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Made to Measure

Richard Quinn, 2:20 am ET

IT SEEMS ALL MY LIFE I’ve been obsessed with one thing: not being average. It would be nice to be the best or the highest rated. But I have been happy simply to avoid average.

I grew up in a very average family. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Throughout school, I was very average. But in my first job as a mail boy, I went to work wearing a dress shirt and tie. Definitely not average—others in the mailroom wore T-shirts—but I started a trend.

When I was in the Army, I didn’t want to be one of the guys standing in the ranks, so I found a way into an office job as a personnel sergeant. There, I could avoid average duties, instead assisting the colonel in preparing job evaluations for the officers reporting to him—most of whom I never met.

I never wanted to have an average income, live in an average neighborhood or be an average retiree. I’ve often wondered whether there’s a flaw in my personality. Probably yes. But that may require more analysis than I’m prepared to do.

When we relocated a few years ago, I felt compelled to look up the median income for our new town, along with its wealth ranking in our state. The town was near the top in median income. I couldn’t compete—but that also meant I wasn’t average.

Even today, more than 12 years after I retired, I measure my Social Security benefit, my income and my net worth against national averages and medians for my age group. There’s little chance I will slip to average, but I want to be sure.

I also measure debt. On average, retirees carry a fair amount of debt. I’m debt-free. Except for mortgages and some car loans 20 years ago, I’ve long been obsessed with avoiding debt. I still am.

While working, I didn’t want to simply be one among 15,000 employees.  Being involved with employee benefits, I found ways to communicate benefits issues with all employees and unions almost daily via e-mails, meetings and so on. Result? I was among the most recognized people in the company. The corporate communications department accused me of having my own brand. But at least I wasn’t average.

When I received stock options during the last few years of my career, I exercised them and then hung on to the stock—definitely not an average thing to do. But considering the years of reinvested dividends and a doubling of the stock price, I’m happy I did. Taking the average route probably would have led me to blow the cash.

So, what’s my self-diagnosis? Trying not to be average is how I set goals, how I measure success. To be sure, a goal of not being average doesn’t sound very ambitious. But it doesn’t sound very greedy, either.

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excel lent
excel lent
2 days ago

Richard,
Having read you for a while now, I can assure you that you are not average. You are a go-getter that saw opportunities and coupled with hard work and tenaciousness paid off for you. You learned lessons from your parents too.

I appreciated my dad’s hard work, but it was as a simple wage earner before the 401k/IRA era so he and his parents and siblings worked hard but just scraped by. Most all of them exhausting their assets and spending their last days on Medicaid.
That was not the end I wanted, but I could not follow their paths if I wanted a better life. Through many twists and turns, my journey is different and not average either. How we prepare in the energetic stages of life will generally reap good results, barring the unforseen. Well worth the effort, but comes at a cost of separation from family moving where opportunities are best.
Your efforts have paid off for you too.

DrLefty
DrLefty
8 days ago

I’d say I grew up “below average.” My family lived in a very wealthy area but we were on the bottom rung of middle class. We lived in a tiny rundown house, my dad drove a 1960 car in the late 70s, and I shopped for clothes at the discount store with my babysitting money. When I was in high school, I never invited friends over because their family homes and cars were so much nicer. My husband grew up in similar modest circumstances in a military family.

This affected me as an adult raising my own kids. I didn’t necessarily want to be the richest person in town, but I didn’t want to be the poorest, either. I wanted my kids to have music lessons if they wanted them (I always had but my parents couldn’t afford them), nice family vacations, fun birthday parties, etc. I mostly never had my own room growing up, so that was a goal I had for my two daughters. We lived in a “medium” house and drove “medium” cars.

I’m still frugal. My husband reminds me sometimes that it’s OK to spend money now. The kids are grown, our bills are paid, our retirement is provided for. It’s interesting how those early years can shape you.

R Quinn
R Quinn
8 days ago
Reply to  DrLefty

Ones early years can have a profound impact.

tedtpeters@yahoo.com
tedtpeters@yahoo.com
8 days ago

Agree with Joey. “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” G. K. Chesterton

parkslope
parkslope
9 days ago

Nice tongue-in-cheek article about about how we are motivated by the accomplishments of others.

Joey
Joey
9 days ago

Doesn’t not wanting to be average cause people to invest in actively managed funds, though? By definition, stock indexes are the average performance of all traders (minus fees), so this impulse can be motivation but applied to certain areas it can be deleterious.

In a non-investing context, too strong of an impulse to not wanting to be average might keep us away from pleasures. I certainly will never be an average soccer player, chess player, guitar player, etc., but if these activities bring me joy, then I should feel free to participate as terrible as I may be at them and as terrible as I may always be at them.

So I guess my question is are you able to turn off this point of view that seems to be hard-wired in you in certain contexts in which is may detract for your health, wealth, happiness, and well-being?

Philip Stein
Philip Stein
7 days ago
Reply to  Joey

Joey, I don’t think you can regard the returns of stock index funds as average. If that were so, you’d expect about half of money managers to beat the market return each year. In fact, most underperform primarily due to costs.

I would characterize the returns of stock index funds as akin to shooting par in golf. Just as most folks shoot below par, most money managers underperform the market.

I’ll assume that, to avoid being average, Richard would more likely invest in stock index funds than actively managed ones.

R Quinn
R Quinn
9 days ago
Reply to  Joey

Trying to avoid being average I always aim higher. Given i am very satisfied with all aspects of my very fortunate life I don’t think my affliction has detracted from my goals.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
9 days ago

Dick, thanks for the interesting article. I’ve always set small, intermediate goals in many areas of life (how much to save, how much weight to lose, …). They provide motivation for good behaviors. I think having insight into how one thinks and behaves, and using that to motivate you to adopt and practice healthy habits, is a great thing. I struggle sometimes in understanding the behaviors of others, but I’ve come to see that they are doing the same thing as me – they just adopt strategies that work for them. I guess that’s a little bit of wisdom.

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