The Internal Compass

It’s been 8 months since I left the meditation retreat camp. Every month or two, I can’t help but analyze and reflect upon what meditation did for me. The reason being that some part of me starts to slowly emerge. Sometimes it’s a bit of my past emotional states that were positive, and many times it’s something new I haven’t experienced before.

I remember the first day I got out, the immediate effect was I felt a sense of calmness that couldn’t be broken for many weeks.  I didn’t feel rattled or shaken, instead I felt balanced and observational. When I returned back to work, I noticed that the same problems didn’t effect me the same way, and to a certain extent I conscientiously understand “in one ear, out the other.”

I also remember being able to sleep fewer hours yet still maintain alertness throughout the day. In other words, for a period of time coffee was no longer necessary. I felt very detoxified.

More recently, I’ve felt this emerging compass inside me. Not in the sense of north, south, east, or west – instead it is more like hot or cold. Remember as a kid, you probably played a game where you had to find something by listening to your friend say hot or cold. Hot meant you were getting closer, and cold meant otherwise. But hot or cold is all you know (and yes there was warmer or cooler for a bit of subjective help). There’s no sense of real physical direction. But either way, you knew with each direction you took, there was a 50 percent chance you picked the right option.

Hot or cold is where I stand now. The cold is obvious, but the hot is not. During the past few months, I have been more aware of what I don’t like. In other words, spotting the cold has been a prime focus for me because cold is what I don’t like. If I can remove the cold, eventually the hot will present itself. This general concept is the fundamental groundwork for clearing out the clutter. The clutter is the cold. It’s like mixing hot and cold water to get the desired temperature for running water. When you want hotter water, you can either increase the hot water, or reduce the cold water.

I think of hot as happiness, purpose…whatever it is you want to call it, it’s the thing we all want and spend most of our life searching for. Just like the game: when you get hotter, you’re closer to the goal. But unfortunately life isn’t as simple as turning up the hot water. If that were the case, I think each and every one of us would be much happier. But luckily we can turn down the cold water, bit by bit, until the right temperature is reached. In which case, we reach the right equilibrium.

Each time you turn down the cold water, you place your hand in the running water to judge the temperature until you like it. Life works in a similar manner. Turn down the cold – turn down the clutter. Eventually the discomfort of the cold will settle into a temperature that is comfortable for a long enjoyable bath. That right temperature, whether hot, warm, or lukewarm, is to our own liking and solely depends on each individual. No one can tell you what your perfect temperature is. The only way to reach that is constant adjusting and testing. It’s the same you do before going into a shower or bath.

Yea, I am aware that I’ve beaten the analogy to death, but I hope you found this analogy useful. Find your right temperature, and remember: it’s a constant adjustment that will require you to keep testing the results of each adjustment.

School DOES prepare us for the real world….sort of….

I hear a lot of critics say that school doesn’t prepare the young ones for the real world. We learn so much about the arts, English, linguistics, calculus, physics…so many things that are important in the academics, but seem so useless in a corporate office setting. Take physics for example – most of what I learned in the lecture halls were difficult and downright painful, and after putting in so much effort into studying how to calculate relative voltage, I don’t remember any of the formulas nor do I need to use it. Or what about calculus? Derivative after derivative, integral after integral, one variable after another…seriously, I’m just manipulating equations with X, Y, and Z on a piece of paper. What relevance is there in terms of my own life?

Many of these concerns are quite valid, but only when it comes to certain perspective. I think sometimes we are too premature in bashing something without a bit of context as to why we are bashing it. I’ve been working for a number of years now, and through experience, one thing that naturally happens is recalling what I learned in the past due to some recent experience I just had. And usually the recollection comes in a way that I would not have expected. Take the physics example that I mentioned earlier. The professor told us that voltage is relative. You can’t measure voltage at a single point, it has to be measured relative to another point in order for it to be possible, and also have any sort of significant scientific meaning. The key word here is relative. Things in our life having depth and meaning, but its relative. For example, owning a home is sometimes seen as achieving success and a certain level of maturity. But that’s relative to the audience and perception of what it means to own a home.  Relative to an opposite perspective, it can be considered a horrible move. By owning a home, you have committed yourself to paying back a loan with lots of interest (unless you paid all cash), property taxes, insurance, landscaping, and you also got to fix everything yourself. You don’t worry about this when renting, so why even go that route? If I have confused you, re-read what I wrote again. The connection is meant to be very subtle.

