Midlife Reset (Part III) ReThinking 10 Years Later

TL;DR

  • Community is better than being self-sufficient
  • Transformed lives are better than many lives impacted but not self propagating
  • We are adaptable
  • We can be content and grateful with just the necessities
  • Why Worry?

My three rethinking posts were written at the end of December 2021, but I delayed posting until plans for my retirement had been settled. I think anyone reading this would realize I was transitioning and didn’t want to send that signal before my boss and company were ready for others to know.

Independence –> Interdependence

For most of my life I have strived to be independent. To be able to take care of myself. In high school I imagined being self sufficient, living off the grid: to grow my own food and to get power to renewable sources. Throughout my adult life I have had thoughts of living on a sailboat or in an RV, having everything I needed for life in a small, movable space. I wanted a small cocoon of safety and security, a core I could always trust.

The simple / off-grid / independent dream was fueled by fears rather than maximizing what I most wanted. My fears didn’t want to be dependent on others who might fail me. I also wanted to be free from the fear of failing others who depended on me. You can’t be totally independent and also be an integral part of a community. You have to welcome help and provide for others when you are able. I have discovered my deepest joy has come from being in a healthy community and having good personal relationships. Relationships built on love that has no agenda. An independent life might be “free” and “safe”, but it is also impoverished.

I have found building a strong community requires time and the parties to have a willingness to engage. Ten years ago it seemed inconceivable to leave an existing community and start over. Ironically, the community I wanted to keep was fraying, and I was successfully building a new community. After Libby died many of my friends pulled away. A few years later when I switched churches to join Jackie many of my friends from the old church were  too busy to get together.  Jackie and I found that when we initiated and invested we have been able to build a new community. Our new community doesn’t have the depth I experienced after 20 years, but it is deepening as time goes on.

A VC I recently met (and has just exited the Bay Area) observed that a lot of people come to the bay area from across the world to make their fortune and leave their mark. That’s what he did. They are so focused on their mission (and often lacking interpersonal skills) that relationships are purely instrumental… it’s all about extending a professional network.  You can get a first meeting, but you won’t hear from people for a second meeting if you aren’t a useful connection. My daughter told me about how she would regularly be snubbed by people as soon as they  realized that she wasn’t someone who could connect them to other high tech people who could help their career. On top of this is a busyness caused by the drive to succeed. Even my most intentional friends often get caught up in the busyness. If these weren’t enough of a challenge, there is the high cost of living which makes the area more transient than many locations. The local ethos makes it hard to build and maintain healthy communities.

Jackie and I recently spent six weeks in Santa Rosa. We attended several meet ups, talked with some neighbors, and attended a few churches. Santa Rosa Christian Church did an amazing job welcoming us. Even though they knew we were just evaluating the area they were happy to engage. I found people in Santa Rosa significantly more open than the people I encounter in Mountain View.

For the last thirty years I have tried to resistant some of the more toxic aspects of the bay area culture. I have tried to be a light in the darkness. I am tired. There are many things that are great about the bay area, but community is a definite negative. The time we spent on Santa Rosa felt a bit like being welcomed home. We haven’t settled our long term plans, but we are going to be spending more time exploring Santa Rosa. I am looking for to building into a new community.

High Impact Now –> Exponential Future

I have always wanted to have a positive impact on the world and leave it in a better condition than I found it.  I tend to be a utilitarian.   I thought about this in terms of an equation 

total good = number-of-people-impacted * positive-impact

Estimating number of people is fairly strait toward. Quantify  impact is hard. I  think people’s lives have a physical, mental, spiritual, and a relational component. I have always been unsure how to balance these things. Equally weighted? There is a priority order? Maybe there is a minimize level required after which it’s better to impact other areas. How to factor in diminishing returns?

When I look at the Bible, when I look at Jesus teachings and life, I don’t see admonitions in terms of maximizing good. I see a focus in a much smaller domain. How we are treat our neighbor and our family.  One could say it was a tactical focus. Part of me is inclined to say “Ah… that’s because they didn’t have the technology we have today that gives us huge leverage.  Back then you could only influence a small number of people personally, now we can touch millions, if not billions of people.” While technology, the printing press, phones, computers, etc provides leverage and it impacts individuals, it doesn’t transform. The impact is not self sustaining.

