Private Obsessions: The Model

I think this one actually goes under the heading “Slightly Embarassing Private Obsessions”, but here goes anyway. For as long as I can remember I’ve been fixated on money. But not for the usual reasons. My obsession isn’t about stuff. Instead, it’s a strange cocktail of two very different ideas I inherited from my parents.

My dad is a Depression baby whose grandfather, a Montana wheat farmer, lost everything in the Dirty Thirties. My mom is a fiercely independent woman with a strong anti-authoritarian streak. Taken together, the message I internalized from them was this: money can make you free. In my dad’s lens, the freedom was from anxiety and want. In my mom’s it was freedom to choose your own path in life. But no matter whose lens you chose, freedom was something to aspire to. And since they weren’t in a position to buy this freedom for me, I decided pretty early on that I had better arrange it for myself.

In my first job out of college I was an associate at a management consulting firm. Most of my client projects involved late nights in front of a green-screen 386 building financial models in Lotus 1-2-3 (1990 seems like a long time ago now). I wasn’t being paid much, and I quickly realized that I could use the same tools to keep track of where my money was going and project how long it would take, and under what assumptions, to achieve some measure of financial independence. Suffice it to say I did not like the answer I got from the model I built for myself.

And so began my twinned commitments to The Model and to seeking greater risk in my professional life. Looked at a certain way, Lotus 1-2-3 made me an entrepreneur: if The Model hadn’t made it so depressingly clear that the traditional path of employment led to financial independence very late in life (if it led there at all), I might never have made some of the career choices I have made. And not only have I been able to significantly outperform my projections by taking more risk, I’ve had a hell of a lot more fun in the process.

Over time (and especially with the addition of a wife and two kids) my original model has gotten somewhat more complicated. But I still maintain The Model (it’s in Excel now) and make changes to it at least once a month. I try to make it as accurate a picture of the next three or four decades as I can imagine, but I don’t really believe the answers it gives me. I’ve learned that life is filled with more unexpected surprises, both good and bad, than any model could realistically capture.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to understand that The Model is really just a complicated way of reminding myself every so often to stop and consider a much more important question: am I living the life I want to be living? I’m not sure I’ll ever be at 100% on that question, but that’s probably a good thing: I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.

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