Since having many of these moments, it became clear to me that while it can be fair to say that school doesn’t prepare us for the real world, you can’t really blame the school system. There is one piece missing that schools can’t easily provide: real world context via personal experience. Some classes do try to accomplish this. Take math for example, a typical Algebra course. You spend so much time solving for X, Y, and Z, then usually a few word problems come at end, where now the same problem is given to you but in the context of apples and oranges because that’s what we eat. But it still doesn’t work. We don’t care about apples and oranges, and the only reason we make any effort to solve the problem is because we want to pass a class. And passing the class is dependent on the grade we get. The grade we get is dependent on how well we solve these math problems. So for the student, the context of X, Y, and Z is really around passing a class and getting the verbal or written acknowledgment from our teacher. It has nothing to do with a desire of actually solving for X, Y, and Z.

The question is not whether or not a class is relevant for life, the real question to ask is, how do I find a way to connect the material in this class to something in my life? Some courses are much more obvious from the get go and can easily prove it’s usefulness. Take auto-mechanics for example. It’s typical for teenagers to be driving a car at the age of 16, which is also a typical age for when a student might take this class. When driving a car, you now have the responsibility of maintaining it. Even after learning how to fix a car in class, you still may not fix your own car. But that’s OK, because through your experience from fixing cars in class, you are now likely more aware of when you come across a good or bad mechanic. Regardless of how you use the skills from a auto-mechanics class, it’s useful regardless because it has immediate contextual meaning in your life.

But what about writing a paper? I remember in a typical writing course, you had to write a paper by first stating a point, then providing useful and relevant facts to support your point, i.e. an argumentative essay. In class, the range of topics were usually selected, so you had no choice but to pick something from that irrelevant list (relative to your life) and then find some facts to prove why you chose such a position. The problem is the position you chose doesn’t have any real contextual meaning for you. You picked something for the sake of picking it. If you didn’t, you would guarantee yourself  repeating the course. The teacher usually would try to justify this essay by saying sometime in the future you’ll need to write a letter or proposal to convince someone of a point you want to make. That’s all fine and dandy for the future, but I’m living in the present, not in the future. Plus, I have no idea what I would be asked to do in the future when it comes to this type of work, so that means I don’t have any clue as to how to apply what I’m learning right now. I will be writing this kind of essay for a few more years into high school and then many more years in college before it has any contextual meaning in my life, outside of making the grades and passing the classes. So in class, students more or less go through the motions of the essay for the sake of a grade, not so much that it actually has any significant personal meaning for them.

Also, the relevance of  class, in terms of real context, for a person will depend on each individual. For example, solving for X, when you know Y and Z, has real significant meaning in my life in terms of real estate. Solving for X when Y and Z are given – one way to look at this is you have control over some things, and not over other things. Y and Z are here to stay, and ultimately it affects what X will be, but the part you have control over is how to get to X. Here’s another extended way to look at this to take it a bit further: if I desire X to be a certain value, can I manipulate Y and Z in any way to obtain the value of X that I desire? In other words, lets flip it around. Now you know X, so how can I solve for Y and Z? Working backwards is just as important as working forward, if not more important. For example, my calculations for real estate is nothing more than an algebraic equation to solve. I desire a particular ROI, which is nothing more than a variable with a fixed number or a range or numbers. And there other factors that control the ROI: interest rates, rent values, fair market value of homes, property tax rates, vacancy rates, and insurance. Think of each of these as a separate distinct variable – A, B, C, or X, Y, Z. I am trying to solve for other variables when I am certain of what I want one variable to be. When I buy an investment property, I know what the ROI needs to be. The ROI is influenced by other the other variables I mentioned above. So to satisfy my ROI, I have to find homes with variable values that satisfy my ROI requirement. Do you follow me so far? If you do, then you can understand how algebra influences my decisions. If not, read it again, it’s not hard.

At work, when trying to convince a client, whether in a meeting, email, or in some kind of written proposal, I have a clever solution that I want to present and I need to back it up with reasons as to why. This is the thought process of an argumentative essay. The difference now is I have a personal vested interest in the essay. This time I chose the topic to defend, not a teacher. It now has real context meaning for me. And that has been my point throughout this post. The things we learn in school have use in the real world, the problem ultimately lies in getting students to make that connection to their own personal lives. Unfortunately, it’s not the school’s fault. They can only go so far when trying to give students the experience of real world problems. I am not saying it’s impossible, but I do think it’s hard. In order to help students draw that connection, a teacher would need to pay attention to the individual context of each student’s life. Given all the responsibility they have, it’s nearly impossible to do this for every student.

