Whenever I get together with the snoopervisor, it always starts with the typical pleasantries, including some sort of variant of what you been up to? The snoopervisor’s answer of choice to that question? “Just killing time.”
The snoopervisor is my neighbor. He’s approaching 80 years old. He’s a great guy and is always asking if he can help with anything or if I need anything—one of those neighbors you truly appreciate. He is also regarded as the go-to person in the neighborhood if you want to know what is going on with anyone else, especially if they are having work done at their house. Either through curiosity or a sense of duty, he will walk over to tradesmen/women who happen to be working in the neighborhood, strike up a conversation, want to know all about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and will most likely offer his own recommendations for how the job should be done. The title that he has earned from his own wife for his conduct? You guessed it: snoopervisor.
At least one Sunday per month, I will go and sit on the snoopervisor’s back deck with him and smoke a cigar—we call this our church. This is our time to engage in fellowship, nonsense, and, “telling lies,” as he likes to put it. It was during church one Sunday that the snoopervisor asked me if I had heard about a guy who had recently won the lottery. I had not, so he began to give me the report of just how large the jackpot was. Upon sharing the details, he concluded by saying that he would “love to have that much money.”
Now, for proper context, there are some details about the snoopervisor that you should know. To start, he had a successful career in tobacco. He developed a reputation for being the guy to consult when the production line experienced mechanical issues. In fact, even though he has been retired for some time, the demand for his expertise has remained and he has been called upon from time-to-time. As with many who enjoyed a career in tobacco, he earned a handsome pension and was able to retire relatively early. In addition to being the snoopervisor and an avid consumer of cigars, his retirement occupations include sitting on his back deck and watching the animals that eat from a trough that he keeps filled with corn, sitting in his garage when it’s too hot to sit on the deck, mowing his lawn 2-3 times per week, watching TV (napping), lusting over the cars in Mecum auto auctions, collecting power tools and precious metal coins, and frequenting some of the local diners to ensure that the experience that they offer remains consistent—he’s sure to tell me if it doesn’t.
The snoopervisor’s retirement stands in stark contrast to that of his wife—she’s a world traveler. With the exception of Antarctica, I don’t believe that there is a continent she hasn’t visited, and lately she has maintained a busy travel schedule of at least two trips per year. Does the snoopervisor want to go on trips with her? Absolutely not. After all, his sense of obligation to his snoopervision duties is too great and who would make sure that all of his other important occupations are fulfilled?
Upon hearing that he wished that he had lottery money, I was caught a little off-guard. I looked at him incredulously, which was no doubt also reflected in my tone, and asked him how his life would change or what he would do differently if he had that kind of money. His prompt response? “Nothing.” That’s it. That was his exact response. As you might have concluded, the snoopervisor and his wife don’t seem to have money issues, in the sense that it doesn’t seem their lifestyle is suffering. The success of the snoopervisor’s career was compounded by his wife’s successful career in financial services. With this in mind, I shared with him a philosophy of mine: money is only as valuable as what you can do with it. So, if you have all the money in the world, but have no ideas of what to do with it, then its value, at least in your hands, would be questionable.
Even though the snoopervisor and his wife don’t appear to have money issues, I don’t believe that the comments that people make are necessarily innocuous, and you might could say that you have to be especially cautious in being dismissive when comments seem to be divorced from reality. In other words, I believe that the snoopervisor does sense that something is amiss, and I believe that he perceives that money is the issue. Perception is a funny thing, though—it can be wrong. A hypothesis of mine: what some perceive to be a money problem is actually a time allocation problem.
What’s the connection between money and time? Well, allow me to begin my explanation by offering yet another philosophy of mine: money is nothing more than a proxy for time—i.e., the more money you have, or the more control you exercise over your money, the more control you have over your time. Just like perception can be funny, though, control doesn’t come without its own peculiarities. For instance, how do you know that you are in control of something if you don’t even know what you want to do with it?
Consider the idea of going for a Sunday drive. If you’ve ever just gone out for a drive with no particular destination in-mind, you know that sometimes you end up in places you’ve never been before, and you might even make some interesting discoveries along the way. The destinations and experiences are not necessarily ones that you would choose, but you never know, and the exploratory quality of a Sunday drive lends itself to all manner of possibilities. To be sure, it’s not as if you are in control of nothing while on a Sunday drive—you’re obviously driving the car and you determine where you turn and which way; but can you say that you are in control of where you are going—the ultimate destination, that is? If you don’t start out with a particular destination in-mind, and especially if you are traveling unfamiliar roads, then where you end up is simply where the roads lead you; and to the extent that you reach an actual destination, that is a matter of simply making a determination that you have driven far enough and you are ready to go back home, not that you have reached a particular geographical location that you defined ahead of time.
In the context of a Sunday drive, having no particular destination in mind is not generally regarded as a big deal—you might say that your destination is just a seat in your car and you’re just along for the ride. If the roads lead you to some place you don’t want to be, just keep driving, make another turn, or turn around—there are always more roads, or at least the road you came in on. You can’t do that with time, though. You can’t rewind it, and you certainly can’t buy or discover more of it. Occasionally, you might find that you have wasted it. Assuming that the amount of time you have wasted, or any time spent on course correction, has not cost you the opportunity to control more of it, you might be able to choose to do something more valuable with the rest of what you have.
