact. I control what I write and what I publish. Fact. These aren’t dreams—they are options I have chosen from among the many possibilities open to me in the here and now.

And though I can’t control what other people think of my writing, I have a fairly good idea of how to find readers who appreciate my work. First of all, I need to be consistently kind and courteous, showing others the same respect I’d like to get from them. It’s also important to take the time to put together quality work, free of careless errors. I need to be open to learning from constructive criticism and improving myself and my writing. And last but not least, I just need to get into the flow, relax, and have fun! If I became rich and famous, I still would need to do these things to earn genuine respect. There are no shortcuts to be bought.

I set up my blog on Kindle two weeks ago—not because I had any expectation of making money from it, but just because it seemed like a fun thing to do, as well as a convenience for any readers who might prefer following blogs on Kindle. Here’s a partial screenshot of my page on Amazon, which itself has a screenshot of my blog. I decided to put it into this post because the recursive effect looks cool.
 

Screenshot of my blog subscription page on Amazon.com. 

So far nobody has subscribed to it, but that’s okay because it is just a fun present-tense detail of the intentional life I’m in the process of creating. If I had been seriously planning to monetize my blog, I probably would’ve felt disappointed about not becoming an overnight gazillionaire. And we all know what we attract when we feel disappointed and unsuccessful—yup, more of the same. Simply enjoying the small details may not be as glamorous as the rich celebrity fantasy, but I believe it works out better as time goes by and more of those details fall into place.

We all have different perspectives on managing our money. One common approach to curbing wasteful spending is to think about each purchase in relation to the work done to earn it. Before buying an expensive new gadget or a trendy pair of shoes, a person first stops to reflect on how many hours of work were needed to earn that much money.

While this may be an effective way to break a bad habit of impulse buying, I believe it creates more problems in the long term by conditioning the subconscious mind both to see work in a negative light and to see scarcity rather than abundance. When we measure everything in small increments of time and money, weighing one against the other, we’re left feeling as if we never have enough of either.

Psychologists doing research in this area have found that when people look upon their work in terms of how much they’re paid by the hour, they are more likely to feel that they don’t have time to get everything done in their personal lives. Business owners and salaried professionals actually spend more time at work than hourly employees, on average; but they often feel that they have more free time.

Some of that is because they have enough money to buy their way out of time-consuming chores, such as by hiring a maid instead of having to clean the house themselves. However, I’m inclined to think that much of it really is just a matter of belief. Because business owners look upon their work in terms of challenges and accomplishments, rather than hours, their work doesn’t feel like it deprives them of personal time.

In contrast, when people avoid making impulsive purchases by reminding themselves how many hours of work they did to earn the money, this necessarily implies their job took time away from other things they would rather have been doing. Too much of that attitude builds a wage-slave mentality in which work is seen as a misery to be endured for the required number of hours, all for the sake of buying one’s carefully rationed rewards when each paycheck arrives.

One of the reasons wealthy people don’t think like that is because wages are not their only source of income. Maybe they’re working 60 or 70 hours a week to build up the business, but they have investment accounts earning a good return. They probably also have a substantial amount of equity in real estate and other assets. So when they go out and buy things, the cost is only a small percentage of their total wealth. They don’t see it as chunks of time sucked out of their lives in exchange for wages.

Most of us aren’t wealthy enough to make withdrawals from investment accounts and go on shopping sprees whenever we feel like it. We need to put reasonable constraints on our buying habits, while going about it in a way that won’t leave us feeling deprived of time, money, material goods, or some combination thereof.

I believe the key word in that last sentence is “habits.” We live in a very complicated society, and we navigate its complexities every day by relying on whatever routines we’ve developed. When these routines become unproductive or harmful, then they need to be modified by substituting another habit that works better.

We’re all familiar with the need to change our routines in the context of managing our weight. Those of us who have full-time sedentary jobs can’t eat as much as when we were teenagers, unless we want to spend large amounts of time at the gym. Many people avoid eating too much by reminding themselves of how many hours they’ll have to run on the treadmill to make up for all the calories in that fried chicken and biscuits. This is exactly the same trade-off that is often used to curb impulse buying—time vs. overeating, time vs. overspending, measured in calories and cash respectively.

