I was bullshitting with some colleagues years ago and the conversation strayed to ridiculous hypotheticals. The following scenario came up:
You're a spy in a foreign country and must pass for a local. You look the part, but you don't understand or speak the language. Not at all; in fact, you can only say one phrase in the country's native tongue (albeit with a perfect local accent). The question: What is the one phrase you would choose, knowing it is the only thing you could utter in any given situation.
My answer: "Don't fuck it up."
This is really the perfect sentiment. It's the best advice in any situation. It's motivational, patriotic, deep, etc. Inflection can give this simple statement so many flavors. It's the universal go-to. Point to latte and say, "don't fuck it up!" and the barista's laughing with you. Get cut off in traffic - a nice angry "Don't fuck it up!" is just what the doctor ordered. Try going around, seeing how long you can manage on this one phrase. You might be surprised.
Even though it started as a joke, the phrase has kind of become a life philosophy. You want to know the purpose of living: not fucking up our lives. That's the main goal, kiddos. Just. Don't. Fuck. It. Up.
This sentiment doesn't require a tremendous amount of unpacking. It's intuitive. However, far too often, it seems, we fail to properly appreciate risk/reward and, as a direct or indirect result, we wind up fucking it up.
That's kind of my point today. On a personal level, there is a TREMENDOUS amount to be gained simply by focusing on avoiding bad things. Our thinking, as a species, seems to favor risk-reward. All we do is talk about opportunity knocking and seizing the day. Chasing after our dreams, not listening to people telling us to quit. Aim for the moon/land among the stars. Follow your passion, blah blah blah. Television, advertisements, movies - all tell us that big, showy moves are the only way to ever accomplish anything worth doing.
It's great when you stretch yourself to get that motorcycle license, but when your brains are leaking onto a cop's shoes after you get rear-ended by a semi in the rain that moment of inspiration doesn't feel so grand. But my purpose is not to hate on expanding our horizons and embracing self-improvement, but rather to encourage it in a smart way.
Part of this is teasing apart risk aversion from playing to win. I argue that, in the real world, the average person's position is far more often improved by a number of small beneficial changes than a single great stroke of luck. And we ignore this truth because, honestly, speaking and thinking about risk mitigation is boring.
Fun fact: I began writing this post in October, 2016. I kept putting it off because it wasn't too exciting (again, it's not exciting). But the other day I was re-reading it and noticed a couple of forward-looking statements I'd made about some financial goals. Suffice to say, they focused on achieving certain difficult (for me) milestones based on steady, incremental progress that was unremarkable in every way except for one thing: there were no self-imposed setbacks along the way.
A year and a half later, I've blown past those goals. The thing is, in the intervening 20 months, nothing really happened. No catastrophes, to be sure, but no amazing windfalls, inheritances, promotions, IPOs, etc. The way things got done was so boring it's almost not worth describing. Grinding along as a cog in Corporate America, living below my means, saving and investing, and generally practicing financial discipline. The only thing remarkable about the process was how boring it was - there was a plan and I stuck to it.
Sticking to a plan, however, entails not doing stupid shit that could (say it with me) fuck up said plan. For example, I passed up opportunities for more speculative investments with a high risk/reward profile. These might have paid off big-time, but they also could have gone to zero. My investment strategies have always been simple buy and hold, with no market timing games (this is one of the few ways you can lose big money in the stock market), no negative life events like kids (no way around it, they're a financial drain), no divorce settlements (my way around this is to not get married) or otherwise overextending myself (for example, taking on big student loans or a mortgage), etc.
There are tons of ways to fuck something like this up. Fortunately, most of them require action on your part. With all the attention on the motivational chase-your-dreams stuff, it seems as though there may be a tremendous amount for the average person to gain, simply by examining different parts of their life from this new perspective. Ask: how can things go wrong/are going wrong and how can I fix/prevent this from happening moving forward?
I can understand why people shy away from the approach. Eliminating downside risk often comes at a price, one that seems unpalatable to many. The biggest drawback seems to be, for lack of a better term, the chance of a windfall. When you eliminate risk and minimize setbacks, you also largely eliminate the option of hitting the home run ball.
People seem to love the big score, so much that logic seems to flag in the face of a big payout. For example, I have watched multiple news stories that earnestly describe how to best handle things if you win the lottery (these seem to occur whenever the Powerball gets into the hundreds of millions). And we all watch the stories side by side, absorbing every instruction while failing to consider the reality, that the odds of this happening are about the same as being murdered by zombie Osama Bin Laden.
Could be a gambling thing. So many people are willing to play a rigged game, just for the thrill of playing. We see this in many forms. Either way, it's tough, mentally.
It's always disappointing to see people make the kind of mistakes when they ignore (or are ignorant of) risks. Things like getting buried in 200-300K in student loan debt on a liberal arts degree that provides no ROI. That is a fuck up that, financially, is super difficult to recover from. Chasing dreams can be dangerous. We need to be smart about it.
Maybe we can make this a movement. Live life in such a way that you, first and foremost, prevent losses. Financially, this means being responsible and growing your net worth in a way that does not involve risky get-rich-quick schemes (the lottery comes to mind). Personally, it means not risking a generally happy relationship for the opportunity to bone your co-worker on the pool table in the storage shed. It means find a way to reduce dependence on things you can't control, avoiding dangerous situations, and not risking that third kid when you're 45 and have brittle X chromosomes.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.