Here’s the kicker about determining the value of time, though: there’s no way to qualify the use of time as having been a waste or as valuable, unless you can define how you would prefer to spend your time. Looked at another way, the real measure of value is based on a trade-off of spending time doing one thing so that you can spend more time doing something else. For example, how much time do you have to spend working in order to be able to spend time retired? In that case, you are spending time doing ‘x’ (working) so that you can spend time doing ‘y’ (retirement and the activities that define it). To apply this idea back to the context of driving, spending the time to drive in the direction of the mountains (West, for those of us in the middle of North Carolina) would be a waste if you want to spend time at the beach. Conversely, spending the time to take a detour around traffic that could save you 30 minutes would most likely be seen as a valuable use of time, even though the detour might entail spending more time than the normal route—the variable of traffic changed the outcome of the time equation.
Another really interesting thing about driving is that it also demonstrates another important factor about the determination of value: the role of context. In a life that could last 70+ years, 30 minutes is nothing. It would seem that the simple fact that we can get so frustrated while driving (it’s not just me, right?), or work so hard to avoid delays (my own mother has been known to have three GPSes running at once—two apps on her phone and one GPS device on the dashboard), just shows how motivated we can be to spend our time, even just 30 minutes, in a way that we choose—i.e., we want control over that time. Obviously, it is not the fact that 30 minutes is one half of one of the 613,200 hours in 70 years of life that defines its importance. Rather, it is when that 30 minutes is compared to the length of your road trip and what awaits you at the end of your trip, a much more narrow context, that it appears more substantial. What this reveals is that value can be watered-down, or even lost, simply because of context. It is my opinion that it is precisely because the context of life is so broad and complicated that goal setting and the evaluation of financial decisions can be so difficult for many people—it’s hard to make determinations of value.
Regardless of the reason, my experience has been that when many folks make decisions, financial or otherwise, the default context they use tends to be as narrow as possible. I certainly understand how decision-making could be made easier in doing so, and I understand that easier decision-making could be reason enough to narrow the context; but I also understand that it can be difficult to determine how broad of a context is necessary to make the best possible decisions. There’s a potential risk to a narrow context: if it’s too narrow, something important could end up being excluded from consideration. The way too narrow of a context often manifests itself is folks will focus on one criterion, or a simplified list of criteria, to make a decision—I have come to refer to this as focusing on the trees, not the forest; and if you focus on too few trees, you might even miss the forest.
To illustrate this point, think about having to schedule an important meeting for which multiple people should be included—if you’ve ever tried to herd multiple people into a meeting, then you know how fun that can be. In order to make the scheduling process easier, can you just arbitrarily decide to exclude certain people from the meeting? I suppose you could, but is the important part to get a meeting scheduled or to address the topic of the meeting? (Hint: it’s the topic.) This highlights three potential consequences of contexts that are too narrow: first, not all important criteria are considered; second, in the pursuit of just trying to make a decision, we risk losing sight of what’s really important; and third, if we lose sight of what’s important, we risk making decisions that are suboptimal, if not outright detrimental.
Goal setting can be a different animal, however, and narrowing the context can be a useful strategy in arriving at meaningful goals. During Introductory and Discovery Meetings, one of the things that I try to make sure I do is understand what goals a person has—after all, that should serve as the entire basis for planning—you can’t plan a trip if you don’t know where you want to go. I have certainly had the occasion where someone was unable to articulate any goals, because the future is something that seemed to big and vast—I mean, do any of us really know what our future selves will want 20 or 30 years in the future? In response, what I will do is ask about the next 5 years, the next 3, or even just the next 12 months. Generally, this at least helps to get the wheels turning on what is important to the person with whom I am speaking and leads to some goals being defined.
It has become apparent to me that when someone makes a statement like that of the snoopervisor wishing he had lottery money, what he/she is really doing is substituting money for goals—how they want to spend their time. It’s akin to saying, “If I had enough money, then figuring out what I wanted to do wouldn’t be an issue, because I could do anything.” Before I say what I’m about to say, please escort the emotionally fragile out of the room (you have to stay, because this post can’t read itself): the likelihood of any of us having an amount of money to where we can feel like we can ignore the need for goals is very, very slim (I know, I know—I’m sorry). I would submit, however, that there is no amount of money that legitimately negates the need for goals and that focusing on any amount of money completely neglects the real necessity of making sure that you are spending time in a way that is meaningful to you.
Simply because you might be able to do anything, it doesn’t mean that what you end up doing is worthy of having been done—essentially, I’m talking about fulfillment. I see fulfillment as purely a matter of achieving a desired outcome—something that you’ve thought about and determined to have meaning to you. Things have meaning to us, because of who we are. We each have a hierarchy of personal values that determines what has meaning to us. It is through invoking this hierarchy that we are able to define goals, prioritize them, and then filter our options for pursuing them.
So, if we put all of this together, here is where we end up:
- Time has value, because it is in limited supply.
- The value of how we spend our time is influenced by the trade-off between doing one thing in order to be able to do another.
- Money has value, because we can trade it for control over our time.
- The priority we give to how we are spending our time and money determines the meaning of what we are doing.
- Priority is derived from our hierarchy of personal values.
- Fulfillment comes from aligning how we spend our time with our personal values.
Are you like the snoopervisor in that you are so inundated with time that you can afford to just kill it?