Sidenote: I just finished reading the book  Four Thousand Weeks which has lot to contribute to the topic of working on things that matter, though there are some misses because he doesn’t understand the interplay between finite and eternity. I haven’t incorporated any of observations from his book in this post.

I have noticed that I get a greater sense of satisfaction from helping one person personally than working on a project that potentially impacted millions of people. Why was that? Could it be hinting a something I might have been missing? I was reminded about the power of compounding.  Jesus’ focus on his 12 disciples not the crowd. Robert Coleman captured this beautifully in the book The Master Plan of Evangelism. At the beginning, the strategy seems slow and ineffective, but over time it literally touched the whole world. While a bit artificial there are several videos which try to show how one simple act of kindness (love) can spread virally and the movie Pay it Forward. Love is an unlimited resource because it comes from God. It is the only resource that grows as you share it. Living a simple and loving life which slowly leads to transformation in other individuals will bring about more goodness than doing something that impacts millions of people but doesn’t replicate beyond that. This is a topic I will write more about later.

Ten years ago I decided to look for an opportunity to work on a product which would positively impact millions of people. One of the best places to do that is in a bay area high-tech company. I believe the work I contributed to at 23andMe had a small impact while I was there, and will have a profound impact to millions of people in the future due to the amazing database and how I think that will impact drug discovery. I am going to shift my focus from making high impact products to finding ways to bring the transforming power of love into the hearts of people. This is best accomplished through personal interaction. Few will see the impact of this sort of “work”, but I believe it will have a larger long term impact that something that would be seen by millions of people today.

We are Adaptable

Jackie regularly encourages me to stop planning/worrying and to live in the present. She tells me that  if something has to change in the future, we will adapt. This often comes up when talking about savings / long term investments but this comes up in a number of areas. My default is to save money for the future. Jackie is more interested in finding ways to make the most of the moment. She isn’t advocating being wasteful, but rather optimizing decisions for what we see now, rather than what might be in the future.

Ten years ago I was learning a lot about how people experienced grief and worked through significant trauma.  One common lens for this was looking at people’s happiness. Studies had repeatedly discovered that in the face of a difficult situation, most people recover and return to a baseline happiness within 9-18 months. In the field of positive psychology this is referred to adaptive hedonism.  We get used to a new normal. If you come into a lot of money there is a brief boast, but then it just feels normal. Likewise, suffer an extreme lost, such as losing use of legs will initially be crushing and continue to have implications throughout life. Loss aversion makes it seem even more horrible. Yet, most of people who have experienced this loss return the approximately the same level of happiness and contentment they had before the loss. There are some people that these sort of losses actually have a transformative effect, where they are actually better after the loss.

As with grief, we adapt to our changing financial situation. The difference between “want” and “need” is around a week. That is to say that something which you consider a luxury becomes a “necessary” once you have gotten used to it. This is an example of adaptive hedonism. This can also work in reverse. While we fear losing material wealth, so long as we have “the basics” discussed below, we are able to adapt. In some cases, we might do better because we have been freed from an excessive focus on what we used to have.

People who adhere to stoic philosophy encourage devotees to regularly deprive themselves to experience that they are OK with less. To systematically desensitize loss aversion. Having these experiences can greatly reduce fears.  This is closely related to learning to be content with the basics I described below. One of the way I practiced this was spending a bit of time as a digital nomad. I only had what was easily carried on my back and stayed in a very basic studio apartment. My time wasn’t as pleasant as home, but it was perfectly fine.

I used to assume that my standard of living has to be maintained. Likewise I used to say that I can’t plan on spending less until I had actually done it. Yet I have lived a more frugal life. Jackie regularly reminds me that we can adapt. Rather than wasting time worrying about the future, constantly evaluating decisions today to ensure we can maintain our current standard of living, I will focus on living in the present, being generous, and trust in God’s goodness and the ability to adapt that God has built into every person.

