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The Resilient Lawyer with Jeena Cho

RL 58: Okeoma Moronu — Achieving Inner Happiness

The Resilient Lawyer with Jeena Cho
Released on Oct 2, 2017

In this episode, I interviewed Okeoma Moronu. Moronu is the founder of The Happy Lawyer Project, LLC, which is a coaching, consulting and community-focused small business built around her podcast of the same name. We discuss the need to define and identify what happiness means on the personal level to achieve it on a consistent basis.

We discuss the need to define and identify what happiness means on the personal level to achieve it on a consistent basis.

Topics covered:

  • What led her to start her podcast, which revolves around defining happiness in the turbulent life of lawyers.
  • How we can redefine happiness to be more attainable on a daily basis.
  • The “4 A’s” of achieving inner happiness.
  • How personal finance and self-care can play major roles in helping or hindering our discovery of happiness.

 

Questions? Comments? Email Jeena! hello@jeenacho.com. You can also connect with Jeena on Twitter: @Jeena_Cho

For more information, visit: jeenacho.com

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Transcript

Jeena: Today’s show is sponsored by Spotlight Branding. Spotlight Branding works exclusively with solo and small law firms to brand them as trusted, credible experts and help them standout in a crowded marketplace. Their services include web design, social media, video marketing and more.

Okeoma: A lot of people confuse happiness with that kind of fleeting excitement which I think of more like joy. And I think joy is a part of happiness but I think with happiness there’s a contentment.

Intro: Welcome to the Resilient Lawyer Podcast.

In this podcast, we have meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs, and change agents. We offer tools and strategies for creating a more joyful and satisfying life.Now your host, Jeena Cho.

Jeena: Okeoma, thank you so much for being here with me today.

Okeoma: Morning, Jeena. Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be on today.

Jeena: To get us started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do in the world?

Okeoma: Well, that’s a big question but I’ll keep it short.

I am a in-house attorney recently transferred from big law; working at a small helicopter company here in Dallas. But I’m also a mother to two little guys and some people may know me as the host over at The Happy Lawyer Project.

Jeena: I’m just always so in awe of you for doing all the things that you do, especially two little ones. I want to actually just dive right in and maybe talk a little bit about how you ended up creating your podcast.

Okeoma: My podcast happened really organically. I, about two years ago, started to kind of be at that stage – I think a lot of people get to in the third, fourth year of law school. I mean out of law school – where they start to think about what they’re going to do next and what their career looks like three or five years further down the road. So I started having lots of conversations. I was really focused on having conversations with people who I thought were happy. That was like my only criteria is who seems to be really, like, killing it at life but are really happy the way that they’re doing it.

In that process, just was having these amazing, inspirational conversations – a lot of them with lawyers but not all with lawyers, some former lawyers –thought that other people would get value from listening to these conversations and from kind of learning all the things that I was learning because not every one of their journeys made sense for me and not everything that they were sharing really had an impact on my life or could be used in my life. But I felt like I always have conversations with friends and I’d be like “Oh, you should reach out to so and so,” and, of course, they never did. So I was like, God, I wish I just could share that conversation with them.

Last year I went to FinCon and was persuaded through the power of kind of, you know, that environment of being in a convention. There’s so many podcasters there and they were like “You should start a podcast. That would be the easiest way to get this into the world.” I already was having these conversations. It’s just a matter of buying a mic, hitting record, and then adding an intro and putting it out on the internet.

So it’s been such a wonderful journey and I feel like the quality of the conversations I get to have has really increased because I’m a lot more intentional now about who I talk to and why I’m speaking to them and I love it. It’s just so much fun for me to get to do that. And now to get to engaged with my listeners, that just adds a whole another layer of enjoyment for me.

Jeena: Yeah. I think podcasts are such a wonderful way to connect with people and there’s an intimacy and just having the person’s voice, like literally in your head, that you don’t necessarily get from reading an article from that person.

Okeoma: Well, I think the thing that I also like is that with blog post, at least I do this and I’m sure others do as well, you kind of like skim through it and you kind of pick the parts. I’ll like read all the bold and I’ll read to see if I like the general structure and then I’ll go back through and like kind of read the beginning and I’ll skip through the middle. I don’t necessarily consume it the way the person who wrote it might have wanted me to but with a podcast, someone has actually commit to sitting there and like listening to you at the pace -- well, you could speed it up a little, but in the way that you intend for them to hear it and I kind of like that.

