Toward a Life Well Led

Past columns have discussed two keys to a life well led. In one, I argued that status is a false God: that status-seeking--whether in choosing a career or buying possessions--often leads to an unfulfilling life. People who have modest material aspirations and choose less money-centric careers are often more content.

In another column, I spoke of procrastination as career cancer, indeed life cancer. Key to a life well led is recognizing that you’ll be happier if you look for opportunities to work rather than ways to avoid work.

In this column, I’ll discuss three other practices toward a life well led.

How you address problems. When faced with an important decision, many people think, think, and think some more. Usually, they end up thinking themselves into analysis paralysis. They’re scared to ask for help, and if they do, they struggle to make even one phone call because they’re filled with undue fear of imposing or sounding stupid.

You take a big step toward a life well led if you use the following approach to addressing problems:

1. Think for just a short time.

2. They try something—ideally something entailing little risk or time. For example, if you’re thinking about becoming a nurse, Google around, only reading truly on-target web pages. Do not at all be afraid to cold-call nurses to learn more about the profession. Even if you might sound awkward, your honorable intent will still come through. And don’t worry about imposing because you know that most people like to be helpful and if not, the person can say no. You should simply call the Kaiser switchboard and ask to speak with a med-surg nurse, an ICU nurse, an OB-GYN nurse, or all of the above. Another example: if you were thinking of starting a business selling knockoff designer eyeglass frames to optometrists, take that first low-risk step: ask manufacturers for samples and pricing.

3. If such a quick, low-risk step succeeds, keep moving forward with other quick, minimally risky steps. If a step produces a negative result, go back and think--only for a bit--and then try something else.

4. Throughout, enjoy the process of taking each step: the treasure hunt of scouting for information, the pleasure of having interesting interactions with new people.

How you invest. The price of a stock is the entire world’s best estimate of what that stock is worth. Unless you have inside information, you are highly unlikely to better assess whether a stock is a bargain or a rip-off at that price. So, don’t try to pick stocks. Instead, consider putting the stock/bond part of your investments into index funds—a market basket of stocks. For example, an S&P 500 Index Fund invests in all the stocks in the S&P 500—500 major companies. Index funds provide diversification, risk control, and low fees. Vanguard ( offers an S&P 500 Index Fund and many other highly regarded index funds.

Nor should you try to time the market—the world’s greatest financial minds have been unable to. If you try to time the market, psychology is such that you usually buy when the stock is high and sell when it’s low. So, as soon as you have money to invest, invest it immediately. That avoids the psychology problem and puts your money to work for you immediately.

Even though real estate has done very well in the past, realize that it may or may not do well in the future. What is certain is that a real estate investment is time consuming: buying, fixing, managing, and selling. So, especially today, when the average Bay Area home costs much more than even a person earning $150,000 a year can afford, be cautious about investing in real estate.

Avoid playing victim. My father spent years in a Nazi concentration camp and after the war was dumped in the Bronx without any family, money, education, nor speaking a word of English. One day I asked him, “Dad, when you talk about the Holocaust, you never sound bitter.” He replied, “The Nazis took five years of my life. I won’t give them one minute more. Never look back. Always look forward.”

Too many people in the Bay Area spend a lot of time looking back, blaming their present problems on their parents, their spouse, past racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

Advice I’d Give My Child

Don’t look back. Look forward.

© 2007, Marty Nemko

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Marty Nemko holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and subsequently taught in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. He is the worklife columnist in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and is the producer and host of Work With Marty Nemko, heard Sundays at 11 on 91.7 FM in (NPR, San Francisco), and worldwide on . 400+ of his published writings are available free on that website and is a co-editor of Cool Careers for Dummies. and author of The All-in-One College Guide. E-Mail.

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