Normally when a parent leaves a letter to his child the doors and windows are closed. However, when your dad is a business owner and somewhat known due to decades of publishing, the public will want to look in the window. Regardless, this letter is for you and no one else.
My fondest hope is you will print and carry this letter with you. There are many things I want to share with you about life. I know it looks daunting and impossible at times, but it isn’t that bad. During those darkest hours, hours when you doubt your own judgment, you can reference this letter and know that your father has felt this way many times in his life. Watching me over the years you probably think it comes easy for me. It doesn’t. I fight as hard as or harder than the next guy to achieve goals.
The same applies for those moments of excessive glee. Honing the highs and lows is an important part of living a joyful life. Always keep an optimistic attitude. Regardless the situation, it helps. Things are never as bad as they seem and rarely perfect either. Life is in the middle.
Life is a journey best taken at a gentle pace. Don’t rush! Goals are fine as long as there is more. The only real goal life offers is death and you will get that right the first time, same as everyone else. What matters is what you do now, at this very moment. Yesterday is a memory; tomorrow a dream. All that is real, all that matters is this moment in time. The universe is not 13.7 billion years old. It is one moment only. This moment. The one you live in.
Living a Joyful Life
I see how confused you look at the world around you. You are not even sure what dream to follow or if your dream is just settling. It’s not. You are searching. It is what humans do. We take the world around us and try to make sense of it. People sell you a bill of goods they think is the right way to do things. The truth is only you can decide that course. And the choice is not permanent! You will change your mind. It’s called evolving. Nothing to worry about. It is a good thing.
It breaks my heart to look at you. Life deal you a difficult hand. Medical issues will always be part of your life. Never allow it to define you, however. You are a young boy with a bright future before you. There is no hurry to decide what path you will take in life. Take it one day at a time. When the right thing enters your life, you will know.
Notice I did not title this section “Living a Happy Life.” Happy is different from joyful. Life can test your happiness, but joy is something totally different. Joy is knowing it’s okay no matter where you are or what happens.
Joy is about living in the moment. The best way I know to feel joy is to stop feeling vested in the outcome. Sporting events and political dramas are things you have no control over. None. Placing your bet on the outcome is a sure way to destroy joy. And joy is the reason for living.
Joy is bred in optimism. There is a guy, Warren Buffett. He is really rich. You heard me talking about him more than once. Well, as the years go by you may forget who he is, especially once he dies. Warren is a remarkable man.
Warren is the most optimistic man I know. Regardless the situation, he always proclaims it will get better. And he is right. Look what the human race, especially the United States, did in the 20th Century. The car, airplane, nuclear power, radio, TV and the moon landing were all achieved in one short span of time. Yet the planet suffered two world wars and nuclear weapons. The stock market crashed more than once, a Great Depression swept our planet and AIDS decimated many countries. And still, Warren said we will be okay and we are. Learn his optimism.
Joy is found in peaceful thinking. Worry about disease or nuclear Armageddon is wasted time. If it happens, it happens. Live each day until the end. In the end we are all dead. What defines us is how we lived before we died. Too many people die while they are still breathing. Don’t be one of them.
Joy is contentment. It can be had anywhere. You decide, you choose. And when you feel joy, you are generally happy. If nothing else in life works, this one thing, joy, makes it all worthwhile.
Don’t demand education to be as you want it. Allow it to happen. Forced education is worthless. Very little education comes from the classroom. Most learning is done out in the real world as you gain experience. Remember, all the stuff they teach in college someone though of on their own. Many more read the books and learned the same knowledge as taught in school without a formal education. When the time is right you will get your college degree. You are an intelligent young boy. You try so hard only to hit the wall. The truth is you don’t know what you want yet. Ask the questions. The answer will come to you. Then do it. Then live it.
Steve Jobs, he is the guy who started Apple Computers, dropped out of college. And look what he did. But he did take classes that interested him. He found a way to learn and grow. For you, education will be more about not reinventing the wheel. You need to learn where everyone else left off so you can take the ball and run. You have an awesome future. Always stay focused on what fills your mind when you close your eyes.
Learning never stops. Read good books. Find ways to have as many experiences as possible. The failures teach more than the successes. And think of all the stories you can tell. Look at all the trouble dad got into and never quit! Makes for some good stories, doesn’t it? I can see you smiling now. Knowing dad like you do, would you want me any other way? Yeah, I feel the same about you. You are just perfect as you are. Always be you.
