Would You Trade Places with Warren Buffett?

The relationship between time, health, and money

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Let’s start with a hypothetical question. Would you trade places with Warren Buffett, today? Would you rather have $0 and be 20 years old, or have $100 billion and be 90?

Most people respond to this hypothetical with a resounding “Of course not, there’s no amount of money I would take to fast-forward to being 90 years old.”

The fact that people respond in this way means intuitively that there’s something about the utility of money – that it’s not as valuable later in life.

The Relationship between Time, Money, and Health

Life is a game of resource allocation – whether it be time, money, energy, or health. Once we account for the basic necessities required for survival (food, shelter, water, etc.) we’re left with an infinite amount of choices.

These choices enable us to collect resources (working for money, sleeping for energy, working out for health), but no matter how hard we try, we can’t create more time. We each have one life – one set period of time to experience all of the beautiful things this world has to offer. And that’s great! It’s actually liberating to know that at some point there will be an end, and it gives us all the more urgency to live each day to the fullest.

So why don’t we think about things in terms of time, rather than dollars? Well, time alone doesn't do much for us if we don't put it to good use. We want experiences.

For the sake of this article, we're going to create a metric to quantify a life well-lived, which we'll call experience points (XP). Returning to the analogy of life being a game, our goal is to rack up as many experience points as possible.

But the way things currently work, we have some obstacles to overcome...

Getting Off “Autopilot”

The way our education & economic systems are set up, we learn to go on “autopilot” and be heads down, saving as much money as possible, so that we can retire as early as possible. It’s the way most modern capitalist systems function – we’re taught to trade our time for this thing called money, which we can then exchange for various other resources once we accumulate more.

There’s a popular movement called F.I.R.E. (Financial Independence, Retire Early), where followers are devoted to living as frugally as possible so that they can retire as early as possible. While I agree with a lot of the merits of F.I.R.E. (namely the F.I. part), I disagree with the R.E. part. Retiring 10 years early at the expense of a considerable portion of one of the most valuable periods of life (your 20s/30s) seems absurd.

For one, what is 10 years in the grand scheme of your life? On the back end, the last 10 years are almost negligible (besides, you don’t know if you’re going to live to 90 or 100 anyways). But on the front end, they’re considerably more valuable.

Secondly, work can (and should) be a large part of what drives fulfillment. Progress with whatever we're pursuing (whether we call it work or not) is one of the key drivers of happiness, so we shouldn't discount the value of work and its impact on our overall well-being.

Would you give up 10 years on the tail end of your life if it meant that you would have a more fulfilling 20s/30s? I think most of us would take that rather than the opposite — optimizing solely for wealth early-on to get an extra 10 years of retirement at the end.

The utility of money changes across different phases of one’s life.

In Die with Zero, Bill Perkins’ describes his experience stuck on the autopilot of trying to be "successful” while he was heads-down, in a hurry to get rich through his trading job. About a year into his career, Bill’s friend and coworker, Jason, quit his job for a year to backpack in Europe.

 “He went, I stayed… we had essentially the same job – I moved up a little, but it wasn’t a noticeable difference. He came back richer. He came back with stories and experiences, and romance and lifelong friends… and I really regretted not joining him. When it finally came time that I wanted to go to Europe and have this “backpacking experience”, I was too bougie. I had money, I wasn’t gonna go stay at hostels… I was going to have an experience, but it was a different experience. The type of experience that he had was for that time in your life. And the type I experienced, even though it was wonderful, it was not as rich as his experience, because the time had passed me by, and it’s one of my big regrets.” 

Despite Bill having more money, the time had passed him by to have the experiences fit for a different phase in his life. Said differently, he over-optimized for money and under-optimized for time at a phase where money couldn't buy XP, leading to regret.

What Will We Regret?

If you ask any older person (try your grandparents, neighbors, etc.) what they regret most in life, their answers will almost definitely not be something they did, but rather something they didn’t do.

In The Top Five Regrets of Dying, the most common regrets shared by people nearing death were:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected.” → forge your own path, something they didn’t do

  2. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” → relax more, something they didn’t do

  3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” → express their feelings, something they didn’t do

  4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” → stay in touch with friends, something they didn’t do

  5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” → take it easier on themselves, something they didn’t do

While these top regrets are quite broad, a common theme is that nearly all of them could have been accomplished without money.

