Financial vs. Spiritual Independence: What's more important to you?

How often do you think or talk about Financial vs. Spiritual Independence? If so, what's important to you and people around you? Kirstin Dicecca inspired me to write this blog post, which is also a mini episode of the Feisworld Podcast.

I met her at Arnold and found out she speaks Mandarin and visited China when she was in school. Since then she left Arnold and now works at an active lifestyle apparel company called Crane and Lion based in Boston, MA.

Whenever she and I get together, we always find ourselves surrounded by delicious food. From there, good conversations, ideas naturally flourish. What is it like to be a woman in the 21st Century? How do career, womanhood, motherhood all fit together? How and when did we learn our own set of personal values?

Before we dive in, I want to clarify that "spiritual" here does not refer to religion, rather we are discussing the human spirit.

When I was five, my parents took me to visit an ice cream factory outside of Beijing.

It was a dream come true for a little girl like me. Since I was a baby, I had an obsession towards sweets like ice cream. Some say I still do today.

Watching the ice cream taster cut open a pint of ice cream and indulge in the flavor, I knew instantly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. "I want to work at an ice cream factory when I grow up!"

I had never seen my mom looking so disappointed at me. "Why would you do that?" She showed no sympathy whatsoever. "You are going to be a successful career woman, and you can buy yourself as much ice cream as you want, anytime you want."

I never forget that moment. My mom never talked to me like that before. I convinced myself that she had the best interests at heart. Ice cream taster career became a Plan B.

Growing up in Beijing in the 80s and 90s was an interesting time. The country was going through a tremendous amount of change. I remember seeing high rise buildings go up one after another. Tens of thousands of construction workers migrated to Beijing overnight. The city looked drastically different year after year. By the mid 90s, I stopped keeping track of places and things. Nothing looked familiar. Not just architecture, food, but also the way we interacted with one another.

We used to have a few brands for everything we needed in our lives. All of a sudden, we had too many choices. I was about 12 or 13, wearing school uniforms everyday just like everyone else. To embrace our individuality, all the teenagers went crazy for foreign shoe brands - Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Puma to name a few. Our feet became our status symbols.

As teenagers, we started talking about money on a regular basis, mostly through the products we owned and how much they cost. Because of the speedy yet unprepared shift in our lifestyle and values, I remember thinking and fearing that our beloved city will be too expensive to live in one day soon.

Most parents (by this, I mean nearly all my friends', classmates' parents) worked full time, nights and weekends, hours of commute each day. All of us were only children. Yet it still required both parents to work in order to continue the lifestyle we chose - a family car / pet / vacation / extravagant education (at the time, this meant a bilingual school with travel abroad opportunities. It is a lot more involved than that today.)

I had always wanted to study abroad

My mom became a celebrity artist in the 80s with her breakthrough collection called Dream of the Red Chamber (Wiki). It was the first and only collection that features all 400+ characters from the renowned novel, a masterpiece from Chinese history. As a result, mom traveled extensively in and outside of China when I was a child. Her work was sent to Taiwan, Korea, Spain, even the United States for shows. I was enviably exposed to people and things outside of China. European and American influences being the most memorable of all.

My English wasn't outstanding by International School standards, but I did quite well in the regular Chinese school system. I gained much confidence in believing that one day soon I will be back-packing my way through North America and attend schools as a full time student there.

"There's too much money involved." My dad raised his voice for the first time in a long time. "Fei will probably go to a decent college in China anyway. Maybe graduate school, we can talk then..."

"That's not what she wants to do. She's ready." My mom replied with confidence.

She knew why I chose such path. I was about to enter into the 12th grade in China. There was practically nothing new that will be taught in school, but only brutal 12-hour days filled with reviews of existing courses just to get ready for college. I had to choose between "now", or "at least five years from now", or likely never. While Tier-1 universities in the US have the acceptance rate of 5-10%, the top universities in China have the acceptance rate of 1/1000 (0.1%).

I was proud of my mom. It was the most difficult decision she had to make. I was only 16. Mom and I were best friends. I had always been there for her.

Hours after the family discussion, my mom and I showed up at Bank of China. She wasn't much of an accountant. She still hates managing money today.  But there she was, supporting me unconditionally and making my dream a reality.

