Consumer pressure is supposed to work the other way. Stores are supposed to respond to our desires and stock the stuff we want. Instead, everything has reindeer and pine trees on it by November First at the latest. Apparently they think that if they can stretch Christmas out to at least two months, we’ll respond by buying twice as many gifts. Make every store look like a red and green casino! I deal with this by holing up at home. Christmas music makes me break out in hives, and every winter, as soon as it kicks in, I start crossing retailers off my map. I don’t go to the movies or the mall or the pharmacy. I completely boycott Starbucks for the four weeks after Thanksgiving. No mercy. This is why it’s easy for me to do what I call a buy-nothing.
A buy-nothing means I am on a voluntary moratorium of spending on anything other than true necessities. We pay the rent and utility bills, of course. Otherwise, we plan meals around what’s in the kitchen and hang around at home. No movies, no restaurants, no recreational shopping, not so much as a pair of replacement socks. The point of a buy-nothing is to save money, and that means looking for savings wherever possible.
“Savings” is a poorly understood concept. Most people act in such a way that it seems they think “savings” is actually “spending.” Buying something at a different price than normal is not saving. It’s spending! Maybe, just maybe, it’s bargain hunting. Usually it’s just a way that stores trick us into opening our wallets. They inflate prices temporarily so that we think the “sale” price is some kind of deal. This can be really comical when the item in question is so frivolous that nobody would buy it with full retail markings.
As an organizer, I almost always find that my clients have a habit of buying things and then setting the bag down somewhere in the house, still packed. Not only are the tags still on, but the bag has never been opened, and often the client can’t even remember what was in it. “Oh, I was going to return that.” I don’t care, honey, it’s your home, not mine. If you want to spend your vacation money on bags of stuff that you never use, that’s your business. It’s such a common practice that I see it as an ordinary part of our consumer culture.
The point is to be in a store, churning through consumer goods and engaging in commercial transactions. The point is not our experience of owning these items. The point is not whether they’ll fit in our homes, or whether we can afford them. We go to the temple and we buy. We buy and we buy. We stop for snacks. Then we go home and try to find somewhere to put our shopping bags. It’s not our fault that they aren’t holograms, which they might as well be for all the good they do us.
I do it backwards.
Rather than respond to advertisements and sales, I start with a plan.
I want the experience of living in my home to feel a certain way. I like having all of my flat surfaces free and open for when I want to use them. I like having available space on my closet rods and bookshelves. This is why I only buy and bring home items that I know I will use. I only buy things if I know where I’ll put them and how I’m going to clean them.
I want the experience of being me to work out a certain way. That includes Future Self. I want Future Me to have plenty of money, and maybe even be more financially comfortable than I am today. This means I’m always going to make my savings the priority - priority is singular - and plan my finances before I plan my purchases. If any! Most of the time, I don’t need to buy anything at all. I have all the furniture, housewares, clothes, and entertainment I need. I have plenty of food. Prioritizing money instead of stuff means you’re more likely to have the funds when you need groceries, gas, or anything else.
I want to spend my time doing what I want to do. In our culture, some of us are out of ideas for how to spend our time other than driving around to stores and restaurants, watching TV, or messing around with our phones. It’s pretty common for someone to get drive-thru fast food rather than stop at a grocery store and then cook. Going shopping as a way to spend time is also a way to work in as many fast food stops a week as possible. I prefer my own cooking, or my husband’s, and this makes going out and shopping on weeknights more of an inconvenience. The less we shop, the less we spend.
One secret to a buy-nothing is to avoid knowing that something exists. Since we don’t watch TV, we don’t see TV commercials. Since we listen to playlists instead of the radio, we don’t hear radio commercials. We don’t look at fashion magazines that would mess with our body image. We don’t wander through stores wondering what they might have. We stay out of the naughty aisles at the grocery store. We feel better off not knowing when there’s a new flavor of snack food. A life with less craving is not a life with less passion.
The result of the buy-nothing habit is pretty predictable. I’ve had no consumer debt for over a decade. My husband and I both have credit scores over 800. We know where we are on our path toward eventual retirement. Our minimalist apartment is easy to clean, and we don’t squabble over whose turn it is to do chores. Most importantly, we have fun hanging around and talking to each other or doing projects. We don’t feel deprived when we buy nothing, because it’s our natural state. The feeling of deprivation comes from desire for stuff we can’t afford, and we simply choose not to want anything we don’t want. Financial security, yes, domestic contentment, yes. The endless hamster wheel of consumer desires is not for us.
I waited to start investing for several years. Granted, I was flat broke the majority of the time before I started buying into the stock market. I was technically still flat broke afterward too! I lived in half a dorm room! What I mean is that I was reading and learning about investing, I knew I could save 20% of my income if I tried hard, and I felt like I “should” put money into the market. I even had a few picks I would have bought. There were two things holding me back. One, I didn’t really feel like I knew how to set up a brokerage account, and two, I was afraid the market would crash and I’d lose all my money.
Now I KNOW the market will crash and I can lose all my money.
I shouldn’t have worried about my first concern. If there’s one thing you can easily do, it is to call any finance firm and get them to put your money somewhere. If you have cash in your hand, you’ll find that their customer service is excellent. They will help you to the point that they might physically send someone over to hold your hand if you asked.
That all changes when the money disappears. The same account reps who are so lovely when it’s time to make deposits are too busy (and sad) when the Dow plummets. It’s temporary, though.
On average, the stock market loses money one year out of every four. It’s stochastic, though, meaning that it has no patterns. What was true in the past may not be true in the future. Nobody can tell. As an historian, I just look back at the time period between now and 1792, when the New York Stock Exchange was founded, and note that it has always gone through fluctuations. That’s enough for me. I assume that periodically, my portfolio will decline drastically in value, and it will take a few years to catch up afterward. (If ever. Come the zombie apocalypse, obviously all bets are off, but at that point all my retirement worries would technically be solved).
It’s not like I’m foretelling the future when I say that the market is going to crash. I would be if I said I think it’s coming in first quarter of 2018. That would be a prediction. Making specific predictions is always a terrible idea because they’re virtually always wrong. Most people like to wait until after the fact to claim that they saw something coming. Putting it in print sets you up for failure.
In reality, I am planning for such an event.
What’s the worst case scenario? The worst case scenario is that I wait to buy stocks, thinking the price will fall, and instead it goes up. When that happens, it means I paid more than I needed to for something and that I then missed out on the gains I could have claimed. It’s annoying, but I can live with it.