If there is one thing that can destroy happiness and joy, it is debt. Debt is a harsh taskmaster. Debt is the acid which destroys the vessel which holds it.
Some debt is worse than others. Consumer debt is the worst. Credit cards and similar debt has no reason to be in your life. The worst parts of my life generally included money I owed someone else, usually the bank. It’s not worth it. If I can convince you of one thing, it is to avoid debt.
Student loans are a tough one. I still say you should avoid student loans. I am willing to spend what I have on learning, but paying interest means you will have less later to spend on learning and experiences. With rare exception, student loans must be avoided. If you find yourself in a situation where a small student loan makes sense, pay it off as fast as possible. No games or gimmicks to avoid paying the debt at all. Life is too short for such burdens.
Business loans sometimes are the right thing to use. Again, use business loans sparingly and only for things that currently bring a profit. Borrowing for a speculative business venture is gambling and that always ends badly. Pay down the business loan as quickly as possible. Profits and cash flow are always better when the bank is not getting a piece of the action.
Mortgages are the biggie. Buying your first home probably requires a mortgage. I am okay with a mortgage as long as it is not a tool to buy more home than you can afford. Make extra payments. Kill the mortgage as fast as possible. Never fall for the tax deduction trick either. The mortgage interest deduction is a joke and really worthless. You still get the standard deduction if you don’t itemize, so paying off the mortgage can sometimes be like double-dipping. Of course, the tax code will probably change by the time you get that far. You understand what I am saying. Keep debt low and retire it as quickly as you can.
Debt is a lot of stress, stress you don’t need. Debt will distract you from the things that bring you the greatest happiness and joy in life. It will take you away from family and friends. Tie you down to a job you hate. Debt causes people to do things they would never consider otherwise. If you never had a penny of debt in your life you will not have missed a thing.
Society wants to convince you you need stuff now. Don’t listen to society and marketers. Most stuff, most things you spend money on you don’t want! If you don’t buy it you will not remember what it is you wanted a year later.
Be slow to purchase. Spending is best done later, if at all. Some spending is wise. Fixing a leaking roof will prevent greater expense later. But leaking roofs are not the problem. The latest gismo is, choose a limited amount of electronics and buy no more. Learn to say, “Enough.”
“I want” are the two words preceding most suffering in life. Want causes pain. You can walk out of a store without buying something. Looking at something does not require purchase.
Major purchases are especially important to delay. The fewer cars you own in life the wealthier you will be. Only simple minded people are impressed by a fancy car! Too much home is a drain on wealth and will force you to work more than is necessary. Then you will have less time to enjoy the big house. Smaller is better. Trust dad on this one. I wish we had a smaller home. It is more than I want or need.
The trick is to be satisfied with what you have. Dissatisfaction in one area of life spills into other areas. Wanting more destroys relationships. I think the reason mom and dad have such a happy and fulfilling marriage is because we were always satisfied with what we had. So neither of us desired another bed. And we are still human. We notice other attractive people. We just realize we already have what we want.
Saving and Investing
This is an easy one. The world makes this out to be some great big challenge. It isn’t. All you do is save half of what you earn and invest in broad-based index funds with enough money in short-term vehicles (bank accounts or short-term government bonds) to handle current needs. In short order you will accumulate a modest fortune. The best plan is an automatic one. Set it and forget it. Markets will go up and down. Neither matters to you. What interests you is the income stream of the investment and that doesn’t change much day-to-day.
How much is enough? That is another pressing problem the world seems to have. It takes only a small amount to live. No matter where you are, even traveling, you can always turn some coin. You could help people set up and fix computers as a side. Your interests will change with time, but you understand what I am saying. You don’t need a massive nest egg to set aside the grind society demands you pursue.
Personal finance preachers talk about the 4% Rule and similar advice for determining when you can give up the rat race. It’s all garbage. I know you hear me talk about the 4% Rule or sometimes telling people they need 25 times their annual spending in investments. I say it because people believe it and I need to go where people are to get them to where they need to be.
