One of the greatest benefits of working with kids is their brutal honesty. (You’ll see this as a consistent theme in other FI Lessons posts.) If you are easily rocked, working with young kids can be brutal. I’ve seen teachers in tears in the staff room because of an unintentionally cruel comment a student made on the way out to recess. I’ve also seen cocky men reduced to speechlessness by a single comment from a little kid.
At the same time, these unfiltered comments can be incredibly useful if one takes the time to reflect on the truths they may contain. Today, I’ll share a personal experience with this, and relate it to our collective journey to financial independence.
Setting the Stage
I was working as an elementary principal. It was my third year in the building, and I’d established strong relationships with most students. We don’t have favorites – but of course, there are some students that are just instantly memorable.
Esme was one of those. She was smiling, bright, and kind to everyone. I’d met her my first week on the job when she was a kindergartener scared to go to class. Now, she was a second-grader and always said hi on her way off the school bus every morning. Generally, Esme was a rule follower.
So, it was with some surprise that I found myself dealing with a crying Esme in my office. She’d been sent in from recess because she’d pushed another student off the swing. (We won’t go into the details around that, but it wasn’t anything serious.)
It took some time to calm Esme down, and make her understand that our collective goal was to make sure it didn’t happen again rather than to punish her for eternity.
We’d managed to reach an understanding, and she was getting ready to go down to the cafeteria and eat lunch. As she stood, she noticed a picture on my desk. It was from the summer before I’d become a principal. When I still had summers off. A friend and I had gone on a ten-day self-supported hiking trip.
Knowing the trip was coming, I’d done better than usual at exercising and training. And, I was younger then. So, Esme picked up the picture and looked at it. Then it happened.
The pictures showed me standing at the top of a mountain trail. I had my arms up and am smiling, unshaven with an incredible vista in the background.
I kept it on my desk because it called up memories of free times, unfettered with professional concern. It reminded me that there was a world outside my office.
The memories associated with the picture were about to change. Irrevocably.
Esme looked at it, then looked at me, then looked back at the picture.
“You used to be skinny….”
She was right. The picture represented the best shape I’d been in since I’d left the Marine Corps. I was active and fit in my early-30s glory.
Now, she could have stopped there.
But she didn’t.
She went on, unconcerned and unaware.
“….but now you are fat.”
Oof. The verbal assassin!
My brain struggled with conflicting desires. I considered explaining to her the concept of tact. Or, talking about how 80-100 hour work weeks take their physical toll. Fortunately, I fought off my lower self.
Because you know what? At the core of it, she was right. There was a 15-lb difference, and a world of fitness, between the picture on my desk and the person in front of her.
I laughed, told her I was working on it, and sent her on her way. I still keep that picture on my desk, to remind me of the freedom of the original trip, Esme (still one of my most memorable students), and the importance of confronting brutal facts.
How This Relates to the Search for Financial Independence
Sometimes, we know something to be true, but haven’t really faced it. In this case, I knew I’d fallen out of my fitness routine. I was out of balance with my job and health. But, I wasn’t doing anything about it. I could even justify it to myself as part of building my career.
What part of your financial life do you know isn’t right? Perhaps you have consumer debt. Or maybe you’re avoiding debt but not generating savings? Are you settling for a job that doesn’t pay you what you’re worth?
We all have something that we “know” isn’t quite right, but haven’t really faced it yet. If you’re going to change, you need to acknowledge the need to change.
Empower Someone to Call You Out
Despite our best intentions, people just aren’t that good at facing reality on their own. I consider myself a self-reflective person. I’ve even had people tell me I do an exceptional job at it. I know I’m my own worst critic.
But still, we naturally seek a sense of equilibrium. This can prevent us from facing reality. Or, we convince ourselves it isn’t quite that bad.
The most effective people empower others to call them out and name their mistakes. One of the greatest parts of working with kids is that they’d do it anyway. Now that I mostly lead adults, and am often the ultimate decision-maker, that doesn’t happen naturally. I need to create systems and to explicitly tell others they have permission to call me out.
Do the same in your financial life. Build budgets or savings plans that tell you, in unfiltered untactful numbers, if you are on track. Have an accountability buddy, or work with your partner, to empower someone to call you out when you stray from the path.
It’s not about feeling shame or failure, but about giving you the information you need to change and succeed.
Don’t Make Excuses – Take Action
When reality slaps you, either through self-reflection or from a friend – don’t kill the messenger. Also, don’t let yourself off the hook.
Examine the reasons why. Yes, I was working way too much. I was prioritizing my career over my health. My previous health systems were built around epic goals I could pursue during the extended times I had in summers. I no longer had those.
Let those be explanations, but not excuses. While all true, it meant instead of being doomed to my current state, I had to make different choices.
Approach your financial life the same way. Are you spending too much on food? Examine your patterns and make changes.
Is your investment plan not working because you spend the extra at the end of the month? Invest pre-tax and take the option away from yourself.
Whatever you do – look for explanations not excuses. Then, take action to eliminate or mitigate those barriers to success.
I wish I could say that Esme caused me to instantly change my behavior and I’ve maintained good fitness habits ever since. That wouldn’t be facing reality though. The truth is, I’ve continued to struggle with the balance between my personal fitness and professional goals. I’ve never regained that late-20s summers-off fitness level, but I constantly incorporate fitness plans and actions into my life.
I like to think that would be true anyway, but I give credit to Esme for helping me stay committed. I hope you can use Esme to help remember to take action in your search for financial independence:
- Face Reality
- Empower Someone to Call You Out
- Don’t Make Excuses – Take Action
What do you think? Have you ever had someone call you out unexpectedly? How did you respond?
Oh, and if you have a great kid story that spurred you to action, I’d love to hear it!
Other entries in the kid-led FI Lessons series: