The Idolatry of Religion

FullSizeRender.jpg

A curious girl, who is also my long time learner, asked some questions about religion. “William, what do you believe?”

“I believe in what is real,” I responded, feeling a little odd, “Why?” I continued.

“My dad believes in Buddhism,” she said. “But when I went to summer camp in the United States last month, people there believe in Jesus. The children would memorize, and could recite different chapters and verses from the Bible. And when I talked to them, they all said that their God is the real thing. So who is telling the truth, my dad, or the children?”

“Why are you even at church in the first place? Was this part of the camp program?” I asked.

“Well, every Sunday we had to do a Bible study. And it was sooo boring!” driving her head to the couch.

“Haha..” I said with a chuckle. “You know, there are five major religions today. Buddhism - as you know - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. There are other smaller sects, but they do not have many followers. The easiest way to understand them is to think the five religions as five different houses - like the Hogwarts houses in Harry Potter. If you look carefully at each house, they would have different designs, colors, shapes and symbols. Inside, you’d also see the walls, windows, paintings are all different, too. This is normal because each house has its own architect and designer - a temple looks different than a church. Also, within each house, there are occupants and people who worship the place. Of course, the people in each house would follow and believe their place is the only true home. Sometimes, they’d fight with one another to defend their beliefs.”

“So...which religion do you believe?” she asked.

“When I talk to people about religion, they usually have some kind of judgement toward what I believe. But what they don’t realize is that I was raised as a Catholic for twenty years. In college, I went to different churches - even Protestants - to perhaps, learn something new. None of them gave me the answer I was looking for, so I left the church business. Then I found the love of my life, and we got married under the Catholic church. Still, I felt something was missing. Years later, call it luck, coincidence, or whatever, I found a meditation teacher. I followed him to different temples, did all the various rituals from four in the morning until six in the evening. While on my journey, I discovered there was this kind of meditation, or that kind of meditation. There were thousands of instructors teaching different circuses of meditation. I mean, they were deliberately confusing people about the meaning of meditation itself. Finally, I decided to just step back, and focus entirely on meditation without any relationship to a system, a method, or a religion. This brought me to the conclusion that any organized religion is nothing more than a group of people sharing the same imagination.”

“Can people create their own religion?” she asked.

“Well, that’s what people are doing in India now. You can go to any house in India and they’ll each have different gods. Literally, every local person has his or her own God. But don’t take my word for it. In fact, don’t believe in what I have said. You have to go and see this for yourself - if you’re interested. You have to study them, sometimes live with them. Once you’ve explored, and you are fully aware, you’ll see the same pattern over and over again amongst the different religions. By then, hopefully, you’ll discover the truth.”

 Laniakea

Laniakea

The universe is big. I believe something powerful and eternal created this universe. Something that is sacred, deathless, timeless from eternity to eternity, and has no beginning nor end. Something that is not put together by thought. Or written by some monks from Jerusalem two thousand years ago, when in fact, earth has existed for billions of years.

That said, the stories we read in any scriptures are nothing but projections of the writer or writers. The only difference is how many people have and share the same imagination. And if you simply believe in what they preach, then you are living under the same delusion.

It is very difficult for people to see outside of their single religious home. They were brought up under a certain belief, oftentimes without choice. It seems obvious that this is just another form of conditioning.

During the pursuit of my spiritual awakening, I’ve realized that conceptions of the divine - of gods, of deities, of saints - are merely differences in imagination, and all religions were created based on the fear of death. If you ask a Christian minister: “What happens when I die?” He’d say: “For sure, you’ll get to the pearly gates. You’ll be in paradise and in heaven.” Give that question to a Buddhist monk, and he’d answer: “Depending on your life merits, you’ll be reborn either as a nobler person, or a useless pest.” But let’s not talk about them because they’re just too depressing.

Today, I wake-up every morning without bondage to any religion. I never felt better to be free from the sanctions, dogmas, and beliefs. What I felt was missing, is now, complete. Sandra however, is still obliged to believe what she’s been taught since she was young, and has not had the courage to see the other side. And I respect her decision, because being married - apart from listening and caring to another person - is also about respecting each other’s space and choice.

Perhaps, it is more important to think about the ramifications of our actions, and how we can use the knowledge we have to build a better society and a better life. And you need not cling to any particular religion to do such act of kindness and humility.

Everybody Gets What They Need

FullSizeRender.jpg

Yesterday, one student reminded me of a familiar statement: the early bird gets the worm.

You’ve probably heard that expression more than a dozen times. It simply means you wake-up earlier than others to seize your day.

When you give yourself extra time early in the day, you can squeeze in a workout, journal a page or two, and even do some laundry before heading off to work.

Going to work earlier will save you a seat on the subway, give you a fresh mind before starting your task, and sometimes, insurance or safety net in case you get lost on your way to the office.