Jeena: Why happiness? How did you get interested in that topic?

Okeoma: I became interested in happiness as a first year associate. I was working at the Singapore office of my prior firm and found myself feeling really empty. I wasn’t unhappy, I wasn’t depressed. I was just not happy. Growing up I’d always been a fairly optimistic person, a very happy person, and so it seemed weird to me that that was missing. I had never really had to work for it so I didn’t really know what went into making myself happy.

So I started to research happiness, being kind of a type A academic. I think other people might have, you know, had conversations or just tried stuff. I had to go straight for the science.

Jeena: Yeah.

Okeoma: I just learned so much about how much control I have over my own happiness which I found very inspiring. And then I found Gretchen Rubin’s “Happiness Project” which really gave me structure around what I called my own happiness project. And so it’s really funny because my husband and I, whenever I would like make a plan to do something that I thought would make me happy. I’d be like “Oh, this is for my happiness project. This is for my happy lawyer project.” So we’ve been calling it my happy lawyer project long before there was a podcast.

Jeena: What were some of the things that you did as part of your project, your happiness project?

Okeoma: I like to travel and in my first year practicing, I didn’t take any vacation because I was afraid to, because I just didn’t plan it. There were lots of reasons -- legitimate and less legitimate. One of the first things I did was really sit down and think about what’s possible and what travel meant to me and why it was important. And instead of feeling bad for doing it or feeling bad for spending the money, I think part of it was like the debt and not wanting to spend. And realizing that I... not like I deserve it, but that it was okay, and that I mattered and that my happiness mattered.

Jeena: Yeah.

Okeoma: Then other things just like being willing to turn off sometimes. Like turn the BlackBerry over and just like really sleep. For a lot of that first year, I would sleep with my BlackBerry on vibrate next to my bed which is like so anxiety inducing.

Jeena: Yeah.

Okeoma: In some cases it was necessary but not in every case and I wasn’t really doing a good job of discerning when it was necessary and when it wasn’t. I’m just defaulting to necessary. In other ways I was always very good at it but it wasn’t intentional so I wasn’t appreciating it. So that was also a very subtle change.

I’ve always been really good about leaving when I’m done. I’ve never been somebody -- and I was at a firm that wasn’t big on FaceTime so I was really lucky in that way, but I was always somebody who, when I was done with my work for the day or I knew there was a good stopping point, I would leave and I’d go home and finish from home. But I never appreciated that.

Just sitting down to be grateful for that flexibility and that time as opposed to just assuming everybody had it or assuming it was the way it was, or not even really thinking about it. Little things like that, little switches in my mindset and really intentionality around prioritizing my happiness made a huge difference in those beginning years.

Jeena: Often times they think -- especially for myself and, I think, for a lot of lawyers -- when we think about doing things that makes us feel happy, there’s this feeling of “Oh, my gosh, I can’t do that because it’s selfish.” You kind of also talked about “Well, I can’t do that because it’s selfish or I can’t do that because I have student loan debt and I have to pay off the student loan before I’m allowed any sort of level of happiness.” What have you found that was helpful for kind of getting over that guilt or those type of mindsets?

Okeoma: It’s interesting because there’s some guilt that I really suffer from and there’s other guilt that I don’t. So I really try to get into those spaces where other people may feel guilt where I don’t feel guilt and think “Why don’t I feel guilty here?” For me that’s in being a mom. I don’t suffer from mom guilt at all, in any way.

I kind of sat down with that because for me a huge natural mindset shift happened when I became a mom and that became kind of a starting off point for me to think about the way I think of myself and my place in the world. When it comes to being a mom, I have this comfort and ease with not always knowing the answer.

So I was like, why don’t I have that at work? Why am I so worried about not knowing everything? Do people really expect me to know everything? Why do I think that people expect me to know everything? I’m a third year associate or I’m a fourth year associate. No one expects me to know everything.

Jeena: Yeah.

Okeoma: Likewise with being a mom, I never felt guilty about someone else taking care of my kids because I don’t think I own all their time. My kids could learn how to walk when I’m there, when someone else is there, when I’m like in the shower. I can’t control when that happens. And this idea that work is going to be the reason I’m not there... it may or may not be true. Obviously there’s like a statistical... if I’m at work more than I’m not that, statistically speaking, I probably won’t be there. But there’s stay-at-home moms who are cooking in the kitchen when their kid learns to walk.