If I’m right, the upside is that I can buy the same stocks on my wishlist at a lower price.
Knowing what I know now, after roughly fifteen years in the market, I feel really sad and foolish for waiting so long to dip my toe in. Remember how I said that I had stocks in mind that I would have bought? The first time I ever thought “this company would be a good investment,” it was when the iMac came out. I saw those five bright colors and I just had this strong feeling that Apple was coming back and would be a stronger brand in the future.
My husband helped me do the research and math on that one. If I’d put in what I could have afforded at the time (ten shares), it would have been worth about $14,000 now. Really nice! Really nice but not make-or-break for my eventual retirement. I try not to think of it the way so many people do about the comics or baseball cards that their moms threw out. It’s not like I was an unrecognized genius or like I would have made a billion dollars.
It is interesting to think, though, that if I’d bought an iMac, it would be an obsolete collector’s item today. The same money put into Apple shares would still be worth something.
Take that thought and transfer it to the concept of buying Starbucks stock instead of buying Starbucks coffee. (Although if everyone did that, the company would either have to sell something else or it would cease to be).
The thing is, anyone who lives an average American lifestyle has a fair idea of how consumer brands are faring from year to year. If you commute, shop, watch TV, use a computer, and talk to other Americans, you’re exposed to a lot of products and services. You know a certain amount about what they do. You know your own preferences, the brands you trust, the trends that excite you versus the trends you think are dumb and annoying. You can trust that trend awareness. It’s not nothing.
That’s basically how I started picking stocks, as opposed to funds (which are groups of a bunch of different stocks). I read a bunch of investment books at the public library. I came away with the idea that if I understood what a company does, I could make as good a guess as anyone else whether they’d be worth more in the future. My strategic question is: “Do I think this company will still exist in ten years?” If so, I try to imagine whether I think they’ll still be awesome or whether they’ll be a little cobwebby.
I’m starting to think it’s about time to reevaluate this strategy, because I think newer companies will be more likely to start fast, make a lot of money in a few years, and then become irrelevant shortly afterward. There will still be companies in that sector, but they’ll come and go. It’ll be harder to make a long-term investment strategy, just like old 1980s investment books always said to buy Coca-Cola, Sears, McDonald’s, and Levi’s. Then the 21st century happened.
The world is changing fast. There aren’t really that many rules. Humans have been investing in some form of stock market since medieval times, though, and I think it’s reasonable to assume we’ll keep doing it. Whatever rich people like to do, especially if it involves money, will probably sustain itself.
When I got into the market, I had a quarter-time job. I bought my clothes at the thrift store. I didn’t own a car and in fact didn’t know how to drive yet. There were still times when I wasn’t exactly sure where my next meal was coming from. The only thing that got me to put that money aside was that I KNEW it would be harder for me to get a job and earn money as an elderly, frail little old lady. Old Me deserved for me to save something for her. I believed that the economy would continue to expand and be worth more at some distant future point than it was in 2002.
I haven’t actually lost any money in the stock market. After the crash of 2008, I made .25% interest. Despite that, I’m smart enough to know that anything can happen. My portfolio could basically vanish. That would be quite a lesson! Even if that happened, though, I’d still plan to put in new money and buy shares of something. I’m pessimistic about the next couple of years of market returns. Ultimately, though, my faith in the market leads me to look at it as an opportunity to buy stocks of strong companies on sale. I’ll almost be too excited to be mad.
My basic advice is that if you feel too broke to invest, you should work to learn more about how money works. Read up on it. There’s no risk in reading a book, right? Then get out a calculator and figure out what one percent of your income is, and save it. If you’re already saving a little, save one percent more. If you feel as brave as I think you are deep inside, wait until the day you read in the news that the market has dropped by 20% or 30%, and then buy yourself some stocks.
Money is so abstract. I don’t know about you, but I can go months without needing to use cash. Almost all of our bills are set up on auto-pay, and all our sources of income are deposited directly into our accounts. Our finances are set up in such a way that we don’t really have to pay them any mind; we can go about our business without knowing how much we have in our accounts. Most people probably do something similar. As modern people, we don’t have to carry around little pouches full of hammered coins and hack silver. Money is energy, and it shows up as digital representations of numerals that we look at on various screens. If we’re still getting paper account statements, many of us are letting them stack up, still glued inside their envelopes. Deciding to go debt-free means pulling money out of the world of the abstract and trying to make it more concrete, more real. Visualizing debt in any way that makes sense is one way to begin to fight it.
A drawing of a thermometer is a common symbol for fundraising. That’s one way to do it. Calculate the amount you owe, draw a thermometer, and color it in as you pay it off. I don’t know, though. As a constantly chilly person, I love the idea of the money thermometer gradually warming up, but that visual might not do much for others. The other problem with this idea is that debt is a moving target. Between interest payments, finance charges, fees, service charges, and every other category of expenditure that exists, the balance can go up even as your latest payment clears the bank.
I used to have a little image inside my purse. I clipped it out of a magazine and taped it inside the top of my purse, which was shaped like a little trunk. The picture was of a man opening his wallet, hair standing on end, eyes bugging out, mouth dropping open in alarm, while all of his paper money grew wings and flew out of his wallet. I chose the picture because I wanted to associate spending money with feeling horrified. There were indeed moments when I considered buying something, opened my purse, saw the image of the flying money, and put the item back. This dissuaded me from a few purchases, but in itself it didn’t help me to increase my income or to become debt-free. It didn’t help me to replace my narrative about money with anything positive or constructive.
I paid off one of my student loans six years early. It was a Perkins loan. I chose it because it was the next-smallest debt on my list; I’d spent the past couple of years steadily paying off personal loans and credit card balances, and I had no consumer debt left. This was after I sold my car. I visualized the Perkins loan as a man named Perkins. Perkins was a pencil-neck geek, a sniveling Poindexter whose sole goal in life was to triple-check his ledger and look for extra pennies to add to my account balance. Bureaucracy personified. “Take that, Perkins!” I would say to myself as I made extra payments.
Up to that time, my primary visualization came in the form of a spreadsheet. I had a line item for each of my bank accounts, credit cards, personal loans, car loan, everything. There was a page for my expenses. I would track when my bills were due along with when my paychecks would come in, figuring each time one of those extra-paycheck months rolled around. I checked the spreadsheet every day, updating the balances. This habit helped me catch a few bank errors and discrepancies in my bills. Zeroing out the balance on a loan that I had finally retired was a great way of reminding myself that I had made progress. I was gaining ground in this battle.
