This past semester I taught a very content-heavy course in which the students’ grades were based mostly on their performance on three long, involved exams. I know from experience, both as a student and as an instructor, that it can be surprisingly easy to accidentally miss a question, or even a whole page, on an exam. So in an attempt to prevent this, I emphasized to the students each time that it was their responsibility to check their exams over carefully before turning them in, to make sure they hadn’t missed any questions.
The final exam was in mid-December, and after the students had left the room (happily, with no exam questions left unanswered) and I was packing up my things, I glanced at the whiteboard where I had written my reminder:
Be sure you have answered ALL questions.
While this is a perfectly appropriate reminder for anyone taking an exam or filling out a form, what struck me in that moment was how ludicrous this advice would be in basically any other context. In other words…
We are never going to be able to answer all questions.
I find it endlessly fascinating to deconstruct the ways in which we talk about our lives and experiences, both to ourselves and to others. To begin with, we typically use a narrative format—this may be obvious, but I think it’s worth pointing out. We say, “First I did A, and then B happened, and then I responded by doing C, and D was the result.” Narratives are what we use to make sense of our lives, to turn a bunch of tiny isolated experiences and thoughts and emotions into a story with cause and effect and structure and meaning.
But what I find particularly interesting is that when explaining our past experiences and decisions, we often say things like:
“And at that moment, I finally realized that…”
“I guess what I didn’t want to admit to myself at the time was…”
“Little did I know that…”
“And ever since then, I’ve always…”
“Everything has been so much better ever since I…”
I don’t know about you, but my narratives include tons of statements like these—statements that refer to some sort of past transformation or realization or Eureka moment: “Back when I was younger, I was confused/made questionable decisions/didn’t understand [whatever], but then I realized [something], which caused me to [make some kind of huge change in my life], and now everything is awesome.” A lot of my narratives sound something like that.
To be clear, I’m not criticizing this type of narrative! On the contrary, I think it’s normal and healthy and human to feel like we’ve learned and benefited from past experiences, that we’re farther along than we used to be, that we’ve begun to find answers to some of the questions we’ve been struggling with.
The potential problem, in my opinion, comes in when we allow ourselves to believe that we have already answered all questions.
The reason I’m writing about this here on my personal finance blog is because this type of thinking is often at play when I think about my personal finance journey. I don’t know about you, but when I talk about my journey it sounds something like this: “When I was younger, I was not great with money, and I made a lot of questionable financial decisions, but then I had some experiences and figured some stuff out about money, and now I’ve got a system in place for my finances that totally works, and I’m on track to my financial goals, and it should be smooth sailing from here on out.”
My story kind of makes it sound like I think I have already answered all questions, no?
But that can’t possibly be the case. I know from many, many past experiences that feeling like I’ve got everything figured out is a pretty sure sign that I probably don’t have everything figured out. (And, in my opinion, nobody ever truly does.) I don’t mean this in a cynical, fatalistic way; rather, I mean it in a way that celebrates the fact that we’re always learning and growing and figuring out new things and refining—or even overhauling—our beliefs and habits, and there’s always going to be a new perspective or new information or a new realization around the next bend.
For example, in the next month or so, I will (I hope) find a job and make a detailed plan to start paying off my student loans, and I bet as soon as that happens I’ll have the urge to think, yeah, I’ve got this all figured out now. But chances are, I won’t have it all figured out. I’ll still have lots of questions to answer—about the finer details of student loan repayment, about how much money I’m really able to pay each month, about what it’ll be like to start to actually address this debt, about what I’m actually working towards, both financially and personally, about how I feel about it all, and about what future adjustments I might want to make.
So this post is really a reminder to myself that while it’s okay—in fact, it’s GOOD—to feel positive about my growth and progress thus far, I do not in fact have everything figured out, nor will I ever. There are still questions ahead, and there always will be. And that’s awesome, because it means there’s always more to learn, not only about money but also about myself and the world around me.
I’ll end by sharing two quotations with you that I have loved for a long time:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”
~ e.e. cummings
What do you think? Is it useful in personal finance (or in life) to believe that we’ve figured things out?
And are we ever correct to think that we have?