I could go on and on with many more examples. Such as, linguistics plays a bigger role in life than many may actually believe. But my major point is, lets not blame the school system. The fact is that they are giving us the tools to help us in life, but without the real life connections to those tools, it’s very hard to make it work. Its easy to bash the school system when we can’t find any immediate use for what is taught in the class room.  Let’s make a concentrated effort to look at this in a different light.

Measuring the wrong way

The years between 2008 and 2012 has been interesting times. It was a point in my life where I started planting the roots of my financial future, but only to have it sprout and lean towards the wrong way.

In the middle of 2008 I headed over to Singapore. I stay at a hostel in Chinatown that was managed by one of the co-owners. He was more than willing to have a heart to heart chat about my financial situation at the time, as well as some of the online business mistakes I had recently encountered. Luckily, he wasn’t condescending in any way, nor did he take any cheap shots at me. He knew I simply needed candid feedback about what went wrong. It helped, and I am forever grateful for the time he spent with me having those talks.

At the end of 2008, I visited and stayed with an acquaintance in New Zealand. She was the motivated entrepreneur that was on the rise and just a few years younger than me. On the surface, for where she was at her mid 20’s, it was impressive. She owned multiple rental properties and ran her own property management company. I spent several days with her talking and discussing real estate, business, and the mindsets that exist behind people that have this kind of motivation. As of today, she appears to have grown dramatically since the last time we met.

After New Zealand, I took a flight to Melbourne so that I could meet up with a good friend for a few days. Like the girl from New Zealand, she also ran her own business – a retail store for fashion accessories. She’s the same age as me. For business, its different for her in that she more or less kind of just fell into her situation when working with her family. From her, it became clear why sometimes business didn’t make sense. And that ultimately came down to the true desires of the individual. I had a chance to sit out in her balcony, have a few drinks, and thoroughly listen to her thoughts. While not in a bad situation, she pictured herself differently than where she is now. As of today, I don’t know what’s she doing for her career but she’s engaged.

Shortly after, I spent a few days in Sydney with a close friend. He is married, but at the time he didn’t have any children. His story is interesting in that it almost mirrors the earlier life of a typical business success story. He never completed college. When he had turned 18, he preferred to study stocks instead of studying during the night before a final exam. He bought his first property at the age of 18. Subsequently he kept picking up more and more year after year, as long as it financially made sense. He spent years saving as if his life depended on it. He always knew he wanted to be a wolf and not a sheep. One thing he knew for sure is that school wasn’t going to take him there – he simply didn’t fit the school system. I spent one day observing how he ran his retail store in the mall. Some of my other friends in Sydney were perplexed by this, given that they perceived vacation more as a time of partying and site seeing. I don’t disagree, but I also want to gain perspective and insight. Besides I wasn’t much of a sightseer. But more importantly, we had spent many nights and car rides together over the course of 10 days talking and sharing ideas about life, purpose, business, money, and anything else that we felt passionate about.

In between these trips, I spent many nights at Starbucks and bookstores, reading up on the latest financial and entrepreneur business books. Some were a bust, but a few gems did stand out. Needless to say, I gained some insight from reading a few key books – including the Rich Dad, Poor Dad series. As a piece of advice, I don’t recommend this book if you’re looking for a cook book recipe.

By the beginning of 2009, I felt a sense of “reboot” inside me. I felt fresh and ready to tackle challenges again. After gaining some perspective on my past mistakes, I embraced 2009, 2010, and 2011 as moments to take charge once again. I decided one of my strengths was real estate. Not that I am a professional or anything, I just knew for a fact that I had a better understanding about it relative to the average Joe. What followed later was many nights and weekends at Starbucks with reading and more research. I also spent time visiting many different cities and talking to the locals. What made these cities tick? Why would anyone want to live there? Even if lots of people were renting from an area, what was it that made it happen? Was that reason sustainable? These are just a few of many aspects I thought about.

It was fun and new. I went into things without knowing much, other than a belief in myself that things will work out. I wrote my first full blown business plan. It had reasons as to what I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it, and how I was going to sustain it. I wrote it in such a way that it could be given to someone as a proposal to have them trust their money with me. Looking back, I never followed the plan step by step. In fact, it acted as a means to exercise and train my mind. The fact of the matter is, plans usually don’t go as planned. It’s our ability to adjust to the current climate that ensures our success. But the business plan gave me some confidence in knowing that I had the ability to think these things through. But more importantly, I knew why I was doing it. Personally, it wasn’t money just for the sake of money. I needed money to fulfill a bigger purpose to the ones I care about. To this day, I still continue the mission even if I have periods of down time.

