the sympythizer

I just finished The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.  A friend referenced the book, and so I bought it.  Before I finished the first page, I knew I had already read it, but I could only vaguely remember the story.  This happens sometimes as I read a lot of books, so I went ahead and re-read it.

     The narrator, a “man of two minds,” believes his greatest strength and his most glaring weakness is his ability to see everything from different perspectives.  A central theme of the book is man’s dual nature: loyalty vs. deceit, Vietnamese vs. American identity, and purpose vs. ambivalence.  We humans are complicated beings, and sometimes, two things can be true at the same time.  

     The Sympathizer made me think of my own split nature when it comes to money; I have spent much of my life in its pursuit, and, in many ways, my life still revolves around it.  Yet, I don’t care that much about it.  Does this make me a sympathizer, a double agent, a traitor hiding in plain sight in the FIRE community?  Or am I also a man of two minds, able to see both sides of the same gold coin?

 

The Fascination 

 

     I think about money a LOT.  I read books about its history and those who have made and lost fortunes.  I am fascinated by the history of banking, lending, and credit.  I listen to podcasts about earning, saving, and investing money.  I talk about it all the time and obviously write about it.  To the casual observer, it might seem I’m obsessed with money.  Maybe I am.      

          I’ve always been fascinated by money and the people who have it.  I guess that is because I grew up in a time and place where no one seemed to have any.  I wanted more than anything else to get out of my small town and away from what I arrogantly thought of as the mediocrity surrounding me.  I desperately wanted a vague, nebulous “something more.”  I bought into the propaganda being pushed upon me, telling me 24/7 that consumerism was the American way.  After all, I was a hot-blooded America teenager.  I wanted the sports car, mansion, and boat.  I wanted to be rich.  I wanted it all.

 

Warning from the Almighty

 

warning from almighty

     My mother was very religious and took me to church three times a week growing up.  There, I was taught lessons that seemed to subvert the prevailing capitalist narrative I had wholeheartedly embraced: First, the love of money is the root of all evil, and second, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.  Having said that, my parents continuously argued about their finances.  So, there’s that.  However, I believe that my religious upbringing helped me with my attitude toward money.  I’m pretty sure I internalized the fundamental messages.  One, don’t let money become your God, and two, don’t let it turn you into an a**hole.  At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what my Sunday school teacher was trying to say.

 

The Texas Lesson

 

     Living in Texas taught me another money lesson: that there is a difference between being rich and looking rich.  After graduating from my residency program, I packed up a U-Haul and drove to the Lone Star State to make my fortune.  Before moving, the only experience I had with rich people was what I saw on TV or in the movies.  I’m talking Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous and MTV Cribs.  If you’re younger, think Keeping Up with The Kardashians.  In my mind, being rich meant being ostentatious.  Since I never had it, I couldn’t flaunt it, but as I drove towards my first attending job, I daydreamed about everything that money would soon buy me.  

     I had an older cousin who lived in the town where I was moving, and I knew her husband had made millions of dollars selling a business several years earlier.  But when I arrived, they lived in an upper-middle-class house, not a mansion.  She drove me around to look for an apartment, and when I complimented her on her new Toyota Highlander, she commented that it was just like the new Lexus SUV but without the badging.  I asked why she didn’t just buy a Lexus, and she replied that people would look at her differently if she drove a Lexus.  She didn’t mind spending the money and wanted “luxury,” but not the baggage that came with it.

Stealth Wealth

     When you spend any amount of time in West Texas, you learn firsthand about stealth wealth on a Texas-sized scale.  The old man in a dirty cowboy hat filling up a 1980s single-cab pickup truck at the gas station might literally be an oil billionaire.  You rarely see an expensive car, but there is a line of private jets at the airport.  The pursuit of wealth is celebrated, but its vulgar display is frowned upon.

 

west texas sunset

 

Of Cocaine and Camels

 

     Once I started working as an attending ER physician, the subversive lessons kept coming.  When I first started practicing medicine, a colleague warned me that “money is green cocaine.”  He saw how hard I was working, trying to earn as much money as possible.  He said, “If you’ve never tried it, you don’t know what you’re missing.  But once you get a little taste, you want more and more, and it can consume you, so beware.”  Before you get offended, I’ve never tried cocaine.  But I’ve never threaded a needle with a camel, either.  So, get over it.  They’re metaphors.