I kind of give myself grace as a mom to know that there’s a reasonableness around the expectations of my time and what I give to my kids. And I’m like but why don’t I have it at work? Why don’t I give myself that grace at work? Why do I think that the people I work for deserve more of me than I think my kids deserve?

So it helps me to kind of unravel these stories around shame and around self-worth and around proving myself. And it’s because I never felt like I had to prove anything to my kids.

But I did feel like I had to prove myself to these partners and I was like what of that is valid and what of that is not valid? And really being kind of more deliberate around knowing, am I proving my worth by stressing myself out? No. Am I proving my worth by doing good work? Yes. Proving my worth by burning myself out and not asking for reprieve when I need it? No.

The partners don’t expect that and if they do, we need to have a conversation because that’s not sustainable for me so maybe I’m not in the right place. But me trying to have this facade like I can do it all for them when it’s not making me happy, it just wasn’t going to work. For me becoming a mother actually... I always say, save my legal career.

Jeena: Where do you think that grace that you have with your kids comes from? That’s so fascinating to me that you didn’t have that at the workplace but like you have kids and I feel like that’s the place that’s so right for that mom guilt, as you put it.

Okeoma: That’s a hard question to answer and I think about it a lot because people ask me all the time. I don’t know why people do have guilt, you know what I mean? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

Statistically speaking, the fact I have been blessed with the privilege of raising these tiny people and that they’re healthy and just here at all is just like a miracle. Let’s be honest. It’s like beyond unbelievable. So there’s something to that that feels like I was specifically chosen to do this task and I’m better suited to do it than anybody on the planet. That gives me an advantage. That means that even if on a bad day, I’m still better than the next person to do this job.

I have the easiest and best kids ever so let’s just put that out there. I mean on a more serious side, I’m very lucky to have healthy kids who are fairly easy. So I do know that people struggle with far more challenges than I have when it comes to raising their children but I don’t know why I don’t have mom guilt. I don’t know why...

I have always felt like my role in this world, with respect to my children, is to raise them to not need me. As soon as they left my body, it was like a process of letting them go. I get teary-eyed just thinking about it. Part of me teaching them how to be adult in this world is to live by example and to show them that being an adult is awesome. It’s like amazing and something to look forward to. They’re going to be adults one day, obviously. Well, God-willing. I don’t want them to ever think that it’s all in being a kid.

I feel like sometimes kids think that, you know what I mean? Being an adult is hard. Enjoy your time now. Being kid is fun. You have no responsibilities when you’re a kid. When you’re an adult, it’s going to be hard. You have to be serious. That’s when life gets tough, you have to be responsible and we put all that on our kids. I don’t want my kids to ever feel that. I have to live my life to the fullest so they know that they’re encouraged and they’re supported by me to do the same.

Jeena: Yeah, I love that. Wow.

That idea of letting your kids go so that they’re not dependent on you, so that they don’t need you. Where did that idea come from? It’s true, right? We, of course, want our kids to grow up and be independent human beings; that they’re their own person. Did you have that thought or idea like before you had them?

Okeoma: Well, I was raised Montessori. My mom’s a Montessori teacher. I went to Montessori schools like younger -- and my kids are Montessori kids. That’s part and parcel of the Montessori mentality.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to be like as a mother. You can never be sure what you’re going to be like. But my son, in some ways, kind of picked the way he would be raised. He was just always naturally very independent. There were things I thought I was going to be like. I thought I was going to love co-sleeping -- and I do love co-sleeping -- but my son wanted no part of it. He’s always been very... he’s like my husband. He’s very warm-bodied so he doesn’t like to sleep touching other people. At four weeks old he was like “Get me out of here. I don’t want to be near you when I’m sleeping.” For me I was like, okay.

I could force my kid to do something just because I want to. That was like the first time I had really come to terms with the fact that they are their own people and they have their own personalities and their own desires. My second is much more of a mommy’s boy. So that’s been interesting kind of to see the differences and how you raise an independent mommy’s boy.

Jeena: Yeah.

Okeoma: I really encourage them. I try to give them enough space to really feel like they can move in the world like with little things. They prepare their own food. They get themselves dressed in the morning. When we go on vacation, they pack their own carry-on luggage. They’re 1 and 3.

Jeena: Wow.

