An Epiphany From First Class

First Class

One of the best perks of my job is that I get to pretend to be a rich person.

Well, not all the time of course. Like I definitely did not feel rich these past 2 weeks: Staying late in the office, eating at my desk, slaving over Excel sheets till I started dreaming of VLOOKUP commands, and feeling absolutely miserable.

So I got really happy when I got to take a break from it all to fly First Class to Beijing for a work trip. I sipped a glass of champagne, slid down into the overly spacious fine-grained leather seat, and stared out into the setting sun. “I could get used to this life.” I thought, as the flight attendant poured me another glass of champagne.

Being Rich – Gangnam Style

Fast forward to two days later, I was back in Singapore and pretending to be rich again. This time, I was at the Turf Club, entertaining 20 clients who were rich enough to fly First and Business Class on a regular basis and splurge copious amounts of money betting on horses.

I got talking to one of our guests. She was elegant, Irish, and wore a lovely dress with a tasteful set of pearls. Her husband was a Managing Director in an MNC. I could tell she was actually rich (ie: not one of those executives who gain elite status on their company’s money), because she ordered a Coke instead of alcohol. Classy.

We were watching the horses being led out to the track, when she lamented, “I would love to be rich enough to own one of those horses and not have to work so I could train them every day!”

I stared at her as if Justin Bieber had just crawled out of her nostrils. I thought to myself, “Lady – You get to savor the champagne-filled heaven that is First Class every couple of weeks! And you think that you’re not rich enough???

The Law of Relativity

And then it struck me: Being rich is RELATIVE.

That is, relative to who you compare yourself to. When I was a penniless college student, I used to get jealous of alumni who had real jobs and were earning thousands of dollars a month. Now that I was one of them and wallowing in my Excel-induced state of misery, I found myself getting jealous of people who were earning tens of thousands of dollars a month and flying First Class on a regular basis. But they in turn were feeling jealous of other people whom they thought were richer than them. It was mind-boggling, but it made sense.

The truth is, being rich is just a state of mind.

It really doesn’t matter how much money you make or how big your bank account is. I’m not saying that we should all just be happy in poverty – everyone should strive towards a life where they’re not worrying about making ends meet. But it’s a waste of time and energy to feel jealous of someone else’s (perceived) material fortunes.

Instead, I challenge you to start feeling rich right now. Think about how lucky you are to have higher education when there are millions of people who don’t even make it to high school. Think about how great it feels to have the security of a regular job, three meals a day, and a bed to sleep in while others are struggling to make ends meet.

I know it sounds corny, but we often don’t notice how rich we really are.

First Class

Yesterday, I took my family out to lunch. The restaurant was half-empty, served cheap Chinese food, and there were no leather seats with mahogany trimmings or unlimited quantities of champagne.

But the food was tasty, the company was excellent, and my dad was gleeful as hell because the opposition party had just won the Punggol East by-election. I leaned back, patted my Chinese food-filled tummy, and savored how wonderful life was.

So who needs to pretend to be rich? I don’t. 🙂

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How To Never Have Monday Blues Again

The Mondays after a long weekend or a vacation are the worst. You get into the office, and it’s like walking into the set of Night of the Living Dead. Everyone is a freakin’ zombie: blank eyes, slack mouth, and shuffling (not the LMFAO kind). This week started with one such Monday – we had a public holiday on Thursday, so most people took time off on Friday to enjoy an awesome 4-day weekend. The Monday hangover was especially severe.

I was feeling a little out of it myself on my way to work (totally losing control here – 2 glasses of wine is enough to destroy me… and I’m only 27). My Kindle had mysteriously stopped working which only served to annoy the hell out of me. So out of boredom, I turned to YouTube and scrolled to SNL’s classic Can I Have Yo Numba? video. Okay it’s not like the funniest video in the world, but it made all the difference:

It made me smile.

Everything changed after that. I got off the bus feeling considerably lighter than when I got on. That brought on another smile because I thought about the awesome things coming up in life: a stable salary, an upcoming holiday, and great-tasting coffee in the morning for 65 cents. Grinning, I stepped into the coffee line and breezed a cheerful “good morning!” to a colleague. She looked at me like I was crazy and exclaimed that she’d never seen anyone so cheerful on a Monday morning.

Behavior –> Motivation

It sounds clichéd, but smiling really does work, even if it’s forced. In 2002, researchers led by Robert Soussignan performed an experiment where participants were asked to grip a pencil horizontally between their teeth, naturally activating the muscles used for smiling. The participants had no idea that the experiment was about happiness, but reported considerably more positive reactions to several videos they were shown.

Say you attempt a fake smile. Just try it. Right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Does your brain know that you’re faking it? Of course it does. But that action tricks your body into producing chemicals that make you feel happy anyway. It’s a textbook case of how your actions can trigger internal motivations – not the other way round.

