The other day I came across a video about Jean Yang, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon who is developing a programming language with built-in security and privacy features. If you want to watch the entire video, which runs for slightly more than two minutes, you can do so here. The short snippet below captures the main reason this video piqued my interest.
Did you catch the part where Professor Yang mentions her precocious interest in computers? It happened around half way through. If you didn’t, here it is.
“And I’ve been programming since I was maybe 7 or 8.”
Wow. You do something faithfully for over 20 years and you get pretty damn good at it. Who would have thunk it?
Habits Are Destiny
I had a professor at Buffalo University who would often remark, “If you want to know what someone’s going to do in the future, just look at what he’s done in the past.” That was a rather profound observation. No wonder I still remember it after all these years. But it was actually just a novel take on an even more profound observation that is often attributed to Aristotle but actually sprang from the mind of Will Durant, a famous American historian and philosopher.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
“We are what we repeatedly do.” Let that sink in for a moment.
There’s a reason why Jean Yang is a professor at Carnegie Mellon and I’m not. When she had free time in her childhood, she honed her programming skills. When I had free time, I watched cartoons. When she went to college (Harvard), she worked her tail off in a very challenging field (computer science). When I went to college (UB), I did just enough to get by in a very soft field (sociology). I also drank a lot of beer and watched a lot of cartoons.
But let’s not confine ourselves to academics and careers. Let’s look at personal finance. There’s a reason why Mr. Money Mustache achieved financial independence in his early 30s and I didn’t achieve it until my mid-50s. When he was a young man, he questioned the premise behind consumerism (i.e., more stuff equals more happiness) and decided it would be far more beneficial to save much and consume little. When I was a young man, I swallowed the consumerist Kool-Aid and bought all the stuff my meager salary and credit limit would allow.
So let’s not kid ourselves. When I was 30 years old, I was picking up roadkill and living paycheck to paycheck because I deserved it. And when Professor Yang and Mr. Money Mustache reached their 30th birthdays, they were far more accomplished than my 30-year-old self because they deserved it. It wasn’t because they had “privilege” and I didn’t. It was because they embraced the habits that beget greatness and I embraced the habits that beget mediocrity. It’s as simple as that.
Habits Don’t Discriminate
The good news is that habits don’t discriminate. Notice how my comparison to Mr. Money Mustache was based on the age we respectively achieved financial independence. It wasn’t based on his success in achieving financial independence and my failure to do so. That’s because once I hit 40 and began embracing good financial habits (i.e., rejecting consumerism, living below my means, automating my savings, exploiting tax-advantaged retirement accounts, etc.), nothing could stop my advance toward financial independence.
Good financial habits didn’t care about my skin color, gender, or religion. Nor did they care about my age. Once I befriended them, they befriended me.
Nor Are They Expensive
Another great thing about good habits is that they’re TOTALLY FREE. I didn’t have to pay a good habit tax or surrender a good habit adoption fee when I decided to hone my database skills after work rather than sleep. Nor did I have to pay the man when I opened a Roth IRA, signed up for my company’s 401(k), or started feasting on personal finance blogs like a ravenous wolf.
A Tesla Model S, a Tribeca penthouse, an Ivy League education—there are many things in this country that are expensive and out of reach for all but a tiny number of Americans. Good habits, however, aren’t one of them. The only thing separating prodigal Americans from good, life-enhancing habits is a bunch of lame-ass excuses.
Okay, groovy freedomists, that’s all I got. What say you? Is my steadfast belief in the power of habits misplaced? Or are good habits a weak defense against the various ills that plague our society? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Enjoy the weekend. And enjoy another episode of Talking Trash. Peace