Okeoma: They know that when they pack their own bag, they are going to carry that bag the entire vacation. Yeah, you can bring 45 trains but there’s consequences to that. They may be sitting at the airport crying on the floor but there are consequences.

It takes a lot of patience to parent the way I do. It’s certainly not easy because it would, in some ways, be easier to just pack their bag for them or not them have a bag at all and just carry it myself.

But the benefit of is it’s just so much easier to transition them into new things because they’re really willing to take things on and they want to learn and like they know how to make dad a cup of coffee in a French press in the morning. They know how to make mom a cup of tea in the morning. They know how to work a hot kettle. That’s amazing because when we go on vacation, do you know how helpful it is to have kids who can help with breakfast?

Jeena: I love that.

Okeoma: But I don’t know. I don’t know where I get it from, to be honest. It kind of feels like it came naturally to me and, in part, I say that Pax had a lot to do, my older son, with really teaching me how to mother.

Jeena: That’s inspiring me in making parenthood not such a scary proposition.

Okeoma: It’s the most amazing endeavour.

I tell my husband all the time like if it was a job, I would just have like a hundred babies. I would do this full time. It energizes me and inspires me. It’s so humbling at the same time. It’s really such a privilege. For me it’s the greatest privilege to get to raise these kids.

Jeena: Maybe backing up a little bit and going back to talking about happiness. Can you just define what happiness means? Because I think we all sort of use the word happiness. But I don’t know that I really even necessarily thought about, like, what is the definition of happiness?

Okeoma: Yeah, no, that’s a big, big question. I think that a lot of people confuse happiness with that kind of fleeting excitement which I think of more like joy. I think joy is a part of happiness. But I think with happiness there’s a contentment and a calm presence that is really about being mindful, right? Being in the moment of your life; kind of feeling that joy from that presence.

I think that too many people think that happiness will be the result of something because, in that moment, it does give them joy but it doesn’t do all the other things. They don’t feel that contentment. They don’t feel that calm, that peace, that presence. They just kind of feed off that high. I think that’s why a lot of people say, “Don’t chase happiness, chase purpose. Don’t chase happiness, chase passion. Chase impact.” There’s always other words that people use. I think, for me, when you chase happiness, all those things are the result.

Jeena: Yeah. I was just reading something -- and I’m totally not going to be able to remember where I read it. But the author was talking about the fact that we don’t do things so that it will give us happiness. But that we do things because of our happiness. So I think it kind of ties into your point that happiness is something that kind of comes from inside of you somewhere. It’s like something that we can, of course, cultivate as well but it’s not winning the big jury verdict or, I don’t know, winning the lottery or, I don’t know, graduating from law school, whatever. I think those things can bring us those moments of joy, but it’s not sort of a sustaining happiness.

Okeoma: Yeah. So there is momentary happiness and those things can give you that. But if you’re thinking about building a happy life...

I think there’s the book “Solve for Happy” and it’s kind of an engineer’s perspective on happiness. The point he makes is you have to make happiness the goal. You have to solve for happy. Like what are the things I need to put into the equation of my life in order for happiness to be the result. It’s simpler than people think, but more difficult than people would like.

Jeena: Yeah, I think it’s simple but it requires commitment and persistence and just saying like this is something that I need to do for me and that’s often really, really hard.

Okeoma: Yeah, it’s a daily practice and it sometimes comes at odds with other values. Sometimes you know something might make you happy and something else is going to make you successful. I’m not afraid to say that I want to be successful but some of the things that might bring me success are not necessarily going to make me happy. When those things diverge, you have to be able to prioritize ruthlessly the thing you value more because you are going to be, in some way, sacrificing the thing you value less. When you try to have it both ways, often neither happens.

For me, I find that, at the end of the day, all things being equal. If I can say I lived a happy life or I lived a successful life, it’s an easy... I would rather be happy every day of the week.

Jeena: What are some of the things that go into the equation of cultivating happiness from day to day?

Okeoma: I, being an A student, like to think of the four A’s when I think of what’s going to make me happy.

First there’s my Attitude. Like I have to actually believe that I can be happy, that it will make me happy, that I’m making a choice mentally. Then I go off the Awesome factor. Being good at something does make you happy but it takes time to be good at something, so you have to invest that time. So there’s always this balance I have to strike between pursuing something just because I’m good at it or being slightly less happy for awhile while I become good at something new.

