I was reading Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project. In the introduction, she talks about the common objections to the pursuit of her own happiness. And in fact, I tend to agree. I agree with Penelope Trunk when she writes, “the pursuit of happiness makes life shallow” (and you should read that post because it’s really good.)
But as Gretchen elaborates, it becomes clear that she’s not so much pursuing happiness is that she is learning how to be happy. Look at this gorgeous quote (thank god for Google Books– I excerpt 20 times more because of it.)
If you can’t be happy when things are pretty good in your life, then chances are you won’t be happy when things are pretty shitty. And furthermore, you’ll look back at your life and think, “Why couldn’t I have been happy then? I was so stupid!”
And it’s not just true for happiness. “The time to start exercising, stop nagging, and organize our digital photos was when everything was going smoothly,” indeed.
Making Things Easier on Future You
I was just listening to this podcast that Erin Kurup recommended. It doesn’t even have a name, but this guy, Sean McCabe is a hand-letterer and graphic designer, who also happens to have a very, very good head for business. Anyway, I’m listening to his podcast while I crank out a bare mile on the treadmill because I don’t want to have the body of an 80 year old when I’m 50, and I definitely want to stave off Alzheimer’s. (Another example of doing things for Future Me. Want to see the article that changed everything for me? Here you go.)
Anyway, he talked about how systematizing led to “stacked benefits.” And it really does. It’s hard to give a good example off the top of your head, but if you can find an example in the wild, it’s even more compelling. He sells various trinkets and art in his online store, all fairly small runs. And when he sells out, it’s hard to know how big the next run should be. The bigger it is, the bigger his margin, but only if he sells them. He has to correctly gauge the demand.
And, I mean, that’s not an easy thing to do. Retail stores have people whose entire jobs revolve around how much stuff to reorder and when. So what he first did to solve this problem was when the store said an item was sold out, a little box appeared under the listing for the user, which said “Interested in this item? Email me and let me know. Demand will determine whether this item is restocked.” Which was an okay idea, but not perfect. For one thing, people are curiously adverse to going out of their way to send and email. Furthermore, when he got that email, he had to process it. He had to copy the name and email into a list somewhere, which he would then consult before reordering (to guess how much to reorder) and then again when the stock came in, in order to manually email all those people to let them know the stock was in.
That’s a lot of effort. It probably netted him a lot of sales that he otherwise wouldn’t have gotten, and improved customer engagement to boot, but it’s time away from his art. So he went one step further. He spent about 15-20 hours learning a bit of PHP, and he replaced that bit of text that said “email me” with a checkbox that said “Click here to be informed when the item is back in stock.” The clickbox takes you to a MailChimp form, which says, “This is not a newsletter. It will only be used to inform you that X item is back in stock. Please confirm now.”
Now, when he goes to restock, he checks the number of names on the mailchimp list. And when the order comes in, he sends out a single email in MailChimp. He figures he gets a 40% conversion rate (or at least that’s the example he gave) but he ALSO has more people signing up to be informed because it’s just a click and not an email AND he has better information about demand, which means he can create bigger print runs, or smaller ones that don’t tie up too much capital.
Want to see that in list form? By learning a little bit of PHP, he:
- Improves customer engagement and retention
- Is better able to gauge demand
- Is better able to gauge conversion
- “Right-sizes” his print runs in order to balance his out-of-pocket costs and the amount of inventory he keeps on hand.
- These benefits accrue as the amount of traffic to his website and the number of items in his store increase.
- And PHP is not a skill that stops being useful. He will be able to apply it to numerous other situations.
The Difference in Mindset
I’m working on my next course, tentatively titled, Crash Course in Money Management and I’ve gone back to the Millionaire Next Door series of books for good examples of what frugality looks like when you aren’t actually scrimping to make ends meet. The author, Thomas Stanley, calls these “economically productive households” and the basic idea is that you carefully throttle the purchase of things that depreciate, and at the same time you’re willing to spend big on things that will appreciate.
An example of this is furniture. Unless you’re living in an RV, you need furniture. Now, I don’t know if you’ve tried to buy furniture recently, but it’s hella expensive. And for what? Particle board and plywood with a hardwood veneer. It’s crap. Get it wet, get it scratched, hell, expose it to a little too much sunlight, and it’s ruined.
But, to find furniture made with real wood is a trial-and-a-half. It’s pretty rare. You have two choices, basically. Have it custom-made, or buy antique stuff.
You don’t have to be into shabby-chic for this to work, because real wood can be refinished. High-quality chairs and sofas can be refinished. Stanley quotes one of his respondents as saying “You can’t sand sawdust,” (meaning particleboard.) Hence, any piece of furniture that’s made with plywood or particle board is good for only a single lifetime, and generally much less, because it can’t be refurbished effectively.
Although real wood furniture in pristine condition costs an arm and a leg, it’s not that hard to find on the resale market, particularly at estate sales. Sure, you’re going to spend several hundred dollars on a bookshelf. But that bookshelf will last your whole life and someday you’ll pass it onto your kids.
IKEA bookshelves– not so much.
The difference is in looking at the lifetime value of the items you purchase. If you really need it, and you buy high-quality items, those items will not only earn their keep for a very long time, sometime you can even resell them for a substantial fraction of what they’re worth. Furniture, tools, kitchenware, even some types of clothing (buy boots and shoes that can be resoled, for example.)
Learning to look at the lifetime value of your investment will be enlightening. Sean McCabe invests in PHP skills, blue-collar millionaires buy furniture that will last several lifetimes. My favorite trick is to buy office equipment from the local college discards. Colleges buy the heaviest-duty equipment on the market — stuff that isn’t even available to the average consumer, because they know it will need to last a very long time, get hauled around by maintenance workers from building to building, and survive the loads put on them by absent-minded professors. I got a four foot filing cabinet for five dollars, and my behemoth of an oak desk will last forever.
Value Can Be Found Nearly Anywhere
Abby Markov recently tweeted:
Even without quote-unquote “financial need” these skills are useful if you:
- Need to eat healthier
- Need to eat a special diet (ie, low sodium, gluten free)
- Want to reduce your carbon footprint
- Spend more time out doors
- Eat organic
- Teach your kids these skills (and healthy eating habits)
Over the course of a lifetime, this skillset will maintain, as I romantically opined “its utility.”
If you have skills that could be put to good use, you should maximize them. If you plan to learn them, perhaps the time is now. As Gretchen Rubin says: “I don’t want to wait for a crisis to remake my life.”
We sometimes forget that life is long. In our urge to ship now we neglect to plant these seeds for future us.