Archive for October, 2010

29th October
written by Randy

How many times have you heard incredible stories from people about the lucky breaks they’ve gotten. Someone tells you about how they got an incredible deal on a purchase, or they got to enjoy something other people don’t, or who knows what, all because they were in the right place at the right time.

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard of someone who got the opportunity to travel somewhere cool, all expenses paid… or someone who bought an awesome car for very little money… a widow selling something she doesn’t know the value of, or a divorcee selling something cheap to spite her husband, or whatever.

That kind of thing used to frustrate me. All my life, I would hear these stories and think, “why doesn’t that ever happen to me?” We all have. How many times have you asked, “how come I never get those lucky breaks?”

But this week I had an interesting realization. Those breaks are around us all the time. It’s not that the breaks are never there… because they are! They’re available for all of us. The problem is us. The problem is that instead of putting ourselves in positions to take advantage of such things, we’re always making such things impossible for ourselves — practically ensuring that someone else gets those breaks instead of us.

I realized this last night, as I was booking a two-week long, seven-segment flight through six states in the southwestern U.S. You see, I got a promotional email from Southwest Airlines offering flights for $30 one way for anything under 450 miles, as long as you fly between December 1 and December 15, and not on a Sunday. In other words, if you don’t have a job in December, you can take advantage of this incredible deal.

That’s when I realized that finally, I had created for myself a potential to do these incredible things, rather than sit and complain about how other people get to do them. By paying off all my debt and saving money, I made a life that required me to work less. By haggling with recruiters instead of jumping at the first available job, I ensured that December and January would belong to me, and nobody else. And when this amazing deal came along, I was able to take advantage of it!

In fact, it was hard to stop myself at seven flights. I really wanted to exploit the bargain even further, but now that I also have the luxury of time, that’s an urge that I can resist. It’s not necessary to fill every day so full. I can relax and enjoy life at a comfortable pace.

So now, I realize that being in the right place doesn’t mean standing in a physical location, it means having your life in the right place. It means creating opportunities and setting yourself up to take advantage of them. Being in the right place means being responsible, living cheap, having free time and a few extra dollars laying around, so that when an amazing opportunity comes up you can take it!

25th October
written by Randy

I recently had an opportunity to meet for lunch with a former boss. It was not long after my last job had finished, and I had just returned from my trip out to Yellowstone. He had recently been out of work for three months, and spent had spent that time with his family, and travelling, and it turned out that we’d been to several of the same places on our out-of-work journeys.

Referring to his own comfort with not having a job for three months, and in response to my own nonchalance toward the same possibility for myself, he said to me, “I’ve learned, lately, that the most important things in life are experiences, much more so than possessions or money. And I get the impression that you’ve known that for a long time.”

Regarding the second part, I’m quite flattered to know that my personality reflects my attitude and beliefs! Among which is the fact that I certainly agree with the first part. Experiences are worth far more than anything you can own.

What rich people have

People get caught up in a trap of trying to get rich, because they want what rich people have. But where I think most people lose sight is that they think of the money as the thing rich people have. But money isn’t what makes people rich. Or happy.

What makes rich people happy is freedom. They can travel when they want, eat what they want, do what they want. They have the freedom to do what they want. They have the freedom to make choices based on how they value their time, and what they want out of life, rather than making choices based on what they need to do in order to pay the bills or feed the family.

My point is this: you can be rich without having much money. To be rich, all you need is that same freedom that rich people have. And rather than thinking you need more money to have that, it’s time to start thinking in the other direction: less. You need less bills, less obligations, less responsibilities, less commitments.

I’ve spent the past few years reducing my debts, my commitments, and my responsibilities, so that rather than making myself a slave, constantly in search of more money, I can reduce my dependance on money and gain more freedom. And that has already been manifest on several occasions over the past month.

My freedom

I was able to attend several foreign films at Chicago’s International Film Festival this year, something I’ve wanted to do every year that I’ve lived here, but never managed to do. But with lots of time and no obligations, this year I was able to do it. And the best part is, every film I attended was less than half-price, because I had the freedom to watch them during matinee hours.

I’ve also written more than one-third of my ebook already, because I’ve had the luxury of writing when the inspiration was there, rather than trying to force it out when I had the time to spare. And since I’m not forcing it, I’m writing better, more inspired material.

All month, I’ve been receiving phone calls and emails from recruiters who want to find me a job. But since I’m not desperate and I don’t need the next job that someone can get me, I have the luxury of keeping my self respect, and being much more demanding about what I get.

One recruiter got me an interview for a three-week position that sounded good (mostly because it’s short!) and after the interview, she called to ask how it went. And the thing is, I don’t really care how it went! I don’t need it.

