Recognizing Water, Part 1

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace, 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Address (text | audio)

Before writing further, I want to acknowledge how incredibly fortunate and grateful I am to be in a position to potentially opt out of the rat race and to have meaningful choices about how I want to spend my life.

Some of that is influenced by decisions I’ve made, actions I’ve taken or things I continue to do (or not do), like choosing how I earn, spend and save. But, being in this position required, or at least benefitted from, various forms of good fortune or other things not within my total control, including this non-exhaustive list:

  1. Winning the Ovarian Lottery. As Warren Buffett said in his biography, The Snowball, “I won the lottery the day I emerged from the womb by being in the United States instead of in some other country where my chances would have been way different.” Living in a country that believes in unalienable rights like “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and that has the power to protect its people, gives its people an opportunity to live their life (setting aside issues like financial, racial and structural inequality and human bias).
  2. Growing up in a stable family. Similarly, I was born into a loving family, where both parents were around and had stable middle-class jobs. That provided the space for me to grow up without being stressed out by my environment or home life.
  3. Receiving a solid financial education (and temperment). My parents, who had stable middle-class jobs, did not spend money lavishly. They taught me the value of money and of saving starting at an early age. That laid the foundation for my own future frugal spending and saving habits, in addition to being tempermentally predisposed to that in the first place (I am the child of my parents, after all).
  4. Growing up in an environment that valued education. It was also to my benefit that my parents valued education. They settled in an area with a solid public school system, which meant I was educated by teachers who cared, alongside peers that generally took school seriously. The expectation was that I would finish high school and then college, which is exactly what happened. Currently, there is a lot of debate around reforming the education system and the cost and value of going to college, but suffice it to say that I benefited from the substantive education or at least having a degree as a signaling function to employers.
  5. Graduating from college without student debt. I’m very appreciative of graduating from college without student debt, thanks to my parents paying for my tuition and room and board (and having saved enough to do so). While I supplemented that with part-time jobs during most academic years and summers, my parents’ assistance helped me a lot. My parents also paid for over half of my graduate school education, which further enabled me to save more, sooner.
  6. Having a life partner with similar values. I also thank my lucky stars that I’ve found a life partner who is an independent thinker, questions the assumptions of a consumerist society and comes to her own conclusions about what it means to live a good life. We wouldn’t be in the position we’re in if we didn’t think similarly about spending and saving money. Having a dual income helps immensely as well.
  7. Living in a relatively stable time (knock on wood). There’s also a broad category of things that I’ve been able to avoid thus far that would otherwise impact my ability to focus on education, work and living life. Things like war, civil strife, natural (or other) disasters, medical emergencies, unexpected family obligations, personal crises and other calamities. I try to eat healthily, exercise, save, etc., but some things are way beyond my control or understanding.

Seneca said, “Luck is where the crossroads of opportunity and preparation meet.” Without opportunity though, no amount of preparation can create luck or yield much benefit. I recognize my good fortune and opportunity, and plan to make the most of it, including lifting others up when I can. Accordingly, this post is intended to remind me to be grateful and to avoid ever thinking I’m here purely of my own merits.

I also want to explicitly acknowledge that people reading this may come from different backgrounds, environments and cultures. and have experiences, perspectives, situations, assumptions and value systems that differ (sometimes wildly) from mine. As we’re all the products of our nature and nurture, I can only speak with personal knowledge about my own. But, I seek to value, respect and learn from others as much as possible — even if (especially if) we might not always agree — and to grow and evolve as a human, so I’d welcome your thoughts.

As all of the above and more apply broadly across my life, please consider this post to be appended to the end of each future post, to serve as a reminder of the ever-present “water” that my blog (and I) exist in.

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