Territory on a Risk board. Blasting holes in a giant asteroid that’s hurtling toward your roof. Plugging holes in a little rowboat. Throwing bundles of cash over your shoulder at mobsters in hot pursuit. Racing from one destination (Debt City) to another (Financial Independence Island). Maybe you can visualize your creditors as various movie monsters, and you have to neutralize them before they succeed in breaking through your boarded-up windows.
Debt is ants crawling on a pie. You don’t really want to be eating that pie; it’s awfully hard to enjoy something that’s supposed to be sweet when you know it’s contaminated. (The pie is your cash flow). That’s one thing that ants and other vermin have in common with debt. They increase on you and they start taking over the minute you relax vigilance.
Debt is a shackle on your ankle. The bigger the debt, the bigger the ball that’s attached to the chain, the more it slows you down as you drag your leg.
Debt is leaving the window open during a blizzard. Each separate source of debt is another window open to the snow.
Debt is a leaky roof. Eventually the drips will start causing water damage to your carpets, your flooring, your furniture, your walls. Eventually there’s black mold everywhere and you’re ankle-deep in a puddle.
Debt is the selfish Past Self, stealing from you, picking your pocket and laughing at you. Debt is Past Self, taking your vacation money and blowing it on pizza. Past Self, throwing tantrums and demanding to be placated with toys and treats. Past Self, easily bored and uninterested in budgets or bank statements or quarterly reports or planning for any kind of future. Past Self, this is your fault!
Visualizing debt should bring up feelings of anger, frustration, and determination. This is where the drive to demolish it comes from. Sadness, guilt, shame, or futility aren’t going to get the job done here. Debt is, very simply, a cultural problem that affects most people at least temporarily. It’s not a character flaw, it’s just a circumstance that can be changed. Visualize it as something that you find so annoying that you take it personally: litter, a bad parking job, cigarette butts, graffiti, the cell phone ringing in the movie theater. Anchor your feelings of annoyance to your debt in whatever way you can. Let it tickle your brain. Make it a target. Start seeing your debt as a specific, individual villain that you can defeat. When you’ve pummeled it into submission, you can then start the fun of visualizing wealth.
I’m an under-buyer. This means that I hate shopping and spending money so much that I’ll wait too long to replace things, even when they wear out. I won’t buy things, even when I need them. That’s what’s so great about minimalism. It’s like a makeover. Before: Tightwad. After: Minimalist! Before: Shabby. After: Frugal! I’m forever going around with a bag that has straps nearly sheared off, underwear with popped elastic, and an upside-down shampoo bottle draining that precious last teaspoon into the cap. Once I was considering whether to darn a pair of socks for the fourth time, when I realized that I had completely worn out the heel. It’s silly. What I’ve found is that minimalism can help to resolve conflicts around extreme frugality, hoarding, and desire for peace of mind.
The premise of minimalism is that we only have possessions that improve our lives. For instance, I don’t need a wedding ring, but I love that it’s a symbol of my marriage. I’ve never taken it off. It’s also really useful as a social signal, representing tons of conversations about romantic availability that I never need to have. I don’t wear any other rings because I’m generally not into jewelry. Less to buy, less debt to pay off, less to store, less to clean, less to insure, less to worry about.
I trust myself not to waste money. This is true even though I occasionally suffer through fits of buyer’s remorse. What I have to learn to do is to trust that I’m only going to buy things that add value to my life. I have to trust my own judgment that I’m going to extract full value from my purchases.
I’ve had a rough guideline for twenty years: $1 per wear. A dollar per wear means that if I spend $50 on a pair of jeans, and I wear them fifty times, then they’ve fully amortized. That’s basically once a week for a year, which is plausible for jeans. Now, if I spend $50 on a sequined top, wear it once and realize it’s itchy and I have to keep yanking it into place, and then wear it once more and ruin it in the wash, I’ve paid $25 per wear. I probably loved the experience of wearing the comfy, flattering jeans and hated the experience of wearing the expensive, annoying, high-maintenance sequined top. For clothes, I’m going for the experience of how they feel on my body, not the photographic record. Why would I pay 25 times more for the discomfort of wearing the sequins, compared to the reliability of the jeans?
On the other hand, I once spent $80 on a new suit to wear to a job interview, and I got the job. I think I wore that outfit as a suit maybe four times. I might have worn the skirt by itself another half a dozen times before I changed sizes. That suit came nowhere near a dollar per wear, but it paid itself off the first day of that new job.
As an under-buyer, I resisted buying that $80 suit. I actually left the store without it and went back to look at it again. Three separate times. If I paid myself by the hour during my free time, which is a fantastic minimalism tool, then I would have wasted far more than $80 of my time fretting and fussing over it.
The sandals that I bought this summer barely lasted three months. I got two pair at $30 each, and one pair is destroyed. I found a chunk of the sole on the floor and realized that they don’t even qualify as shoes anymore. The second pair are probably only a few miles of walking away from that fate. I’m mad at myself, because I really wanted to splurge on a new pair of Birkenstocks and I cheaped out at the last minute. My first pair of Birks survived being re-soled twice. When I finally let them go, they were ten years old. I paid significantly more per mile walked on the cheap sandals I bought online than I would have for what I already knew was a quality shoe. My average miles walked have increased this year from three miles a day to seven. Maybe it’s wrong to expect more than two hundred miles of use out of a pair of discount summer sandals. My shoes are my car, and I have to recondition myself to expect to go through them more quickly than I did in the past.
The point of minimalism is to place our priority on what matters most. Priority is singular. After working on our purpose in life and valuing our loved ones, there is only so much attention and mental focus left for material possessions. What we buy, what we use, what we keep, should add value to daily life. If it isn’t obvious why we have it and what we do with it, it’s up for review. Why take up time, space, or money with stuff we don’t need? The flip side of this philosophy is that there are things that we do legitimately need, want, and use. Because these things argue for themselves, because these things justify their existence in our lives, it’s fine to spend on quality.
We splurged when we bought our bed as newlyweds, because we knew we’d spend a third of our lives on that mattress. The cost per year and cost per day is not extravagant. That purchase was a gesture of hope and commitment. That mattress is over eight years old now, and when we replace it, it’s going to feel in some ways like a renewal of our marriage vows. You and me and the box springs, my dear, and another thousand iterations of changing the fitted sheet together.