During that call, in typical recruiter form, she asked me to take a moment and write up a little “thank-you” email, thanking the gentleman for taking the time to speak with me, and reminding him that I’m really interested in the job. And my response to her was: “You mean beg? Sorry, I’m not going to beg for a job. I don’t need it. He should be thanking me.”

There was a bit of tension on the line after I said that, but it ended in laughs, and more importantly by having done that, I had demonstrated that I am a person of value.

And guess what…

The next day, they called back to tell me that I had been offered the position. And now, instead of three weeks, they’re talking about six, and looking at possibly going longer, or even permanent. That’s a big change in position, which seems to validate me.

And my response? No. I don’t want a permanent position. I liked it when it was three weeks, and I’m willing to give as much as six, but that’s it. I have plans for December and January (including the fact that Hawaii is among the states I haven’t visited yet!). I’m not giving that up for some job.

Starting work

So now, I’m starting this new position with a new company in a few minutes, not worried about making a great first impression, not worried about any of the other stressful things that people think about on their first day.

I woke up today without an alarm clock, and without worrying about getting up on time. I’m sure I’ll be on time, but in truth, if I’m not on time I don’t care. I have no phone, so there’s no number for them to call if I’m late. And if they don’t like my attitude and the ask me to go, I still don’t care because I didn’t need the job in the first place!

Of course this doesn’t mean I’m going to be rude or inconsiderate or take advantage of anyone. There is still a lot to be gained from being responsible, on time, and polite to people. But the difference is that I get to keep my self-respect.

I’m on time because I choose to be, not because you threatened to fire me. I’m dressed well because I care how I look, not because you have a dress code. I’m respectful because I’m a respectful, pleasant person, not because I fear losing your paycheck.

I’ve won my freedom. I don’t have much money, but I feel rich. And that feels good.

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22nd October
written by Randy

Every day, millions of Americans — probably hundreds of millions — start their day wrong. The first thing they hear is an irritating noise buzzing and beeping and rousing them from their rest before it’s done.

Imagine that. The first thing that happens to you every morning is one you don’t like. It’s a negative experience that we have to work hard to overcome in our morning… and many never succeed at that.

That alarm sets the pattern for how your day is going to go. You wake up frustrated. You wake up without enough sleep. You wake up with an irritating noise in your ears. You wake up on someone else’s schedule, reminded that your life is not your own. You wake up a slave.

This week, like the Greek army burning their ships, I threw out my alarm clock with the trash. And Monday, I start working at a new company. So without a safety net, I’m counting on waking up on time, naturally, without an alarm, for the first day at a new job!

I’ve wrestled with the idea of an alarm clock for several years. For the majority of the last decade, I’ve worked as a contractor, so I have full time work that ends after a set period of time. And between contracts I have “vacation”, such as right now.

Between contracts, one thing I’ve noticed right away was that I stopped using my alarm clock and started waking up when I was “done sleeping”. This doesn’t mean I layed in bed all day like a lazy fool; it just means that when I woke up naturally, that’s when I got up.

In recent years, I’ve managed to not use the alarm for long periods of time, even when I was working. I’ve found that if I get to sleep at a reasonable time, I will wake up at a reasonable time. I’ve also learned that my activity level and diet affect that greatly — working out will help me get to sleep, drinking a lot of coffee will keep me up all night, etc.

Still, even though I’ve found success waking up for work without the clock, I’ve still had periods where I started staying up later and later, and had to start using the alarm. It’s been like a safety net.

But this week I threw it out, and I’m not going back.

The difference is commitment. Without that clock there, I have no backup plan. It becomes necessary for me to be responsible about when I sleep, when I wake up, what I eat, what I do during the day.

Life is better without the alarm

Once you declare your independence from the alarm clock, the world looks different. You wake up when you’re done sleeping… not tired, not irritated, like a human instead of a slave.

Without the alarm, your morning belongs to you. You aren’t faced with an immediate reminder of someone else’s schedule or their plans for you.

Each new day is yours to conquer, instead of being a challenge to survive.

Moreover, without that clock there, you don’t know what time it is when you woke up, until you actually get up and go look. Whether you woke up early or woke up late, there is no longer that panicked sense of realizing the fact. You simply wake up and start your day.

Sure, you have to be more responsible. Without the clock to wake you, the responsibility to get to sleep on time is yours and yours alone. But that is a good thing!

When you know you have to wake up and be at work, you are less likely to give in to the temptation to stay out all night at the bar, or to stay up all night playing video games, or watching tv.