Even small businesses will benefit by starting early. The bakery that opens early in the day may seize the first round of customers - the students and the workforce - before they go off to school and work. But, if it opens later, it’ll have to wait for the later rounds of people to buy their breads and pastries.

Of course, being my nature as it is, I like to counter the statement for the sake of argument. “What about the night owls?” I asked. “Will they miss the worms?” Oh, I forgot. Owls don’t eat worms. Owls prey on everything from small mammals, to birds, lizards, insects, and fish. You see, owls do not wake-up early, but they are able to obtain sustenance later in the day. Where is the fallacy here?

It turns out, there are also countless people who don’t wake-up early, and yet, are able to sustain themselves, and even generate more income than the early birds.

Think graveyard shift. Overnight workers get paid one-and-a-half times more than daytime employees. There is always a need for doctors and nurses in the ER department at night.

What about stock brokers and fund managers who are living in Singapore, but have ties with and trade on Wall Street? They need to stay up until 4:00 a.m. and sometimes later. These people are indeed, nocturnal. Night owls.

Nowadays, more and more people are working from home. A recent survey claimed that people who work from home tend to be more productive than those who commute to the office. In this case, they have all the time they need.

Even your author is guilty of this act. For the past seven years, I never had to race time to teach a morning class. Even when I have to teach an early class, I would always take my time.

People are so caught-up in the daily rat race, they forget the true essence of life, of beauty, of peace.

Shanghai is twelve hours ahead of Manhattan, but it doesn’t make Manhattan slow.

Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook at the age of nineteen, became a millionaire, and never finished college. While Jeff Bezos graduated at twenty-two, but waited eight years before he founded Amazon.

Steve Jobs died at the age of fifty-six. While Donald Trump became president at seventy.

Sandra and I are still working on our first child. While my brother and his wife already have two kids.

People might seem to go ahead of you, and some might seem to be behind you. But everyone’s life is tailored around their own pace.

Life is about waiting for the right moment to act.

Slow down!

You’re not LATE!

You’re not EARLY!

You’re in YOUR OWN TIME ZONE!

The world is an efficient place. There is always something for everybody. It is constantly giving us opportunities. We just have to be aware enough to notice them.

The world often doesn’t give you what you want. But it gives you what you need.

How I Became Financially Independent by Teaching in China

IMG_7235.JPG

“Working for someone will keep you poor.” — Dan Miller

 

As a writer, I’m always wondering what my readers think of my writings. I’m curious which headlines would make the cut. I contemplate on how they would take criticism, persuasion, and so on. I’ve been thinking about writing this topic for quite awhile, because my wife (Sandra) thinks a great article on finance would always attract a lot of readers. And now that I’ve done it, I hope this write-up will be entertaining as well as educational for everybody.

Let's get a few things out of the way. First, you don’t quite often hear people say they are financially independent by being teachers. The majority of people who claimed to have gained financial freedom are usually business oligarchs, stock traders, and real estate investors. So this is a wake-up call for teachers all over the world that the days of being underpaid are over. When you're able to position yourself in the right market, while fulfilling the right need, your income would compound exponentially. Second, it is important for everybody to learn the ropes of self-employment now, whether you’re a teacher, or working in another field, because it is projected that in less than ten years, fifty percent of the world's population will be self-employed. In fact, more and more people around the world are switching gears towards a workforce of the self-employed. This fact should assure you that working for yourself is the way of the future. Trust me, you don't want to be left on the other side of the massive divide of income.

I don’t have a Harvard MBA. I didn’t built a fortune 500 company. I’m not even a high net-worth individual. In fact, I don’t need to be any of them to become financially independent. My parents paid my living expenses until I turned eighteen. Once I became an adult, I hustled every penny on my own to pay for college, rent, and other things. Actually, I started hustling since I was sixteen to save some money. You see, I've realized that financial security is only psychological. Even though there are countless research proving there is no correlation between money and happiness beyond a certain threshold, many people all over the world are still fixated over financial security. I believe the reason for this dilemma comes from people’s inability to plan life.

Many people have no idea what they want to accomplish over the course of their life on earth. Instead of realizing what they want to do, they become mired in “life avoidance” by roaming around without a clear sense of direction and purpose.

Of course, this is not entirely their fault. The formal education systems do not devote much time to guiding young people on solving this problem. Much of the time spent in schools are wasted in mastering standardize tests, which focuses almost entirely on career planning, instead of life planning. Since most adults have not figured out what they want to accomplish, it becomes naturally difficult for them to pass on the meaning of life to children. Most would revert to picking up tips from the “Soul Searching for Dummies” book, but it gives little guidance on how to actually fill their days. Why? Because the meaning of life is invented, not discovered. We each have a responsibility to determine what we are living for and invest our lives with meaning that we find significant.

I graduated from college with two science degrees. For me, school was like a prenatal employee brainwashing with graduation as its climax. Schooling is designed to teach us to think like an employee, not as a self-employed and entrepreneur. It is the preparation into corporate droneship: an unfulfilling marriage between me and the endless struggle of jobs, bosses, and being overworked and underpaid. Of course, a lot of my friends bragged about their awesome jobs:

“I work for Google.”

