In my last post I wrote about the importance of long-term planning by comparing the ambitious person to a pawn that has to go on a hazardous journey before it can be ‘promoted’ into a more valuable piece. Today I want to highlight the advantages of being an unsentimental opportunist without a plan. The long-term planner has the dangerous potential to become a sentimental person who will not deviate from their plan because they have a sense of fondness for particular aspects of it. Such a person may lament that they used to think that they would become financially independent whilst saving the world but ended up becoming strapped for cash and feeling undervalued by others.
Sentimentality can be seen in someone who doesn’t want to find a new job because they have affectionate feelings for their existing workplace. It can be seen in someone who will not move to a cheaper area, or to an area with better work, because of their emotional connection to a house. It can even be seen in someone’s nostalgic connection to beloved objects such as clothes, vehicles and luxury items. In all of these cases someone could be losing out on maximising their income because they cannot adapt themselves to changed realities.
Various professions seem to regularly produce sentimental people. Teachers are caring professionals since they do become emotionally affected by the successes and failures of their pupils. I imagine that this can happen to anyone who works with people, including medics and nurses. The temptation is to stay in one place for many years so that you can help particular individuals progress to their fullest. And that is a noble endeavour. However, it is also a sentimental way of looking at life. Surely it would also help the people who rely on the help of teachers if the professionals are motivated to do their best work at all times. It is clear that financial incentives can keep professionals motivated. Therefore there is an argument for saying that you should find the best paying job you can at any given time because you will then help more people to the best of your ability as a result of being maximally motivated.
Furthermore there is evidence that losing hope in the prospect of becoming richer can cause workers to become less motivated and less effective. For instance during the recession in Britain nearly a decade ago many employees found that their wages had been frozen or that their contracts had otherwise been changed unfavourably. The result of this change to their financial situation was an increase in the workers’ demotivation. A poll by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2009 of 700 such workers found that 34% felt demotivated and, more alarmingly, 8% felt angry. Now, I am not arguing that money is the only motivating factor for workers but it is evident that money is a major extrinsic motivating factor for many. However there are jobs such as teaching that have an intrinsic value for people – they work well even if they don’t get paid as much. Indeed one of the signs that I have seen in schools has this message: ‘PRIORITIES: In a hundred years it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.’ To be clear, this is a very honourable thing to think.
Perhaps the sentimental person will not change their job if their salary is frozen, or even becomes less valuable if inflation rises, but I think that most people will want to know that they will become richer as a result of their hard work. However, the person with a financial plan for the long-term risks becoming as unchanging as the sentimental person as both will not deviate from the actions and economic choices that they have made in the past.
Both of these people could make bad decisions.
For instance, someone with a long-term plan may have decided to save up enough money for a deposit on a house with a thirty-year mortgage yet it would be absurd to stick to this plan if the housing bubble collapsed or expanded dramatically in the meantime. Clearly, one would not want to overspend on a house during a bubble, and nor would one want to wait to buy if the price had collapsed to an affordable level (many others would buy the house as an investment). This is where the opportunist makes the biggest gains as he or she will be able to buy and sell during a bubble.
So it seems to me that the ideal worker should be flexible in order to stay motivated throughout his or her career. Flexible, in this case, means that the worker would do well to have an overarching long-term plan but can also react to opportunities as they arise. For many people this means finding and keeping the best job available (which requires them to maintain a good reputation at their workplace). Yet flexibility also encourages workers to be bold in their choices rather than expecting their income to always come from the same job.
And there are benefits to this approach: fortune favours the brave. For instance, it would be brave to retrain in another field in your late 20s or 30s, especially if you have debts or don’t have housing. Likewise, it would be brave to make investments into stocks or to become more entrepreneurial. However such decisions do have the potential to greatly increase one’s financial reserves.
In short, you have to decide whether you want to play this financial game cautiously over the long-term or whether you can be flexible and happily make choices with uncertain results that could bring in more money. A bold person should quite like making decisions whereas a more cautious person will want to have the option to return to what they have always had. Unfortunately the cautious person can become trapped in a financial position that could be better because they are afraid to lose what they already have. They are even worse off than the lotus-eaters because they are kept sedated by fear rather than comforts. Tragically, the sentimental person can also lose out on the best possible financial outcomes due to their caring nature and the importance they put on a job’s intrinsic value.