I went to public school (the only school, really), in a lower-middle income small town. I didn’t join many extracurricular activities or attend any private lessons. I traveled by airplane only twice between birth and age 20. My parents didn’t buy me a car or act as my personal chauffeur and I paid for most of my own University education by banking the proceeds of minimum wage jobs starting at age fifteen. And I would never expect anyone to pay for my wedding or leave me an inheritance.
But despite this painful shortage of luxury and privilege, I always felt very well off. And now I have somehow ended up with a life that sits at the very pinnacle of good fortune. Swimming in an incredible surplus of wealth, happiness, energy, ideas, and a support network of other fortunate people.
As much as I’d like to chalk this up to some superior combination of personal moral character, amazing intelligence and Badassity, the truth is that much of it comes from a gift that my parents gave me as a child: an absolutely Elite education.
How Important is a Fancy Education?
A recent round of complaints in the East Coast media has been making the rounds recently, sparked off by an article in the Atlantic called “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans“. In that lengthy tale, the notable and succesful author Neal Gabler reveals that he is actually broke, and has been for decades. He admits that his fate is self-imposed: he just spends money without thinking about the long-term implications.
But he also reveals a very common bias in US society: that spending an absolute shitload of money on your children is a necessary and advantageous thing to do. You could sum up our generous but financially suicidal belief system in this quote from his story:
A later article in the Atlantic called “The Circles of American Financial Hell” suffered from much the same bias: the story reviews the common sob story that the US Middle Class can’t get ahead. And its thesis is that the problem is not really our spending on personal luxuries, it’s our valiant attempt to sacrifice everything for our children:
Although I feel both of these authors are out to lunch financially, I have to agree with them that a top-shelf education is incredibly valuable. But not the type of education that comes with a $200,000 tuition bill. The best part of my education cost almost nothing to acquire, and yet it seems to have delivered a much greater benefit than any Ivy League curriculum. Are you ready to learn my secret weapon? Brace yourself.
Simply Knowing how to Use a Goddamned Computer.
To the average person, this would sound like a bizarre claim. Almost every rich-country resident uses computers in some form, and yet most of them are still broke. What they’re missing is that actual deep knowledge of computers and technology is still incredibly rare. And although it can take many years to develop, it costs almost nothing to do so.
This missing tool is so powerful and yet so overlooked that I consider it a loophole in society. A ticket to a more prosperous life that most people don’t understand, because they have never experienced the effects. Let’s resume the story of my own cheap elite education to see some of them.
My Secret Advantage through Technology
Almost every one of the few million dollars I’ve earned in my life so far has been directly related to being unusually good with computers.
Sure, there were a few bucks around the side earned by operating gas pumps and cash registers as a teenager, and table saws and nailguns after retirement. But the rest of it comes from being able to take these machines and make them do valuable things.
If you have any rare skill, you can then easily create value that companies and individuals are willing to pay for. But if you have the rare skill of technology, you can also apply it to your own life, creating an automated money and happiness machine.
As a student, more comfort with computers allowed me to get better marks in less time and organize my life’s information. I could use the early versions of the Internet (which used to be difficult to use) to harvest ideas from Stanford students and professors while more traditional students were stuck with textbooks. Then the advantage helped me get better, more technical jobs and present information more clearly to the bosses, which led to even better jobs. From that vantage point I could research career opportunities in other countries and figure out how to do an international move. Using computers to get things done, and getting paid to write software for them, was an incredibly lucrative career path back then, and it’s even better today.
Even after retiring from the tech industry, computers help me automate my finances and purchasing, so I can keep more money at work with less wasted time and fewer expensive mistakes. They let me create better photographs and descriptions on Craigslist and real estate websites, which let me sell or rent things for more money, and buy them for less. Even this Mr. Money Mustache website, which makes money even as it persuades you to waste less money, is only possible at this scale with relatively complicated computer fiddling.
The Business World is Still Mostly Clueless
Earlier this month, I was booking a concrete truck so I could pour the foundation for my new garage. I did some online research to figure out which companies operate in my area, but I found that every one of their websites was just an online version of a Yellow Pages ad. There was no way to place an order and their contact page was a list of telephone numbers. Telephones!
So I called one of the bigger outfits. A guy named Joe answered.
Me: “Hi, I need to order 15 cubic yards of concrete for next Wednesday”
Joe: “Look, if ya need to order concrete for Wednesdee, ya call me on Tuesdee after 12 noon. Until 12, I’m workin’ deliveries for that same mornin'”
So I called back the following Tuesday. I thought I’d be an early bird and call at 11:45 just to make sure I got my order in.
Joe: “Naw, naw. If ya need concrete for tomorra’, ya call me back after twelve ‘a’ clock this afternoon!”
Concrete is not a niche cottage industry like homemade salsa – this is a $35 billion chunk of the economy that is critical to building almost everything. A single loaded truck carries $1500 of the stuff, and there are 50,000 of these trucks in circulation in the US. And yet not only have they not discovered computers, even the concept of a notebook with two separate pages (“today’s orders” and “tomorrow’s orders”) was foreign to this outfit.
