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drawing of reference points

❝The lucky never realize they are lucky until it's too late... People are never happy with what they have. They always want what they had, or what someone else has.❞ -"The Rabbi" in Lucky Number Slevin

I'm at the gym working out on a cold, 25-degree fall day. Unfortunately, the fans aren't working in the gym, so it's incredibly hot and humid inside. I step outside to cool off.

I step outside and can't believe how nice it is! It's so nice and cool!

I'm savoring the cool temps when a friend walks toward the door to start working out. He comments that it's so cold outside.

Wait...what? It's not cold; it's nice!

How could this be? It's the same temperature outside, and yet two of us relate to it very differently.

It turns out, what we use as our reference points matter...a lot!


Do you make a lot of money? Do you have a lot of money? Are you wealthy?

It's tough to make that call in a vacuum. Compared to what, exactly?

But, it using money or wealth as a metric the right thing to even do?

drawing of wealth reference point

Maybe time is a better metric. How much free time do you have? We run into the same problems. First, free time compared to whom? Or to what?

Second, why should time be the appropriate metric?

drawing of time reference point

Maybe money or time is the best metric. Maybe it's how many close friends you have or how active your social life is.

Sadly, we still don't know how our social life is without knowing who we're comparing to.

drawing of friends reference point


It's a good question; who do we compare ourselves to? What reference point is the most useful?

One way, and arguably one of the best ways, is to compare ourselves to who we used to be.

drawing of comparing to your past self

If we want to feel a deep sense of awe and gratitude, we might try comparing ourselves to our ancestors - even a couple of generations ago. If they could somehow transport into our lives today, they'd think we were living a dream life.

drawing of comparing to your ancestors

Sometimes we can get off track when, instead of comparing ourselves to other versions of ourselves, our potential, or our past relatives, we compare ourselves to other people with different values, visions, and circumstances. This is, of course, made worse by social media.

drawing of social media comparisons

Your position in life, no matter how you measure it, isn't inherently good or bad.

drawing of your position in life

How we choose to interpret our situations matter. Choosing to focus on what you don't have or what someone else has that you don't, you're more likely to be dissatisfied.

drawing of comparing to someone ahead of you

Zooming out allows you to focus on all the things you do have and all the areas in which things are going your way.

What you focus on impacts how you feel.

drawing of comparing to the rest of the world

A grateful person exhibits certain traits. Rather than feeling deprived in life, a grateful person experiences a sense of abundance. A grateful person acknowledges the contributions of others to his/her success and well-being, appreciates life's simple pleasures, and acknowledges the importance of experiencing and expressing gratitude.


You were born. Welcome to Earth.

Now that you were lucky enough to have a life, you get to experience that life. Now that you are here, you will experience the human condition.

drawing of the human condition

Life will have challenging times, setbacks, obstacles, and problems. That's the definition of what life is. That should be baked into our expectations.

It's easy to let ourselves daydream about a life with no problems. We might set goals and resolutions to finally get to a point where we can finally live our lives without any struggles.

Except that time will never come. Expecting a life without problems is a source of misery.

drawing of problems are guaranteed

Using a fictional version of life where nothing bad ever happens as the metric by which you measure your life will lead to a life of meaningless disappointment.

drawing of comparing to a life with no problems

Instead, be realistic. There will be problems and challenges, and you can solve them. Compare yourself to yourself, not someone else's version of who you should be.

Compare your life to your realistic vision for the future. That can be motivating. Of course, your vision can change over time as you get new information and new things happen, but by using this as your North Star and helps you be more adaptive to whatever life throws your way.

drawing of comparing your life to your vision

Reference points matter. Compare yourself to who you want to be, not some fictional life that can never happen. Do so, and you'll find motivation.

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Adams, Scott: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big Ariely, Dan & Jeff Kreisler: Dollars and Sense

Becker, Joshua: Things That Matter Burkeman, Oliver: Four Thousand Weeks Burkeman, Oliver: The Antidote

Burkeman, Oliver: Time Management for Mortals Course in Waking Up (subscription required) Emmons, Robert: THANKS! Gilbert, Daniel: Stumbling on Happiness Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis Hanh, Thich Nhat: No Mud, No Lotus Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness

Housel, Morgan: The Psychology of Money Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge

Irvine, William: The Stoic Path Course in Waking Up (subscription required) Kabat-Zinn, Jon: Wherever You Go, There You Are Kahneman: Daniel: Thinking Fast and Slow Manson, Mark: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

Wallace, David Foster: This is Water



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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