“I’m a financial analyst at UBS.”

“Apple hired me as their Head of Engineering.”

I'm not saying these aren't great jobs. They are. But these paths will never change a person to become someone who is not mere mediocre. Thanks, but no thanks. I choose a way that teaches me to be free. Everyone can survive in a company - if you play the game correctly. But very few can survive on the street.

Depending on how you look at things, working for yourself can be a scary thought. Not everyone should be entrepreneurs or small business owners. You can become career independent by working for someone else - i.e. independent contractors. It’s fair to say, though, that a significant number of people want to take the full leap toward self-employment and establish themselves as “fully independent” individuals. Personally, for me, self-employment is the best way to cut the dependency cord.

Whenever the word self-employment comes up, we tend to gravitate towards entrepreneurship. That seems to be in everyone’s pinnacle. The ultimate climax. However, most self-employed individuals are freelancers, not entrepreneurs. In fact, the two are very much different than one another. I’ll get into more detail about the two in a little bit. But first, let me tell you a story about how it all started.


Your Most Important Thing

“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake. You know?” — Ernest Hemingway


When I moved to China seven years ago, I had brought a little over $5,000 with me. The company I had worked for had offered all its newly landed teachers a three-month advance paycheck to take care of the first and last month’s rental payment, and security deposit. Look, practically companies are smart, they hire people who need the job the most. They knew that if people didn’t need the job badly, or the offer wasn’t attractive enough, no one would want to relocate to China - a country where very few people speak English, and food that is not so pleasing to the western palate.

The first few months were great. Everyone welcomed the new kid on the block. I thought that everything was going to be good. A year into the job, the nightmares began. Politics, drama, irregular hours, and complaining made me realize that my job was no longer what I thought anymore. I was being pushed around left and right. Every day I thought about why I wanted to come here in the first place. I never wanted to work for someone else. I didn’t expect to be pried by a boss who would bitch and berate about everything I did. I regretted making friends and conversing in conversations with colleagues because they later turned out to be backstabbing demons. So how did I wind up like this? Did I just made another mistake in life? I felt repeating the same mistake again like when I pursued my graduate degree for the sake of chasing someone else’s dream.

It’s over. This job, as I knew it, was over. You have to understand, this wasn’t about the work or duty. The daily task was never a problem. It’s the realization that I would constantly struggle if I stayed. So unless I want to spend the next years complaining like everyone else, I had to get out. I resigned and left.

But where do I go? What would I do? Honestly, I had no idea at the time, but I trusted my heart to quit this job once and for all. The next morning, I began by sorting out a list of clients that had contacted me in the past. Previously, I was under an agreement with the company so to take them as clients would be a breach of contract. Now that I’m no longer an employee, I was free to take on any client I wanted.

It took me a couple of years to get the hang of handling clients and teaching on my own. I had to develop my own methods and lessons. Most of the businesses that I got were from referrals. I didn’t have clients sign any contracts because I never liked the idea of keeping anyone on a leash. If a client wishes to quit after a month, I’d have no problem with it whatsoever. I charge all my clients the same rate, except the ones who live quite far away - which they had offered to pay extra as transportation fee. Today, I have about forty to fifty active students at any given moment. Of course, the numbers would fluctuate from time to time because everyone’s situations and circumstances are different. And I understand that completely because it is the risk of being self-employed. The good thing though, that initial $5,000 has returned well above 100X in less than four years. Tell me: isn’t it great being your own boss?

Someone once said to me, “You’re very lucky. Nobody wants to commute to the office and work every day.”

In my opinion, I don’t think it’s about going to the office and working.” I firmly stated. “Most people are unhappy with their jobs because they lack independence. They do not have the freedom to set-up their working hours, when to take a vacation, what things to work on while in the office, and most importantly, what they think would be valuable for the job. Employers don’t care about your thoughts, they only care about your manual labor.”

The majority of people are sleepwalking through life, simply existing in their day jobs. Too often, they do not know what is the most important thing for them. The most important thing for me is freedom, because it allows me to become whatever I want to become. If I want to write, it allows me to write. If I want to travel, it allows me to travel. If I want to be in solitude, it allows me to be with myself. Freedom means I no longer have to fit into a cup when I want to be in the bottle. Freedom allows me to shape my destiny.

At the end of the day, if you do not choose what is most important to you and chase it like your life depends on it, the choice will be made for you.

I wrote this to share with you the struggles and successes of what it’s like to go through a deep fall in life and coming back strong and thriving. Money is only part of the whole equation, but we all know financial problem is the leading cause of divorce around the world. Financial problem leads to failed health and ultimately, failed relationship. Why is self-employment so vital to this process? Remember that two-thirds of financially independent people are self-employed, even though only about twenty percent of the world’s population is self-employed. Before we go any further, let me explain how you can break out of the sleepwalking community.