Standing in the middle of the bank with hundreds of people passing by, I learned the importance of financial independence as a woman. My grandma and generations of women before her couldn't even imagine such possibility - making decisions independently without having to consult or rely on their husbands.

The image of me as a five-year old girl standing in the ice cream factory reappeared. I thought, maybe mom is right all along. Financial independence is what a woman needs in order to be strong and powerful.

A few months later just after my 17th birthday, I found myself on a Boeing 757 from Beijing to LA., a solid 12-hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean. By the time we landed, I would be over 7,000 miles away from home. But I was filled with excitement and determination. After all, it took me three tries to earn my U.S. student visa (a story for another time).

Life is about making choices. David S. Rose once said that:

Immigration is the ultimate entrepreneurship.

Immigrants are people who decided to leave a place they were familiar with and transition to the land of the unknown.

With $3,000 in my pocket and not knowing exactly when I'd be returning home, I needed to adjust my own expectations quickly and manage my finance wisely.  After spending $200 to purchase basic items for my dorm room at Fryeburg Academy, I put the rest in a savings account.  Meanwhile, Japanese students were purchasing high-end stereos for hundreds of dollars. European students invested on fashion, food and drugs. I was a bit of a social outcast.

Instead, I pursued hobbies much outside of my comfort zone. I joined the boys hockey team (I was the worst player they had ever seen, but I stuck around).  I also learned to play softball and hit the home base once or twice.  When my sport wasn't in season, I found myself practicing saxophone in the music hall.

This lifestyle was entirely new to me.

When in Beijing, my parents would fill my schedule with private lessons, people to meet in addition to the famously hectic and demanding school life in China. I was always so busy, with very little time to think and reflect. In Fryeburg, Maine, I had nothing but time.

I learned to cultivate a new sense of freedom and independence.

Without much money and parental supervision, I became more resourceful. I learned so many things, for free, all while speaking a new language, meeting new people and figuring things out constantly. I also failed plenty in school and in sports, often embarrassed myself in front of my teachers and peers (not an easy thing to do in high school).

Magically, I felt free and weightless.

In turn, people recognized me. They remembered me. Some of them even voted for me to be the prom queen.

So I wrote this blog post that I'd always wanted to write. There is something to be said about spiritual freedom - a moment when you become yourself more fully. I often look back on my experience as a 17-year old, defying many odds to break into new ground, by myself. Sometimes I fear that I won't have the capacity to do that again.

This type of fear often increases with age. Somehow we believe that we need to settle into a routine that appears stable and predictable. Max McKeown argued in his book "Adaptability" that:

"Stability is a dangerous illusion".

The question people often asked is: How do we adapt?

Answers are often long-winded. Some argue that financial independence needs to come first before anyone could adapt. But perhaps, spiritual independence is even more important.

Spiritual independence is a skill and leverage you can use to calm the chatter in your head and understand the difference between "This will never work" vs. "This didn't work".  It is also the vision and belief that where there is a will there is a way.

How to practice spiritual freedom without financial stability?

[Added on Tuesday, July 19th] I had lunch with one of my greatest mentors, Matt Lindley. He inspired me to think through the construct of financial vs. spiritual freedom a bit more.

Is it possible to exercise spiritual freedom without financial stability? 

The short answer is yes, but not without challenges.

When I attended high school in the US., I feared constantly that I would run out of money. Being 17 and living in a foreign country, financial instability is terrifying.  I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

Interestingly enough, even if you are financially stable, you can still "Practice Poverty and Reduce Fear" - an article by Tim Ferriss which I highly recommend. In which, he described the experience of living on rice and beans, a white T and $20 blue jeans for one week. Conclusion: "it wasn't so bad after all."

This message resonated with me. I'm at a point in my life when I question 70% of the stuff I own deemed to be unnecessary. We can all use some level of reduction, minimization in our lives.

An even better way to practice spiritual freedom is to travel abroad. An ideal country is where you can't speak your native language, is culturally different (to very different) from your own. You will quickly learn to maximize adaptability to survive in this new environment.

Have you found a way to cultivate spiritual independence? Please share your stories in the comments below.