I’m starting to realize that it’s a little weird, the way my spending habits reflect my strange notions of frugality. I will happily pick up the check for lunch with a friend but flinch when it’s time to replace my socks. I’m trying to rejigger my preferences. I don’t need to underbuy the basics because we already save so much of our income and because there are so many categories of things we don’t buy at all. It’s okay to have new socks and underwear and a work bag that doesn’t have parts falling off! The objects we use the most often are the objects that are, by definition, the most valuable to us. A splurge on an item of daily use will have a far lower impact on the bank balance than a similar splurge on a luxury item. There is no reason why we can’t surround ourselves with functional routine objects. Everything that we use on a daily basis can be replaced or maintained in good working order, allowing us to live in domestic contentment, in comfort, and even in style.
Keeping up with the Joneses would only be interesting if they were named Indiana and Leslie. If there’s one sure path to unhappiness, a broad and well-paved path, it’s the path of social comparison. There will always be someone who is richer, sexier, or more famous. What’s the point of comparing ourselves to them? The underrated, more interesting alternative version of social comparison is to Compare Down the Stair. Find someone whose life is harder or less glamorous, and feel grateful not to be in that situation.
My husband and I save 35% of our income and live comfortably in a tiny apartment. One of the reasons for this is that almost everyone we know has a lower household income than we do. This is partly because we deliberately cultivate friendships with young people. We like the laughter and energy of high school and college-aged kids. We also have a lot of older relatives and friends who have been on fixed incomes for a long time. It’s really important to have friends from a broad range of ages. We trade our young friends their hipness quotient, new slang, and music discovery services for our mentoring and recommendation letters. We trade our older friends their experience and glimpses into Future Us for our agility and ability to move heavy objects. We look out for each other.
Down the street from us, less than a mile, is a row of beachfront houses. They’re the closest private homes; everything on either side of us is part of one apartment complex or another. These houses range from $1.8 million to $8 million. They’re not even big! These are very ordinary structures that would undoubtedly sell for under $200,000 in the neighborhood where I grew up. They’d go for much less in other parts of the country. It’s the view, I guess, or the prestige of the zip code? We have the same view and the same access to the same shops and restaurants that they have. We just have it for a small fraction of the cost. We only spend a quarter of our income on rent, by design. A lot of people are willing to push it toward forty percent, and that just seems stressful and foolish. People our age don’t like living in dorm-size apartments. Even our friends in their twenties have bigger apartments than ours. We’d rather have the savings and the financial security than a bigger living room or an extra bedroom.
Who are we trying to impress? Only ourselves. Only Future Us.
There are some things that make it easy. One is that we took a sudden, irresistible job opportunity in a different city. We don’t have the constant social pressure that many people do, no barrage of invitations to bars, clubs, shows, or brunches. The willingness to pick up and move for a better job has two effects: more money and fewer reasons to spend it. When we pass through town and see old friends, they’re more likely to show up, knowing it will probably be a year or more before we can hang out in person again. You can hang out with us basically for the price of a basket of french fries.
Another thing is that neither of us drinks alcohol. That’s just how we are. It tends to mean that we say our goodbyes at the end of the evening when the bottles come out. When we add up how much some of our acquaintances spend on liquor, even at home, we just shake our heads. This is why we get to jet off on cool vacations and they don’t. A hundred dollars a month for one year is enough to pay for a round-trip airplane ticket to almost anywhere in the entire world. That’s twenty-five dollars a week. How many bottles of wine is that? Depends on the price point, doesn’t it?
There’s another area where my husband and I match, and I get credit for it and he doesn’t. That’s in the category of beauty treatments. I don’t color my hair and I’ve never had a professional manicure or pedicure. I’ve never worn false eyelashes, had a facial, or been to a dermatologist. I have three handbags and two pairs of dress heels. I wear makeup on special occasions, and it all fits in one little cosmetic bag. I have one bottle of nail polish. Go ahead and laugh - when I asked my husband why he married me, he surprised me by saying, “Your frugality.” If I’d been more lavish in my pursuit of girly beautification, I wouldn’t have landed this man, this man who doesn’t like makeup or heels on women. This man who did my taxes while I went to Cancun with my brothers, this man who trims my parrot’s nails and makes me green juice after my workouts. We could probably do more to stage perfect selfies, but our relationship isn’t really about public display. He wouldn’t mind but I find it too stressful to try to make non-awkward facial expressions on command.
Social media has so much to do with this sense that Everyone is Having Fun Except Me. If you have even a hundred friends on social media, and one percent of them are having a great time on any given day, then you can find yourself staring at a seemingly endless stream of blissfully stylish and perfect life. Someone went to a birthday party! Someone had a cute nap with a cat! Someone went white-water rafting! All of these experiences are evenly distributed amongst people who may never have met, but it tends to look like one giant revel where everyone got an invitation except for us. There are three things that help with this. One is to remember that people only post the memorable stuff. Nobody wants to see a picture of me taking out the trash or sorting socks. Two, it helps to put the images in context. Almost all of these posts and pictures include things that we can do, that we actually do, like going to a barbecue or a family get-together. They just happen less often for each individual than they do for the Collective Ongoing Party. Three, the root emotions of these posts are joy, affection, and gratitude, and we have to cultivate these feelings for ourselves. They’re much nicer replacements for FoMO, envy, and the bad kind of social comparison.
Domestic contentment and friendship come from within. We can’t really feel what we perceive as popularity; we can only feel the warmth of affection, regard, and companionship on our own end. Friends are for appreciating and admiring. We should be expending our love and attention on people who make us laugh, whose conversation and company lights us up. Any kind of social motivation that leaves us feeling jealous, dissatisfied, or left out is a motivation that can be replaced. Any contest should be over a dance battle, perhaps, or who is the best hugger or the best listener.
They never tell you why you’re not moving forward. They can’t. Telling the truth about why certain people get hired or promoted and others don’t would inevitably invite a raft of lawsuits. I started to learn some of these things during a temp assignment at an employment agency. I picked up more of them as support staff at various companies in various industries. This is painful, because my ignorance of these unwritten rules held me back and kept me poor for years.