This story is just an extreme example of a market opportunity that is still fresh and ripe in our society as a whole. We have computers, but a deeper understanding of how technology works is still rare. Almost every big company that I’ve observed is still clunking along, trying to adapt to technology rather than fully benefiting from it. Think about the concept of a car dealership network, for example. Millions or billions of dollars of land and inventory in every single city, devoted to.. letting people see cars they could easily buy online and have delivered?
On an individual level, if your phone starts acting funny after you return from a long vacation, do you call Apple support for help, or do you look at the at the device’s internal storage to see if you need to delete some stuff to free up space? Is it wiser to transfer music files over WiFi or Bluetooth? If your computer starts crashing right after you get a sprinkler system installed, do you start shopping for a new one, or go outside to verify that the ground cable from your power panel wasn’t accidentally disconnected? Mustachians probably know things like this, but what about the average person?
Everybody uses technology. But those of us who truly understand it down to the core have an immense advantage in all areas of life: making money, keeping that money, absorbing information, and even communicating ideas with other people. Whether you are an investor or a filmmaker, house builder, engineer, or attorney, mastery of this rare skill will multiply your efforts more than a technophobe can even understand.
When you apply this idea to a large group of people working together, you end up with companies that very easily vacuum up all of the business in their industry (Google, Amazon), while their less technically savvy competitors wither in a puddle of fax machines and expense accounts of traveling salespeople.
Computers aren’t just for nerdy introverts any more – they can be a ticket to wealth, success, even friendships and romance. In other words, the core of a truly elite education is becoming an absolute badass with computers.
Bringing this around to our middle class Expensive Wannabee Elite educational expenses, I believe that deep technical badassity is an even more useful part of an education than an expensive degree.
How To Become a Computer Badass
You don’t learn technology by taking courses or reading instruction manuals. You need to be immersed in the stuff. Using it constantly, and understanding not only how to use things, but how they were designed and what the person who designed it was probably thinking about as they came up with each aspect of the product. Only if you understand the designer, can you truly understand the technology they invent.
For example, if you’re a computer badass and you get a new gadget or program or an app, the first thing you do is to try every single option on every single menu and submenu, and find out what it does. You don’t just dive in and start playing a new video game – first you have to check the graphics options and make sure you’ve set the resolution and texture levels to the very best that your video card will handle smoothly. Then you poke around on discussion boards and fan websites to see what the “modding” community is up to, and make some modifications yourself.
You don’t want an analog speedometer on your car, you want a spreadsheet showing every parameter that the engine computer is measuring, updated at least a few times per second, with complete graphable history since the car’s date of manufacture. To a technology badass, understanding how things actually work brings joy, power, and peace.
To provide an elite education for our kids, I suggest that we spend less time thinking about prestigious neighborhood and school districts, and more time giving kids access to complicated stuff early, and often. Then bringing these lessons, in the form of suggestions, presentations, donations and volunteer time, to your own school district.
My gift came in 1984, in the form of a Commodore 64 system my parents stretched the budget to bring home. My siblings and I worked that thing until its keyboard was blank and polished, and it kicked off a life of deep comfort with technology. I was given the freedom to spend hours connecting with these machines, and by extension the people who invented them.
Then in 1990 I found a Commodore Amiga for sale on a BBS newsgroup, a nerdy precursor to Craigslist that only technical people knew how to use. I traded $800 of my earnings from working at the gas station, for what would eventually be another six-figure quantity of computer experience.
Throughout high school, in addition to the normal curriculum of calculus and physics, pool parties and girlfriends, beer and marijuana, I also had countless late nights with my Amiga, which were getting me ahead in life far more than I could realize.
So in my house, I’m hoping to try the same trick.
- No broadcast TV service, but very fast Internet access and a computer (and phone) you maintain yourself
- Minimal access to cars, but always a very nice bike kept in perfect repair
- Limited access to tourist attractions and gift shops, maximum access to Nature
- Support but do not mandate sports teams or formal lessons. But keep sports and musical equipment handy around the house.
- Less scheduling, more opportunity for self-guided activities. Boredom can be the trigger for creativity.
- Whenever possible, say yes to friends, sleepovers and late bedtimes.
Cost: Less than most families seeking elite status spend on their house cleaning service.
After a childhood education like that, college is more of an afterthought. Living a Mustachian lifestyle while raising kids will ensure that you would have plenty of money to pay for any education they want. But then again, so will your kids, so why not give them the advantage of paying for it themselves?
But they’ll also already have access to an unlimited supply of people, money, ideas and knowledge. Visiting a campus to take some classes in person is just one of the many options available at that point, rather than the desperate lottery ticket to the good life, as portrayed in the Atlantic.
Further Reading – a great Susan Cain book called Quiet recently made the rounds in our family. It’s about why introverts are great, and how to support their joyful and creative lives (especially if you are raising one, or are one yourself).