When you know you have to be asleep by a certain time in order to wake up, you stop drinking so many caffeinated drinks, because you know that they’ll keep you up all night.

When you know you need to have a regular sleep schedule for things to work, there is more incentive to get out and be active… to exercise, to work out, to go to the gym or go for a walk or go for a swim. You need your body to get tired so you can fall asleep when you go to bed.

Being without an alarm clock is freedom from the things you hate, and it’s responsibility to yourself. And that’s why I’ve decided to toss mine in the trash. From this point on, I am going to take responsibility for waking up happy, and never again be a slave to a clock.

17th October
written by Randy

One of my goals for this year was to be completely debt free, and I am thrilled that I was able to complete it before the year was half done. But since this blog wasn’t started until after I had already crossed that finish line, I never really got much of an opportunity to talk about why that was so important to me.

With the exception of a few know-it-all economics majors who think financial leverage is good, I think most people understand that debt is bad. Most everyone I know, when asked what they would do if they won the lottery, begin by saying “the first thing I would do is pay off all my debts.” But if we all know that it sucks to owe, why do we all do it?

A system has been built up around us which sees citizens as nothing more than consumers. Our government refers to us as taxpayers, rather than as citizens. Our news is presented by corporations pushing an agenda. Our entertainment is filled with advertisements to buy, buy, buy. And with mortgages, loans, and credit cards, our banks have made it easier than ever to spend money we don’t have.

Why is it so easy to get into debt?

There is no advantage in giving away money, so you have to stop and think about why it’s so easy to borrow, to use credit, to finance things into the future. The reason is simple: debt is slavery.

If you buy a car from me and pay cash, I get just one transaction, and it’s only worth the price of the car. But if I can get you to finance it, I’ll not only make a bunch of extra money in service fees, but I keep you tied to my auto lot for a long period of time. As time goes on, I can make you special offers to trade in your car on a new one, and just move that debt around. You become trapped.

If it costs several hundred dollars to buy a cell phone, but I tell you that you can have it for free, so long as you agree to a 2-year service contract, I will not only lock you into two years with my recurring service, but over those two years I’ll also finance much more money than the price of that phone. (The difference in price for a no-contract service is usually around $15/month, which is $360 or more over the length of a contract.) And I’ll let you out of that contract early if you agree to sign a new one. Once again, you become trapped.

And that’s where we’ve ended up. Americans are stuck in they mortgages, stuck in their cars, stuck in their overpriced cell phones and cable television packages. Every year it’s a new credit card. Every two years a new phone. Every five years a new car. Every eight years a new house. Always moving bigger and bigger debts around.

The treadmill

It becomes a debt treadmill. Like the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, we’re all running in place, working harder and harder to get somewhere, but while the scenery keeps evolving, we’re stuck in place.

When you’re on the debt treadmill, stretched to the limit of your income, you can’t afford to be unemployed. Without a paycheck, you can’t service the debt, and eventually the whole house of cards will come crashing down on you.

That fear makes people do things they don’t want to do. Instead of taking that vacation to Europe you’ve always wanted, you find yourself having a stay-cation, which usually amounts to you doing those projects around the house you’ve been putting off while you’re on the treadmill. Imagine — taking a vacation from work… to do work!

That’s what we’ve become. Americans have become slaves. We’ve allowed those terms taxpayer and consumer to define us and control us, and like sheep we all follow the rest of the flock into a prison… with a treadmill instead of a floor!

It’s destroying the world

This treadmill is not just destroying ourselves — though that alone should be enough of a reason for you to want off. This cycle is also destroying our world!

In an effort to make things bigger, better, shinier, and more desirable every year, we’re mining up more resources from the earth, polluting the air as we refine them into building materials, and then selling them to people who take their previous baubles and toss them into the trash.

We’ve got junk yards filled with cars, most of which could have been repaired for much less than the cost of a new one. We’ve got landfills full of last year’s model of cell phone, computer, etc. We’ve got storage units syphoning money out of our pockets every month in exchange for keeping safe all of the things we don’t even use any more. And we’ve got a planet polluted with all the plastic wrapping that all of this stuff came in.

Our economy is in a shambles — and it affected the entire world! — because we, as a nation, exist only for the purpose of creating debt. Our national debt is astronomical, and the government’s budget runs in a perpetual deficit. Our entire country has become enslaved to the treadmill.

Getting off of the treadmill

It’s hard work, but it’s not nearly as impossible as it seems. You can get off the treadmill, as I did a few years ago. You can become debt-free, as I did this year. It just requires a conscious choice.

Getting off of the treadmill is the first step. When you find yourself stuck in a hole, the most important thing to do is stop digging. That means quit borrowing, quit spending, quit perpetuating the mess you’ve made.

