Contracts, paperwork, and bureaucracy. Guarantees, warranties, and excessive caution in an attempt to ensure a trouble-free future. Not all of it is bullshit, but the older I get, the more I realize that a surprising portion of it is.
I mean sure, if I’m Tesla and you are Panasonic, and we’re partnering to build the world’s largest structure and produce the majority of the world’s energy storage products, and we each have thousands of employees involved in the process, we can write up a contract and sign it.
But if I invite you over to my house for one of our customary Sunset Beers in the Park events tonight, how appropriate would it be for me to send along a little PDF contract with five places for you to sign?
You’d think I was crazy, and find another place to have your beer tonight.
We understand this at the social level, and even at the small business level, if we feel a high level of trust. But as soon as we lose our trust and get overly fearful, we start breaking out the lawyers and the contracts and the stifling formality.
It is at this point, I argue, that life starts to suck.
It’s also the point at which a company starts to suck – that moment when it loses its soul and its freewheeling joy, and starts pushing for profits above ethics, and the lower level employees are not empowered to do what they know is right because their boss would have to ask the next level boss and the request would die before it reached someone with enough authority.
This is also the point at which I try to avoid doing business with a company if at all practical, and find a smaller one who could use a new customer.
And therefore I think we can make our lives better if we raise that threshold of fear a little bit, and start running our businesses and our lives as if we were big boys and girls.
Here’s another story which illustrates this point:
On the “contact” section of this website, I have a little note that says people should not email me with requests for marketing partnerships, TV shows, book publishing, etc. Through experience I learned that those activities not nearly as fun as they sound.
But one guy snuck through the gates – “Hey man, I work for a big company but don’t worry, I’m cool – I just have some ideas for a TV show about Mustachian lifestyles and wondered if you want to talk about them.”
So we talked on the phone, and he was indeed cool. It was a nice concept and a respectable company and they had done other successful stuff. So I said I might help out with the project occasionally, as time permitted.
Suddenly, a completely unrelated person from their legal department started emailing me contracts and agreements and such – pages of them! The contracts contained obligations, promises, and bullshit galore.
And here I was just naively thinking I’d have a beer with this creative writer and laugh about some ideas for a TV show. We had already agreed on the phone, that if the project ever ceased to be completely fun – for either of us – then we’d just drop it. Retirement is is too short to engage in non-fun projects, because there is already an enormous queue of extremely fun projects that I haven’t even had time to start yet!
So I told the lawyers thanks, but I wasn’t interested in contracts. But I’d still be happy to help out just as I had originally offered.
And I never heard from anyone at the company, or the creative guy, ever again.
I felt like I had been stood up – the whole thing had been a small waste of time. But I was grateful that I hadn’t actually dug in on a big project with an organization that works this way – for that would have been a much bigger waste of time.
Let’s contrast this with a a few other business arrangements.
I have fixed up plenty of houses with local friends, with many thousands of dollars at stake. Sometimes even lives or limbs, as we scrambled around like monkeys to cut down tall dead trees. No contracts, just plenty of dirt, scrapes, laughs and good times – and profits, too.
I’ve done several interviews and trips with Jesse Mecham, founder of You Need a Budget. Significant value accrued to both of our businesses from these collaborations as thousands of YNAB customers became Mustachians and vice versa, and yet somehow it never occurred to us to make up a contract.
Next month I’m traveling to Portland – first to visit Treehouse founder Ryan Carson and do some social stuff that might also have promotional value for his business. Maybe record a video and a podcast, and even host a gathering of Mustachians right in the courtyard of their central Portland building. With beer!
No contracts, of course.
Then on to Seattle to attend Camp Mustache – something that is now a popular recurring event. Although there are tens of thousands of dollars involved in putting it on, it’s an informal not-for-profit arrangement and the organizers and I have never signed a contract.
But What if the Other Person Breaks their Promise and I Get Screwed?
You may think I’m painting an unrealistically rosy picture here. Not everything always turns out for the better, right? Business partners sometimes turn evil, tenants stop paying rent, girlfriends or boyfriends dump you, products break, stock markets crash, bones break, and fatal diseases strike your loved ones.
I agree – life has been known to serve up the odd Platter of Shit from time to time. Every one of those things above has happened to me. And yet in zero of the cases could I have protected myself with a contract or warranty and come out ahead.
I’ve been to court a few times. In some cases, I was the landlord and the tenant wasn’t paying rent even though we had a contract. The judge ordered the tenant to pay. The tenant, who had long since left town, didn’t even know there had been a court case. And yet life went on, and the inconvenience was soon forgotten.
I retired early, invested too much in a house building business, then lost a bunch of money in the ensuing great financial and housing crisis. No contract could have protected me from these market realities, and yet somehow I survived again and life continued to get even better.
I’ve had products malfunction while under warranty, and in most cases the warranty department was so clumsy and incompetent (ahem, Samsung, Nissan) that I just gave up and fixed the product myself.
The point is that in almost all life decisions, the stakes are actually very low. Here in the rich world, the majority of our catastrophes have the following consequences:
- You might feel “inconvenienced” and experience a frowning face for a short period of time.
- Some numbers stored in a computer, which represent your wealth, might temporarily decrease.
- You might have to move your body around – and possibly even experience mild heat, cold, or muscular exertion.
- You might have to speak some words into a telephone or press some buttons on a computer keyboard to resolve a problem.
- In more extreme situations, you might even have to speak to one or more humans in person.
Are these consequences really worth worrying about – or potentially even missing out on the chance to do something great?
What does This Have to do with Early Retirement?
Every week, I get at least a few emails from people who have more than put in their time. People in their late 30s and beyond who have worked multi-decade careers, paid off the house, given their kids a good start in life, stashed seven figures into retirement accounts, and long since grown bored of the big-company life.
But they are still working one more year, to add that last bit of safety margin padding, fill up that last college fund for the last kid, max out that health savings account just in case. Some of them have more savings than my family has even now, even though we’ve been retired (and continuing to accumulate wealth) for more than ten years.
And they’re still afraid to retire.
You Become Free Only when you Acknowledge That You Cannot Control Life
You can’t control the random bits of misfortune which may strike you. You can only control your responses.
If you are following the Principles of Mustachianism, you’ve already taken all the preventative work that you need to take: optimizing your habits to maintain a healthy body, mind, and bank account.
These are not a formal insurance policy, because formal insurance is nonsense.
They are a statistical prevention policy, a way of tilting the odds in our favor. And even more important, a response policy – a recipe that ensures that even when shit does hit the fan, you can clean it up, resume your prosperous life, and learn something in the process.
The lesson? Instead of working endlessly to build a glass shield around yourself, start enjoying life right now and just keep a mop handy.
Further Reading: In his joyful short book “Anything you Want” on founding a really successful business, Derek Sivers argues the same thing about contracts – just skip them if you can possibly do so, because people will either keep their word, or they won’t. If you bring it to court, everybody loses, and all a contract does is give you something to show in court.