Fear drives a lot of our actions. And like anything in this world, it can be good and bad at the same time.
The fear we feel when the kids go out to play is good fear. Our fear serves to protect them from things they're not yet aware are dangerous. It keeps them alive.
Some fear, however, is bad. Well, maybe not “bad”...let's just say misunderstood. It causes some of us to lose sleep at night. I suffer from this kind of fear daily.
During my 20's I worked my little lady nuts off and socked away money like it was going out of style. It was the era of Enron and Bernie Madoff, so I didn't dare invest it in the markets. No, instead I let it rot away in savings accounts and real estate. I was married at the time and we both worked hard on our own businesses, lived simply, bought everything with cash and managed to each save quite impressive little nest eggs for ourselves.
Yeah, there were a couple of years where I succumbed to the I earned this! mentality, so I bought some fancy things, lived in a fancy house, and basked in all the dumb shit people do to feel successful. It really wasn't that great.
I quickly grew bored, and maintaining all that shit was a real pain. Not to mention, really expensive. I didn't work so hard to support all that crap. It was like having a brood of full-grown adult kids living with me at home and draining my bank account and will to live.
So slowly and steadily we sold off all the nonsense and rejoined the simple life. The savings now had to go somewhere.
I was so exhausted from “investing” for myself, and furthermore, horrified at the amount of money I'd lost. I'm a terrible investor. Terrible! It would make your head spin if I told you how much money I incinerated because I thought I was smart. Nope, I needed an adult to step in and save me from myself.
Time to join the markets.
Get Your Geek On
Being a childless wanderer means I have a lot more free time than most. A lot of time to read and a lot of time to think. I spend most of this time reading books on sociology, economics, history, and all sorts of topics in between.
I'm fascinated by economics and economic theory. It's like being able to look under society's hood and understand what all those weird little wires, valves, and belts are doing, and how they work together to make the engine run.
Once I got the basics of economics down, I ventured into economic history and all of the crazy stuff that our forefathers went through. The booms and busts, the bubbles, the famines, the regulation, the groundwork for our current financial laws. Good stuff.
There has been and are some really awful people responsible for a lot of money. The life savings of teachers, firefighters, and broken blue collar workers which made its way into their accounts drip by drip over many, many years. Since none of us know much what to do with these savings, we have to sit back and pray that those we entrust to invest it for us are not complete psychopaths.
The good news is, 99% of them are not. They are honest, skilled, educated folks who've studied money and how to grow it and know how to keep their hands out of the cookie jar.
But what if that one little steaming turd gets his hands on your retirement account? Oh man.
It took me a long time to develop trust in fiduciaries and markets. And, honestly, I had no choice...I would have driven myself into the poorhouse. I had to grit my teeth and send my precious little dollars out into the world, hoping they'd return to me someday...and bring friends.
Ever since I did this I've spent a lot of time worrying that my retirement fund would be stolen or disappear in some kind of horrific market event. I would be so, so incredibly screwed.
But what am I supposed to do? There's nothing I can do. I have to sit on this plane and let the pilots do their thing. Worrying all the time won't make a crash less likely, so I try my best not to.
What I fear, and what I'm sure a lot of others fear is not necessarily the loss of money. It's the result of that loss. What we fear is poverty.
I love sharing stories that changed my life here. And this is one of my best. Hope it helps somebody else out there deal with fear...even in a small way.
Getting to the Bottom of Fear
I'm sure we all can recall a handful of moments in our lives that changed the course of our thinking. One of these moments for me was about eight months ago when I was listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast.
Tim doesn't really have a “schtick”. His topics range from working out, to entrepreneurship, to relationships, to philosophy. He's just a really interesting dude. He's what I call a “macro-thinker”. He's brilliant at looking at a ton of different life themes and being able to weave them all together. I imagine macro thinkers are like winged souls who are able to rise above the world, look down, and see the human condition as a whole.
On this particular day, I believe he was doing some sort of random question show in which listeners ask whatever they want. I had headphones on and was probably cleaning or something, vaguely listening to his voice in the background.
As I recall, the question had something to do with a listener wanting to start a business and being afraid. Afraid that it would blow up and he'd end up in the poorhouse.
Tim's response was so wise and profound, I had to stop, sit down, stare out the window and process it for quite a while.
I'm absolutely paraphrasing here, not quoting him, but it went something like this:
*“Ok, so you're afraid. That's cool. Let's think about this for a minute. What are you actually afraid of? Let's assume the absolute worst-case scenario. This business doesn't work, you lose everything. Ok. What does that look like? Again, imagine the most terrible outcome.*
Are you homeless? Are you starving? Do you have zero options? Will nobody you know take you in? Will you be unable to procure food and shelter under any circumstance? Will you die in the streets?
My guess is none of these things will happen. Even if you lose every last penny to your name.”
What I gathered from his answer was that we tend to imagine things will be a whole lot worse (or better) than they actually will be. Our brain really doesn't know the difference between “bodily harm” fear and “fear of poverty” fear. It's all the same: nauseatingly uncomfortable.
But what Tim said next was the real gem (again, paraphrasing from memory):
*“If you've imagined the worst case scenario and you are still afraid, think about this: try living your fears. If you are afraid of the electricity getting shut off, shut it off yourself. What do you do?”*
I followed along with this thought experiment. Perhaps I'd do all the things that required light during the day, when abundant light streams in for free. I could read at night by candlelight, or with the headlight from my bike. I could cook on my camping stove, wash laundry by hand, and leave it to dry outside when the hot sun came back.
No matter which scenario I ran, I was never defeated, destitute or naked.
If I needed to work on my laptop I could go to the library and use their electricity and internet. My work would not have to stop.
Even if I cut myself and needed stitches, perhaps I could work out a trade with the local doctor. I have many valuable skills. I know I could produce something worthy of my medical bill.
I ran what-if? after “what-if?* and couldn't seem to get to death or nakedness no matter how hard I tried.
The exception was a life-threatening accident requiring hospitalization. That scenario meant death. So a few days later I purchased a cheap, high-deductable medical policy that would cover that and a separate policy that would cover devastating chronic conditions such as cancer, heart attack, or stroke. As long as I could make $74 a month to cover the premiums, and had $7500 in the bank to cover the decuctables, I wouldn't die. I was pretty certain I could find a way to make $74 a month in cash, so a crazy thing happened...I was feeling alright for the first time in years.
This experiment was indeed liberating. But, as a weirdo who's never satisfied, I had to go further.
My January was looking a little barren. (I have a business at the moment that's feast or famine. When the work rains, it pours. Otherwise, crickets. Maybe my clients all conspire to dump work on me at the same time?)
So I'm looking at my calendar and the crazy starts flying. Above all, my biggest fear about poverty is losing the ability to travel like I have for so long. So I'll take Tim's advice:
I will become voluntarily homeless. Additionally, I will travel with only the equipment I have. My bicycle and my legs.
If I can do this, I don't have to be afraid anymore.
It's winter in Florida and Key West is calling.