I got off of the treadmill in 2008, and it was hard. When people around me were driving fancy new cars, I was riding the train or the bus. When people around me were eating in fancy restaurants, I was eating home-cooked meals. When people around me were buying the latest computers and laptops, I was using the same ones I’d had for 4 years.

But what I realized was that I was off of the treadmill. Instead of feeling deprived, I felt responsible. Instead of being jealous of that fancy dinner, or sexy car, or shiny new computer, I learned to look at those things as the bars of the prisons that everyone else was building around themselves.

I knew that if I stopped actively building that prison, I could start working on getting out of it. And over the next two-and-a-half years, I did occasionally buy things, but instead of carelessly spending, I now thought long and hard about whether I would value the item enough to justify adding bars back to the prison I was working so hard to escape.

Breaking free

Finally, after making difficult choices and living responsibly — for however long it takes — you do make it out of the prison, as I did this year. And it’s liberating!

When you’ve stopped spending recklessly, you find that life costs a lot less to live. And when you’ve stopped funneling every cent into servicing debts, you can actually save money. With a low cost-of-living and a very modest savings, you can work fewer hours, or even actually live comfortably for some time without a job if you choose.

When you’re not worried about how to service those debts and how to pay for that house of cards around you, your stress level reduces. Your health improves. You sleep better, feel better, look better, live happier.

When you’re constantly trying to have the latest television, or the fanciest cell phone, or the sexiest new car, you end up freeing a whole lot of attention that you didn’t realize you were spending on keeping up with those things.

When you’re not actively participating in the financial treadmill, you are doing your part to reduce its footprint on our society and our world. The more people stop playing the game, the less incentive there will be for banks to keep the game going.

You don’t have to make any more effort to be green; it’s a natural side-effect of being more frugal. Buying less creates less waste. Riding on public transportation consumes fewer natural resources. Fixing things instead of buying replacements keeps more garbage out of our landfills. And so on.

When you end your slavery, you gain your freedom. You gain the right to choose the job you want, rather than the job you need. You gain the right to trade things for experiences. You gain the right to go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be who you want to be.

Basically, the point is, if you want to make every year amazing, the most important first step is gaining the freedom to do so.

11th October
written by Randy

I just got home from my incredible 5-day trip through the beautiful natural wonders out west. What an eyeful! I knew there would be some beautiful sights when I planned the trip, but I didn’t know that every mile would be so stunning!

The plan was to fit 1,500 miles into 5 days, but thanks to an adventurous attitude, it actually came out to over 2,000 miles. Along the way, I found out I was not far from Antelope Island, Devil’s Tower (from Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind), Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway, Snake Canyon, and the Perrine Bridge, so I made detours to see them.

Of course the point of the trip was to see some famous sites. I chose my route in order to see Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse monument, and Yellowstone National Park — especially Old Faithful. And I did.

In spite of being far from completed, Crazy Horse was impressive. I could see his face over trees and mountaintops from several miles away. By comparison, I was rather unimpressed with Mt. Rushmore, which pales in comparison. In fact, Mt. Rushmore isn’t even visible from the road — its view is almost completely blocked from anywhere except the paid visitor parking area. For a national treasure, that’s kind of a shame.

What America has become

But the shamefulness at Mt. Rushmore doesn’t end there. I went in the gift shop to get a postcard and magnet (the only souvenirs I collect) and I saw a lot of signs and stickers on merchandise saying “Made in America”, which is a good thing to see when visiting an American treasure, right? Based on that sticker, I bought a shirt as well. But the next day, when I was putting it on, I noticed the tag said “hecho en honduras” — made in Honduras. That’s just awful. It’s for reasons like this that my disappointment with America continues to grow.

There’s more. Many times during my trip, I stopped along the side of the road to take photos, and I was really disappointed with how much litter I saw. While you’re driving, you can’t really see it. But every time I stopped, I looked the ground and saw garbage. We don’t deserve this beautiful country.

By the time I reached Yellowstone, I was surprised to notice that it seemed pretty clean. And I’m glad for that, because it’s a stunningly beautiful landscape everywhere you look. I went early in the morning, which allowed me to get some great photos, and also to see everything I wanted to see before the place grew crowded with families.

I’ve seen so much in the last few days that I honestly feel a bit overwhelmed. A person could spend weeks in any one of the places I visited — months or even years, in the case of Yellowstone — and still never see all that they wanted to see.

Doing it without a phone

You may recall that I recently decided to give up my cell phone. I’ve never been much of a talker anyway, but this was my first time traveling without the assistance of mobile internet, maps, and GPS in my pocket.

