Mark Blasini


Be creative with the rules


When it comes to self-improvement advice, there are usually two contrasting approaches. The first approach is to give a "program" - the steps, the system, the prescription from an expert or guru. Follow this diet, this exercise routine, this personal finance system, this career book, etc.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that, however useful or helpful or insightful the approach is, the prescription doesn't seem to exactly fit the person's life, their unique situation. What the reader yearns for is something that applies uniquely to them.

The second approach is more affirming and freeing. What's given is not a prescription, backed by hundreds of successful case studies, but points of focus or reminders, usually expressed in the form of cliche sayings such as: "Follow your instincts," or "Be yourself" or "Choose life on your own terms" or "Be mindful" or "Enjoy the moment" or "The obstacle is the way."

The problem with this approach is that, however inspiring, it requires too much decision-making on the reader's part and not enough clarity. The reader isn't looking simply for inspiration or courage or affirmation - they are looking to shine some light into their situation so that a path forward, one that uniquely fits them, becomes clear.

Luckily, I believe there is a middle-ground solution these two approaches. It involves knowing the rules you should follow, but allowing yourself some freedom, some creativity, in how you follow or avoid violating these rules.

Take, for example, personal finance. Rather than follow strictly a prescription (e.g. Dave Ramsey's 7 Baby Steps) or adhering to basic wisdom ("Spend less than you earn," "Neither a lender nor debtor be," "Save for a rainy day"), give yourself some basic, but clear rules to follow, rules that you should avoid violating as much as possible.

In personal finance, there are three rules that I try to follow:

  1. Pay yourself first. This means that a set percentage of your income (15%-30%) should go to savings, safe investments, and/or insurance.
  2. Avoid borrowing to consume. By consume, I mean any activity that is non-productive (i.e. won't likely generate or help you generate income). Activities such as going to the movies, drinking, eating out, hobbies - these should not be financed through borrowing.
  3. Pay off consumer debt as quickly as possible. Though you want to avoid borrowing to consume as much as possible, sometimes emergencies (job loss, car breaks down, etc.) happen. Prioritize paying down this debt as much as you can (without sacrificing, of course, rule #1).

Although these rules are fairly clear, they can be adapted to fit your personal situation. For example, how you save when you are married and have children may be very different from how you save if you are single.

How you avoid borrowing to consume may require different techniques. If you like budgeting and tracking your money, for example, you may use a budgeting app. If you don't want to be as hands-on, you may want to make sure your bills and savings/investments are paid and allow yourself to spend the rest.

Paying off consumer debt also has flexibility. There is the avalanche approach, where you pay off high-interest loans first, or the snowball method, where you pay off loans with the lowest balance, or the cash flow index method, where you pay off the least efficient loans (a ratio of loan balance-to-minimum payment that is lower than 50) first. Choosing the right method depends on what's going to keep you motivated to keep paying it off.

This is a simple example, but hopefully it communicates the main point here: control comes from having clear options.

When you have clear options, when you can see the different possible paths or how you can create a unique path, you feel more in control of your life and more engaged with the whole process.

It is this engagement that gives you the freedom to construct your life more on your terms and live more authentically.

That is, after all, the whole point of it all.