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In Our Own Way

Jonathan Clements  |  June 20, 2020

WE ALL WANT the good life, though we’d likely differ on what exactly that is. Still, our wish list might include things like meaningful work, a robust network of friends and family, minimal money worries, service to others, good health, a long life, and a sense of both serenity and purpose.

What stands in our way? As we strive to make the most of the limited time we’re given, it’s worth pondering how we’re constrained and what we can do to improve our lot. To that end, we might look at our life through three prisms:

1. Nature. We’re all born with a set of instincts and abilities—some universal, some individual.

Not all are helpful. Our hardwired instincts evolved to help our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive, which is why most of us are averse to losses, inclined to consume whenever we can and not especially keen on unnecessary exertion. Problem is, in the modern world, these instincts can lead us to overeat, fail to exercise, spend too much and panic when stocks plunge. Consider all the mistakes identified by experts in behavioral finance. In the moment, these mistakes feel like the right thing to do—because that’s what our hunter-gather instincts are telling us.

“Populations in sync with their environment experience no conflict between short- and long-term payoffs,” note Terence Burnham and Jay Phelan in a 2020 article for the Journal of Bioeconomics. By contrast, today, “a good life requires… perpetual discipline to avoid the pitfalls of passion.”

Meanwhile, other attributes vary widely across the population, such as our base level of happiness and the natural talents that we possess. No matter how many motivational speeches we hear or how many self-help books we read, very few of us will ever run 100 meters in under 10 seconds or do the ground-breaking work needed to win a Nobel Prize. No, we can’t be whoever we want to be.

2. Circumstances. We have our nature, but then it meets nurture—otherwise known as Mom and Dad. We’re all born into different levels of economic comfort, with parents who may be good role models (or not) and who may espouse values that set us up well for adult life (or not).

While we can’t all run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds, we can overcome a difficult upbringing—financially or otherwise—and lead a happy, successful life. Unfortunately, this is less common than many of us like to think, at least when it comes to economic mobility. Still, it clearly can be done.

It isn’t just our upbringing that can constrain us. Take those natural talents we all have. The value that the economy puts on these talents varies over time. An example: When my father graduated from Cambridge University in 1956, he didn’t have a firm idea of what he wanted to do, so he decided he’d take the highest-paying job he was offered.

Royal Dutch Shell, then the quintessential multinational, offered my father a position as a management trainee at £700 a year. But that turned out to be the second highest-paying job he was offered. What was the highest? That would be £800 a year as a reporter for The Financial Times. Today, it’s inconceivable that a job in journalism would top the pay scale for newly minted college graduates. The upshot: We can have extraordinary talents—but live at a time when those talents aren’t much valued, at least in terms of dollars.

3. Choices. We start out with our instincts and our abilities, and we’re influenced by our upbringing. But how much of our life is determined by our genes and our environment, and how much free will do we have? It’s a matter of considerable debate.

I like to think that, with thoughtfulness and effort, we can indeed change our life’s trajectory. For those who start with fewer advantages, it’s obviously that much harder. For all of us, there’s a large element of luck. Why did the boss take a shine to your colleague, while barely noticing your hard work? It can be baffling and infuriating.

I can’t tell you how to rectify such misfortune. But I would suggest thinking carefully about the battles you choose to wage.

To be that model modern citizen—who favors healthy foods, eats and drinks in moderation, saves diligently, exercises regularly and has a successful, high-paying career—can be exhausting. It takes huge effort to overcome our hunter-gatherer instincts, our lack of talent in key areas and any disadvantages bestowed by our upbringing. We can aim for self-improvement, including forming better habits and learning new skills. But let’s face it: Self-improvement is often a grind, and the constant effort can leave us deflated and unhappy. As we struggle to save enough, eat healthily, exercise regularly and do what the work world demands, we will fall short, and there’s a risk that we’ll be left with a sense of failure and dissatisfaction.

My advice: Persevere with these battles when they’re important. But don’t expect to be the perfect citizen. Occasionally have that third slice of pizza. Go ahead, have another glass of wine. Sure, skip the occasional workout.

What about also skipping the IRA contribution? Hey, let’s not go crazy here.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook. His most recent articles include Farewell YieldKnowing Me and The Road Back.

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