By the way, this applies to saving and investing too. Most people wait for years to get the “motivation” to save and invest, and end up never starting because “willpower” never works. The truth is, all they had to do was get started – to save and invest as little as $50 a month. Once you get started, your body adapts itself to towards the action you’re performing, developing an “investor mindset” that triggers further investing behavior.

A System To Destroy Monday Blues

So – back to Mondays. I know, it sucks to go to work on a Monday after you’ve partied all weekend (Or in my case, had TWO WHOLE GLASSES of wine. Yeah, you know party rock is in tha hoouuusseee toniiiiight). But if you’ve gotta be at work for the next 5 days anyway, you might as well try to enjoy it, right? So SMILE. You’ll feel happier. And it’s been proven that happier people do better work, are more effective, and are more likely to succeed.

One tip: Set up a system to remind yourself to smile. Yes, it’s corny, but it works. Simply set a daily reminder to SMILE on your phone’s calendar to go off at the same time every day – I set mine to coincide with the lowest point of motivation in the day: walking from the bus to the office. My phone buzzes, I let out a huge grin, and the day automatically becomes awesome after that.

Try it out 🙂

Treat A Friend To Lunch

I’ll let you in on a little secret: Being happy doesn’t depend on how much you earn, but how you spend your money. 

We’ve all heard that money doesn’t buy happiness – Multiple studies have shown that beyond a certain (surprisingly low) income, happiness very little to do with how much you have. Yet, we spend all this energy worrying about how we’re going to buy that ridiculously expensive house, that car, that iPad, and all the bling bling in the world – only to find that when we’re finally able to afford them, they’re not gonna make us a whole lot happier. Kind of stupid, isn’t it?

The trouble with possessions is that we get used to them. Really quickly. How many of you look at your iPhone and marvel at its technological wonders and go “Wow! I really don’t need another gadget for the rest of my life! Love AAPL ❤ ❤ <3”. Nope. Instead, we aimlessly flick through our apps, lock and unlock our home screens, and complain about the shitty battery life that can’t even last you till lunchtime. Retail therapy doesn’t work – and the rest of your possessions aren’t going to make you consistently happy either.

Here’s my contention: I think you can be a helluva happy right now. At this very moment. WIth the income you’re earning. How? Pick up your phone and arrange to meet someone this weekend. For brunch, for dinner, for drinks, for a museum, for a picnic, for a concert. Oh, and offer to pay.

What?! But personal finance is all about saving money, is it not? How the hell am I supposed to save money when I’m friggin PAYING for people all the time? Die, you freeloading leeches, die!!! Just stop for a second and think for a bit here – what are you saving all that money for? I don’t know about you, but I only want two things out of being rich: security and happiness. I’m pretty confident that your financial security’s pretty easy to take care of with a basic savings and investment plan, that I’ve ranted about here previously. (In fact, this article writes that you can pretty much live a super happy and comfortable retirement by by investing $1,1,65 per month at 8% p.a for 35 years. Or, if you’re married with a spouse earning $50k per year, that amount drops to just $303 per month).

So security is taken care of, and with the amount of money left over, you just have to address the “happiness” part of it. And according to Laura Vanderkam, author of the upcoming book “All the Money In the World”:

“Planned pleasant experiences give you a triple happiness whammy. You anticipate them beforehand – and as any kid waiting for Christmas knows, anticipation is often as pleasurable as the experience itself. You live through your adventures, and then you savor the memory afterwards. Eating is, of course, one of the most pleasurable things people do. In one study in which women reported how happy they were at different points of the day, eating ranked just below sex.” (from this Yahoo Finance article)

The point is, experiences count. And if you want to be happy, then spend as much as you can on experiences. I don’t really spend a lot of money on stuff. I think I own like 4 shirts and 2 pairs of jeans that I pretty much wear over and over. I don’t own an iPad or a car (and I don’t see the need to own either within the next few years). I spend pretty much all of my guilt-free spending account money on dance classes, vacations, drinks with friends, and lately, exploring yummy restaurants throughout Singapore with amazing company 🙂 Last Tuesday, I had a bowl of steaming hot pho noodles with beef balls, got treated to a Ben & Jerry’s waffle with TWO SCOOPS of ice cream (zomg life win), and then sweated it out at a helluva fun dance class. I came home at midnight, and collapsed into bed with a huge smile on my face. And that, my friends, is happiness 🙂

Go Tiny

Soooo it’s mid-Feb. Have you discovered that you’re not keeping to most, or all of your resolutions? I know I have. My resolutions to leave work by 6.30pm and sleep 7 hours a day have fallen flat on their faces. (It’s sad, but despite all my posts on productivity I inevitably get a couple of days/weeks where the work just surges unbearably.) Yet, there are others, like exercising, personal finance and sending compliments, that I’ve managed to keep surprisingly well so far because of systems I’ve stuck to. I’ll tell you more about one in a bit.

