Most of the mail bag questions come from letters submitted through the contact form, on Facebook, through About.com, etc. But every once in awhile, I’ll elevate a question submitted in the comments section of an article to a mail bag post if I think the response might be useful to others, rather than just the individual person asking. This is one of those times. I cleaned up and clarified the original question.
I just stumbled upon your blog. It is fantastic. I really liked your article Mental Model: Using the Primary Mission of Your Life to Determine the Hierarchy of Priorities Between Task and Relationship. I think the same way but always have this feeling that I may appear arrogant and rude to others.
In it, you say, “You can also tell how much people value you by how much … they disdain your priorities” Do you think in this way we may appear selfish and just thinking about our own happiness?
Appreciate your comments,
I’ve always approached expectations differently than other people (which may account for my higher-than-average happiness and success). I very rarely have expectations for anyone and just as rarely put demands on someone’s time. Even as a child, I didn’t require my parents to come to any of my piano recitals, football games, or music concerts. I told them they could come if they wanted and they thought it would bring them joy.
To me, the real question is not whether someone thinks you are selfish. The real question is by what right is someone making demands on your time? Why do you automatically assume that they, in their arrogance, have the authority to tell you how to spend a portion of the limited time that was given to you?
That is not a rhetorical question. You need to answer it.
The Meaning of Life and Individual Happiness
The median life expectancy at birth for a male born in the United States is 75.6 years. That works out to roughly 27,613 days. Going a bit further with the math, you have 662,712 hours, or 39,762,720 minutes. That means if you are a perfectly average man in this country, the moment you are born, a timer begins counting down and when it reaches 0, the game is over. You’re dead. Depending on your actions, you might be able to add or subtract from that block of time – if your idea of a snack is three Big Macs with fries and a pack of cigarettes, you won’t be around long – but it generally holds true.
Not all of that time is available to you. The average American sleeps 6.7 hours per night. That means you will spend 185,007 or so hours, or 7,709 days, sleeping. This leaves you with the equivalent of 19,904 adjusted days, or approximately 477,700 adjusted hours.
That block of time, 19,904 days or 477,700 hours, is your life. What you do with it determines the experiences you have, the people with whom you associate, the level of wealth you possess, the contribution you make to civilization, your personal happiness, how many children you sire, and whether society considers you good, evil, or somewhere in between. That time is a gift that was deposited into your mortal bank account by God, nature, or chance evolution, depending upon your religious and philosophical beliefs. When the account runs dry, it is gone. You cannot buy back your life once the deposit has been spent, nor can you save up time as you can money. Whether you like it or not, it gets spent automatically regardless of how wisely you invest it.
Now, with that in mind, let me restate your question:
Isn’t it fundamentally evil for a person to make demands on your time, given that you have a limited amount of it, by threatening emotional blackmail if you don’t comply with their wishes?
By what right, and by whose authority, do these arbiters of social standards lay claim to what was given to you by God? Once more, that is a serious question.
No Man Has the Right to Steal Another Man’s Time
No man has the right to steal another man’s time. It is our most precious commodity and what we’re all after; it is far more valuable than money. (Warren Buffett, the third richest man in the world, demonstrated this at a recent speech to graduate students of Columbia University’s business school. Buffett told the room that he would gladly exchange his entire fortune for any of their youth and that anyone who took him up on the deal, were it scientifically possible, would be a fool.)
To live consciously with the sum of time granted to you requires you to answer the question: What are my goals? What are my objectives? By doing that, you can avoid foolishly allocating your precious time to things that are distractions. This is what I discussed in the article you mentioned, Mental Model: Using the Primary Mission of Your Life to Determine the Hierarchy of Priorities Between Task and Relationship.
Of course, what we’re really doing is asking, “What is the meaning of life?”. I answered that question for myself a long time ago:
- To go through life enjoying every moment possible, doing what I love with people about whom I care, learning, improving, and becoming a better version of myself so that at the end, as I stand back and review the time I had on Earth, I can boldly exclaim with as passion, joy, and conviction, “What a ride! Let’s go again! It is good. Well done.”
- To improve the lives of others and the broader civilization by being generous with my time, money, and ideas so that those who come after me benefit, just as I have from the efforts of prior generations.
