I often see the quote “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle,” encouraging people to have perspective when comparing where they are on their own journey to those aspirational figures ahead of them.
It’s a reminder to us that we can improve, and over time we can achieve as much as or more than those whom we see today as being at the next level or where we want to be. And that’s good advice. You won’t get better if you start off too discouraged to even try.
I’ve been thinking about that quote lately, and I wonder: Why do we never see it reversed?
Shouldn’t the same maxim that offers perspective and inspiration for those coming up also serve as a reminder to those who have already reached the summit that it wasn’t long ago that they were climbing themselves? Shouldn’t the same quote remind us as we achieve new heights that those below are looking to us for guidance and that our response should be to reach out and offer a hand?
Don’t compare your middle to someone else’s beginning.
It’s been several years since I had my financial epiphany. I realized there was a whole world out there I knew very little about and that needed to change. I started learning, reading what I could understand and relate to first, then moving on to new topics as they made more sense or became more relevant to my situation. As my knowledge grew, my eyes were opened. I couldn’t believe how foolish I had been.
I started cutting expenses, keeping lifestyle inflation in check, investing wisely, eradicating debt, and tracking my money in ways I never thought to do before.
I have learned so much in that time, and yet then I listen to Todd Tressider on the Choose FI podcast and know that on the spectrum of knowledge I’ve moved but a few feet on a miles-long course. But then I talk to friends, co-workers, or strangers at a party and I’m amazed at how little they know or understand compared with what I now know.
It’s as though I’m a fourth-grader looking at the first-graders and wondering why they don’t know how to do basic multiplication.
And I have to remind myself that I was in their shoes not long ago. I didn’t understand the basics of investing, when to choose a Roth vs. a traditional IRA, how you could reduce taxes with a little planning, or that retirement is a function of savings rate and positive cashflow rather than age. The me of today having a conversation with the me of the past would be amazed at how clueless I was.
I remember that in 2010 someone suggested I increase the amount I was investing in my 401(k). I had just turned 30, and there was definitely room to improve my savings. The words that came out of my mouth: “I don’t know, the market isn’t doing too well right now.” (I feel stupid even typing those words.)
Knowing what I know now, that was the exact time I should have been putting in more money. But I didn’t understand it at the time, and that lack of understanding made me afraid. Just like many of the people I talk with now don’t understand it and are afraid to make a mistake.
It would be easy for me to dismiss them, to marvel at their naivety and shake my head at how terrible their financial future is going to be.
But it does no one any good for me to compare my middle to their beginning.
They may not have had their financial epiphany yet. Maybe they never truly will, or maybe that conversation we are having that very moment is the spark that sets their world ablaze.
The right thing for me to do is to put out my hand, to remember what it was like to be in that position, and to try to be the inspiration that pulls them up the mountain. All the while, I must look ahead, searching for the next path to follow on my own journey. With any luck, there will be another hand outstretched.