Lifetime Return on Investment

I’ve been attempting to raise money for my mission trip to Guatemala for the past few months. It’s been all well and good except that, well, I suck at fundraising. The pathetically few actions I’ve taken have been ridiculously time-consuming (I swear, the excessive use of filler-word adjectives ends here) with a small return on investment. I’m talking less-than-minimum-wage type of returns on investment.

With the help of my good buddy, I landed a temporary construction job. Not quite minimum wage, but very close. Difficult physical labor, but honest work and more profitable than what I was doing — not working. Want a fun story to tell your grandkids? Tell them about the time you were the only Asian guy on the construction site, the only one with a college degree, making less than everybody else, doing the most physically taxing work. After a few days, the available work dried up, and later on, when they called me back and asked me to return, I declined.

You might be wondering, “Can’t you find a better job with your credentials?” In this season of my life, no. And shut up.

This is NOT a criticism of jobs that require physical labor. I was actually much more pleased with myself than when I was dressed in a suit, making four times the amount in corporate sales (for a company I later found to be lacking integrity) or in my various stints in law — where I wasn’t always sure that the clients I comforted verbally were better off paying their life savings to a lawyer or facing their default worst-case-scenario.

But there was one problem with doing this kind of honest work — other than the ridiculous hours, the shitty pay, the physical demands, and the very real danger associated with job sites, that is. The problem was this: I was spending my time in a way that provided me no long-term payoff. Scrubbing concrete, carrying heavy shit, and cleaning rooftops of high-rise buildings is actually fun at first. It’s just that at the end of the day, I was trading hours for dollars. That’s it. At least when I was working in sales, I was getting better at pitching, dealing with rejection, networking, and a whole host of other business skills. At least when I worked in law or even in retail, I was honing abilities that were transferable to other industries.

“Well, working is better than not working,” some would say. And to a certain degree, that’s true. Being unemployed, going to the gym everyday, and reading books and talking to strangers at Starbucks (that’s what I do) is, in one sense, less productive than sweating in the sun at near-minimum wage. If I wasn’t provided for in terms of food and shelter, you’d better bet I’d work graveyard at McDonalds, clean toilets, and pan-handle to pay my bills. Nobody is “above” honest work, no matter what the form. In the short run, we need to survive. In the short run, a job is better than no job.

But here’s my claim. Exercise is a lifetime investment. Educating yourself is a lifetime investment. Meaningful discourse with people is a lifetime investment. Attempting to start a home-based business, even if you fail, is a lifetime investment. If you are barely above water financially, my untested claim is that you are better off reading good books, meeting strangers, and being a meathead than slaving away at a job. Because fuck the rat race.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think sitting on your ass is a sustainable activity in the long run either. All of these things need to be reduced to action. Ideas in books need to be applied. Connections with people need to be cultivated. Physical fitness is really a support activity to enhance your performance elsewhere (unless it’s literally your job to be fit — think professional bodybuilder or government-sponsored Olympic athlete). And in doing these things, you really have to be disciplined and relentless. Not an easy task. My hypothesis and argument is that you will strive for and accomplish more things on a game-changing level by engaging in lifetime ROI activities like the ones I’ve mentioned than if you have a full-time job, no matter what it pays.

In my own experience, it’s been nearly impossible to make meaningful progress in education and in business when I’ve tried to do it on the side of a full-time job. If anything, I’d probably do it more like Tim Ferriss — either strategically restructure your full-time job to make it part-time (by delegating responsibility and other methods) or work for seasons to save up money, and then quit to pursue things full-time, with the gamble that if you fail and/or run out of capital, you can always find new employment. I do know some people that have been able to live a double life — namely, working a full-time job (sometimes in excess of 60 hours a week) while still pursuing degrees and businesses on the side — but I’ve never been one of them. Believe me, I’ve tried. And start adding other variables into the mix like family time and balancing, recreational activities to this ridiculous schedule? Good luck not dying of a heart attack.

Now, there are risks involved. You might potentially spend all your time looking like a weirdo to your peers, and you may possibly die penniless. Your friends and your spouse might leave you if you don’t produce fast enough — these things actually happened to me. You might question whether or not God is real if you don’t see short-term manifestations of blessing. You will spend many difficult days and nights alone — guaranteed — and you will wonder if it’s worth it. There is no guarantee you will ever live your dream. Would you choose this lifestyle?

Maybe the most important ingredient in living a dreamer’s lifestyle is faith. Faith that God will provide. Faith that these seemingly insignificant activities are, in fact, seeds for a future harvest in a season that may or may not ever come. Faith that you aren’t delusional.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about success over the course of my life, it’s that it is spiritual. Money is spiritual. Relationships with others, diet and exercise, emotional balance — it’s all spiritual. Your balance sheet, while very strategically important, is not what will ultimately determine your financial destiny. How you steward the resources you are entrusted with is what counts. How you develop as a person through the seasons of your life determines what you will be capable of handling in the long run. Plenty of dumb people lucked into a winning lottery ticket or scoring the spouse of their dreams at a young age. Fast-forward 20 years: what’s the percentage of people that were able to keep what they were blessed with?

I’m going out on a limb here, but I believe it all comes down to the root of our discussion. What are we doing with our time? Are we surviving the rat race and living for the weekends, or are we investing in a long-term return?

Are we willing to risk everything to possibly gain nothing? Just my opinion: even if we never realize our dream, it beats working for a living.

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