Friday, May 23, 2008

Fundamental Choices

As I was reading a book review for “The True Cost of Happiness” by Stacey Tisdale and Paula Boyer Kennedy, I noticed a phrase that was used in the early chapters. That phrase was “Fundamental Choice”. A Fundamental Choice is one where you make a stand about something and decide “I’m going this direction, and when I make this decision, it will have major implications in my life".

This gave me a chance to look at Fundamental Choices I’ve made in my life. Some of them have been really good ones, and some of them have been bad ones. The key to a Fundamental Choice is that they are the ones that all other things in your life move on. Another term I’ve heard for this is a “hinge-pin decision”. The idea is the same; we make a decision, and we know that that decision is going to be one that will forever change us and the way we view and deal with the world.

One of the first prominent Fundamental Choices I made was when I was 22 years old. Up until that time, I had lived with my family in the house I grew up in, I went to school, I worked a little, and starting at age 18, I developed a plan, a dream, and a hope that I could become an entrepreneur. However, my plan to be an entrepreneur was to be a professional musician in a band. Many people don’t consider being in a band the same as running a business, but it is, at least it is if you plan to ever make a living at doing it. That was my plan, but for many years, I just stumbled through it. It was easy to live at home, go to school part time, work part time and play part time. I made the Fundamental Choice to cut off all else and dive head first into being a musician.

I dropped out of school. I left home and moved in with some of my band mates for a few months until I found a house I could share with others in San Francisco. I also ultimately quit the part time job that I had. This was a Fundamental Choice that made a huge impact on my life. For the first time, I had no safety net, no fall-back plan, and I discovered how it felt to be one pay-check away from the street. It was not a fun experience, but it hardened my resolve to do something about it. I can safely say that the decision to do this at that time was the most critical decision I’d made, as it set in motion so many things that defined my life from that point on. Had I not moved to the City, I wouldn’t have had the focus to develop my lyrical writing and performing skills the way that I did. Had I not had that experience of borderline poverty, I would not have developed the intense work ethic that came from it. Had I not seen that the jobs I was working were a dead end, I would not have made that leap of faith to take a job at a little known company that was set to shoot to the stratosphere.

Two years later, I faced another fundamental choice. Do I marry, or do I keep working the dream of being a professional musician? This came in stark contrast when I realized that there was no way I was going to have both in this scenario. If I moved to LA to follow my band’s dreams, I would lose Christina. If I stayed and married Christina, I would lose my band. This turned into another Fundamental Choice, the implications being huge. I chose to stay in the Bay Area and marry Christina, and let the career I’d worked towards for close to ten years die away. It may seem like such a trivial thing to some, to give up a rock band for the love of your life, but at that moment, it was anything but trivial. Still, I knew it was the right choice, and I knew that I would regret not choosing Christina, so I made the decision. I have moments of “what-if’s” regarding my former band, but honestly, I do not have any regrets for making the choice that I made.

The following year, I had the chance to bring Christina back to a family reunion in Salt Lake City and the surrounding area. While I was showing Christina the sights of Salt Lake, I had a very strong stirring of long dormant feelings. I was inactive in the church for several years, and those stirrings really made me question why, and if I was committed to doing something about it. That weekend, during my family reunion, I made the decision to return to full activity in the church. I realized that it would require a healthy dose of humility, a change in lifestyle, a change in my attitudes about many things, and it would also require a financial commitment to the tune of 10% of my income. I was willing and ready to make these changes, and once again I made a Fundamental Choice. It was one that I would make by myself for several years, but ultimately it became one that changed the culture and trajectory of my family completely. Today, my entire immediate family (myself, wife and kids) are active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I am grateful for what that choice has provided for us, as well as the opportunities it has given to us over these past fifteen years.

Recently, we made another Fundamental Choice, one that was a long time in coming, and changed dramatically some of the ways that we spend money and allocate resources for things. Having worked at a technology company for a decade, I had accumulated a fairly large number of stock shares. When those stock shares were valued highly, we were very pleased and we took advantage of the opportunities having them (and selling them) gave to us. However, in the early part of the decade, those shares value took a long walk off a short pier, dropping to less than 30% of their peak value… and have since stayed there for many years. Since that drop, we had to pull from those stocks for a period of layoffs, my returning to school (another Fundamental Choice, but talking about that one probably deserves its own entry) and just keeping us afloat during some leaner years. We assessed where we were, what we had, what was coming in, and what the future outlook would be, and we made a Fundamental Choice… make ourselves 100% debt free, house and everything, by selling the stocks that had sustained us all these years.

That was a frightening concept, and one we had rejected many times (what if something goes wrong?). It took an analogy to change my thinking on this... Would I take out a second mortgage on my house to go and buy the shares of stock that I had held onto all these years? The answer is “no, of course not”. By putting it into this framework, I realized that I was doing exactly that, keeping a debt when I had an asset to pay it off, but hoping that the eventual return from keeping that asset would ultimately turn around. We made the Fundamental Choice to take what we had left of our shares and pay off our mortgage with it. What’s more, we made the determination to not spend the money that was formerly going out as our monthly house payment, instead opting to invest in retirement savings and college savings for our kids, as well as using additional opportunities to maximize our savings. This has been a big paradigm shift for us, one where we have deliberately turned away from passively spending to actively managing, and putting savings as the highest priority. We have yet to see dramatic changes from this, but we hope that we will be able to see those changes later on.

Bottom Line: Fundamental Choices face all of us at one point or another, and we will have opportunities to make them throughout our lives. It is vital that we look at these decisions as what they truly are, hinge-pin moments in our lives where our course, our direction, and our end destination can be radically changed. These opportunities should be handled with care and thought, with a lot of consideration, a lot of consulting with family, and most certainly with a lot of prayer. Often times, the most important aspect about Fundamental Choices is not so much which way we go, but that we make them in the first place. In many cases, making a right or wrong choice is less important compared to the missed opportunities that result from not making a choice at all.

So how about you? Have you found yourselves staring at a Fundamental Choice? What did you consider? How did making a decision one way or another affect you?

1 comment:

Larsen's said...

I am glad that I was one of your F.C.'s! :)