“It’s just a phase. He’ll grow out of it.”
How many times do we hear that thought expressed throughout our lives?
The observer providing some perspective on something seemingly important in the moment, but transient in the scheme of things. Easy to say. Hard to hear. But no less true for that.
Some are physical. Toddlers with enormous heads. Kids experiencing a growth spurt, all elbows and knees. Hormonal teenagers, moody and perpetually horny. Middle-aged folks vainly attempting to hold back the tide of time and the inevitabilities of age.
Some are behavioural. Eating dirt. Drawing on the walls. Wetting the bed. Never sleeping, then later sleeping endlessly. Shyness. The fear of public speaking.
Some are educational. Students discovering credit cards. Impatient investors becoming easy marks for crypto evangelists. New retirees living like lottery winners as they burn through their pension lump sums.
Some are disturbing. Bullies. Rebellious teenagers. The creepy kid who immolates ants or turns flies into “walks”.
Many of these phases are mostly harmless.
Things we will look back on in future years with an eye roll or a facepalm.
Becoming a goth. Driving a sports car purchased on finance. Experimenting with drugs. Finding religion or joining a cult. Believing we were destined for greatness, ruling the world or making a difference.
One thing all these passing phases have in common is they seem important at the time, but swiftly fade into irrelevance once we outgrow them.
Making the grade
I remember taking my driving test as a teenager. I failed!
Not just by a little bit, where the examiner calmly tallies up infractions recorded on their clipboard at the end of the test, from the relative safety of the car park.
No, my failure left the unfortunate examiner confronting their mortality and questioning their choice of vocation. White knuckled. Sweaty. Face drained of colour. Another car had run a red light, resulting in some evasive action (mine), a need for clean underpants (his), and an unnecessary use of the handbrake (his) that proved to be more dangerous than any of the events that preceded it.
I was dismayed to have failed, as I had been driving cars and trucks on a farm since the age I could first see through the steering wheel. Long before my legs were long enough to reach the peddles.
The hardest part had been admitting to my father that I had failed. He gave me a bollocking. Correctly observing that good drivers are always on the lookout for idiots in other cars doing stupid things, yet rarely do they feel the need to perform handbrake turns through the middle of busy intersections.
Then he surprised me by laughing out loud, recounting his own driving test experience back in the day. Driving a farm truck, alone and unlicensed, to the police station in the nearest town. Being told by the bored duty sergeant to go drive around the block a couple of times while he completed the paperwork. Driving home again, this time alone and legally licensed.
Times had changed.
He suggested I take some professional driving lessons. Polish my technique. Unlearn some bad habits. I may already possess the skills, but I still needed to pass the test.
I remember finding the driving lessons demanding and stressful. The implacably calm instructor’s constant chiding. Having to do everything by the book. Convinced I already knew it all. Yet demonstrably failing over and over again.
Time slowed down.
Frustration set in.
Would this nightmare never end?
A few weeks after failing the first time, I retook my driving test. Same examiner. Same route. Different outcome.
Receiving my license immediately banished all those doubts, fears, and stresses. A seemingly immense hurdle before I cleared it, became a minor speed bump when viewed in the rearview mirror.
All-consuming at the time, to the extent I couldn’t think about anything else.
Something I have barely thought of at all in the many years since.
A mere passing phase.
Many of our goals in life follow this familiar pattern.
As children, we can’t wait to grow up.
As teenagers, we are impatient to become adults. Legally able to drink. Have sex. Smoke. Obtain credit.
Much like exams at school. Each apparently important in the moment. Paving the way towards unlocking entry to the next level of education or employment. Yet instantly losing most of their meaning and value the moment that admission is granted.
When was the last time anyone showed even the remotest interest in the marks you achieved in Year 9 Science class? Or cared what grade you obtained in Accounting for Engineers during second-year university?
Once you have a university degree, your school grades no longer matter.
Once you have a job, your university marks don’t matter either.
And so the pattern goes. Each preceding step a mere rung on the ladder. Important at the time. Necessary to advance. Yet their individual importance is a passing phase that we swiftly outgrow.
Invest Your Way to Financial Freedom
Recently I was reading Ben Carlson and Robin Powell’s book, Invest Your Way to Financial Freedom. It contained a collection of easy to read lessons, targeted at young people at the beginning of their financial journeys. Bringing to life a handful of Warren Buffett’s timeless principles using anecdotes and worked examples.
The book was well-written. The sort of thing I wished someone had given to me as a teenager to avoid some of those expensive and painful “learning by doing” financial mistakes that many of us make early on.
With that thought in mind, I gave the book to my elder son to read. He devoured it in two sessions, pausing midway through to ask questions about some assumed knowledge that was a little beyond his current experience level.
It was fascinating to watch as a series of lightbulb moments occurred while he was reading. Lessons new. Lessons listened to previously but not heard until now. Hopefully, he will take them on board and incorporate some of them into how he approaches his own financial future.
After he finished, we had a chat about what he had learned and what he agreed or disagreed with.
As we spoke about concepts like Financial Independence, I had an epiphany.
Like many such realisations, it was revelatory in the moment. Blindingly obvious in hindsight.
The desire for financial independence is a passing phase. Important only until achieved.
Something many will experience and most outgrow.
Many of the things my son was focussing on were things I remembered worrying about once, long ago.
Yet most of them were things I no longer gave much thought to. Goals achieved. Challenges conquered.
A reflection of the relative positions we each occupied on our individual financial journeys.
That led me to consider how I would distil that journey down into some simple to follow instructions. After a moment my inner saboteur chuckled, as my list largely mirrored that contained in the book.
Save early and often, worrying only about the things within my control.
Decision making is hard. Apathy is easy. Win by aligning apathy with outcomes via automation and repetition.
Set and forget, focus my attentions elsewhere while my perpetual money-making machine quietly chugs along in the background.
Which probably goes some way towards explaining why financial independence is such a boring topic to write about. Just like driving lessons and high school grades, it swiftly fades into irrelevance once the path towards it is understood and the outcome looks relatively assured.
Little more than a passing phase. One most of us soon grow out of.
It also raises some troubling questions about the relative importance of the things I currently focus on. Happiness. Contentment. Enjoyment. Building and maintaining healthy and rewarding relationships.
My line of reasoning would suggest that these too represent mere rungs on a ladder.
Minor speed bumps and potholes marking life’s journey.
Yet more little steps towards a destination unknown.
Which, once seen, is an idea that can’t be unseen.
Not unlike the memory of that handbrake turn through a busy intersection many years ago!
- Carlson, B. and Powell, R. (2021), ‘Invest Your Way to Financial Freedom‘