The Virtue of Freedom


Thirty years ago, as I was applying to graduate school, the professor who became my advisor and mentor told me an important lesson.

He put it this way: “always have f–k you money”.

What he meant by that was that not being in debt, and having cash in the bank, meant I could avoid any nastiness at work. I wouldn’t, for instance, have to be trapped into staying at a firm skirting the ethical edge. (In his case, the university wanted to shovel him into a suburban campus with a so-called “promotion” to department chair: his economic freedom allowed him to decline the “opportunity” — and make it stick.)

In today’s world, where name brand organizations collapse at the drop of a merger & acquisition or bankruptcy hat — nearly ninety per cent of the Dow Jones 30 from thirty years ago aren’t there any more — and where multiple degrees don’t necessarily mean more than cubicle hell or barista lifestyles, that freedom is more important than ever.

But here’s the thing (and it’s where due diligence about your future becomes personal indeed): you want the freedom less in the form of a big fat pay cheque and a fat brokerage account, and more in the ability to decide your own future.

Where would you like to live?

Suppose, for instance, you are a real fan of the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario). You’ve been taking the nearly two hour drive from Toronto regularly to see plays. Over the years you’ve become delighted with the town itself as well. You end up having dreams of living there one day.

Why not today?

If the answer to that is “but I can’t afford the commute (time or money)” or “there’s no job that pays well enough there”, then you’ve built a trap for yourself where your freedom is constrained.

Take a look at the community of New Urbanists. Architects, designers, urban planners, these meet up at the annual Congress for the New Urbanism event.

But a funny thing’s been happening in the past few years. Whereas the original New Urbanists are typically located in large, expensive cities, the new crop (CNU is twenty years old now) are locating in small towns. Whereas the original New Urbanists lived out of suitcases travelling from job to job, or proposal to proposal, the new crop tends to work close to home.

They’re trading away from money and toward more living. (They’re also applying their skills to improve the places they’ve chosen to live in, rather than build for others and never benefit themselves from the results.)

In other words, money isn’t everything. It’s just one piece of the puzzle. And not needing so much of it is as liberating as having piles of the stuff.

The person who wanted to move to Stratford (population, 30,000) and work there could do so, as long as they didn’t need a lot coming in. Sure, they wouldn’t be an Executive Vice-President at a major financial institution working there, but, on the other hand, they’d be home in ten minutes flat and be living in a place they love.

This is why the ever-escalating educational requirements I talked about are so dangerous for today’s students just starting out. If you got your credentials paying cash on the barrelhead, great! Education has value, and often in places you didn’t expect it (I’ve spent my working life in and around IT strategy issues; my degrees are in philosophy).

On the other hand, if you went to school on student loans (and remember, in the United States, these can no longer be discharged through bankruptcy) you are starting out with a millstone around your neck. That’s why the pressure to “get a degree to get the job” has become so great (instead of people studying to suit their own needs and desires).

You may say it can’t be done. Hogwash. My daughter did her undergraduate work as an international student, paying full fees plus living expenses in one of the world’s most expensive countries, and paid cash. She took time between high school and university to save, and had a job while studying. (Right now she’s on a gap year before starting graduate school, working and refilling the bank account — and yes, she’ll be overseas again when she returned to university next fall.)

As a result, my daughter is studying what interests her, and although she has career ambitions in that field she knows that at the end of it all if there is no job there she’s got a résumé that will lead to other things — plus no debt forcing her to take a job simply because it pays enough to service her past.

The reason we at Personal Due Diligence talk about doing diligence is so that you’re not blindsided by events. But isn’t the real goal to be free enough to live where you want, doing what enriches you personally, while not having it all at risk constantly?

We think so.

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