Framing Your Life

Throughout the many cultures of humankind, there have always been strong frameworks that people have used with which to frame their life.

Parents have often been this source for people throughout history. Countless people have attempted to guide themselves along the same paths that their parents followed, having seen quite closely the value of those paths.

In some cultures, people have used (and still use) a religious or mythological figure as guidance. Depending on where and when you were born, you may have found guidance from Jesus, Mohammed, Abraham, Mithra, or any number of mythological pantheons – and that just scratches the surface.

In other cultures, community took center stage. People would identify with and model themselves after the leaders of the community – and, often, those leaders modeled themselves after the leaders that came before them.

Many cultures mixed all of these elements – and many other elements, too.

Today, there’s a different contender for the throne – media. Books, magazines, television, movies, radio – all of them give you indications on a framework for your life. For many people, they compete with – and often replace – the elements described above.

In the past, the number of sources we could use to frame our lives was limited. We had our faith, the people in our family, and our community, all of which largely followed the same basic ideas.

Because the examples were few and often had a great deal of overlap with our own lives, it was easy to determine the good moves that would preserve us into the future and the bad moves that would get us in trouble.

Today, that’s not the case. We’re absolutely inundated with examples and guidelines for how to live our lives.

Rather than relying on the feedback of our families and a few people in our community that we know and love and deeply trust, we’re offered ideas on how to live from product marketing, television, and people living in vastly different physical, social, personal, and economic situations than our own.

Even worse – we usually don’t know enough detail about these new guideposts to see how they’re markers from a different life than our own. We know our community and our family intimately well, but we see only media-created blips of what the lives of others are like. They often rest on values we don’t share, living conditions different than our own, personal histories radically different than our own, economic situations different than our own, and so on. We often don’t know the details of these. Yet, the results of their life choices are shown to be so shockingly positive that we can’t help but think they have something valuable to share.

Here’s a real example of what I mean. When I first started getting into personal finance and self-improvement, I read a lot of books. Hundreds, literally. Some of you may remember that I used to review a personal finance or self-improvement book every single week.

Most of them didn’t click with me at all. They offered up advice that seemed to make sense, but just didn’t work out. I’d try it and I’d either fail to see the results described or I’d be using a pattern that was just incompatible with my life.

What was the difference with the ones that did click? Mostly, they made it very clear where they were coming from. I understood the background of the person giving the advice and the specific problem that the book was trying to solve. It was also broken down into pieces so that I could pull out individual chunks and use them.

In other words, the books that mattered were the ones that made the effort to paint a complete picture for me and made the advice accessible in pieces. Which is exactly what we might expect from family, friends, or a tight community.

What’s the real message here? The vast majority of the ideas you hear about what products to buy and how you should live your life don’t matter. They come from people with unknown backgrounds and unknown motivations.

Stick instead with advice that has at least most of these three characteristics.

One, you really understand the source of the advice. You know enough about that person or organization’s background and motivations to understand how their life and perspective is similar to your own in some ways and different than your own in others. This makes it much easier to figure out which of their ideas matters to you. I trust Consumer Reports far more than I trust CNN, for example, because I know the history and motivation of each organization, for example. I trust my aunt more than I trust pretty much any television commercial ever made.

Two, you can pull apart what they’re doing into smaller pieces and use the ones that work. The best advice out there isn’t a single monolithic plan that dictates a ton of broad, sweeping changes in your life. It’s about smaller tactics, along with ideas on how to put them together into something bigger. You can pull those tactics from all over the place – some from here, some from there – and just use the ones that work for you. I’ve received more life value out of my uncle teaching me how to tie a necktie than I’ve received out of dozens of articles and books on self-improvement.

Three, you can demonstrate to yourself that the advice actually works before committing extensive money and time to it. Good investment advice, for example, can be proven (or at least repeatedly demonstrated) by looking at public investment returns. Good frugality advice is straightforward enough that you can see clearly how it works before having to apply it.

Great advice – and great models for living – succeed in all three of these areas.

That’s why the things that I trust and that I use for my own life come from pretty limited sources. They come from people I personally know. They come from writers that I’ve had a long history of reading. They come from books where an argument is laid out in detail, with motivations and explanations and a plan that can be pulled apart.

In terms of how to live my life, I ignore virtually everything on television. I only use magazine articles as a starting point for further digging. Instead, I rely mostly on well-written books, a handful of websites with consistent authors, and the strong examples of people in my life.