At the end of 2009, I started building the team. First I needed a property management company. Next I needed a trusted Realtor that could give me the real deal on what was going on in the rental market. Luckily those two people became one. The ball started rolling. I couldn’t stop when 2010 rolled around. Offers were made left and right, and I was excited to look at even the most ugly fixer uppers. Long story short, success reared it’s head. I later built my team by adding a good CPA to make sure my taxes were done right. Then 2011 and and half of 2012 became more or less the same. I kept running and building. It was like crack – I loved the feeling. To top it off, I had a supportive group of friends that cheered for me. In return, I was more than willing to share my experiences with them, hoping that they could chase their dreams too (it didn’t need to be in real estate).

But then suddenly things went the other way. I remember as a teenager, a time when I really adored and thought highly of the friends I spent time with, my parents warned me: things are cherry now, but it will change as you grow older when money is involved. At the time, I thought it was nonsense, but regardless those words remained inside me as the years went on. Eventually word spread, and now I am 30 years old. Within the same college, unless you failed out, no one was really better than the other. Everyone, for the most part, felt like they were on the same level as others. After graduating, if you found a job, then you felt like you were on equal footing as other graduates. But then 10 years later, it sinks in. It becomes common for many people to measure themselves by their salaries, job titles, and materials they own (i.e., cars, big homes, investments, etc.). And it’s an ugly thing.

I met one guy recently, through another friend (her boyfriend), that was cool in the beginning. He owned a house, and I owned my house. We had some good conversations about real estate. But later, my friend told him about my other investments. Then things changed. It started with, “oh, you have more than one house?” He continued to ask how many homes I had, in which I did tell him. That night, nothing happened, and it all seemed great.

But then, subsequent visits became awkward and tense:

  1. He would ask me how much I paid for property management, only to tell me how I was over paying. Yet, he’s never hired or worked with a property manager before.
  2. He would ask me what my interest rates were, only to tell me my mortgage broker didn’t work hard enough. At the time, he had only bought one house, and probably refinanced just once.
  3. He would ask if I was paying any HOA dues, only to tell me I messed up because HOAs messed up my purchasing power. Yes, he also pays HOA dues on his house.
  4. Subsequently, anytime I visited again, he’d always ask item #1 again and respond to me in the same manner.
  5. Any conversations we had about real estate resulted in him interrupting and pushing his point across without listening to what I had to say. Of course, he was talking and promoting ideas about RE stuff he hadn’t done yet.

Part of the problem, in addition to his already over-inflated ego, was that my friend used me as a measuring stick. I had done a lot more, and done it a lot earlier than him. Before he made a decision, she’d routinely tell him to check with me first. I’m sure that infuriated him. All of a sudden the visits became unpleasant because of him, so I simply avoided them unless it had been some time since we talked (usually 6+ months). I wouldn’t go as far as saying this guy wanted to get back at me personally – this is simply who he is. While observing him interact with his friends, he uses every opportunity possible to give unsolicited advice.

I had to stop visiting because I was starting to become him. I gradually started measuring myself the wrong way, not just with him, but with others, out of habit because of my interactions with him. Any time I sensed someone wanted to challenge my worth or status, automatically a check list fumbled through my head. It became such a bad habit and for a period of time, it consumed my thinking pattern:

  1. Job title
  2. Job salary
  3. # of investments
  4. Other assets
  5. My age

I’d scan through each of these items and compare it with the other person. If I was “better” with at least 3 or more of these items, I suddenly felt confident and secure. But, this is for all the wrong reasons.

I suddenly became the person I worked so hard to not be. I didn’t want to be “Keeping up with the Joneses,” but unfortunately I unintentionally started to, and it eventually became a normal reaction to any stimulus that challenged my worth as a human being. When I had first started my path to wealth, it wasn’t to compare myself to others. During my travelings years, when I had nothing, I was seeking others more for inspiration, an exchange of ideas, and their own personal stories in this journey. I was never using them as a measuring stick. And I had fun on this journey more so for the sake of doing the work, and not because I wanted to be better than someone else. It is fun seeing my estimated ROI become a reality, not that my ROI is better than “the Joneses” next door.

Now it’s clear, so damn clear. I had become the jerk I never wanted to be. Obviously things are different now. I’ve come to this realization and have made the adjustments. The first thing was to continue avoiding conversation with people like this. Second, I keep my investment conversations strictly with only those that thrive in the exchange of ideas, not ones that thrive in a battling of egos.

This is one of the most honest posts I have ever written, one that is truly an open book that puts my mistakes out there and my realization of how silly I was. I managed to turn something that was once fun and fulfilling, into a pointless race that drags on forever with no end in sight.