Monday, February 22, 2010

Return on Investment

Just a few days ago, I wrote about the concept of transience, or temporal scarcity, and how it creates value in our lives. Since that post, I've been thinking a lot about how principles and concepts of economics have relevance not only in financial affairs, but in my emotional and spiritual life as well. There's a part of me -- the idealist -- that doesn't want to admit that our motivations and desires can be broken down into something that can be easily explained in a few paragraphs of a freshman college textbook. But the more I think about the why questions, whose answers might explain the reasons behind our actions or the secret to finding meaning and satisfaction in life, the more I return to the concept of return on investment.

Return on investment, in economic terms, is quite simply the ratio between the amount of money gained or lost as the result of an investment and the amount of the investment itself. It is a measure of how much a business gained or lost as a result of a certain investment of resources. In most cases, the return on investment in a business situation is definite and quantifiable.

When this concept is applied to non-business situations, however, return on investment treads into murky waters. The quantitative nature of business -- the bottom line -- blurs into the myriad of emotions that populate the human condition. We can't even rely on qualitative criteria, for some life scenarios just defy analysis.

Can we use the economic rationale of return on investment to analyze the decisions and actions of our daily lives? Perhaps our most limited -- and thus valuable -- resource as humans is our time. From the day we are born, we are spending our allotment of time with each second that passes. We don't know exactly how much time we have, but it is most certainly limited in nature. Looking at it somewhat crudely, we can break our lives down into units of time. Our minutes and seconds become our investment currency.

If our time is the investment, what can we count as the return?

One type of return might be more time. If we spend some of our time eating healthy foods, exercising and treating our bodies well, we have a higher probability of living a longer life. So, we might invest some of our life currency hoping to create more of the same currency. In a limited fashion, this type of time investment may even be quantifiably sound. However, this makes sense only if we are using this extra currency to invest in some other type of return. Creating more life capital -- in the form of increased longevity -- only holds value if those extra minutes are put to use in some other investment. Just as creating money from money holds no value unless the money can be converted to something more substantial, living for the sake of living is cyclically pointless.

So how do we measure the true returns for our investments of time? Is there an algebra to help us determine which of our pursuits is worthwhile? What is the unit of return? As humans, our returns come in the form of emotions, both positive and negative. Our gains are described in the emotions of satisfaction, happiness, or euphoria; our losses wrapped in sadness and despair. Scientists may attempt to measure the levels of serotonin released during our happiest moments, but these emotions resist precise measurement. We may try to quantify, but the way we describe our return on investment takes on particularly qualitative characteristic. Does it feel like we're getting something back for the time we've invested?

Years ago in college, I would occasionally throw out the assertion that pure altruism cannot exist in humans because we are perfectly selfish by nature -- that an altruistic human being is an oxymoron of the highest order. I would argue until my fellow debaters would simply tell me I was playing semantic games, breaking each and every example of altruism they proposed down to a basic selfish motive. Twenty years later, I still cannot find an example of human behavior that can't be reduced to a person doing something they think will bring them a positive return on their investment of time, labor or emotion.

Looking at our decision-making through the simplified lens of return on investment is fraught with complication. We make hundreds of decisions each day, an overlapping network of choices whose impact (the return) is not always clear. Often we take actions that provide instant gratification, but have long-term negative returns. Frequently, we are misinformed or predict the wrong outcome and our actions have absolutely no positive returns. Sometimes, we know an action will have immediate negative returns, but take it because of a potential long-term benefit. Just as businesses cannot always predict a return on investment, the calculus of investment and return in our personal lives is far from simple.

I have always been someone who invests myself deeply in the people and activities in my life. Once I have made a decision to start a relationship or pursue a project, I give myself with great intensity. I don't make half-hearted investments -- as long as I am met with returns that match my intensity. It is simply the way I am wired, and despite my best efforts to counter my instinct with logic and reason, I cannot continue to invest myself without a corresponding return. It is most certainly the reason I have a very difficult time finding enduring satisfaction, suffer an almost constant craving for change, and walk on an unending search for something more.

In accordance with my personal spirituality and faith, I cannot seek these returns past the end of my time on this earth. For me, there is no ultimate or eternal return on investment. My returns must be found along the way.

It may sound harsh and calculating, but I cannot afford to invest myself in people or activities that take from me with nothing in return. The return is what gives my investment power. The return is what gives my  investment meaning. The return is what gives my investment purpose.

I will never be satisfied until I know in my mind and heart that I have found my return on investment.

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