     I took the subtle (and not-so-subtle) warnings seriously.  Although all these collected lessons didn’t stop me from wanting money and striving to get it, I was beginning to see the almighty dollar from two different perspectives.

 

The Excesses

 

     Despite the indoctrination, I mean warnings and lessons, I was not immune to the allure of money.  During the first decade or so of my career, I indulged in some excesses.  I bought a bigger house than I needed.  I bought a Porsche.  I purchased several fancy watches.  But fortunately, I never fully succumbed to money’s addictive qualities.  Even my lapses were still somewhat measured.  My big house was less than $500,000, and I did a lot of work to fix it up myself.  My Porsche was used, and I sold it a few years later at only a small loss.

There is no excuse for buying three Rolexes, but I now retroactively justify them by planning to give them to my three children when they are grown.  I have also purchased a lot of relatively expensive art.  I’m not making excuses for that because it makes me happy.  Despite these momentary lapses of reason, I generally kept my expenses low and saved and invested my money.  I have always kept my feet somewhat grounded in reality.  While I have certainly inflated my lifestyle over the years, it hasn’t risen to drug-induced heights.

 

The Balance

 

     So, it would be disingenuous to state that I don’t and haven’t spent money.  I have written extensively about our Hawaiian vacation home, which is my largest indulgence.  But during the school year, my family lives in a nice, above-median-priced house, but certainly not anything opulent.  My wife and I both drive below-median-priced cars.  I still have my watches, although I only ever wear the first (and least expensive) one I bought in 2008 after passing my oral EM board exam in Chicago.  The others are for special occasions only.  My children attend private school, and we take a lot of vacations, which, while not luxurious, are still expensive.

 

The Paradox

 

     So, this is the genesis (lowercase) of the money paradox in my life.  I think about money all the time.  I talk about it, read about it, and even dream about it.  I have spent the better part of my life in its pursuit, yet I have internalized all the warnings and lessons along the way to financial independence.

     So, while I have some nice things and spend more money than the average American, I can say with the utmost sincerity that I don’t really care about money; at least, I don’t care about it in the way that most people do.  Most people look at money as a tool to buy things.  And the truth is that I don’t care about things at this stage of my life.  I am now in a position where I am satisfied with what I have.  This bothers my wife sometimes, who feels that I have become complacent, while I believe that I just realize that more or better things will not make me any happier.  

     Despite being able to afford almost anything I want, I don’t desire a bigger house, fancier cars, or designer clothes.  As mentioned in Lottery Lessons, there just isn’t anything I want that money can buy that I don’t already have.  In fact, the more money I accumulate, the less fancy I want my life to be.  I want to eat in less fancy restaurants, not more.  The last thing I want is membership in a country club or anything else “exclusive.”  I don’t want to stay in luxury hotels when my family goes on vacation.  They make me uncomfortable.  I much prefer to rent an Air-BNB.  I also prefer to avoid destinations that are too fancy.  Give me Taos, not Park City.

 

Conclusion 

 

     Money remains my passion.  I still enjoy reading and writing and thinking about it.  I still want to grow my businesses.  But spending money is no longer my goal.  I can’t put my finger on when the change occurred, but I woke up one day to realize that I no longer cared about money.  

     I realized that I had made enough to have a secure and comfortable life.  I had enough to care for my family and give them all the options and opportunities that money provides.  And finally, I accepted that my ego was satisfied.       

     My worldly goals being met, I can now pursue my hobby in a more relaxed, elevated state, still focused on money as a subject of interest but not worshiped as a graven image of the almighty.  I now care more about things that don’t rely on money: reading, writing, learning, and educating myself, my own health, and especially my relationships with friends and family.

Financial Freedom

       So, how do I square this paradox in my mind?  I don’t.  Two different things can be true at the same time.  I have accepted that, like the unnamed protagonist of The Sympathizer, I am a man of two minds, a subversive in the world of FI and medical business education.  While I want to teach my colleagues how to get rich, I also want them to avoid the material trappings of a “successful” physician.  More than that, I want them to learn financial freedom and freedom from finances.  Because true freedom comes when you have enough money to buy anything you want but just don’t want anything.  

Dr. Slater works as a double agent, building wealth while teaching personal finance and the business of medicine.  To read more of his disruptive writing, subscribe to Business Is The Best Medicine below.