Follow your great-grandfathers advice instead: Never take off the pile. Your invested capital is sacred. Never touch it! The income stream from the capital is all you use for consumption. Never more. The 4% Rule and similar advice can fail under certain circumstances, even unlikely circumstances. Great-granddad’s rule never fails, ever. If your broad-based index fund fails only consuming the income stream there are bigger problems in the world affecting you. There is no advice I can give to deal with such an unknown other than to encourage you to embrace the Stoic philosophy. Keeping Seneca and Epictetus at your bedside is always a good idea.
Conservative investing is all about preparation. It means recognizing that the moments when cash is available is not a license to pick up the latest adult toy to wheel out of the dealership. A successful investing life is less about what you do during an economic storm, it is about not selling low and patiently holding onto an investment. Self control can make you far more money than just about any other trait as an investor.
Finding Fulfilling Work
The world will have plenty of advice on how you should live your life. Disregard it. Only you know what is fulfilling work. Look to dad and grandpa as examples. Both of us started businesses in a very unconventional manner. If you follow all the rule society tells you to follow, your business will fail.
Find what you enjoy doing. The search for meaningful work is not as hard as you make it. Stop looking! It will come to you. As you go through life there will be more fun things to do that generate an income than you will have time for. Pick what works for you and go with it.
Don’t be Afraid to Change Your Mind
And when something different shows up you can either incorporate it or change course. You are not locked into one path. I have been accused in the past of changing my mind a lot. It sure beats sticking to a path not working. Changing your mind is a good thing. It means you are growing. Never allow someone to lock you into the past when, after careful consideration, you wish to change direction. Think, then act.
Consume Less Commercial Media
I can see you rolling your eyes already. This is a case of do as I say and not as I do. Reading is awesome, but most news is less than worthless. Immersing your mind daily into all the crises of the world sends your brain the wrong message. It feels like the world is always crumbling when it isn’t doing so any more than in the past. Worse, you can’t do anything about it!
As bad as watching/reading news can be on the brain, commercial media is even worse. The constant repeating of a message built to serve a large corporation is not in your best interest. As much as you try to avoid the influence these commercials have, they still have an effect. Best to avoid them. Besides, life is best lived doing things. Spending your precious time as a lump being spoon fed drivel is a bad idea.
Good books, even novels, are generally not a part of commercial media. Take time to read each day, but only a modest amount of time. Read, then do. Reading is important, leaving the house and doing other things is important too.
Remember, balance in everything.
Dating, Marriage and Sex
Oh yes, the sex talk. Amazing as it sounds, I feel I have something to add on the subject. Once again, societal norms will mess with your head and the push is much stronger when it comes to interpersonal relationships and sex. People allow emotions and lust to guide their actions. It is a toxic mix.
I only knew one other woman in my life. Mom can say the same with men. Neither of us was ever promiscuous. I think that is important and you seem to be following in our path. It goes back to that feeling of enough. I wasn’t looking for something better; I was looking for someone I could spend my life with happily.
When dating, look for certain traits. Attractiveness is important, but time will take care of that. Instead, focus on what is inside. Avoid people with thin skin or who are easily offended. There is always something to be offended by. People like that don’t change. Their dramas will suck the pleasure out of life.
The best place to find a mate is where you live life. When you are doing things you enjoy you will find like-minded people. Since you will spend more time talking and sharing than in bed, best to find someone pleasant to talk with and do things with. Sex is just window dressing. I know, I know. I am turning sex into some rather boring subject. But it is. It goes in and out until the explosive moment, usually within ten minutes or so. Now you need to fill the other 23 hours and 45 minutes of the day.
Sex is one of those awesome things in life. People want to make it dirty. Is isn’t. The human body is marvelous and beautiful. There is nothing wrong with pleasures of the flesh, religion aside. I’ll get to that in a moment.
But sex is also personal. Spreading it around takes away the specialness of it. Sex is more about intimacy than lustful desire and pleasure. The tenderness between a couple after sex is more nurturing than the actual act. Lust, or more to the point, hormones, drive us toward sexual contact, but afterwards is the beautiful part.
Use birth control and protect against diseases. As much as I avoided sexual contact with multiple women, I also know things happen. It isn’t worth dying over.
Limit your sexual partners. More is not better. Mom was a lot more puritan when she met me. Poor girl. She never saw it coming.
Always remember, sex is not dirty. There is nothing wrong with sexual intercourse. Intimacy is an important part of the human condition. Always be kind and gentle. Allow your partner the same intimacy.
