This past spring 1,791,000 young Americans graduated from college, marking the end to their formal education and the commencement of their informal self-education. This process of self-education happens whether we engage in it deliberately or not. Upon establishing new lives as working individuals, we adopt habits, beliefs, values, and personality traits that crystallize by around the age of 30 and remain more or less stable for the remainder of our lives. Therefore it really matters what we do with those first 10 years.
I’m not sure how other young adults approach their personal development, but ever since graduating I’ve come to adopt an an approach to self-improvement that I call “foundational self-improvement.” Foundational self-improvement is a personal growth program premised on two ideas: we should be constantly growing, and some areas of growth are more important than others. The most important areas of growth are those that will have a lasting impact on the rest of our lives and thereby serve as a foundation for growth in other areas. It is in these areas that we should be investing most of our energy while we are still young.
Developing foundationally is not only a more principled way to grow but also a more efficient one. It improves every aspect of our existence by cultivating growth in the most basic and critical domains of life upon which all other abilities rest. Moreover foundational development allows us to shift our growth focus from one area to another without losing the benefits accrued, because growing foundationally involves establishing enduring assets such as habits that will remain with us indefinitely.
The most foundational area of growth is health.
Health is the single most important thing people can cultivate, because it precedes and enables the accomplishment of every endeavor. One must be alive to become successful or to make positive impact, martyrdom excluded. Ironically, although most people acknowledge the value of health, they fail to invest appropriate levels of effort into preserving it. But being healthy is easier than many suppose; it requires a small initial investment in learning about nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction, and it requires dedicating a few months to forming healthy habits, one at a time. A person might spend the first month on eating habits, the second month on exercise habits, and the third month on sleep habits. Once in place these habits will become second-nature, requiring little willpower to maintain them and allowing the person to focus on new projects while remaining healthy.
The second foundational area of improvement is self-awareness and self-regulation.
These two classes of mental faculties help a person to accomplish whatever they want. Self-awareness involves understanding one’s goals, desires, strengths, weaknesses, and emotional states. Self-regulation involves being able to manipulate one’s mental state and behavior in a way that allows one to remain happy, clear-headed, and effective. Together, these faculties allow us to calibrate our greatest asset—the mind—so that we set better goals and more consistently achieve those goals.
Just as good health requires forming habits of the body, self-awareness and self-regulation requires forming habits of mind. Two of the best habits of the mind are journaling and meditation.
Journaling about life events, emotions, and aspirations forces the writer to clarify his thoughts to a degree sufficient for coherent writing. This clarifying process allows a person to better understand himself through the lens of reason. Moreover writing down one’s thoughts creates mental space between a person and his chaotic mindset, enabling him to draw more insightful observations and generate more effective personal recommendations.
Meditation is the practice of attention and mindfulness with the goal of improving those two faculties. Meditation improves a person’s ability to observe and control one’s thoughts, emotional reactions, and engagement with the present. If you don’t meditate, I encourage you ask yourself how much agency you have over these three things: thoughts, emotions, and present engagement. Being attentive and mindful requires training, yet so few of us train. As a result we live subservient to our minds, that creature which is “ a wonderful servant but a terrible master.” Luckily, meditation can help us tame our minds to be the wonderful servants they were meant to be.
The third area of foundational self-improvement is personal finance.
People understandingly neglect personal finance, perhaps because it is boring or simply because spending money now is more fun. But financial competency is certain to benefit a person throughout life and well into retirement (especially with the current state of social security). Having your finances straight will let you take unforgettable vacations and spend guiltlessly, because you’ll know that you’re not overspending relative to your priorities. It will let you pay for a beautiful wedding, afford a house, and have children with less stress. Financial stability can give you the freedom to live the way you want to live. And if spent in the right ways, money can make you happy.
Learning to manage personal finances is best done by reading books—real books. I recommend that financial novices pick up two or three books on practical financial advice, such as “I Will Teach You To Be Rich” and “The Bogglehead’s Guide to Investing.” They will come to find that only a few key principles that guide smart financial behavior.
The most important principle is saving. People get rich more by saving than by earning a lot, so saving is critical. A good practice is to identify savings goals for big-ticket items like cars, weddings, and retirement; to prioritize those goals and calculate how much to save each year for those goals; and to set up automated bank transfers so that you save automatically. With this plan is in place, a person can spend the remainder of his income guiltlessly, knowing that the important things are taken care of.
Other principles of personal finance include appreciating the value of compounding returns, diversifying one’s portfolio, leveraging tax-advantaged accounts like IRAs and 401ks, and understanding one’s personal risk tolerance and investing accordingly. A preference that I’ve come to adopt is that of simplicity: I’m willing to take good but sub-optimal returns in order to simplify my finances, because that reduces stress and makes me happier. A solid grounding in personal finance gives someone the ability to make smart tradeoffs between risk, return, and simplicity. And this grounding can be attained by sitting on your ass reading!
Health, mind, and money are especially foundational because they are mutually-reinforcing. Improving one’s health confers benefits upon one’s mental clarity and financial willpower; similarly improving one’s financial situation permits more time and money to be spent on improving one’s health and mind. Thus improving along these dimensions constitutes a smart investment in oneself because the benefits accrue in areas that are themselves foundational, compounding the expected return.
Although I’ve only mentioned three, there are several other areas of improvement that might be considered foundational, such as spirituality, service to family, generosity, meta-learning, and friendship. Regardless, it is up to each person to decide whether to engage in foundational self-improvement, and if so, what that program will look like. Foundational self-improvement involves making deliberate choices about what is important and why, and then investing one’s resources accordingly. It is the act of building one’s life from the ground up, creating a durable and effective infrastructure that will support and enhance all future endeavors.