A Little Note on Gatekeepers

“People will always try to stop you from doing the right thing if it is unconventional.” — Warren Buffett


It seems the majority of people are doing what other people expect them to instead of what they really want for several reasons: fear of change, fear of the unknown because no one has ever done it before, and for obvious reasons, inertia. People are simply caught in habit, mindlessly going about their routine, commuting to work, eating, then rinse and repeat.

There is one more reason why people tend to gravitate towards conformity: gatekeepers. Essentially, gatekeepers are authority figures skilled at keeping people in line. They give you limited choices and simultaneously spoon-feeding you the illusion of freedom - with only half the truth. It’s like saying, “You can pick a or b.” - without disclosing that there are others choices like c or d as well. Honestly, it kinda reminds me of my childhood days with my parents. After all, they were my authority figures at the time.

However, gatekeepers are no people. They are good at removing contrarians and other groups they don’t want. One example would be universities. An article published by Reuters cited how Asian-Americans - including individuals of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong or Indian descent - are being discriminated by Harvard, the most prominent Ivy League school in the United States. The records from Students for Fair Admissions Inc. showed that Harvard had “allowed race to become a dominant consideration in considering applicants.” An Asian-American male applicant with a twenty-five percent chance of admission would have a thirty-five percent chance if he was white, seventy-five percent if he was Hispanic and a ninety-five percent chance if he was black. Now, I finally understood why I didn’t get into Harvard last time, and yet, I turned out just fine. See Mom, there is always another way. You just have to know where to look.

Another example would be churches and religious institutions. They are open to all members who agree to follow a particular set of doctrine defining acceptable and unacceptable beliefs. But if a member begins to question and sways too far from the hand-shaken boundaries, that member would be considered blasphemous and will be exiled out of the cult.

When one applies for employment with a company, he’ll also encounter gatekeepers who intend to come up with all sorts of reasons why his relationship does not matter to the enterprise. You should know, this authority usually goes by a disguised title known as Human Resources.

Two months ago, I leafed through a student’s resumé booklet who’s about to apply to middle school. As I skimmed the pages, his father said, “These days, children as early as elementary school should have already built their resumés. You know, everyone is crossing through a very narrow bridge. We compete to make sure we can cross to the other side.” People encounter this kind of problem so often that they tend to accept them at face value. Would you believe me that you can, in fact, build your own bridge?

In China, it is a common tradition for Chinese women to get married before the age of twenty-seven. When a woman is unmarried by then, she would be considered a 剩女 (shèngnǚ) - which literally means leftover woman. The term is most commonly used to describe successful career woman who has remained single. About twenty percent of women in China remains unmarried after the age twenty-five. Thus, it has become a common practice for women to find their spouses before the “expiration date” to avoid being labeled by friends and neighbors. What if one is not ready - both mentally and physically - to tie the knot and have kids? What if a woman wants to pursue her dream? How about travel around the world without the burden of someone else chattering and prying in the background?

Unfortunately, conformers simply nod their heads, smile, and then go on about to what they were doing. They are masters at being slaves and prisoners. They are experts at being told what to do. It’s always easier to wait until you’re given permission, but thankfully, you don’t really need to. Give yourself permission.

Gatekeepers shouldn’t stop you from taking control of your life. They maintain power by convincing people their presence is necessary. After all, the purpose of this higher power - be it the boss, the company, the system, the government, or even God - is to establish the illusion of order. What strikes me the most is why people kneel to authority when they aren’t really sure why things are being done in a certain way. Just because someone said so, or that’s the way it’s been done, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use our brains to come up with all different sorts of alternatives - even the unconventional ones.

It is always handy whenever you come across any authority to keep the words of an old Chinese proverb in mind: the person who says something is impossible should not interrupt the person who is doing it. Gatekeepers are good at interrupting, so you’ll need to be proficient at doing the impossible.


Becoming the Lone Wolf

IMG_7276.JPG

“When you have one million dollars, that is your money. When you have twenty million dollars, you start to have problems - inflation, investment concerns. When you have one billion dollars, that is not your money. That is the trust that society gives to you; they believe that you can manage their money.” — Jack Ma


I think this would be a good time to go back and explain the difference between freelancers and entrepreneurs. What is a freelancer, anyway? A freelancer is self-employed, but does much of the work by themselves. Freelancers want to pursue work they love without a boss prying and telling them what to do every day. They are not interested in scaling and growing their business. To the contrary, most entrepreneurs start their businesses to sell them someday.

Seth Godin, bestselling author and arguably the most brilliant business mind of our time, explained that “freelancers get paid when they work, but when they don’t work, they don’t get paid. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, build a business larger than themselves so they get paid when they sleep. Entrepreneurs can sell their business easily because the business isn’t related to what they do all day.” However, most freelancers assured themselves they are entrepreneurs, until one day they realize there is no way to sell their business, because it is one hundred percent relied on them. I think people ought to know their intentions of becoming freelancers or entrepreneurs well ahead. It would save a lot of time and energy.