Working hard and doing a good job has very little to do with anything. Being the smartest person in the room is actually a negative, not a positive; it’s a clear sign that you’re on the wrong track. Being smarter than your boss is far more likely to be a hindrance than a help. Believe me. My IQ is in the 99th percentile, so statistically speaking, I can say with certitude that I’ve been at least a little smarter than every boss I’ve ever had. Not that that’s ever done me a whit of good. I didn’t understand that the question is not “Am I the best at this?” The question is, “How do I make my boss’s life easier every day?”
Work on the priorities the boss has assigned, even if you disagree. Get everything done on time. Fill out the forms, send the updates, do the busywork. Show up a few minutes early and leave a few minutes late. It sounds ridiculously simple, and it should be, but surprisingly, many of us feel like our boss’s requests are unreasonable distractions from our real work. We want to choose our own priorities, and this paycheck-signing boss-person just keeps getting in the way. We have to remember that we were hired to do this person’s bidding.
Hiring a new person is a demanding process. The reason there’s an opening is that things have gotten too busy for the existing staff. They have to add reading resumes to the list of stuff they’re already too busy to do. Their primary goal is to eliminate as many applications as they can, as quickly as they can, so that they only really have to decide between a half dozen instead of five hundred. This is why even a single typo can do you in. They’re genuinely looking for even the tiniest excuse to exclude someone from the stack. Not following the instructions to the letter is the second obvious way to exclude someone, because it makes the applicant look sloppy, defiant, or dumb. I still laugh about the marine biologist who hand-delivered his resume so he could explain to me, the humble office assistant, why he was the obvious choice for this new mechanical engineering position. (Incorrect).
Interviews are astonishing. I saw a man show up for a panel interview for a six-figure position wearing a track suit and a stocking cap. Another man brought his mom and had the entire panel come out to the lobby to meet her. A woman once left her office door open during an interview so we could all hear (and laugh at) the applicant swearing up a storm, dropping F-bombs and classics such as “I need a F-ing job.” These were mature adults with at least some advanced education. Nobody ever told them that there are rules for these things.
[For instance: I just saw a tweet from a woman who tagged her husband’s employer to complain about his paycheck, complete with cursing. That’s a twofer, a workplace fail AND a marriage fail!]
I knew how to copy-edit my resume and fill out applications like an A student. I knew, or at least I thought I knew, how to dress for a job interview. While I wasn’t making any glaring mistakes like the egregious examples above, I had no idea that my problems had nothing to do with these perfectionistic details.
My main problem was that I was being too vague. I wanted “a better job.” I didn’t have a particular career in mind. Due to this, I had no idea what additional credentials or training I should get. I didn’t see myself as a professional anything. I saw myself as a broke person who was trying as hard as she could. I didn’t understand that I’d already leveled out. With the education and training and experience and wardrobe that I had, I had already gotten as far as I was going to go. All I could do was to be an office assistant for a company with a comparatively better or worse corporate culture.
I went back for my degree. By the time I graduated, I had figured out a few things about my wardrobe. I had also figured out a few things about answering interview questions more strategically. Better, I had figured out some of the workplace mysteries that had been so puzzling to me before.
Venting to coworkers. In any contest of loyalty between you and the person who signs their paychecks, your coworkers are going to make the obvious choice. Coworkers are not friends. They are not your friends. They cannot be your friends. Make everyone’s life easier and just be a robot when you’re at work, a friendly and reliable robot. Even if you think you’re complaining discreetly, word gets around. More importantly, when you’re disgruntled, you’re not saying the correct things that a dedicated person does say. A person who is venting is not thinking, “How can I make my boss’s life easier?”
Making excuses. Never complain, never explain. A total-accountability person will be clearly identifiable, often within minutes of meeting. Almost nobody falls into this category. Most people who practice total accountability wind up being someone’s boss, and they recognize one another on sight. A standard-issue person can make a single fleeting facial expression or emit a single syllable and be instantly outed. We don’t even realize we’ve just exposed ourselves. An excuse says, “Let me tell you about me.” It does not say, “Tell me how I can make my boss’s life easier.”
Failing to follow through. This is a huge issue for total-accountability people, who are indeed rating and judging the rest of us every minute of the day on this issue. It appears in various disguises. Missing deadlines, being late, making mistakes, forgetting a commitment, losing track of anything... all look like things a conscientious person would not do.
The key problem here will not have been missed by keen readers, and that problem is, “What if I hate my boss and my boss is a terrible person?” Well, duh. Get out of there and work for a person and a mission that you can respect. If you can’t find one, start a side hustle, build a business, and be your own boss. There are tons of terrible, incompetent people in management. There are also a few gems, and every single one of them has had at least one person who couldn’t stand working under them. That’s because most of us simply hate having a boss and being told what to do. It helps to ask, “Do I hate this boss, or just bosses? Do I hate this job, or just all jobs? Or do I just hate working?”
I work much harder for myself than I ever did for someone else. I work on vacation, I work on weekends, I work late at night, I work on holidays, often I work before breakfast. I have worked on the bathroom floor in hotel rooms. I work on the bus and on the treadmill. One of the things they never tell you is that you’ll probably make far more money working far fewer hours if you can tolerate a boss and a day job.
They say to do what you love. I say to do something the world needs, and keep getting better at it. The love comes later, like an arranged marriage. Choose something specific, the more specific the better. Figure out what it takes to get into a job like that, then do every single thing on that list. Talk to people who have that job and ask them to heckle you until you get it right. Work is a way of making the world a better place, or at least a more efficient place. When you find something that feels like a meaningful contribution to you, it won’t matter as much what kind of boss you have.
I decided when I was nine years old that I was going to be an old lady one day. I just knew it. I was reading a book of fantasy short stories, and one of them had a character who got to choose whether he wanted to know how he would die. I thought about that a lot. I didn’t really want to know how I would die, exactly, although I understood by that point that there was no opting out of mortality. I did sort of want to know whether I would die young, old, or medium. OLD! It turns out that the very elderly among us do tend to operate on the assumption that they will/would live to be old. This is good because it helps us plan.
What will Old Me do with her time?
There are a bunch of things on my bucket list that I have no interest in doing, not quite yet. In a full lifetime, there were simply things that were less appropriate for a young woman in her twenties and thirties than for an older version of the same person. Put it this way. If I assumed at twenty that I would live to be 100, there would be, count them, eight decades to spend. The dancing, dating, staying up late partying decades ought to be at the front. If Future Me were going to study calculus, write her memoirs, or learn to paint, those could go toward the back.
