Robert Benchley’s Law of Distinction states that “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t.” If that statement made any logical sense, I would count myself among the latter. Yet I do think it’s a rare mind that is both expansive and practical at the same time, and that is what makes Laura Vanderkam so special.
Many of us are practical, workaday folk who do our best to carve out a decent life and make due with what we have—the strong backbone, whatever collar worker. And many others of us are “big idea” people, constantly wandering around the world of ideas, chasing life’s big questions without a clear destination or map for getting there—the struggling artist or absentminded genius. That’s a gross oversimplification, but practical visionaries, people who challenge the status quo by practically, calmly and coolly shattering the sense that it’s inevitable or even logical, people like Laura Vanderkam, really are rare. She explores big, important life questions and, lucky for us, puts those explorations down in writing. Her latest, All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know about Getting and Spending, was released last week by Portfolio.
Her first book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, was ostensibly about time management, and this new one is ostensibly about personal finance, but these are not just time management or personal finance books. These are philosophy books, and there is a consistent thread running through them—the power of choice. In the ChangeThis manifesto she wrote for 168 Hours, she wrote.
When you spend your time nurturing your career, your family and yourself, and outsource, ignore or minimize everything else, you’ll discover that 168 hours is plenty of time to live the life you want. So whenever you find yourself saying “I don’t have time to do X, Y, Z,” try changing your language. Instead, say “I don’t do X, Y, and Z because it’s not a priority.”
Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I could tell you that I don’t play the violin because I don’t have time, but that’s not true. I have time. In any given week, I have 168 hours. If someone offered to pay me a million bucks to learn how to play the violin, you can bet I’d sign up for lessons! Since that’s not going to happen, I can acknowledge that I don’t think learning to play the violin is the best way I could be spending my time.
But playing a musical instrument is one thing. Let’s raise the stakes. It requires more courage to say “I don’t play with my children because it’s not a priority.”
If it’s true, then it’s true, even if it’s not politically correct to say. Be honest. Own that truth. Maybe you don’t like being around your children. Maybe they don’t like being around you. Maybe your spouse is already doing a great job in this department. Maybe you honestly believe that the income you provide, the service you do for society, or the joy you gain by working during the entirety of your children’s waking hours is a bigger priority than interacting with them. There could be many good reasons for this. There are probably some bad ones too. Nonetheless, this is a choice, and not a matter of lacking time. When you say “I don’t have time,” this puts the responsibility on someone else: a boss, a client, your family, capitalism, society. The power slips out of your hands.
Early in All the Money in the World, she writes of “The Bauble Economy,” documenting the fascinating and strange social history of diamond engagement rings, and redefines it and other cultural norms as choices and priorities couples make:
Many couples feel as if there’s no money for luxuries or romantic extras.
Except once there was.
Remember those rings? With the same $5,392 the average couple spends on an engagement ring, a set of new parents could pay a babysitter $50 a night for 107 nights so they could have time to themselves or go neck in the car like teenagers.
The $12,124 The Knot reports the average couple spends on a reception venue could cover a $100 housecleaning service, twice a month, for the entire five years many two-couple couples spend in that sticky stage when children spill milk just to see what will happen.
The average $1,988 florist and decor bill could be doled out, instead, as 198 thinking-of-you $10 bouquets—a once-a-month gesture of love for a solid 16.5 years.
Indeed, the couple could elope, purchase a giant cubic zirconium ring to one-up the Joneses, and invest the whole $26,984 cost of a wedding in creating a “freedom fund” designed to give the couple more financial security and flexibility in their career, long after the guests would have thrown out the Jordan almonds somebody decreed are a wedding necessity
None of these are choices Vanderkam is suggesting we make—in fact, she talks in the book about the expenses she’s happy she made at her own wedding and the primary importance to her of spending as much time with her children as possible—but it’s important to remember that they are your choices. We do many things in life because they’re easy or because they’re expected of us, or simply because “it’s what we do.” It could be as small and simple as watching Morning Joe or stopping for a cup of joe on the way to work. The point is that “what we do” is not always what we would want to do with our time or resources, and what most of us want to do with both is more. I truly believe that when most of us think of more, it’s not quantity, but quality. I think we all know this deep down, but reading Laura Vanderkam’s books focuses our attention on how we’re using our lives and resources, helps us ask ourselves the right questions, resets our priorities and live our lives more deliberately. As she writes:
After all, no matter how much or how little we have, none of us will have it forever.
As James Stewart and Jean Arthur taught us so long ago, You Can’t Take It With You, and even if there are two kinds of people in the world, each of us only gets one shot at it.