Timeless Principles to Use Through Thick and Thin

Over the past few days, as my own family has settled into social distancing with Sarah and the kids all home from school and all of us spending a lot of time together at home, and watching the news of illness and stock market crashes, I’ve been looking for wisdom in the words of people who have made it through similar trying times. What worked for them? How did they get through it?

I wanted to share some of those with you today.

“Our necessities never equal our wants.” – Benjamin Franklin

If there’s a lesson that we all will learn in the coming days, it’s that the things we need are a whole lot less than the things we think we need.

The truth is that in the best of times, the fulfillment of many of our wants and desires become indistinguishable from fulfilling needs. We lose track of what we want as opposed to what we need and lump them all together into one pool.

We don’t actually need that much to have a joyous and healthy life. We don’t need endless forgettable meals at restaurants, drinks at bars, cups of coffee at the coffee shop or endless entertainment. Those things are fun, sure, but they’re not things we need. Rather, they’re things we spend our money on to bring a quick burst of pleasure, nothing more, and when we spend a lot of our money for a never-ending series of those pleasure bursts, we put a lot of things in our life at great risk.

Don’t look at this as a bad thing. Look at this as an opportunity. You will likely have no better chance in your adult life to step back and figure out what you really need in life and what’s just a fleeting want. Take advantage of it. What really matters in your life? Those are the things to maintain and to bring back when things return to normal (or whatever the new normal is).

“The greatest generation was formed by the Great Depression. They shared everything — meals, jobs, clothing.” – Tom Brokaw

One of the most powerful things I’ve seen, both locally and nationally, is the little things people have done for each other for no other reason than to just help out. I’ve seen people dropping off groceries on front steps. I’ve seen people using their 3-D printers to make simple medical devices and just give them away. I’ve seen people doing impromptu free homeschooling for neighborhood children via videoconferencing. I’ve seen so many wonderful things like this.

There is no better time than the present to help others in whatever areas you can. Just give in ways that you can — don’t worry about what you might get in return.

You’ll find that not only does it make you feel better, but it creates a little ripple in the world. Your action lifts someone else up a little, and then they go on and lift someone else up a little, and then maybe, after a while, it ripples back to you in a moment of need. The more pebbles you throw into the lake of life, the more little ripples you create.

Of course, it’s easiest to see this in trying times, but it holds true even when times are great. Help your fellow person, make it a habit, and don’t worry about what you get in return. In the long term, what you do get is a better community and world.

“One cool judgment is worth a thousand hasty counsels.” – Woodrow Wilson

It is an incredibly sickening feeling to watch 25% or 30% of your retirement savings vanish in a two week period. Even if you’re strongly committed to the long term, it’s still a tough thing to see, and there’s a temptation to do something, do anything, to make it better.

For me and for many others, the decision to save for retirement was a cool judgment. I thought carefully about the choice to save at all, as well as the idea that I was saving in an account with mostly stocks. That meant that there would be some serious volatility at uncertain times when the economy took a hit. I recognized that.

At this moment, there’s a lot of hasty counsel going on out there, both from our own gut and from a lot of advisors. Don’t listen to that hasty counsel.

Rather, stick with the cool judgment, the one that knew there would be times of uncertainty, the one that knew that there would be periods of rapid drops in value, and incorporated that into the plan.

Don’t let hasty counsel, particularly one driven by fear, stand in the way of cool judgment. Trust in cool judgment.

“This is a nightmare, which will pass away with the morning. For the resources of nature and men’s devices are just as fertile and productive as they were. The rate of our progress towards solving the material problems of life is not less rapid.” – John Maynard Keynes

As worrisome as things are at the moment, some things haven’t changed, and never will.

People are always resourceful. People are always creative. People are out there building upon the things we’ve already discovered to build new and interesting things. People figure out the realities of their new circumstances and build amazing things based on those circumstances.

It has happened again and again throughout history. I would argue that it’s perhaps the only constant in human history. The bad moments pass and people keep chugging along, building, growing and learning.

There may be rough spots along the way, with big unexpected events changing the landscape, but that human desire to build, grow, learn and make new things, that has never stopped and it never will.

That gives me a lot of hope. It tells me that no matter how the world changes, good things will come of it. It tells me that while the path might not be smooth, tomorrow will almost certainly be better than today.

“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.” – Epictetus

When things are difficult, it’s easy to see nothing but the troubles. It’s easy to focus on what we don’t have rather than what we have.

Rather than look at what’s missing from life right now, look at what’s there.

If you’re reading this, you have at least somewhat sound health and a somewhat sound mind. You have countless good things in your life, from the relationships you’ve built to the memories you’ve accumulated. You have the warmth of the sun on your skin. You have access to good food and clean water and shelter. You have access to basically infinite information and entertainment.

Even in the most trying of moments, you have things in your life that the greatest kings of history could not even dream of.

When we look at our lives and the situation around us, it pays to not just dwell on the negatives but to step back and look at their lives on the whole. We all have a lot going for us, even in uncertain times.

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

I know I used this very quote yesterday, but I think it is an extremely timely and valuable statement right now.

There are some things we can control, like our thoughts, our actions, our preparedness for things that may come, and our responses to our emotions. There are many things we cannot control, like the events of the world at large.

Accepting that there are some things you cannot change while taking care of the things you can change is the most powerful thing you can do.

You can’t change the world, but you can change yourself. You can feel frustrated, but you can choose to make the best environment for your family.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.