This train of thought continued down the track. What if I planned my later decades in advance? Past Me is absolutely notorious for trying to schedule all my time. She likes to leave me dirty dishes and laundry, because she thinks I like doing that stuff for her, and she likes to leave receipts and unsorted papers for the same reason. Past Me! Knock it off! I do NOT enjoy washing your socks! She also wants to tell me what movies to watch, what books to read, and even what magazine articles - you wouldn’t believe the bookmarks. They’re like passive-aggressive little notes. Knowing this, I don’t want to do the same thing to Future Me. I don’t want to leave her bogus chores and I don’t want to micromanage her leisure time. I do, though, want to send her gifts and good ideas.
I used to talk to Future Me all the time on the Future Phone. I would call her up to see what she was doing. Immediately she would start shouting down the line at me. I can hear you just fine, Future Me, you know full well that phone reception is much better in your time than it is now! The first time I called her, when I was about 19, she knew it was me all right. She told me that if I didn’t start saving money she was going to have to eat cat food. She started telling me off about my spending habits, and darned if she didn’t know exactly where our money was going, to the penny. That was the most urgent thing on her mind. Not forgiving people or traveling more or going for promotions - all she could talk about was savings, savings, savings.
It took ten or twelve years before I quit being sullen about this and started seeing it as little gift envelopes I could send to Future Me. Like burying a jar of gold coins in the back yard. Come to think of it, Future Me would adore a gift like that. I started feeling very tender toward her, she of the creaky old bones. I wanted her to be a crazy rich lady, known for tipping extravagantly and having loads of young friends who loved her jaunty cackle. Auntie Me.
Sometimes I’m jealous of Future Me. She gets to watch the best movies and read the best books, some by authors who haven’t even been born yet. She knows every word to songs that haven’t been written. Her phone, O her phone… She knows the mysteries behind world events, major archaeological finds that are still in the ground, medical innovations and inventions that Present Me can scarcely imagine. If only she could ship me some of that stuff, or at least email me some drawings…
She can’t send me anything other than querulous phone calls, but I can send Future Me anything I want. I can send her boxes of stuff. I can send her a house. I could send her a tattoo or a pair of earrings or a long heartfelt letter. I can send her a million photographs. I could send her a Twinkie and she would get to find out whether it was still edible. There are four things she wants, though:
I’m doing what I can, Future Me. I’m trying.
Sixty is the birthday I’m looking forward to the most, followed by eighty. I feel like my life will really begin at sixty. That’s when I feel like I’ll finally have some gravitas. I’m hoping my hair will be completely silver by then, although it depends on which grandmother I take after. I’ll have a certain freedom through the social invisibility that is granted to old crones. (I’m 42; can I be a crone yet?). I’ll travel and I’ll be a great public speaker and my posture will speak for itself. I’ve never been an impressive athlete, especially since I didn’t start until age 35, but beginning at sixty I’ll start to close in on the front of the pack. Senior Olympics, here I come!
In my twenties, I used to think I had missed my chance to go to Europe, live overseas, or become fluent in a foreign language. I had a fantasy that I should have been a translator of books, and that I had somehow blown my opportunity. Now I realize that once I turn sixty, I’ll have FORTY YEARS before I turn 100. I could spend ten years becoming fluent in a language and then have vast leisure to translate to my heart’s content.
Future Me could learn to identify bird calls, do a hundred yoga poses, travel to every country in the world, photobomb so many people, crash weddings, read an encyclopedia, finally learn to draw, and perhaps even walk down the street wearing nothing but purple rain boots and a tutu.
When I’m 100, I’ll look back at all the amazing things that have happened as long ago as 2049, when I was a sprightly 74. I’ll mull over the thousands of books I’ve read. I’ll spend a few months looking through the hundreds of thousands of photos I’ve taken, plus all the others of my old friends and loved ones who have gone before. I’m sure I’ll have regrets over all the apologies I never made and the friendships I let lapse, the people I never held quite close enough. Hopefully I will have done some good in the world and made a difference in someone’s life. Most of all, I hope I will still be able to sit on the floor and get back up again.
Where the heck did this year go? How did it get to be Fourth Quarter already? That means we only have three months left to knock off our resolutions from last year! As usual, I did some of mine at the very beginning of the year, while others have been languishing, still somehow incomplete. This is the time of year when I attempt to kick myself into gear, while also spending all of October celebrating an extended Halloween.
I just completed the work in Toastmasters to be a Competent Leader, three months ahead of schedule. In my second year of public speaking, I’m improving but still feeling physiologically hijacked and shaky a lot of the time.
My major personal goal for the year was to follow a set schedule. Not kidding, not even a week after committing publicly to this goal, our domestic life was turned upside down. For boring reasons related to commuting, I’m on a different schedule depending on what day of the week it is, and even what week of the month. The goal seems to be working, though. Because my time is stretched so thin, I’m finding that I really have to make the most of it. I’m usually up by 7:30 AM and I even get up at 6 to work out once or twice a week. I’m busier but I’m exercising more than I have in years. Having a schedule makes me feel busier, while weirdly making everything I do seem more important and interesting.
My physical goals of doing P90X and running five miles still remain incomplete. These will be my focus for Fourth Quarter, which should hopefully work out well because the temperature will be cooler at this time of year. It will also be nice to be fitter at the New Year than I was last January.
My home goal of “digitize, downsize, minimize” is now in bonus rounds. I decided not to keep physical books anymore, and I’ve been reading through my collection with the goal of downsizing my bookcase. There are only three shelves left out of six, and it looks like I’ll be able to pull this off. Getting rid of the bookcase would free up space in our tiny apartment so that I could have a desk again, if I so choose.
We had a couples goal of going to World Domination Summit this year, which we did, and it was great. We’ve already paid for our tickets for next year. We also had a goal to make homemade pickles, a commitment we made before moving into a new apartment with a microwave above the stove, which means our pressure canner won’t fit on a stove burner. We just ran out of our supply of homemade pickles, and we haven’t been satisfied with anything we’ve found at the grocery store. This is serious! Next step, refrigerator pickles.
I had a ‘stop goal’ of not being the last person to pack up my tent. I’ve only been camping once this year, but I made it! I wasn’t last! I dealt with my problem of feeling too cold to get out of the sleeping bag by buying and wearing a second base layer. I also got some ridiculous fleece pants and a fleece sleeping bag insert. Weird how having more stuff has actually made it easier for me to get up and pack.
