I am not the sort of person who follows the textbook approach to financial planning--which is to set ambitious but achievable goals and then regularly track my progress and make the necessary adjustments until I get there.

But over a decade ago, I became financially independent without any planning. In looking back, I can see that there were three reasons this happened:

  • Low appetite for material goods. My material wants included a decent house, a safe car, and an excellent education for my children. Of the three, the one that required the most money was the education. But I increased my odds of achieving financial independence by having what seemed to me a modest monthly cash burn rate.
  • Discovering the right work situation. Regardless of your financial goals, if you are earning $1 million a month, you will get there faster than if you take in $1,000 per month. There are hedge fund managers who pull in that much or more, but only a tiny number of people have what it takes to do that job well. I was not one of them, and I took a long time to discover that starting a consulting and venture capital firm would be the best use of my limited skills.
  • Lucky investments. I happened to invest in technology startups at a very good time. Three of the companies I helped fund were acquired for more than $2 billion before the 1990s dot-com bubble burst--three other ones went out of business. But the risks that I took paid off enough to help me achieve financial independence--given my low appetite for material goods.

I think there are some practical takeaways from my experience that you can follow this month.

  • Decide on what you value the most. I vaguely remember after graduating from school that I aspired to own homes in Manhattan, Greenwich, Connecticut, Aspen, Colorado, and Palm Beach, Florida. It didn't take too long for me to realize that my particular mix of strengths and weaknesses would make that vision unachievable. I quickly arrived at more modest goals--and achieving them turned out to remove a feeling of financial stress.
  • Determine how best to spend your time. Years before I achieved financial independence, I figured out how I wanted to spend my time and just did it. If you can find work that you love doing, that you do better than most everyone else, and that has a sufficiently high value to other people, you have found the right way to spend your time. Each person has to figure that out individually.
  • Keep learning. As long as you're alive, you need to keep moving forward. If you achieve a financial goal, you might set a new one. Or you might change how you are spending your time in response to your interests and the opportunities that you can create. Over the past few years, I have been spending more of my time teaching and writing, and it feels like the right thing to do.

Your assignment for this month is to take a look at yourself and answer three questions realistically:

  • Are your financial goals tied directly to what you value most?
  • Are you making the most of your unique bundle of skills?
  • Are you learning, developing, and happy?

If you answer no to those three questions, you ought to feel compelled to get to yes on each. And the sooner you get there, the better your life will be.