It wasn’t that big of a deal. I had my MacBook Pro and my iPod Touch with me, and I found that at almost every highway exit I was able to get online, often at whatever gas station I was stopped at. Sometimes, I had to go sit in the parking lot of a MacDonalds or a hotel to get internet access, but it wasn’t much of an issue. I also found internet access for free at the airports in Denver and Salt Lake City.

With regular access to the internet, I was able to check maps and directions, find additional sights to see, locate hotels, check emails, and even listen to voicemails on my Google Voice. Oh, and also keep up with Facebook and Twitter, of course.

Being without a phone while I travel made me more aware of just how tied to their phones everyone is. Nobody is paying attention any more. They’re all wandering aimlessly with that digital parasite stuck to their heads. Walking to the left while looking to the right, talking into their phone and running into me. Driving too fast or too slow, changing lanes without signalling, one hand busy pressing a phone against their head. I can see that life is going to be much more interesting for me without that distraction.

It was a good trip

All in all, I enjoyed myself, and I saw a lot. I saw several national monuments and national parks. I visited five more states that I had not previously been to, putting my count at 39 now, and leaving only eleven states to visit with two-and-one-half months left to do it.

I made a new friend on the flight out, with whom I’ll keep in touch. In my evenings at the hotels I made some serious progress on the e-book I’m working on. I shot some amazing photos. And I saw bison, elk, antelope, horses, and bears in the wild, literally just a few feet away from me.

5th October
written by Randy

Too often, people see unemployment as a stressful situation. But I see it as an opportunity! The first thing I did when I knew my job was coming to an end was to book travel for the places I would never otherwise go.

Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Utah, Idaho… with the exception of Salt Lake City, there isn’t even a reasonable-sized airport in any of these states, so there’s just no way I would ever see any of them on a typical weekend trip. And whenever I take off a whole week from work, I try to use that for a much more compelling destinations, like Europe.

But with no job beckoning me back there is no time limit on my travel, and no reason to rank one destination higher than another. I can go to all of these places, and still decide to go somewhere “more compelling” when I’m done. Who will stop me? Who will complain?

So tomorrow morning I leave for my “national parks tour”, which will include Salt Lake, Mt. Rushmore, and Yellowstone National Park, as well as some other, lesser-known natural treasures in the unsettled western states. I’ll fly into Salt Lake City, then rent a car and drive in an enormous 1,500-mile circle over the next five days.

Not only will I finally see some sights that most Americans never get around to seeing, but in doing so I will also set foot in five more states, bringing my total up to 39, and leaving me with only 11 states I haven’t seen and plenty of time left to get to them all this year.

1st October
written by Randy

Today is my last day at my current job. And instead of being worried or sad, I’m excited.

It’s not a big dramatic ending. I’m not quitting, and I wasn’t fired. I have been working there under contract, and today is the last day of that engagement.

Most people tend toward permanent placements at jobs where they will stay for several years, so when someone leaves it’s a big deal. But for the last ten years I have worked mostly as a contractor, so I’ve grown accustomed to seeing things end and new things begin.

What makes things really different this time, however, is that because I’m completely debt free, I don’t have to hurry out and find a new job. And I’m not going to.

My monthly cost of living is already very low. I don’t have a car or any of the associated costs of owning one. I recently had my cable tv turned off and found that the free broadcast HDTV signal is even better than what you get over cable. And giving up my cell phone is going to lower my expenses even more.

So while so many people right now are unemployed and worried about how they’re going to pay their bills, I actually have the freedom to be unemployed by choice! With only three months left in this year, I am very tempted to simply not take a new job at all.

Instead, if I replace the time I would spend every day working for others with time spent working for myself, I am confident that I can make my web sites grow. And I have one in particular (which I can’t tell you about just yet) that only needs a few more weeks of work before it is ready to share with the world.

After that, I’ll work on the e-book. As you may know, I’ve been learning Italian this year, and writing about it at my web site Yearlyglot. My plan is to release an e-book at the end of the year, with an easy, step-by-step description of how I became fluent in Italian in one year… without traveling to Italy. I will include links to free learning resources, and video of myself speaking Italian so everyone can see that it really does work.

And finally, during all of this, I will continue to travel. Mostly within the US — I’ve already been to 34 states, and there’s no reason I couldn’t get to the other 16 in the next three months. Especially since I’ll be visiting five more next week when I go to Salt Lake, Mt. Rushmore, and Yellowstone National Park.

My year just continues to get more and more amazing. I’m not sure how I’ll top it next year, but I’ve already got some great ideas. You’ll have to stay tuned to find out what they are.

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