For lifestyle upgrades, I planned to upgrade my phone and my work bag, and to repair our tent, which was torn up by a raccoon last year. I did upgrade my work bag, a decision that had a lot of unanticipated positive side effects. I also finally replaced the shredded mesh panel on the tent, and we were able to use it when we went to Wyoming. The new phone for which I have been waiting for three years has not yet been released.
My Do the Obvious goal for the year was to transform my appearance. I made this transformation back in February, and it doesn’t even feel weird anymore. I’ve made peace with the very difficult truism that other people’s opinions are strongly influenced by the way we choose to present ourselves. Clothing and grooming, who cares, right? But by that logic, if I really and truly don’t care, then I might as well put in the extra effort to look consistent with my desired results. In my case, that’s learning to look like I belong behind a podium or on stage when the occasion demands. I still feel disappointed and annoyed that this stuff actually works on people, like a crude magic trick. I don’t speak the same way when I’m on stage as I do in ordinary conversation, though, so it makes sense that I also wouldn’t dress the same.
My quest for the year was to BE RIDICULOUS. I want to go back ten months and shake Past Me until our teeth rattle. What a freaking stupid way to put that. So many ridiculous things have happened this year: I got bit on the butt by an earwig, we’ve been stranded in airports and on the runway to the point that we lost a day of our anniversary trip, I left our apartment for 90 minutes and our neighbors called Animal Control, I cut my eyeball on a plant... I swear, I meant ‘ridiculous’ in a good way!
I have a wish to pay off my student loan. This isn’t complete yet, but I have started making extra payments.
In July, I set up a charity: water campaign with the goal of providing clean water to 42 people. Despite having two months and offering a free gift to anyone who donated, we didn’t quite reach 1/3 of my goal. My disappointment about this is extreme. If everyone who reads my blog had put in one dollar, we would have easily surpassed that goal. I’ll blame myself for not writing good enough copy, not making a strong enough case for abundance mentality. If I can’t even motivate people who believe in personal growth to spend five minutes of their time and one dollar of their cash on a pure humanitarian charity, then I have a long way to go. I’m holding to my promise to delay the release of my new podcast until I can shake off this sadness.
Personal growth isn’t for us, it’s for us and the rest of the world!
This is the short version of my 2017 goals, resolutions, quests, wishes, etc.:
Personal: Follow a set schedule
Physical: P90X, run five miles
Home: Digitize, downsize, minimize
Couples: WDS, homemade pickles
Stop goal: Stop being the last person to pack up my tent
Lifestyle upgrades: Phone and work bag, tent
Do the Obvious: Transform my appearance
Quest: BE RIDICULOUS
Wish: Pay off my student loan.
If there’s any one thing that keeps us broke, it’s resistance to the idea of having more money. This is far more common than one would guess. People hold a huge variety of negative beliefs about money, jobs, and wealth. I’d like to counter this by suggesting that we earn as much as possible and then give it away. Would having more money be a problem if you didn’t keep it? What if you earned a million dollars and one cent, and you gave away the million and kept the penny?
Let’s take that a little further. Do you have a favorite cause that you love so much that you want to tell the world about it? Is there a problem in the world that bothers you so much that you think about it constantly?
I asked my pets what they would choose. Spike says he’d like to see more research into canine Addison’s disease and an end to dog-fighting and puppy mills. Noelle says she’d put hers toward preventing exotic animal smuggling, and habitat preservation for African Grey parrots in Congo. I told them both to get a job.
One of the first things that holds us back is when we feel like we don’t have any opportunities. If we’re unemployed, we say that there are no jobs out there right now. Hint: It only takes one. If we have a job that we hate, then we’ve taken meticulous notes on any and all unfairness in our workplace. Oh, they only promote certain types of people, I can’t work that schedule, So-and-so has it in for me. We have something in mind that we’d rather do, but there’s such a long list of reasons why we can’t actually do it.
As an example, I’ll do some of mine. I have a running list of alternative realities for myself, all of which are mutually exclusive. At least, if I did them all, I couldn’t do them all at the same time. Running a bird sanctuary, going back to grad school, going to every country in the world as a travel writer, opening a food cart. Well, I can’t open a bird sanctuary unless I own land, due to noise ordinances if nothing else, and I don’t have the down payment and there’s nowhere we could afford to do it near my husband’s work. I’d go back to grad school but I don’t know what subject I would study and I can’t guarantee that I’d earn enough in my new field to pay off the debt, plus I’m still paying off my student loan from my BA. I’d start traveling the world, but you see, it would be impossible to bring my pets and my husband wouldn’t be able to go. I looked into opening a food cart but the coaches are $100,000 and our city council is… You see how this works.
When we go a little deeper, we find that we have reasons why we wouldn’t want more money even if we knew how to get it. Money goes to people’s heads. It makes you greedy, selfish, and vain. You have to buy a ridiculous, architecturally monstrous house where all your neighbors are other rich people. Money makes you become a drug addict and start throwing your phone at people. You get paparazzi after you. You have to hire security guards. You never have any privacy or peace and quiet ever again. They make you name your kids with weird, made-up names that don’t make sense.
It’s just like working out. We immediately go to the extreme. I don’t want to lift weights because I’ll bulk up and my arms will be bigger than my legs. I don’t want to lose weight because if I drop a pound, I’ll go insane and become anorexic. We can’t imagine a happy medium.
What if I got just 5% stronger?
What if I earned just 5% more income?
Well, gee. What’s the point of that?
We give a lot of lip service to the concept of moderation, until it’s time to choose moderate goals. Then we aren’t interested. For instance, if I’m 50 pounds overweight and I find out I can realistically lose two pounds a week, what? It’s going to take me over six months to lose the weight? Pfft. Why bother.
You mean if I earn 5% more and spend 5% less, I can start funding my retirement? Bor-or-or-ING.
I come back to the idea of the million and the penny. Why not be completely extravagant in your desire to figure out ways to earn as much money as possible? What if you just do it for a cause?
I mean, along the way, it seems legit to pay off any debts you may have accrued over the years, including personal loans. It seems fair to use some of your earnings to make repairs around your home and vehicle and upgrade anything that’s worn out or broken. Or, if not, well, you can always keep going as a charity pump and keep putting it all toward your cause.