Alignment. I think having a clear sense of who you are and whether that you’re taking actions in alignment with who you are and what you want. So that’s really that intentionality factor. That’s like day to day. I say I’m going to go exercise more. Are you actually taking steps to do it? That’s a simple one. Versus I say I want to stop practicing law yet I don’t do anything to get out of the practice. I just show up at work every day and complain. There’s like big things and there are little things. Every time you let yourself down, you’re going to be less happy. That alignment with who you are is really important.

The last one is having Aspirations. I think it’s so, so important to have goals. The bigger the better.

When we don’t have goals, it’s really hard to align. It’s really hard to point your North Star when you don’t have something that’s driving you. You see it like in a lot of other spaces, whether you’re thinking about like financial. People become more financially literate when they decide to get married, or they decide to buy a house because also they have a goal that makes sense and so they can really put their thought into accomplishing that goal. But I think with happiness it’s a little bit harder because we’re not great at knowing what’s going to make us happy. The way you get better at it is do trial and error. Like that’s the only way.

It’s not a cerebral exercise. You can’t like sit in your house and think, “This is going to make me happy. I’m just going to spend my whole life doing this now that I figured it out.” You have to get out there and freaking do stuff. Sometimes you’re going to be wrong and that’s fine but that’s why you have to take action. Creating these big goals help you take that action, help you know if you’re in alignment. Help you get to that awesome factor and I think if you start to focus on those four things, happiness can be a daily choice.

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Maybe we can actually break it down and use a concrete example to sort of illustrate these four A’s. Can you maybe give an example of an aspiration that you either have had or currently have and what the other sort of how that fits into the other three factors.

Okeoma: Yes. So I use this a lot in my practice, especially early on when I was working crazy hours and had a baby at home and was trying to prove myself at work. My goal was to pay off my student loans. I think that’s a goal a lot of people have.

First, my attitude was why is this important? It’s not just paying off my goals, right? It’s the financial freedom that comes with paying off my goals. The thing I’ll be able to do with my money. The choices I’ll be able to make once I don’t have this burden. So the attitude really comes with knowing why that goal matters because having kind of a goal without a why is not going to be motivating enough.

Jeena: Yeah.

Okeoma: So then the job... I could kind of feel better about the job. Because instead of the job being like, “Ugh, I’m just here for the money,” it’s, “I’m here because this is going to give me financial freedom. This is going to let me do X, Y, and Z.” For me, one of my huge, big goals that I rarely share out loud so you hear it here first: my husband and I want to buy an island.

Jeena: I love it.

Okeoma:In a small island. Like we’re going to Nicaragua next month and we’re looking at this tiny island. It’s like a $70,000 tiny island. It’s not that you put like a house on it. But like that’s well within my reach but still seems so insane, like the idea. So when I think about paying off my debt so I could buy an island I’m like yes, please.

Then the awesome factor was that I was already somewhere where I was good at something that people were willing to pay me money for. Yeah, there are other ways I could have made money. There are things I could... I think people sometimes make things too complicated. They want to invest in like a big idea or they want to try to triage interest rates or they want to do all these things. People are already paying you a lot of money to do this thing that I’m fairly good at so why don’t I focus my energies here and just appreciate and like get better at this.

The better I got at my practice, the happier I was because the less I was unsure of what I was doing and the more confident I felt to raise my hand and ask a question when I was unsure because I knew I had done the work.

Alignment, day to day, I wasn’t doing kind of that retail therapy that feels really good for a while and then feels terrible afterwards because I had that island in mind. I had this future in mind that was really exciting to me, that was much more exciting to me than that brand new pencil dress. Even though I love pencil dresses. What is it about pencil dress? I don’t know what it is but... Is that just me?

Jeena: Yeah, and there is this feeling like you could never have enough because, of course, you can use another perfect pencil dress.

Okeoma: Exactly. There’s no end to that, right?

Jeena: Yeah.

Okeoma: And it’s so easy to talk yourself out of it because you’re like, “Oh, this dress only costs $100, $200, $300. The island is thousands.” Like this $200 isn’t going to be a huge deal. But having that alignment and that clarity of vision makes it easier to make those decisions. Because if it’s just this abstract notion, it’s so, so easy to talk yourself into those little purchases.

Jeena: Yeah, and I think that’s such a great point. I wish one of the things that they taught us in law school is just like personal finance, right?

Okeoma: Oh, I know.

Jeena: You graduate from law school with this insane amount of debt and they don’t give you any instructions or handbook on how to pay it off.