So how can freelancers stay in business long enough to accumulate enough money? Apparently, the way to make it as a freelancer is to be an exceptional one. If you are exceptional, people will find you. That has always been my subconscious philosophy from the beginning. I'd never knock on doors and advertise my services. There is no need for it because I’ve always relied on word of mouth, which only happens when you’ve served happy clients and customers. If you’re thinking of starting a freelancing business, don’t settle for average because the market outlook for such path looks gloomy. There is always someone cheaper if they’re looking for average.

I met with a dear friend last summer. We’ve known each other for three years. She asked me how my business was doing and I told her that so far, so good; I can’t complain. But then she started persuading me to expand. “Why don’t you start a small learning center so that you can earn more money and save the commute time?”

While her suggestion seemed realistic and logical, I was never interested in the whole idea. It seems to me that everybody wants the same thing: what’s appealing, what’s certain. I’ve had many experiences in the past where I’ve turned the wheels around, and had home-field advantage. But the outcome turned out to be worse than the least of my expectations. The game was rather different. For example, many of my clients didn’t like the hassle of commuting to my place of business. They didn’t like the fact that I had to increase class size in order to make ends meet. After all, rent payments are due each month. I had to shut down and close up shop.

There is a rather interesting story about the artists and the shopkeepers. People would rather be shopkeepers because they are more important people than artists. Shopkeepers have homes and fairly stable income, while artists struggle to sell their work. Also, parents would rather see their children marry shopkeepers than artists. The bottom line: freelancing is uncertain and unappealing, whereas shopkeeping seems certain and is quite appealing. But that is simply not true. Why?

I’m a firm believer that any business would survive when it serves the right customers. But a business would thrive when it could be positioned in the least crowded channel. If you place your business in a low supply but high demand ecosystem, you’d be at an advantage of being the top dog in the game, versus being in a high supply and high demand environment - where most businesses would resort to cut-throat price wars.

When there are less competitors, it means very few people are interested in jumping on the bandwagon. In a way, it’s a good thing, because you’ll be the big fish in a small pond. But it also means that you’re probably going to be different than most people.

If you stroll into any neighborhood within metropolitan Shanghai, you’ll literally find schools and learning institutes of various disciplines on every street corner. If you tap into the location-independent e-learning environment - aka the internet - you’ll find millions of teachers all over the world competing for the same big pie. Heck, you could be in the middle of the desert and get paid for talking to yourself in front of a camera - all you need is a fast internet connection. I don’t know about you, but it seems too crowded for me.

Look, it’s simple, position yourself in a market where no one else would, because it is not the norm and out of the ordinary. Doctors do it all the time: they would establish their practice in a quiet suburb where there are less of their kind. That way, you are fulfilling a need that is overlooked and underthought.

When you become “the one” of the many people out there, chances are you’d be the lone wolf, and you won’t be considered “normal” in the eyes of others. But that’s okay because nobody ever creates a plan to be normal. You only become normal by not having a plan. Normal is stress and struggle. Normal is discontent. Normal is unfulfilling. Please do me one favor: don’t be normal. It’s easy to be normal. Nobody will give you a hard time for being normal. Being normal doesn’t irritate those around you because you blend in easily. But impossible to stand out.

I love my work. Even though, at times, struggles can be a form of hindrance, but that doesn’t stop me from doing what I love. I’ve learned that even if I try to avoid the struggles, they will find me. From the start, my philosophy is to find the work I love, not work solely for the money. I believe money is only a by-product of one’s values. Yes, you need money in order to make a living and become one responsible individual, but, you must create value for others before capturing values for yourself. It is clear that my purpose, your purpose, and the purpose of everything else is to evolve and to contribute to evolution in some small way. In the end, an entrepreneur’s net worth is merely the register of how much he has improved the lives of his fellow human beings. You don’t have to put on a Native American headdress and pray, hoping that things will be easier. Instead, you need to change the way you interpret things, and then take action to change your circumstances.


Quick Fix

“We live in a world of instant gratification, the world of the quick fix.” — Rachael Taylor


Four years ago, one of my long time client had recommended a lead: someone who would be interested in hiring me. As we progressed into the conversation, she peppered me with questions about my business, how many students I have, and how long it took to built it up. It was obvious she was trying to dig into personal things as oppose to hiring me.

I asked her about her child’s learning experience. She pushed that question aside, and instead, pressed on how to “quickly” teach her daughter. I told her that I’m not the kind of teacher who believes in any quick fix, but if you want your kid to be intelligent, it helps if you have the right teacher. She then asked what my hourly rates were. After I told her, she asked me a question only someone looking for a quick fix would ask: “How many lessons before my daughter would be finished?”

“I’ve been teaching for seven years, and most of my students are still learning together with me since the beginning,” I responded. “I’ll let you know when we get there.”