What if you started out with the desire to earn a million dollars for charity, and keep a penny for yourself, but you accidentally earned more? In that case, would it be okay in your heart to spend any of it on yourself? No? What about others? Could you use it to buy gifts or help out people in your life? Surely that would be okay?
What if it really was okay to just earn as much as you can and spend it however you want? What if accepting that enabled you to move forward so quickly that you surpassed your wildest dreams of what you were capable of? What if you went to donate so much to your favorite charity that they didn’t even know how they would spend it all?
Abundance means knowing on a deep level that there is plenty, and there will always be plenty more. Wealth is not zero-sum. It’s not necessary to deprive anyone of anything in order to feel prosperous. Giving lavishly from a place of abundance is pure pleasure. It is joyful to spread the wealth. The greatest wealth is love. How compatible is love with feelings of stress, strain, deprivation, lack, poverty, and impossibility?
Where do people learn to say “Neener neener neener”? Who was the first person to actually say that to someone? It could so easily have gone the other way - someone looks at someone and says “neener neener neener” and the other person just looks back and says, “Huh? I don’t understand what you said.” Or, “Stop trying to make ‘neener neener neener’ a thing.” It spread so quickly because it’s just the most effective way to taunt people. There will probably be drone toys at some point that will play robot keep-away with us, while going ‘neener neener’ in a digital monotone. Anyway. There are a lot of flippant formulaic responses of this nature, phrases that are used to dismiss or refute what someone is saying. One of these phrases from my childhood was “How does it feel to want?”
Ice cream truck drives up the street
Child: Uh! I want ice cream!
Adult: How does it feel to want?
Child: I want ice cream!
Adult: Yeah, well, I want a million dollars.
Child: I wish I had some ice cream.
Adult: Wish in one hand, spit in the other, which one fills up first?
This is the demographic reality. For anyone below the economic median, one of the most vital lessons an adult can teach a child is how to deal with frustrated desires. Stoicism 101. You just have to learn to deal. Disappointment is your lot in life. Once you can learn that ice cream is for everyone but you, you can start to find inner strength and grit and the pride of being above that sort of thing. Right? This is why kids in my milieu got the “how does it feel to want?” message from random adults, not just parents or relatives.
While it’s true that chasing after every ice cream truck would be really distracting, and that deferred gratification is one of the fundamentals of adulting, let’s go into this a bit more.
How does it feel to want?
Usually when I think I want ice cream, what I really want is something else. Joy. Rewards. Validation. A shared social experience. Distraction. Escape. It’s not usually just that I want to stimulate my tongue. Surely I’ve realized by now that only the first three bites really taste like anything.
The other thing about ice cream as an example is that it’s something I can get 24 hours a day for about a dollar. I can keep ice cream in my freezer - I can fill my entire freezer with ice cream if I like - and I can get up and eat a bite of it every 20 minutes if I so please. So what?
What could possibly, possibly be more boring than a life of total hedonism?
We ought to be wanting more. Something bigger. Something that a six-year-old probably wouldn’t think of. Such as: I want to build my own sailboat, take sailing lessons, and sail around the world.
Actually, wait. That kind of does sound like something a six-year-old might want.
Kids are better at big dreams than we are. Another way to put that is that we start out with vast amazing dreams, and they’re trained out of us. We’re carefully taught to quit thinking that we could actually have that, live that, be that. It’s selfish and delusional! Give up already! Who do you think you are??
Aw, don’t cry. Have an ice cream.
The truth is that people’s dreams tend to be tragically under-wrought. We get stuck on “lose weight” and “get organized” and “pay off debt.” Yeah, and then what? You could do all three of those things in one calendar year if you wanted. You could completely empty a hoarded three-story house, lose a hundred pounds, and pay off $50,000 in debt if you decided to do it. What are you going to do the year after that?
What would you ask for if the fairies came and told you your wishes would all be granted?
So you want to lose weight. If you woke up tomorrow with the body of an Olympic gold medalist, what would you do?
So you want to get organized. If you woke up tomorrow and learned you had won an executive assistant, professional organizer, interior designer, chef, maid, and chauffeur for life, what would you do?
So you want to pay off your debts. If you woke up tomorrow and, instead of debt, that number was your cash balance, what would you do?
What would you do with unlimited strength, vitality, mental clarity, and financial wealth?
What a bummer it would be! Because what I really, really want most of all is for someone to listen raptly while I share the minute details of why I Am Annoyed or That Person Hurt My Feelings.
It’s even harder to image the possibilities there. What if I woke up tomorrow and people didn’t annoy me anymore? Not that they learned to behave themselves, because come on, that’s never going to happen. Just that when people got up to shenanigans, it didn’t bother me anymore. What if people kept saying rude things the way they do, refusing to keep their commitments the way they do, and it just rolled off my back? What if I found that I no longer reacted to emotional bombardment?
I’ve been practicing wanting more, and it’s really hard. It’s hard to come up with ideas. Basically right now I’m stuck on “buy new socks when I wear holes in the toes of my old socks without feeling guilty about it.” When I turn on the fantasy faucet and try out different images, I keep getting stuck on stuff that involves someone waiting on me, which I reject. Other people adore being waited on: getting manicures or spa treatments, breakfast in bed, having drinks brought to them. I have to train myself not to let my resistance to this feeling block my imagination from thinking of desirable things that don’t involve over-the-top service.
What would be some things I could want?
To be better at wildlife photography, which probably means buying a better camera and spending more time in nature
To be fluent in a foreign language, which means restructuring my schedule and giving myself half an hour a day. And then finding someone who doesn’t speak English and talking to them.
To spend time just staring at the ceiling and listening to music, the way I did quite naturally as a teenager
Yep. Those are things I can allow myself to want, things that are in my reach right now. To look at that list reminds me that I don’t direct my time toward my dreams. I spend so much of it in passive entertainment or rehashing the events of the day or grumbling about what is in my life that I don’t want. I can’t push myself to want things that I can’t imagine, things that would be so awesome that they would upend my entire sense of who I am.
What else could I want? To fit in and feel comfortable in a higher stratum than I ever had before? To feel more like myself in a stronger, more active body than I’ve ever experienced? To feel confident and powerful whenever I think about my finances? To feel the drive to move toward my goals and steamroll right over my anxiety and lack of assurance? To feel compassion or amusement instead of frustration with other people? Could I actually want to feel like I really have free will? The hardest thing to want is to want total accountability, the responsibility to create our own conditions. It’s hard to want the choice.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.