With Food, Clothing, and Shelter I Will be Content

While I don’t desire typical “luxuries”, I have a tendency to strive to have more than “just the basics”. I can lose track of what is actually required for a good and rich life. The apostle Paul wrote in I Tim 6:8 “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” I like a modern variant

What’s the worst that can happen? Well, the worst that can happen is that I’d have a backpack and a sleeping bag, and I’d be eating oatmeal. And I’d be fine. I think if you do that once or twice … you don’t necessarily have to live like that, but knowing that you can be content is tremendously empowering.

Kevin Kelly quoted in Tim Ferris Blog

Survey is after survey has found that people’s “happiness quotation” increases with wealth until they have  adequate food, clothing, and shelter.  Additional wealth does not reliably increase people’s happiness after that. Some of the most unhappy people I know have amassed a fortune, yet they don’t seem to enjoy the fruits of their labor. This suggests thats we should strive to achieve basics, and tread carefully if we strive beyond that.   

Our modern society expectations have been strongly influenced by media produced in the US which has popularized a “middle class” lifestyle, if not the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Much of the world now has expectations that go beyond the basics Paul talked about: a subsistence diet and clothing to wear which provides adequate protection from the elements. The modern “basics” include “tasty” meals, a wardrobe, a house with running water, electricity, heat, and maybe air conditioning. The cost of these modern “basics” in most US cities is $50-70k/year. There are people who feel they have a “rich life” living well below these numbers. For example advocates of FIRE, like Mr Money Mustache enjoyed a “rich life” spending less than $30k / year, and there are folks who have moved to other countries happily living on less than $20k / year. Of course location changes what is possible as does health care. There are high expense areas like San Francisco, where the basics are going to be more expensive. A room just large enough for a mattress and access to a bathroom can easily cost >$1000/month.

People often expect that the better off they are financially, the happier they will be. Ironically, the people with the most life experience know in their hearts this isn’t the case. I often ask people near the end of their lives for some of their happiest memories. More often than not, the memories they share are during a period of time that were financially challenging. Not deprivation — they  knew they didn’t have to go hungry — but  they only had money for the “basics”. I would hear about an ultra-budget recipe that was “so good”, stories of how some device was jerry-rigged to keep working, cuddling under a blanket to keep warm in the winter, funny activities they engaged in to make “ends-meet”. Each of the stories typically included how they drew closer to the family or community.

I know when I think about some of my happiest times I was living with just the basics. My first year of college didn’t go well, so I stopped school ramped up my part-time “student” (or is that slave wage) job.  It took a while for my job to be switched to a full time salaried position.  For a couple of  years I lived in a house with a dozen other guys that had one shower and slept in a homemade bunk bed with around two feet between my mattress and the ceiling. I didn’t own a car and had a small number of possession.  I ate meals that were generally rice and beans or ramen noodles , with splurges that included eggs,  mac&cheese, or tuna fish, because those were affordable and easy to prepare foods. I didn’t feel deprived, because my peers were living in a similar manner. It was enough. I wasn’t thinking about acquiring more things or making more money.  I was in a community, and had a  of purpose.

In retrospect I could have had a higher standard of living. Once I switched to a salaried position I could have afford to have an apartment of my own, purchased some nice furniture, etc. Instead I was sharing a portion of my wages with people who had less than I did. I would cover friends when we went out for a beer after evening meetings or taking them out for a meal at a restaurant. What gave me extra joy was not spending money on myself but using my “extra” money to bless others.

In more recent years I have spent taken retreats or mini-sojourns where I lived very basically leaving most of my material goods behind.  I had one or two changes of clothing, something to sleep on, and the most basic kitchen utensils. Did this pose any problem? No, it  felt liberating.

Ten years ago in the midst of a lot of struggle and change I decided that freedom to spend money without worry was the freedom I craved. At that time I forgot something that I have known for years. To be content and not to want more is a greater freedom. As I have been consciously working to spend less I have been finding my contentment growing. For example, I found the start of my first shopping diet very challenging. The diet was preventing me from buying things I wanted, that I had some sense I needed. After a few months the diet did not feel restrictive. It felt like freedom. It gave me a powerful tool to push against the consumerism which surrounds us.

