Wednesday, February 27, 2008

How to Be Optimistic In Uncertain Circumstances

It's all over the news - the economy is going to hell. At least, if you believe the media, and the economic indicators.

I'm not sure it's going completely to hell yet, but it's certainly heading into a long dwell in purgatory. I think there's some cause to worry - about jobs and financial well-being.

Lest I sound completely glass-is-half-empty, I think that there is a way to feel optimistic. It is very simply, to use a variation of the serenity prayer. Whether you are religious or not, it makes a lot of sense. Here's the part I like:

Help me to accept the things I cannot change

Give me the courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I live a lot with financial uncertainty. I'm a consultant. Sometimes I don't know whether I'll have a job at the end of the month. I always have so far, and I'm pretty good at predicting when it's time to find another job, but I take a large amount of risk every day.   Great rewards, but very high risk.

Over the last few years, I've managed to become more comfortable with rampant job and income uncertainty. Eventually you grow some thick emotional skin about it - sitting around worrying all the time is just too stressful to sustain. But having gone through enough rounds of what-will-happen-next-itis, there are some things I have learned about how to be okay with it.

The first is obvious. Guess what? You personally can't change the way the economy is going. You can't prevent a future job loss. So let it go. That doesn't mean you shouldn't be updating your resume, fishing for opportunities, and watching your portfolio, but it does mean that you can't control what happens next, so let go a little.

But you absolutely can control your personal little economic sphere right now. And doing so may make you happier.   That means maybe changing some things.   Toss the catalogs, no more internet shopping, no more quick trips to the mall.  Start transferring more money to savings and stop using credit cards.  What you want is to start building up enough to get you through a rough time.  

If you have a lot of debt, and a little savings, that can feel daunting.  But literally, every $1 you save, and every $1 you don't owe is something, and will make a difference.  

Which brings me to the other thing I have learned about how to stay positive when things look grim - start thinking small.  Very small.  Celebrate every little thing you save.  Celebrate every bit of debt you pay.  Celebrate 2 hours of overtime that gets you closer to your goals.  Think going for a walk instead of a big night on the town.  In other words, downscale your expectations.  

Why?  It works like this: If you need big showy displays of wealth or constant new clothes or or be happy, you are always upping the ante.  It's like those extreme sports people - what they are doing is never good enough, it's the next big thing.  In contrast, the people who are happy with the mountain they ski every weekend are probably more happy - because they have what they need, right there, not over the next mountain peak.  

And that's what you want - to want what you have.

That doesn't happen overnight, but once it does, you realize that the economic risk hits only your wallet, not your well-being.  At first, it may feel boring to be home on Saturday night.  But then later you may find that going for a walk before making dinner and watching reruns of CSI: Miami feels pretty cozy, relaxing and good.  

After the economic crisis is over, you may, like Sander and I, find you prefer date night at home in front of the fire most of the time.  That you actually enjoy the small things better.

So accept what you can't control, change what you can, and think in the small scale.  Your wallet, and your well-being will thank you.

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