Okeoma: I know. I think they do such a disservice to their borrowers like as lenders. I don’t know that it’s law school’s responsibility because, to be fair, we were in our 20’s. It’s not like we were 12 and we got the money. But I do think that we, as a society, could do a better job of teaching people how to use money.

I was actually just talking to a recent guest about this. Being able to leverage debt is such an important part of social mobility. One of the reasons law school students were able to take on law school and open up the opportunities to make the money that some of us make is because we take on debt. We can’t be down on debt for that but there should be education.

The reason people can buy houses, the reason people can build their businesses, all these things happen as a result of being able to take on debt and the credit system and all those things. Knowing how to leverage it and use it is really key. I think the more women, minorities, and people of color are empowered in that way, that’s the only way they’re going to be able to catapult themselves up the socio-economic ladder.

Jeena: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s so true.

I actually want to go back a little bit and talk about that perfect pencil dress because...

Okeoma: It’s perfect. It has gold zipper down the back. It’s so perfect. I just bought it.

Jeena: That’s exactly the question that I want to ask you is I think...

So I was in the exact same shoes as you are. My husband and I got married and we looked at each other -- my husband’s also a lawyer -- and we were like, “Wow, we have nothing but love and crap load of student loans between us.” Thank God we have the love because we would not be able to survive the student loans without the love.

But one of the things I struggle with is finding that balance between... Obviously just to live, like, we have to spend money, right? I think just having this mentality of like I’m just not going to spend any money just actually leads to overwhelming guilt.

How do you find that balance between spending and saving or spending and paying off loans?

Okeoma: It comes down to planning and intentionality, right? When you’re being impulsive, you don’t feel good. That never feels good for long.

I had a period of time where my primary goal was paying down debt because I had a goal in mind. My goal was actually to be able to refinance my debt under a certain interest rate because then I would feel much more comfortable sitting on it because I came out right out of the recession so my interest rates were up around 9%.

Jeena: Oh my gosh, yeah.

Okeoma: So that was like unmanageable. And now they’re at 3%. I could pay off my loans but at the same time don’t feel the sense of stress and strain under them anymore.

Having a clear goal for what you want your timeline to be and then really thinking about what you’re willing to sacrifice -- if you need to sacrifice anything at all -- to meet that timeline. Because if you’re unwilling to sacrifice those things then maybe you need to push out the timeline a little and that’s fine too. But you just need to make that decision.

If there’s not enough money to do both then you really just need to get comfortable with kind of the level that you have and your strategy and know, yes, I can spend X, Y, and Z on vacation, on clothing. But, as a result of that, that does mean I’m extending my loans out for another year.

That’s totally fine because you should enjoy your life in the present. You only live in the present. You can’t just wait until you pay off your loans to take your next vacation or to do the things that are going to bring you real joy. I guess that’s the second part to it is really knowing what’s going to actually bring you real joy.

Because it’s easy to say, “Well, I like eating at restaurants, I like shopping for clothes. I like vacations and I like going to the movies.” That’s a lot of things. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would say that. Those are like a normal amount of things.

But when you start to really prioritize ruthlessly, you start to see that some of those things can fall to a wayside and that you can really focus your spending and get more joy from the fewer things and then put anything extra towards the loans, or towards what you’re kind of saving long term goals are, whether that’s loans or investing in something else.

Jeena: That’s great advice.

When you talk about sort of spending money with intentionality, what does that look like in practice? Do you have a budget for pencil dresses and say, “I’m only going to spend X amount of dollars on pencil dresses” or like all of your clothing let’s say over a course of a six-month period. What does that actually translate into in terms of like everyday practical tips around how to determine how you’re going to spend your money?

Okeoma: Don’t do what I do because my officemates call me the rain man. I like know what my spending is down to the penny like by heart. I’m like way into my money. But I’ve always been that way. I’ve always been into numbers and math.

When I was little, when I was stressed out I would do math. I don’t know. Numbers calm me because there’s like a sense and logic to numbers. Where other people, money stresses my mouth. Thinking about money is very calming for me so I don’t mind doing it. But the way I do it is I do zero sum budgeting. So every dollar is accounted for. But I do not live on like a food budget, shopping budget. I really prioritize my priorities.

Right off the top when I get paid, my loan payment gets made and then I have multiple savings accounts. I won’t even tell you how many bank accounts I have. I know how much money I have budgeted for travel for 2017 and how much all the trips are going to cost and that comes out of my travel budget. Anything leftover is just play money and it’s free money.