True story, Word of Honor: Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer now dead, and I were at a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island.

I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel ‘Catch-22’ has earned in its entire history?” And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.” And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?” And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.” Not bad! Rest in peace!”

Kurt Vonnegut, The New Yorker, May 16th, 2005

Today I strive to be grateful that I have adequate food and shelter, and not to worry beyond today. The gratitude is going well, the staying focused on today is a work in progress ;).

Planning Worry isn’t Fruitful

I used to say that I didn’t worry about money. I am just  a responsible planner. The truth is I put quite a bit of my sense of security and well being into the money I had accumulated. My finances are in a much better shape than the average American, but I still find myself thinking about, worrying about  money. Was I having troubles paying for food or shelter? No. Was there something I “needed to do” but couldn’t afford it? Again, the answer was no.  What was I worrying about? Would I have enough money to maintain my current lifestyle when I was 95 years old without being a burden to others. That’s kind of crazy. I want enough money to be able to shield myself from unnecessary pain, and have enough of a buffer that I can weather any financial storm. I was looking for security that I can only come from trusting a loving, omnipotent God.

Accurately predicting what the world will be like 50 years out is nearly impossible. We know the economy will change, companies will grow and/or shrink, old companies will fail, new companies will come into existence. For example, Exxon is the only company that was  the top 20  of Fortune’s 500 list  in 1960 that is still in the top 20 today. Of the current top 20, only six of the companies even existed in 1960, that doesn’t include Walmart which was formed in 1962. Powerful companies from the 1960s like  US Steel  (5th in  1960)  is now 172nd. Next, there is no telling what will happen with inflation, bank stability, world stability, etc.   It’s also difficult to predict what an equivalent of a “current lifestyle” would be. Some things which sound like science fiction might be considered basics of life, while things that are currently high value luxuries might be undesirable. Finally, my values, my expectation of lifestyle might radically change.

The Bible is filled with admonitions to trust God. To remember that He cares for us and loves us. That He created a world that was filled with a natural bounty to provide for our needs. Psalm 23 is one of the most commonly quoted passage along these lines. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:27) Jesus observed “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” Bible is also filled with stories of how wise men saved during prosperous times which enabled  their community to thrive when the days were more difficult. One of the most striking stories was how God used Joseph to save an entire region during an extended drought.

What’s an appropriate level of planning and savings?  I am still working on that, but I know it’s more trusting God and less planning than I have in the past. I often try to control circumstances in the hope that this will bring happiness and safety. I know this is foolish. Control circumstances  is at best illusionary. Striving for happiness detracts from experiencing joy which is far better. Absolute security can only come from trusting a loving and omnipotent God. It seem I learn these lessons, forget them, and then have to re-learn them every few years.

What’s Next?

I don’t expect radical changes in our lifestyle. We will continue on our slow but steady path toward a simpler life. We know that unless there is a huge surprise we can afford our current lifestyle for several years even if we had no new money coming in. After that? I am sure things will change, but I am not sure how.  Our investments might go up (our portfolio when up over 20% during first part of the pandemic?!) or down (my 23andme stock dropped 80% post IPO). We don’t know what will happen to the rental market. Property which is cash flow positive now could end up being a money sink.

If money is getting tight we will sell our home and use that to live the years we have left. I expect that the sale of our home would meet the “4% rule” for an ultra frugal lifestyle in a low cost city in the USA, Portugal, Costa Rica, or other “affordable” country.  Maybe my 23andMe stock evaluation will rebound and continue to advance once they demonstrate a reliable drug discovery pipeline. In that case, our struggle will be to find ways to give  money away.  Maybe there will be some sort of economic disaster which leaves only enough money to move into a small camper,  return to Taiwan to live with relatives, or move into a monastic community. Any of those options would be ok. I know that I can be content with the basics and that Jackie and I will together build a community.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

James 4:13-15 ESV

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