To no surprise, I never received a response back. I saw her two years later on my way to a class, but this time she pretended to not look at me. I approached her and asked how her daughter was doing, and she told me that her daughter had been taking different classes from various teachers and institutions, and now she’s confused about what to do.

If you’re looking for a quick fix, find another teacher. Clients who hire me understand that learning is a long-term process. Everything takes time. Things don’t just fall into your lap whenever you want them. You need to have patience - and this is the problem. It takes ten years to build a career in anything. It takes ten years to raise a child. It takes ten years to firmly plant a business. Yikes! I’m not even there - yet.

The HBO documentary “Becoming Warren Buffett” tells the story of how the 86-year-old billionaire - who still lives in the five-bedroom home in Omaha, Nebraska, that he bought in 1958 for $31,500 - never spends more than $3.17 on breakfast. Each morning, before his five-minute drive to the office, he tells his wife how much his McDonald’s breakfast is going to cost and she puts the exact change in the cup holder for him to pay with. No, really:

“I tell my wife, as I shave in the morning, I say, 'Either $2.61, $2.95 or $3.17.' And she puts that amount in the little cup by me here (in the car),” he explains.

Each amount corresponds with a different option at McDonald's.

“When I'm not feeling quite so prosperous, I might go with the $2.61, which is two sausage patties, and then I put them together and pour myself a Coke,” he adds. “$3.17 is a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit, but the market's down this morning, so I'll pass up the $3.17 and go with the $2.95.”

Warren Buffett’s net worth is right around $84 billion. How is he able to climb up that amount? Patience and persistence, qualities that don’t usually come to the fore within the majority.

This reminds me of the motto: “Nothing is easy. Otherwise, everybody would be millionaires.”


Keep an Eye on the Oil

“Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.” — Aristotle


When I was fifteen, my mother had read me a story about a responsible father who sends his son to learn about the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world. The lad wandered through the desert for forty days, and finally came upon a beautiful estate, high atop a mountain. It was there that the wise man lived.

Rather than finding a saintly man, though, the boy, upon entering the main room of the mansion, saw a hive of activity: politician and statesmen came and went, people were conversing in the corners, a small orchestra was playing Beethoven’s ninth symphony, and there was a table covered with platters of the most delicious cuisines compiled by the most famous chefs all over the world. The wise man conversed with everyone, and the boy had to wait for two hours before it was his turn to be given the man's attention.

The wise man listened attentively to the boy's explanation of why he had come, but told him that he didn't have time just then to explain the secret of happiness. He suggested that the boy look around the palace and return in two hours.

“Meanwhile, I want to ask you to do something,” said the wise man, handing the boy a teaspoon that held two drops of oil. “As you wander around, carry this spoon with you without allowing the oil to spill.”

The boy began climbing and descending the many stairways of the palace, keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. After two hours, he returned to the room where the wise man was.

“Well,” asked the wise man, “did you see the vast array of vintage wines in the cellar? Did you see the Persian tapestry in my dining hall that took the interior designer a decade to put together? Did you notice the rare books collection in my library?”

The boy was embarrassed, and confessed that he had observed nothing. His only concern had been not to spill the oil that the wise man had entrusted to him.

“Then go back and observe the marvels of my world,” said the wise man. “You cannot trust a man if you don't know his house.”

Relieved, the boy picked up the spoon and returned to his exploration of the palace, this time observing all of the works of art on the ceilings and the walls. He saw the rooms, the mountains all around him, the beauty of the flowers, and the taste with which everything had been selected. Upon returning to the wise man, he related in detail everything he had seen.

“But where are the drops of oil I entrusted to you?” asked the wise man.

Looking down at the spoon he held, the boy saw that the oil was gone.

“Well, there is only one piece of advice I can give you,” said the wisest of wise men. “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.”

At some point in life, we all have the responsibility to pursue what we want and accomplish a more meaningful life. Wherever life takes you, never forget the things which are as important as the pursuit of happiness - such as your health and your family. Which brings me to the next topic.


The Illusion of Wealth

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” — Epictetus


Someone drove me home the other day. As he was driving down the road, he saw a fellow driving a shiny blue Porsche Cayenne. “There are too many rich people these days,” he pointed as his face started to dim. “Yet, here I am, still poor.” I wanted to say something, but I managed to hold the urge to speak because sometimes it’s better to leave things as they are. I was concerned that, if I said something, he would spend three days thinking about it, even though he had gotten used to the way things were.

Many feel that wealth has escaped them. Different triggers in our commercial society could easily drive people into a state of contrition and remorse. The constant sense of lack and gnawing belief that something is missing. If only I had a fancier car, a bigger house, a newer phone, a trip to Hawaii - or whatever - then I would finally be all set. If you feel that way, it’s probably because you are myopic towards this whole idea of wealth. Life doesn’t work that way. You can amass more and more materialistic things, yet find you’re still not satisfied. You have no sense of abundance.