For me, it really is that simple: 1.) Have fun, 2.) Become a better version of yourself, and 3.) Help others by being a blessing to individuals and society.
Equally as important are a few fundamental beliefs, which include:
- It is my responsibility to make myself happy, to achieve the things I desire, and to live with the consequences of my actions, both good and bad. Although I cannot control everything that happens to me, I can control how I respond and the way in which I conduct myself. Nobody else can live my life for me.
- I do not have a right to expect anything from others beyond what they themselves give of their own free will.
Whether You Realize It or Not, You’re Asking About Opportunity Cost
Going back to your question, what you are really asking, whether you realize it or not, involves opportunity cost. Let’s look at the spirit of your inquiry:
Is sacrificing some of the 477,700 hours that have been given to me worth the opportunity cost of whatever is being requested? In other words, is my gain by doing what I want to do with my time worth the cost of other people thinking I’m selfish?
Imagine that you are a 40 year old hardware store manager that loves nothing more than fly fishing. It brings you joy. You find yourself day dreaming about it morning, noon, and night. Most weekends out of the year, you go fly fishing. But this weekend, your spouse wants you to attend a boring dinner with people you don’t like. That means that you are going to spend some of the 477,700 hours allocated to you before death doing something you hate with people you can’t stand.
[mainbodyad]In this case, pursuing your own happiness doesn’t necessarily mean going fly fishing if – and this is a big if – a higher priority in your life is your relationship with your spouse. If you are madly in love and want to walk hand-in-hand till-death-do-you-part with the person to whom you are married, giving up your excursion this week is unquestionably worth the opportunity cost of hurting your relationship because sacrificing a few hours now can strengthen a fulfilling marriage that may last a lifetime; small investment, big rewards in terms of personal happiness.
On the other hand, if the dinners become too frequent, at some point the opportunity cost equation is such that you would seek a divorce or separation because the pain of a split is less than the irritation of staying married. The key is to choose wisely in the first place so that you aren’t surprised down the road or find yourself sleeping next to a stranger.
Whichever you choose – to go fly fishing or go to the dinner with your spouse – you are still making a decision based upon what you believe is going to maximize the total, overall happiness in your life. That is why successful marriages, friendships, business partnerships, and other social groups are based upon a give-and-take between reasonable adults who care for one another.
There are consequences for your actions that must be taken into account when pursuing your own happiness. If it makes you happy to run through the streets naked, the opportunity cost is going to be a night in jail. If you decide you’d rather spend your life at the office, neglecting your children, the opportunity cost is going to be resentment and a broken relationship with them. That is fine, as long as you willingly choose that, with arms wide open and fully acknowledging the consequences of your decision. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it, if you are willing to pay the price, because you are the one that has to live with how you allocate your 477,700 hours. When you’re on your deathbed, you are the one that has to look back on your life, not them.
Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: Pursuing your own happiness does not mean being cruel, cold, hateful, mean, or harsh to other people. A good archetype is Mary Poppins, of children literature fame. Despite being wonderfully supportive and helping the Banks family, she was absolutely non-negotiable when it came to her day off, her right to ensure her own privacy, and the fact that no one else could encroach upon that time, no matter how deeply she cared for them. Another example is Charlie Munger, who began to sell himself the first hour of every day so that he could use that time to focus on building his fortune, not being interrupted by friends, family, or clients. They weren’t unpleasant about it, but those who wanted to be part of their life had to abide by those terms. Those who didn’t were effectively fired.
In The End, You Must Decide If the Opportunity Cost Is Worth the Price
What interests me is that you worry about appearing selfish. But selfish to whom? The only people likely to throw a fit, hiss, and begrudge you are the very people who are themselves being selfish and asking you for something that makes you unhappy! This brings us back to the first question: Why are their needs more important than your own? You cannot live your life for someone else. In the end, you have to be at peace with yourself and with God about how you invested your time. That is the only test that counts.
Note: This discussion is one of the reasons I am fascinated by how people, families, organizations, and governments spend their money. Most people sell their time for a paycheck. They work a certain job in exchange for pieces of paper with pictures of long-dead men on it. Therefore, when the average person spends money, they are really spending their time. Seeing someone’s checkbook register and schedule lets you know what is really important to them. Nothing else equals those two things when it comes to discovering a person’s actual priorities, rather than what they think are their priorities.