There’s not that much fluctuation in my free money but there is some because when my kids are in summer school versus when they’re not. So there’s some leeway in the other things. But really I just have my fix cost that come out off the top and then everything else I spend.

I don’t use cash so for me that does require me to kind of have a number in my head of how much that free money is but, I think, for other people who aren’t as attentive, the way that would end up having to work is you would kind of allocate all the money aside and then perhaps put all the money that was your play money into like a debit card account or like have it in cash and then just feel free to spend it.

That play money includes like entertainment. I have an idea of how much I expect to come out for entertainment, date nights, dinners out, all that kind of stuff. But I also know that if that number ends up being zero because we overspend on travel, I’m okay cutting back on date nights, movie nights, dinners out.

Jeena: I love that perspective and just how you think about it.

Generally what my husband and I do is we sort of have... the biggest part of our budget is just food because we love food, we love eating out, and then there’s a point where we were spending just an insane amount of money in just eating out because we live in the Bay Area. There’s no shortage of amazing...

Okeoma: Yeah, there’s so much...

Jeena: What we start to do is we kind of have a budget for how much we’re going to spend on food. We actually go to the ATM and withdraw, in cash, on the 1st and the 15th of the month then we just stick it in our wallet. It’s a fascinating experience to spend cash because we don’t do it that much anymore but there’s... from a safe play in picking up groceries, I got less, less likely to just have those impulse purchase because I can see the money dwindling in my wallet and there’s just something psychological about seeing the money disappear versus just charging everything where it’s just invisible.. So you don’t have that visual cue.

Okeoma: Yeah. I think our systems are actually very similar. It’s just that I do it in my head like a crazy person. Because I mentally know what that number is and what it’s kind of dwindling down to.

Jeena: Interesting.

Okeoma: For me, cash is just tough because I think I’m much more likely to spend on small things when I have cash. I would never put a candy bar on a credit card. I would feel silly for doing that. For some reason like it just feels silly with your credit card for like a dollar purchase. But if I have a dollar in my wallet I’d be like, yeah, well, I’ll just get this candy bar while I’m standing here waiting for the bus or something.

Jeena: Interesting.

Okeoma: Also, we take a family vacation completely on miles every year and on like points. So that’s why I put everything on the card.

Jeena: Okay.

Okeoma: That’s my reward for managing my credit well.

Jeena: There was a recent Freakonomics episode, I think it just came out last week, and they had this... I think he’s an economist and they were talking about sort of the index card rule where he wrote out in like 8 sort of Personal Finance 101 and it fits on an index card.

Okeoma: Yeah, I’ve seen that.

Jeena: One of the things he says is...well, to pay off your credit card balance at the end of every single month but also that there’s, I guess, lots of research that show people spend more when they charge on their credit card and that’s certainly been true for my husband and I. That’s the reason why we do the cash method. But now you’re making me rethink our strategy.

Okeoma: I grew up on credit cards. I’ve had one from a very young age. So, I think, maybe my mentality around credit cards is a little bit different. It’s interesting. I’ve heard that as well and I’ve seen it to be true for most people. Again, that’s why I started the whole money conversation by saying, “Don’t do what I do.” Because I already anticipated that you’re going to think that my methods are not necessarily the ones I would encourage.

But I don’t know if you’ve read Joshua Holt’s blog. I think he’s a great resource and a researcher. He’s a big law associate who does personal finance blog targeted at lawyers.

Jeena: Oh, I’m going to have to look this up. I have not heard of him.

Okeoma: Yeah. It’s a great resource and he really delves into kind of the details of things. He thinks like a lawyer so it’s really helpful to have his perspective because he kind of has that risk averse. I work too hard to make tough decisions so like make it really simple mentality. Josh is great.

Jeena: I’m going to have to definitely look that up.

Okeoma: Big Law Investor.

Jeena: Big Law Investor. I love it.

Okeoma: I could talk personal finance forever. I think that it’s such an important topic and I agree with you that law school students and anyone who takes on debt really should be getting better education. And we should be starting younger. I talk to my kids about credit -- of course, I do -- credit all the time. They understand interest rate. I mean they understand as much as they can for a 1 and a 3-year old. It will be interesting to see as they grow how these conversations evolve.

