There are no shortcuts

I was having an email thread recently with a friend where she pointed me at this article on the middle class getting ripped off. I don’t agree with most of the article, but this quote stuck out to me:

For my entire life (and I don’t think this will ever change) I’ve watched friends and family engage in one Fred Flintstone-esque, get-rich-quick scheme after another. I’ve also been caught up in more of these than I’m comfortable admitting, and they always fail, without exception.

I don’t agree with his conclusion that therefore the way to get rich is to screw people over, though.

To me, the prescription to improving your financial security is simple.

  1. Spend less than you earn.
  2. Put your savings into long-term investments with low/no fees.
  3. Be patient.

This is what I’ve been doing throughout my life, and it has done well for me. I am admittedly fortunate to work in the high-paying technology industry, but I was still saving money on a grad school stipend, and I have been maxing out my 401k each year basically for as long as I have had a full-time job

Get-rich-quick schemes are a distraction. They offer the potential to make money fast, but more often lose all your entire investment. They prey on people who don’t understand probability, and focus on the upside of the 1% that it pays off, but don’t consider the downside of the 99% of the time it doesn’t (the same goes for lotteries). What I outline above is guaranteed to work, but takes a long time (to benefit from compounding interest), and requires the willpower to not buy what you can’t afford.

Another analogy is to dieting. There are tons of kooky diets out there. You know what works?

  1. Eat less.
  2. Exercise more.

If you do that, you’ll lose weight. But it requires effort and discipline, so people try diet shortcuts, hoping this will be the one that lets them get the result they want without the effort. And, yes, I know there are various biochemical reasons for certain diets in how our body processes food, but I think the long-term method for success is what I outlined.

One last example that came up in discussion last night was following your passion. What most people mean when they say they want to be a rock star, or an artist, or a designer, or an entrepreneur, is that they want the benefits of being in those positions. But to become any of those requires a lot of hard work to hone one’s craft. People don’t see the months the rock star spent living out of the back of a van while doing bar gigs. They don’t see the entrepreneur who slept only 4 hours a night for years and was stressed out all of the time about making payroll and whether she was leading the company in the right direction (while fighting this nonsense for funding). They don’t see the artist painstakingly practicing their craft over and over and over again to get just a little bit better. They just want the results…and that’s why they’ll never get them. There are no shortcuts. You have to do the work.

It’s not a glamorous recommendation. It’s not easy. But I think it pays off over time more reliably than shortcuts. I am very fortunate to have my health, to have financial security, and to be in what is basically my dream job right now. And I know I have had many advantages on my way here, but I don’t think it’s all luck and privilege even though I am playing life on the lowest difficulty setting there is.

I’m interested to hear what others think – am I oversimplifying? Are there shortcuts that have worked for you?

2 thoughts on “There are no shortcuts

  1. Couple thoughts to add a few weeks later after discussion over on Facebook where friends pointed out that just because these work for me doesn’t mean they work for everybody, which is fair. I overstated by saying they are guaranteed to work. They also pointed out that I did benefit from shortcuts, including having parents that could pay for MIT and academic summer camps when I was a kid, which gave me a turbo boost into my career. Also fair.

    I’d argue in response that I was in that position because my parents lived frugally and turned their savings into my college education, but that doesn’t offer much hope to somebody who doesn’t have those advantages and is looking for a quick fix today. And I’m not sure what to say to somebody in that position – I don’t think there are quick fixes. Or shortcuts. You can play lottery tickets, which have a very low probability chance of paying off, but leave you worse off in most cases, or you can play the slow game, which is lower variance – it won’t pay off big, but it is less likely to lose you money too.

    Anyway. It’s tricky. I also just wanted to add this one page of financial advice from Scott Adams (via Matt Cutts), which I just read and obviously agree with since it is similar to what I suggested here.

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