Don’t withhold intimacy. Sometimes life or illness reduces the drive. It is okay to abstain then. Even intimacy declines at certain times. Just never use it as a weapon. Sex, love and intimacy are not bargaining tools. Sometimes the best way to work out a problem is to start with a romp. I know, hearing this advice from dad is a bit awkward. But trust me. The greatest gift I ever received in my life was your mother.
Long-term relationships are something I know I have something to say about. As I write this mom and I are weeks away from our 30th wedding anniversary. My greatest success in life is my relationship with your mom. She is an awesome woman.
People don’t get married as much today. I am fine with that. You can still have a fulfilling life-long relationship. I wish I had a magic formula to give that led to mom and dad surviving for so long. All I can say is that I look to mom for guidance and trust her and she reciprocated. We share everything; we are open books to each other. Talking is vital. We talk a lot about everything. Even crazy stuff. We have fun while allowing each other to live their life.
Mom and I both changed over the years. Our interests evolved, sometimes in different directions. Rather than try to manipulate mom into a path I find more familiar or similar to mine, I allow her to find her own path. We are different, but so alike. We enjoy being together. We planned out life together. We are always satisfied with what we have. When I started the business and I cut spending to poverty levels, mom never once complained. She was as happy then as she is now with what we have. That is what you want in a mate; it is how to live your life to be a mate. Notice I did not say perfect mate. There is no such thing. Each side will make mistakes. It will happen! Forgive quickly. Get the hurt out, then forgive. Remember, you will be older faster than you realize.
God and Religion
Religion is always a tough issue to discuss. My parents were very religious and the rigid demands eventually destroyed my faith. When the words were not backed up with actions I quickly learned religion was a tool to manipulate people.
Having said that I still have faith, only in a different way. Organized religion is a weapon used to control the masses. I stand opposed to such manipulation. At the same time there are many Bibles around the house and I read them on a regular basis. The words of Jesus are straight from the Stoic philosophers. Most of what Jesus said was not new when he said it, but who cares? They are good words. Even to live by.
I gave up church a long time ago. You may wish to return to my roots. I am okay with that. Remember, at some point in the past one of our ancestors was not Christian. If you go back 2,000 years they certainly were not Christian. At some point they decided to follow the Christian teachings over their own. Probably at the point of a gun. Better to read the Bible than take an ounce of lead to the skull. What I am saying is that man has come up with a lot of gods over the generations. They all thought they were right only to be replaced by another god. Don’t be so certain you are right. Instead, seek to learn from the message while always questioning. Questioning is always a good thing to do in every part of life.
You need to find your way on your own when it comes to religious thought. You will evolve as I have. The one thing I encourage you to do is avoid fanaticism. That absolute determinism you are right is what sickens most people to religion. Allow others their faith and self-discovery. Even mom and dad took a different path for a long time. We maintained a solid relationship as we each made our way.
Learn from Mistakes
You will make them. I certainly did. Some were doozies. Mistakes don’t define you, how you handle the mistake does.
Learn from your own mistakes, but also those of others. Learn from dad’s mistakes. You may want to try the same thing anyway with a slight tweak. Fine. Just do it knowing the risks. Repeating the same mistake again and again is insanity. I know you are not insane. Dad might be a little and since it could be genetic. . . This letter is getting long and I want you to know you can laugh at any situation. Even death. It’s going to happen anyway so why not make the most of it with some hearty laughter.
I’d start a chronological list of all the mistakes I made in life, but by the time I reached the end I would have more to add. What I am saying is: Don’t be afraid to fail. You learn more from failure than success. Success causes us to believe we are right. It takes a good beating to force us to up our game.
Never use failure as an excuse not to try. People will ridicule you, even arrest you, for doing the right thing. Do it anyway. Better to live ridiculed, better to live in a prison, than to not have lived at all. I am not encouraging criminal behavior either. What I suggest is keeping your mind open to ideas which help you grow.
People laughing at you is a sure sign you are on the right path. Nothing is more common than everyone in agreement prior to a disaster.
And here is where I come to an end and you begin. You are young as I write this. Maybe you will read this long after I am gone and you a very old man. This letter will be more powerful then than at any other time. My words echoing down the corridors of time to talk with you one last time. I know. I am here with you.
Don’t rush life. Relax. Enjoy each moment. Once the moment passes it will never return. Make now the most important time. Share it with people you love. Always live. Learn. Love. And remember. It is all any of us really has.