In Oliver Stone’s iconic movie, Wall Street, Charlie Sheen plays a young hotshot in the stock market. At one point he confides to his girlfriend a personal dream.
I think if I can make a bundle of cash before I’m thirty and get out of this racket, I’ll be able to ride my motorcycle across China.”
The hotshot assumes that “a bundle of cash” is the only thing holding him back from his dream. In fact, money is probably the easiest part of his equation.
As Rolf Potts, the author of one of my favorite books, Vagabonding, commented about this same scene,
After all, Charlie Sheen or anyone could work for eight months as a toilet cleaner and have enough money to ride a motorcycle across China.”
The hotshot’s real obstacle is not money. With his job he can easily save the money for his trip. What he really lacks are options, flexibility, time, and the courage to move against the tide of his own society.
Ironically, his inexpensive dream is the very thing chaining him to the drudgery of his job.
In 2009 at 29 years old I set out with my wife on a four-month odyssey that took us from Spain to Peru to the tip of South America and back up to Buenos Aires in Argentina. We didn’t ride a motorcycle, although that would’ve been fun. Our preferred methods of transport were buses, taxis, and our own feet.
When we took this trip we were financially in good shape, but we were not super wealthy. And although we made good money leading up to this trip, we both could have made much more in other job opportunities that would’ve given us less flexibility and less personal time.
What made this trip (and others since then) possible were:
- Flexible jobs and careers
- Low personal financial overhead (no personal debt except a small mortgage)
- Simple (but still very comfortable) lifestyle
- Strong relationships with people at home to hold down the ship
This trip demonstrated to us what I think Charlie Sheen’s character would have learned:
The best experiences in life come from deliberate choices, simple ways of living, and close relationships, not from “bundles of cash.”
For us, chasing more money in different jobs or situations would have given us FEWER of the life options that really matter.
Henry David Thoreau is really the patron saint for this idea of choosing options over money. He has three quotes from the classic book Walden (or Life in the Woods) that distil the idea beautifully.
A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul.”
I have in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross [junk], but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters [shackles].”
[The bracketed comments are mine, because do you really know what “dross” or “fetters” are? I didn’t:)]
Thoreau called people with lots of stuff “impoverished” because he noticed it was these people who were shackled forever to the tyranny of routine jobs and cycles of production and consumption.
I’m not suggesting we all become hermits or anti-materialistic philosophers like Thoreau. But I am suggesting that we become more conscious of our choices with money and our jobs. The mantra “more, more, more” has real costs, as Thoreau’s shows us.
The message I take from Thoreau’s wisdom is to reconsider my entire relationship to money, security, and wealth. It says to really think about what makes me happy in life, and then to consider how money will play a role in that happiness.
I talk a lot about travel, but travel is just one of my particular ways to use more life options. Yours may be different.
What about spending more time with your children, with your grandchildren, with your spouse, with your exercise, with your hobbies, with your charitable cause, with your garden, with your true life calling?
If you were to be honest, wouldn’t you say these are the activities that make you most happy? Aren’t these the things you envision when you dream about financial freedom and cutting free of the shackles?
Yet on a daily basis, people make choices, for example, to get a raise of $10,000 or to do one more real estate flip. Yes, these opportunities make more money, but they also consume a huge amount of their time and flexibility RIGHT NOW!
In this way, they end up spending (as Thoreau put it) “the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the lease valuable part of it.”
Turning down money-making opportunities in exchange for more options and time isn’t easy. You’ll be fighting an uphill battle within your society and within your own mind.
For example, if you really start to pay attention, you’ll notice that conventional wisdom built by business marketing, the financial industry, your job, your parents, and even your own conditioning tells you that this type of thinking is irresponsible, dangerous, or wrong.
But if you seek personal independence and freedom, doing things the same way as everyone else probably won’t get you there. How many people do you know who are truly happy and free? These allusive goals come from unconventional thinking and from uncommon actions.
By switching to a new game … time becomes the only possession and everyone is equally rich in it by biological inheritance. Money, of course, is still needed to survive, but time is what you need to live.”
Ed Buryn, Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa
You’ve just inherited a wealth of 24 golden hours. They start now.
The choice is to survive or to live. What will you choose?