We should be aware that building wealth is one of the primary inputs to a good life – money unlocks access to a lot of experiences that would otherwise not be possible. However, most experiences are best had (or in some cases, only possible) at certain phases of life.

Instead, we should solve for experience points, rather than just money, as the output in the net fulfillment equation.

Accumulate Experience Points

Certain experiences that require peak physical health might only be possible in the 20s and 30s phase. For example, say you want to run your fastest marathon, or you’re like these two friends, Phil and Carter, and you want to journey from Beijing to Barcelona by bike. Sure, no one needs to do these things, but they’re experiences that would be incredibly enriching and novel.

And sometimes, physical health isn’t the constraint. If you have children, they will only live with you for 18 years of their lives, and before you know it, they’re gone. Any experiences you want to have with your kids, you have a limited time window to do those things. So, it makes sense that at this phase (the roughly 20 year period where you have children at home), most people would find the greatest fulfillment by optimizing for time spent with their kids — earning those experience points while that window exists.

A bonus of having richer experiences earlier in life is that you not only get experience points, but these early experiences pay “memory dividends” in the value of the stories they create — stories that can be retold time and time again.

Experiences yield dividends because we humans have memory. We don’t start every day with a blank brain… We wake up every morning preloaded with a bunch of memories that we can access at any time.

When you add in this concept of a memory dividend to the net fulfillment equation, something becomes clear: it pays to invest in experiences early.

Compounding works not only with money, but also with experiences.

Solving for Net Fulfillment, Rather than Net Worth

So we’ve established that optimizing solely for wealth will likely leave you with a lot of money to spend on experiences later in life; but if you wait until then, the time and health required for many of the things you want to do will have passed.

Once a life phase passes, we can’t get it back. So when we talk about maximizing fulfillment, we have to think about all of the experiences we want, and at which phases those experiences will be best suited.

The typical lifecycle of one’s net worth looks something like this.

Traditional net worth over time

The problem with this model is that, in most cases, our net worth ends up peaking at a time where the utility of that money is less valuable to us. We traded our time and health of our earlier years in exchange for money in later years.

If we're less focused on accumulating money, while also racking up early experience points, a more optimal net worth curve would probably look something like this:

A more optimal net worth curve

To visualize how health plays a role over time, let’s flip this idea on its head and overlay health on this hypothetical chart, as well.

Net worth and health over time, traditionally

The green arrow ("Regret Gap") between wealth and health represents an inability to enjoy certain experiences, even if we can afford them.

It stands to reason, then, that we should try to push out our health curve to the right (by taking better physical, mental & emotional care of ourselves early-on), while also adjusting our net worth curve like we mentioned before, to minimize the Regret Gap. Something more like this:

Net worth and health over time, improved version

In this new example, sure our wealth builds more slowly (because we exchanged the opportunity to earn more money early for additional free time and better health), but a lot of the things we want to do early-on in life require health and time, not money. The things that require money and time (more so than health) should be saved for the later years.

Since we need all three to earn experience points, trading health and time for money actually means we end up with a larger Regret Gap — more things we can afford to experience but can't because we don't have the time and/or health required to do so.

There’s an inflection point where net worth should start declining.

If you’re doing it right, you wouldn’t want to leave anything on the table when it’s all over, right? This concept is what Bill Perkins means when he says “Die with Zero” – and while he goes deeper on what the “most effective” uses of that money might be, that’s a conversation for another day.

You want to use all of your resources to maximize your experience points. Those experiences are what make you you.

Making It Uniquely Our Own

The frameworks we described are just thought starters. Everyone is different – we all have different starting circumstances, live in different places, and value experiences differently.

However, what’s clear to me is the preciousness of time and health, in addition to money, and that we need all three to have meaningful experiences, so we need to be careful of not sacrificing too much of one for the others. Compounding works not just for money, but also for experiences.

And remember — we can earn experience points and resources simultaneously! If you love the work you do, you're making money and racking up XP. Running a race with some friends? You'll have a blast and be improving your health.

We were all put on this earth to do more than just accumulate money. Money is a crucial component of maximizing fulfillment, but we should be aware of the tradeoffs and reflect on what we truly want to do with it.

Experiences make us rich.


This post was inspired by Peter Attia's interview with Bill Perkins, author of "Die with Zero"

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