If you’re like 90% of the people in the world, you’re probably not keeping to your resolutions like you said you would, or you’ve given up on making resolutions altogether because they’re impossible to keep. The thing is, if we really want our lives to improve, we’ve got to create something that sticks, that becomes so ingrained in the fabric of our lives that we do it without any effort or without thinking. Sort of like brushing your teeth. (I blogged previously on how personal finance can be exactly like that) There’s no point in making a resolution like “I’m gonna get a six-pack this year” if you’re not going to stick to it and look like a beached whale again once Christmas comes around. (Speaking from personal experience here.. pat pat)

So recently, I’ve been following BJ Fogg’s work on creating habits and sticking to them. He’s a Stanford professor and created quite a following with his program 3 Tiny Habits. He tells you to “forget about motivation. Forget about 21 days. Forget ‘one habit at a time.’ None of that matters as much as going tiny. When you succeed in tiny ways, you unlock power to do more. For this and other reasons, tiny is the key to new habits.”

Essentially, to create a new habit, follow these three steps:

1. Make it tiny: When Fogg was trying to create a habit of flossing, he started by flossing one tooth a day. That’s it. Make the habit tiny, even if it’s ridiculous, and suddenly it’s not so hard to start doing it.

2. Find a spot: just like how brushing your teeth always comes right after you get up and before you go to sleep. Create a spot in your existing routine for it.

3. Train the cycle: Every day, just do your tiny behavior in the spot you’ve chosen. If you’re not committing to it, go back to Step 1 and simplify it. Keep trying, revising and adapting, and trying again until you do something that sticks.

The awesome thing? When you train your body to do certain behaviors at a certain time in your routine, the little victories that come with accomplishing a goal start feeding your mind and your confidence. It then becomes way easier to expand that tiny habit into something a little more ambitious. But don’t be in too much of a hurry to achieve too much. The key is to do small, incremental steps, even if it takes you as long as a couple of months to train it. You’re better off moving slowly and progressively than jumping the gun and not sticking to it.

At a TEDx conference a couple of months back, I listened to my colleague Daniel Wong give an awesome talk about delivering happiness through emails (the summary can be found here). Inspired, I tried to fire off as many happy emails as possible whenever I could, but after a couple of weeks, it just wasn’t sticking as a habit. So I decided to try Fogg’s methods instead. First, I made a goal to send at least one complimentary / positive email per week (okay, I know what you’re thinking – now I sound like a douchey depressing office drone – but first, you’ve gotta make it tiny right?). Next, I found a spot by setting a weekly reminder on my phone to send a compliment at the start of the day every Wednesday, before I got lost in my daily barrage of emails. Finally, I trained the cycle by sticking to it religiously. Wednesday wasn’t just another workday, it became “Compliment Wednesday”. (Yes, you can tell I’m a total genius at coming up with creative names) It was weird at first – you’d be surprised at how hard it is to find someone new to compliment each week – but it started getting easier as time passed. As a result, my Wednesdays and my work week started getting more positive, my mood improved, and it became a lot easier to work with colleagues who were previously impossible to approach.

So give Fogg’s method a shot and go tiny. You’ll be way ahead of the game in creating habits that stick 🙂

Less Stuff, More Happiness

Decided to start a regular series called Ted Thursdays, where I’ll share some of my favorite Ted.com videos every week. If you haven’t already checked out or heard of Ted, maybe you should stop watching porn and start doing something meaningful online.

I -love- Ted.com. I use their app to watch videos on the long-ass bus/subway ride to work as a way to get thinking, to get motivated, or just laugh my ass off (much to the annoyance of other grumpy sleepy commuters).

Today’s Ted talk is a short, 5-minute video on how having less stuff could lead to more happiness. (Or the deliciously simple ” <=> “) Graham highlights three ways you could make this work:

1. Edit Ruthlessly

2. Think Small

3. Make Multifunctional

While this is meant to apply more toward design principles, I don’t see why we can’t use it in life. Yesterday, I got a helluva frustrated because a computer glitch caused a ton of emails, that I had carefully sorted and archived over the past year, to be spat out, unsorted, back into my inbox. A quick glance through made me realize that I will never, ever reread or use 98% of them, yet I was spending hours and hours archiving and sorting them out every day. A simple solution: that little button marked “DELETE”. At first, I was a little apprehensive at the prospect of deleting something potentially important, but who am I kidding – if it was THAT important, there will be other ways of retrieving it, without wasting precious hours archiving things I will never use. It’s an invigorating feeling to delete 1,463 emails at a go. You should try it.

This New Year, take the opportunity to ruthlessly cut the junk that’s been building up in your physical and digital property. As you’re faced with new stuff, give yourself a bias to delete rather than to store. You’ll free up some mental capacity and get re-invigorated to start doing something REALLY great. Here’s to a less cluttered, happier, new year 🙂

(PS: Yes – I’m fully aware that today is actually Friday. I fell asleep, exhausted, after a night out with friends on Thursday. A dude’s gotta live, okay?)