I’ve found that a more effective way to avoid gluttony (of both the food variety and the consumer goods variety) has been to replace an overindulgent habit with a moderate one. It’s basically an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. I don’t often think about eating fried chicken and biscuits since I started regularly buying baked chicken and salad instead. If a particular store or website seems like it’s getting too much of my money, I change my routine so that I’m not visiting it.

And on the time side of the equation, I don’t force myself to do workouts that I dislike. There are plenty of ways to get exercise that are more fun and are just as effective. If a workout routine is so unpleasant that the thought of doing more of it stops a person from overeating, then the person isn’t likely to be motivated to do enough to get results. Same goes for jobs. Anyone who feels stuck 40 hours a week doing a crummy job probably isn’t performing well enough to earn much money there. It makes more sense to change jobs. Granted, the economy isn’t at its best right now; but as time passes, more opportunities come along.

Although it may sometimes feel like a struggle to control time, spending, and food, this doesn’t mean we should obsess about rationing them. Looking at it from another perspective, we have an unlimited supply of time because there is always more of it as long as we’re alive. As time goes by, there are plenty of things we can do with it. What’s needed is to choose wisely from among the vast possibilities available in today’s world, picking those that are well suited to form enjoyable, lasting habits.

Finding work in today’s economy is not easy. The recession has had lingering effects, and many people have been put out of work by globalization and automation. Some of those jobs are never coming back.

Retraining programs are available to help people start new careers. Many workers are skeptical about the long-term benefit, though. Getting certified to operate a manufacturing robot, for instance, wouldn’t be much use if the robot became obsolete soon afterward. Rapidly advancing technology has created the specter of a nightmarish future where workers routinely get laid off every few years as their occupations vanish.

Modern technology also has created great wealth for those in the right place at the right time. So it’s not surprising to see people changing careers in the belief they’ll find more success pursuing their dreams. “Do what you love, and the money will follow,” is a common adage nowadays. It often goes along with the New Age notion that visualizing success creates good vibes and thus naturally attracts the desired success.

We all filter our reality through the narratives we use to describe it. When we frame our circumstances in more positive terms, we’re likely to believe that more is within our reach. Visualization can be an effective tool for self-hypnosis and focusing the subconscious mind on a goal. The subconscious doesn’t distinguish between fantasy and reality as the conscious mind does.

To that extent at least, we do attract what we imagine, simply because we pay more attention to events that fit the storyline. We are more likely to overlook things when they don’t match what we expect to find. Some of that is just confirmation bias; but visualization also has a dress-rehearsal effect, making us more aware of the necessary details.

Regardless of what opinions one might have about attracting success with good vibes, I think it’s helpful to consider just what success is. Today’s culture encourages finding ways to “monetize” whatever we do. Until very recently, that usage of the word wasn’t even in the dictionary; monetization was something that governments did when they printed money and managed the public debt. But nowadays, there is a widespread belief that anyone who loves something ought to make a career out of selling it.

Of course, not everyone feels that way. The Information Age also has brought about a huge explosion in free creative content, such as open-source software, wikis, Creative Commons, and so forth. Free access is very important to these communities. Their philosophy can be summed up as “Do what you love, for its own sake.”

Although these two very different approaches to “Do what you love” may seem to be diametrically opposed, I see a lot of practical overlap. Putting time and effort into a hobby can improve an existing career. For example, when a software developer spends his evenings writing open-source code, he may end up getting a better job as a result of keeping his skills sharp. Hobbies and volunteer work also can provide valuable networking opportunities. And even if a hobby is completely unrelated to a person’s real-life career, developing a new skill has general positive effects such as feeling more capable and confident, which can lead to more success on the job.

Starting a new career based on one’s passion may seem a tempting idea. Anyone seriously thinking about it needs to be aware, however, that passion often is not the determining factor in whether a new venture succeeds or fails. Having a great love of gardening, for instance, does not ensure that a new landscaping company will be a success. The owner also must have enough business savvy to find clients, keep the corporate paperwork in order, manage the employees, and so forth.

Even if a small business owner does everything perfectly, the business may fail if the economy turns sour. Many companies went bankrupt during the recession because some of their clients went out of business or placed smaller orders, and the banks didn’t have credit available to cover the cash-flow shortfall.

That said, a business venture that doesn’t work out should be viewed as a temporary setback, not as a lifelong failure. Much can be learned from trying new things, whether or not they make money. As to both hobbies and career changes, when we do what we love, something good is likely to follow. It’s not necessarily going to be money, though, and we need to frame our expectations accordingly.