Monday, August 25, 2008

Living Below Your Means

Graduate students do not get paid very much. However, a grad student's stipend is more than enough money to go out all the time and buy a lot of nice stuff. My friend argues that there is no reason to save any money during grad school because once we have "real" jobs, the money we have in grad school will be a trivial amount. While this may be true, the psychological consequences of spending every cent available to you may severe. Many people seem to spend all of their money (and maybe even more) no matter how much money they make. If your goal is to start a business after school, you may want to get a job first to get some start up capital. If you are someone who will end up spending all of your money, then you won't have any start up capital and you will likely not have enough guts to quit your job. Your place in the rat race will now be secure.

Let's consider the grad student who lives below his means on purpose. It really is possible to live, even in an expensive place like Southern California, on less than $15000 a year. This gives the average graduate student perhaps $5000 per year to spend on whatever they want, whether it is good food or lots of alcohol or lots of electronics. Now, $5000 likely will be trivial if you get a job making say $80000 a year, but figuring out how to live and enjoy your life on less than 1/5 of that amount is extremely valuable life experience. Let's think amount the minimal subset of luxury items that a spicy lifestyler would want to have a fulfilling life. My list would probably look something like this:

1. Computer
2. Camera Equipment
3. Cell Phone
4. Book or two to read

These items are in addition to standard things such as a bed, desk, clothes, food, internet access, etc. Think carefully about what your minimal subset of items is and if it has more than 5 or 10 items, it is likely too big. While it may not be entirely necessary to make your possessions as small as your minimal subset list, it is worth knowing how much you require to maintain or have an awesome lifestyle. Try to convince yourself that no matter what happens, you will never starve, and you will have an awesome life no matter what. Internalizing this notion will probably make you feel more free than you have ever felt before.

I think the benefits of living a simple lifestyle far outweigh the cost of living slightly less comfortably and having fewer possessions to show off. Having fewer possessions will allow you to be more mobile should you choose to move to a different location, will provide less stress because more possessions usually just make people worry more, and also will give you more money for doing things which will really lead to long term life quality maximization.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Coping with Choice

I was recently in the market for a new computer. During this process, I was faced with a lot of choices. Should I buy a laptop or a desktop? If I buy a laptop, should I get a small one or a big one? For my laptop, which screen resolution should I choose? Additionally, should I search around and wait until I find a really good deal, or should I just try to buy something quickly that meets my needs? These choices caused a lot of anxiety and indecision for me. If I bought the wrong thing, I could experience buyer's remorse and feel as if I should take it back or sell it and search for something new. This is not a desirable situation.

The potential regret is not the only problem however. With all the choices and options, I end up wasting a lot of time searching online forums seeing if others could offer further information, as well as sitting at my desk thinking about what I should choose. If one values their time at all, certainly the price of many purchases is upped by this factor. Why is it that I and many others get so stressed in making decisions? Perhaps this video on can offer some incite on this issue.

This video touches on some of the interesting psychological aspects of having many options and the speaker tells of things we have probably all felt before and can relate with. Being indecisive can cause one to have very slow progress in any type of endeavor, whether it is learning a new topic or maybe even starting a business. It is important that one learns how to act with resolve and confidence, and not have regrets and worry about something they cannot control or something which is in the past. On the other hand, it is certainly important to not be entirely impulsive all time time either. Nonetheless, the more time you spend trying to decide what to study, what to buy, what to do lessens the time you have to actually do something productive and enjoy your life. It is important to quickly assess the situation and make a decision that is consistent enough with your value system. Notice that I do not say it is perfectly consistent, just consistent enough. So next time you need to buy something online, spend a little time researching the product, find a reasonable deal, and make the purchase and forget about it. You might have saved a few dollars if you search harder or waited longer, but be happy in knowing that you are not wasting your time for money that you will likely never need or care about.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Psychological Consequences of Alcohol

Consuming alcohol is something so engrained in American culture and many other cultures that it is almost synonymous with hanging out with friends, watching sports, or enjoying an evening. It is the default decision for what to do on a Friday night for millions of people. Let's examine why this is, and more importantly, why does it seem so impossible for people to do without something which is known to be so harmful to one's health.

Alcohol has been called "liquid courage"; it is a substance which can make people more relaxed, more social, and more outgoing. What is the psychological block though that does not allow people to be this way without it? Perhaps it is a result of the link between fear and maturity. This basically says that as people become older, they lose their hopes and dreams as hundreds of factors such as making money, becoming popular, finding mates, and simply wanting to fit in become important. As a little kid, we all thought we could do anything and be anyone. Little kids talk to everyone they meet and seem to be the most social creatures on the planet. We smile and enjoy this behavior from children but why not from the adult who likes to interact with everyone. Why is it that so many times I interact with someone I have never met, they seem to, at least initially, wonder why the hell I would be talking to them? Surely, they must have lost something from when they were a child. Alcohol is the "cure" for this behavior. When people are drinking, they seem to be more social, more outgoing, and more accepting of new people. Alcohol is a lot of fun, right? So what is wrong with this?

Alcohol is often used as a crutch for someone to be social. It can be an excuse for lacking real personality and real social skills. It can be very fun with friends, making your emotions more intense, for the better or for the worse, but the long term effects of this may be that you desire alcohol more often and lose the ability to have fun sober. I am speculating that while the short term effects of drinking alcohol may be great in terms of the fun you had with friends or random strangers, the long term costs of losing the ability to have sober fun may not be worth it. Alcohol is a way to escape reality, a way to make almost any situation fun, but shouldn't we have the ability to do this through the power of our own mind and personality? In fact, why would we want to escape reality to begin with? Life is so interesting; there is always more to learn and new people to meet. If our normal life is something we need to escape, well then shouldn't we change our normal life? So next time you are faced with the decision of whether to drink, examine your motivations, recognize the psychological consequences, and then decide on whether it is worth it or not. You may find that it is worth it less than you think, which will put you on the road to have a more powerful and engaging personality.