You learn things in bits and pieces: you capture an ingredient from a book or two, another seeded from a seminar or a famous person’s website. Unfortunately, these isolated ingredients do not capture the “big picture” of wealth like a car stuck on the road with an empty gas tank and a dead battery. You’re focused on accumulating more money, but neglecting to care for the things that are equally as important. The continual pursuit of material success has made some of us lose the importance of relationships, of health, of peace of mind.

Too often, I see people who are wealthy but have distant or damaged relationships with their children. You see, they’ve invested in the wrong things.

I was talking to an incredibly wealthy woman at a club gathering event years back. It was held at her gorgeous, sprawling estate, overlooking a view that would envy any working man or woman. The moment I had a chance to talk with her, I asked if she had any piece of business advice she would share for a newbie like me. “Do you have kids?” she asked. I thought that was a bit odd considering my question, but I responded that Sandra and I are working to have our first child.

“If you’re looking to do what I’ve done,” she said. “I would tell you to pause for a moment, and ask yourself why you want more before you start chasing it.”

“You know, previously, I was the CFO of a multinational firm. I travelled a lot and I’d move from one office to the next, with little or no time to attend my son. I have bank accounts filled with money and I’m eating the same hamburgers you are,” she added. “I realized having more isn’t a bad thing, but if you keep chasing for more and don’t know why you’re doing it, you’ll be lost.”

“Do you know what I would tell my younger self?” this woman said in more of a whisper. “You already have it all. Right now. Stop working too much. Keep growing, but don’t ever let that become more important than your family. I let it become more important than my family. Now I have a big, gorgeous, beautiful home and a son I don’t even know.”

Perhaps, in a society as rich as ours, a sense of lack is merely a state of mind.

The Mongolian warrior-ruler, and notably one of the most famous conquerors of history, Genghis Khan, had the right idea when he warned his sons about the pursuit of a “colorful” life with material frivolities and wasteful pleasures. “It will be easy,” he explained, “to forget your vision and purpose once you have fine clothes, fast horses, and beautiful women.” In that case, “you will be no better than a slave, and you will surely lose everything.”

There was a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island. A gentleman named Kurt Vonnegut informed his pal, the author Joseph Heller about their mutual friend, a hedge fund manager. “Did you know that our dear friend had made more money in a single day than your wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history?” Vonnegut said.

And Heller replied: “Yes, but I have something he will never have ... ENOUGH.”

You just need enough. You need enough money, enough time, enough food, enough sex, enough courage, and so on. What is enough? That is for you to decide. I realized that having the basics - a good home, good relationships, good meal, and good sex - is most important, and those things don’t get any better even when you have a lot of money, or much less when you have less. Once you stop worrying about what you don’t have, a lot of things become much easier.


Confessions of a Simple Man

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” — Confucius


When I was in college, I’d always go to the campus gym at eight a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday for my morning workout. Each time, I would see this middle-aged fellow reading the newspaper with weird glasses on his face. As the day progressed, he would teach a group of exercise majors, using one equipment to the next, going around the gym. Later I found out that he’s a sought after strength and conditioning coach for the Boston Bruins Hockey Team. He has written a number of books ranging from strength anatomy and physiology to exercise methods and techniques.

One day, I was pulling some weights off the floor, and to my surprise, he suddenly approached and used me as a model to lecture his students, explaining them how to use the equipments properly. After he finished, I overheard he was asked to describe what his best day ever would look like.

For someone like him, you might think the possibilities are endless. But his answer might surprise you.

“My best day ever,” the coach responded, quickly and confidently, “would be reading the newspaper with a cup of hot coffee, and then teaching you guys. That would be a perfect day.”

His response was more valuable than anything I learned throughout two decades of schooling. Quite possibly, it was the most valuable education I have ever learned. Two months after that day, he became my mentor. A year later, he took me under his wings as his assistant.

It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary. The sooner we learn to be happy with the simple things in life, the better life will be.

At the beginning of this writing, I’ve mentioned that financial independence is merely psychological. However, financial experts would argue that in order to be free, financially, one needs to have a net worth of some arbitrary number. An absurd number of about $1 million dollars, right? Wrong.

A sweatshop worker in rural China, living with no mortgage could practically well be financially independent - today - if she chooses to reframe how she interprets things, and then take action to change her circumstances. Of course, don’t expect her family to dine-in at a Michelin starred restaurant anytime soon. Similarly, a candy shopkeeper who is debt-free, who meets his daily income, and is not saving any money to travel around the world someday, is free financially than the business man with three luxury car payments and a hefty mortgage for his five-bedroom mansion.

How is that even possible? Broadly speaking, can we all agree that financial freedom is gained when our income (active and/or passive) is at least equal to our expenses? And the moment we start to have cravings and desires, the more financially dependent we become towards them? Of course, what I think doesn’t really matter because it is rarely in accord within the majority. Many people would rather mindlessly chase after more money, more power, more position, more things - or whatever. That is why, every day, a man, who has a family, goes to the office for the next forty years, day after day, doing drudgery work without much meaning, wasting his life endlessly about nothing because he has to, not because he wants to.

