I have had countless dreams of what life should look like in my 30s. Will I be a millionaire? Will I have a six-figure salary with an awesome career? Can I afford my own penthouse with its own in-built studio with high-definition surround sound?
I guess not, seeing that I still live in a terrace with decent speakers for a self-confessed audiophile. But with age comes some wisdom. And I realise that whichever shape or direction my life takes, it is about how I choose to tackle each curveball with resilience, finesse and courage.
Here are four lessons I learnt about everything from wealth, and beyond including self-actualising and just being happy in my own skin.
1. Money and Freedom are Not Mutually Exclusive
It was early in my 20s, when I began my career as an associate in one of the big four accounting firms, that I equated the pursuit of money to a feeling of being ‘trapped’.
A never-ending cycle where I do not have the time anymore to do the things I really want. My freedom curtailed. The lyrics of Bittersweet Symphony, “You’re a slave to money, then you die,” by The Verve playing inside my head. It was everything I feared about becoming an adult and starting my working life.
Soon, I quit and discovered what I was really passionate about – creating content and writing. I joined a local business radio station as a producer for several years, covering business news and markets. Work was now fun and I didn’t feel a violation of my personal freedom. And I got to make money from this? Looking back, I realised that money and freedom are not inalienable and separate concepts. In fact, they are mutually dependent.
The pursuit of money did not come at the expense of something I treasured which is my personal space and time. In fact, earning more money today has given me better control of time (e.g. hiring help and ordering takeaway). In a way, it has granted me the autonomy to decide, and perhaps even some level of independence.
Frankly, the financial support from my family allowed me to take that risk and plunge into an entirely new industry in media. You could say that money granted me the freedom to do so and pursue a new field.
This epiphany was a formative period for me in developing a healthy relationship with money and its intrinsic ability to grant me choices such as taking time, quitting to pursue new passions, or taking a shorter but more expensive route. But do not let the inverse happen and let money shackle your freedom.
2. Shut Down FOMO by Embracing Individualism
FOMO (fear of missing out) is a curious thing – that dizzying feeling of anxiety you get from a fear of being left out and being in the “safety” of others.
As an introverted middle child, my first experience of dealing with FOMO obviously revolved around the treacherous territory of high school with its unspoken rules and uncoded customs. I tried to fit in as much as I could. But this came at the expense of following blind trends and memories of incessant begging to my mom to buy me a pair of branded sneakers. She didn’t budge!
This taught me a valuable lesson and as I grew older – I learnt to be comfortable in my own skin. A favourite quote of mine belongs to Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” The bard’s words speak truth and resonates even today.
So I learnt to let go. I do not need to splurge on expensive branded goods nor go for all-nighters. Instead, I listen to Joni Mitchell’s Blue album after a long day, even for the umpteenth time, as that is what I enjoy.
This also extends to how I invest. When people say I am missing out on bitcoin, I remind myself that everyone has a story and you do not know their entire financial picture and portfolio, including motives and time horizon. Investors make decisions that are only rational to themselves. For some investors, sexy or trending asset classes like bitcoin may be right for them. But, thine own self be true.
3. Being Rich is Not the Same as Being Wealthy
Morgan Housel who penned the excellent ‘The Psychology of Money’ gave a great analogy of the difference between being wealthy and being rich. He explained that riches are only the tangible assets you see, whereas wealth is what you do not see. Think of the person’s bank account, his stock holdings or illiquid assets as examples of “invisible” wealth.
When someone flaunts their designer suits or arrive in a fancy sports car, they might be rich. But are they wealthy?
Blame it on FOMO again, but this warped understanding of wealth is something I noticed amongst my peers and Malaysians who grew up desensitised to images and TV scenes of extreme wealth and of the rich living wastefully. Many are conditioned to believe that these are images of “success” and something to aspire to and emulate.
I have now learnt that there are many different facets of wealth – money might be able to buy you passing admiration and feigned respect but never class, authentic relationships and esteem.
Financial wealth is merely one way of expressing your achievements. There are so many ways to be wealthy and still be successful. Money may be a mean, but it should never be the end. Invest in your relationships, your health and of course your money.
4. The More You Know, The More You Make
I learnt this from my grandfather who was instrumental in shaping my worldview. He lived to the grand old age of 95 and had no university degree. But he was a skilled linguist who spoke nine languages – English, Malay, Tamil and all the Chinese dialects – and worked as a court interpreter in the country’s judiciary.
Why nine languages? His words are permanently imbued in my memory, “The more languages I knew, the more money I made.” Put simply, the more languages he could translate or interpret, the more the court would pay him.
This left an indelible mark in me about how someone could easily monetise knowledge. The importance of upskilling oneself was deemed a necessity for my grandfather in order to survive. For the lucky few of us today, it is a luxury to be able to learn something new but most of us take this for granted.
A voracious reader, my grandfather read every newspaper from cover to cover with his trusty dictionary next to him. I have asked many fund managers on their top advice to be a successful investor and it is usually the same answer – read more and read constantly!
Even if your day job is not investing, do realise that many employers are willing to pay big bucks for talent that adds value to an organisation. If your employer is unable to give you that salary raise right now, just enjoy the process of being able to learn something new.
As the saying goes, an investment in knowledge pays the best returns!
Lee Sheung Un is the Communications Officer of Affin Hwang Asset Management. A former business journalist, he is an ardent investor who is passionate about markets and is working towards building his dream portfolio.