Fine-tuning your life

By Christopher Peck

Is your life humming along as you’d like it to? Do you whistle while you work? Do you need any fine-tuning? Do you march to the sound of a different drummer? Can you think of another clever auditory-alignment phrase about the quality of your life? If so, I’d love to hear it!

In this article, I’m introducing a new mental model to the basket of tools we use in the strategic insight aspect of Holistic Financial Planning (HFP). As you might recall (and if you don’t, please email me for past articles), in HFP we have several phases, like developing a holistic goal, planning income, planning expenses, planning for profit, and monitoring towards success. The strategic insight mode hovers, in a sense, above all of the others. It’s a collection of tools and mental models that we grab occasionally to help make rapid progress toward our goal. Strategic insight models covered previously in these pages include looking for logjams, evaluating the weak link in your chain of profitability, and using the wheel of life to identify shortcomings.

I call my latest playful process “Fine Tune Your Life,” and it’s based on the idea of an equalizer used by DJs and sound engineers. If you have an audiophile friend you’ve likely seen an equalizer, with its many sliders and dials that precisely tune musical output.

People often think in terms of “on-off,” like a light switch, but in reality the fuzzy details of life are not “on-off” – they move through a range within many possible variables. Take something like health for example; you’re not either healthy or unhealthy. There are many factors to be evaluated to make a diagnosis: weight, resting heart rate, body fat percentage, triglyceride levels, etc, etc. The same is true for financial well-being.Success doesn’t exist on a black or white scale with ‘loser’ on one end and ‘winner’ on the other; it’s measured by income and expense, and assets and liabilities. That’s why we have accountants, right? Each area of our lives exists on a continuum, and the dials or sliders on an equalizer are a useful metaphor for playing with how to fine tune and improve in specific areas, to “dial it in” ever more precisely.

Imagine an equalizer with dozens of dials, in several sections and four to five dials per section. The sections might be labeled “Health,” “Wealth,” “Relationship,” “Contribution,” and “Spirituality.” Within the wealth section there might be a dial for income, one for expenses, one for assets and one for debts. Do you need to turn up the income dial or turn down the expense dial? Or both? Are your debts a little too loud and out of balance, drowning out the assets? Within the health section do you need to turn up your exercise dial or turn down the dessert dial? (If you have a whole dial for desserts, you probably do!) Don’t get stuck thinking this metaphor is hard and fast; it’s intended to be flexible and playful, a mind opener that can offer some insight into how you might improve the quality of your life.

This metaphor of fine tuning an equalizer is actually an advanced tool, operating on the assumption that your life is humming along pretty well. If it’s not, you need to use different tools. If you haven’t found your life’s work, or you need a good blast of creativity, there are other strategic insight tools that will be more effective. But this is the first tool I’ve found so far to advance an understanding of systems thinking. Systems thinking isn’t easy: there are so many complex and interacting variables, and most of us are far from making it a habit to consider them all. Obviously our lives are a kind of complex system, and improving them is often not a simple act of “do this, not that,” but a series of balancing acts and compromises amongst time and energy and effectiveness.

Finding proportion and balance in life is a result of personal growth and reflection. As Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way: “The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.” Perhaps delight could be its own dial? I hope you’re able to turn that one up to eleven!

This is also a useful tool for thinking about the economy, which is certainly a complex system, with hundreds or thousands of “dials” being tuned regularly, leading to an equally broad range of results. When commentators or pundits or even regular folks talk about “economic collapse,” it sounds too much like an on-off switch to me, and I think of the giant table-sized equalizers and sound boards they have in music studios, and I try to imagine what it would take to tweak the dials to such extremes that it would create something truly discordant. I’m not suggesting our economy is currently making music like a Mozart string quartet, but it’s not death metal either.

There’s an old saying, and I’ll admit it’s a little cheesy, where the guy in the leisure suit says to his prospective date, “I think we could make beautiful music together.” If you could strip away the cheese factor, can you ask yourself this question? Are you making beautiful music? In your life? In your livelihood? In your relationships? If you’re not, are you aware of where it’s out of tune? How can you correct it?

So far I’ve been talking about tuning your personal instrument to look at the kind of output you’re creating. It’s also important to flip the metaphor and see yourself as the radio that tunes in to a universal station. As George Washington Carver put it, “I like to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.” Both broad- casting and receiving, can we tune up, tune in, turn on, and really sing?

This article first appeared in the Winter 2011 edition of the Natural Investing newsletter

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Christopher Peck

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