You can put my words to the test. A lot of students asked: “William, why are you working so hard?” And I said, “I’m not working. I’m having fun.”

Of course, some of the brightest ones would say words like: “So you’re getting paid to have fun? My parents told me that is impossible to do.”

“The knowledge you seek is already within you, right here, right now. Of course, that you already knew. The truth is, you don’t need me or any other teacher to teach you something you already knew.” I replied. “But I had to insist on payment because I helped you point in the right direction.” Unfortunately, that is how the world works now. I can’t expect free rent from my landlord, nor anticipate free food on the table.

In the end, the duty of a true educator is to point and guide, not to persuade and assure one’s mind.

Now let me summarize what you need to get started on your journey towards financial independence:

- Identify your most important thing.

- Be creative and develop an alternative solution instead of conforming to the gatekeepers.

- Don’t be afraid to be different.

- It takes time to accomplish anything great.

- Wealth is an illusion and money is just a number; take what is enough.

You decide the rest.

I would like to close by telling an old story about a shaman with tremendous reputation for curing insomnia. A busy stock broker who has trouble sleeping tracks him down deep within the wilderness, and the shaman agrees to help. The shaman sends detailed instructions, and a few weeks later, the stock broker sends back a note that he’s been cured. “It was a miracle! I’ve been sleeping like a baby. Thank you so much!” the message reads. The shaman sends his own letter: “Glad to be of service. Come see me whenever you’re ready to wake up.”

Are you ready to wake up?

The Boy and the Wise Man

An adolescent boy went out seeking for a wise man who is very reputable at fixing life’s problems. “I don’t know what to do with my life,” the boy said upon meeting such man. “I feel empty. What am I to do?”

“Your only purpose in life is to realize your destiny,” the wise man responded.

“How can I find that?” asked the boy.

“Everyone has their own destiny. Everyone must not be afraid to follow their hearts, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives.”

They were both silent for a while. Then the wise man spoke, “Why do you carry a sketchbook?”

“All I want is to become an artist,” the boy responded.

The wise man pointed to a shopkeeper standing in his shop window across the street from the park where two met. “When he was about your age, he also wanted to become an artist. But he decided to set up his shop and put some money aside. When he’s an old man, he’s going to buy an art studio. He never realized that people are capable, at any point in their lives, of doing what they really want to do.”

“He should have decided to become an artist,” the boy said.

“Well, he thought about that,” the wise man said. “But shopkeepers are more important people than artists. Shopkeepers have homes and fairly stable incomes every month, while artists sometimes can’t sell their work so they starve themselves for days. Also, parents would rather see their children marry shopkeepers than starving artists.”

“In the end, what people think about artists and shopkeepers become more important for them than what they really want to do,” the wise man added.

The words of the wise man hit the boy between the eyes. “Why didn’t my parents teach me all this?”

“Since a lot of adults have not figured out what they really want,” the wise man stated, “they naturally find it difficult to pass on the values of soul-searching to their children.”

“At some point in our lives, we each have a responsibility to think about what we want, even if no one ever taught us. This lack of understanding holds us back from greatness and keeps us living mediocre lives. To break out of this cycle, we have to define what we want to do and then find a way to make it happen,” the wise man continued.

Change is Instant

An intelligent 11-year-old boy had told me that his father suddenly changed. Out of the blue, his father had decided to quit his daily long commute to an office he’s been working for twenty years, with one that is closer to home.

I told the boy that change happens immediately. “When people change, it is not bound by time,” I said.

“I remember an old quote: if you want to know your past, look into your present conditions. If you want to know your future, look into your present actions,” I added.

“You see, most people are sleepwalkers,” I continued. “They wake-up in the morning going about their routine, commuting to work in the office, dreaming that someday they’ll get out of this mechanical life, and finally be free from it. Yet, they don’t realize what they are doing is not going to get them any closer to change. We can talk all day about change, but if nothing takes place within the individual, there is no change. For example, I would not tell you to sit down and listen carefully because if you’re not interested in what I have to say, then you won’t listen - period. I can condition you to behave for a while, but after a few moment, or when I leave, you’ll just revert back to how you were before, unless there is a change from within yourself. As your teacher, I can only guide you to awaken your awareness. I cannot change you, and neither can anyone else except yourself. If someone says otherwise, it is because they want to control you, or make money from you.”

“Similarly,” as I looked at him in the eye, “many parents asked me how they can improve their kids, and all I can say is to look at how they’re teaching the kids now. I can usually guess how a kid will turn up in two or three years time just by looking at their actions. Because their present actions will determine what will become of their future. So always remember that change must take place in an instant. When you think I will be different tomorrow, you are only modifying yourself from the day before - which is no different at all.”