People are getting better but not as quickly as they need to. I think you see it kind of in real estate right now that things are kind of peaking again so we’ll see.

Jeena: I love talking about personal finance. This is something that I don’t think I quite knew about you in terms of an interest.

Okeoma: Oh, really?

Jeena: Yeah. So you might have to come back on the show. We can have like a whole another discussion about personal finance just because I do bankruptcy, or was doing bankruptcy. Just so much of what my clients struggle with is because they were never given sort of really foundational, Personal Finance 101. I think a lot of the bankruptcies could have been prevented had they just been taught these very basic skills.

Okeoma: It’s really shocking to me, even in the personal finance space, kind of how basic, right? The number of people I’ve heard who just didn’t know that you have to pay your credit card off every month. To me, like, what did you think? You heard that money isn’t free, right?

But I totally get it, you know what I mean? No one tells you and you just see people swipe the card and so that’s kind of why we have the conversations with my kids is because they do see us swipe the card. We want them to understand because the first time we told them that they couldn’t have something they said, “Why? Did you lose your credit card?” I said “No, because we don’t think that’s a good way to spend our money.” Then we thought like we need to have that conversation. So they understand the card isn’t just this magical thing that allows you to take things out of the store.

Jeena: Yeah.

Okeoma: They think that if they tell their Amazon Echo something it means the mailman will bring it. I’m like, “No. You’re ordering stuff off of website called Amazon. Stop ordering things.” My kids just live in this world that’s so different from the world that I lived in. That I feel like I need to prepare them.

Jeena: Totally. Yeah, it’s definitely an incredibly fast-changing world.

I want to respect your time and get us wrapped up on-time. I want to just spend the last like 5 minutes of our conversation together talking about self-care because that was one of the things that was on my list of topics that I wanted to talk to you about. But we completely got derailed talking about personal finance, which is fine because I think that’s such an important topic and I love talking about it.

Talk to me about self-care. Let’s start with what self-care is.

Okeoma: I think self-care is so important and have not always thought it was so important. I was definitely one of those people who thought it made me happy to take care of other people. While that is true, it was true because I had never really discovered how happy it makes me take care of myself.

For me self-care goes above and beyond kind of the basic necessities of a healthy life. I don’t think of getting a goodnight sleep as self-care. I don’t think of eating well, exercising, kind of the basics. I think of that really as the base level of being a person. I would put self-care kind of on the tranche right above that. It’s the special kind of stuff you do for yourself just because.

Jeena: Can you give us some examples of the type of things you do for self-care?

Okeoma: Yeah.

I love calligraphy. I took a calligraphy course last year. That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t have any value other than like the art of doing it. It’s kind of like doing coloring books or anything else like that, like artistic that just feels good to be doing it.

I also have time set aside every weekend to kind of do all the things that you never have time to do as a mom. So I do like a hair mask and like a face mask. I’ll change my nail polish. That kind of feels really luxurious to me to kind of to have an hour-and-a-half to myself in quiet.

One of the things I really try to do is actually have it be quiet. I have such a tendency to want noise. Whether that’s putting on a podcast, or putting on music, or putting on a show on the background. I try to create times with silence in my life and just times to be reflective. I think that’s part of self-care whether that’s prayer, meditation. Some people do it through yoga. Just a time to slow down.

Spending time with my kids, for me, is self-care. They heal everything for me. There’s nothing more hopeful than, like... I don’t know. There’s something about kids. I think you have to believe tomorrow is going to be better than today when you decide to have kids. Otherwise why would you put your kids in a world that you thought was just getting worse?

I also would just say that people should be weary of thinking of things that are more like tuning out as self-care because self-care, to me, is really about tuning in to yourself. It’s not about kind of creating noise or like zoning out. It’s not just sitting in front of Netflix all day. I would even say it’s not really about going out and partying all night. There’s like a quiet and calm to self-care and reenergizing.

I guess maybe I’m an introvert so maybe for some people -- I take that back. Maybe for some people, it is going out with your friends and having a night out. I shouldn’t cast judgment on what you think is going to reenergize you. But all I’m trying to say is really that it should be something that energizes you and makes you feel kind of more like who you are after doing it.

Jeena: I guess sort of to wrap things up as my final question to you. For the lawyers that are out there that are listening, thinking, “How do I even begin? I’ve done never self-care and I can see the value in doing it but I have no idea where to start.” What advice would you offer them?

Okeoma: Follow your curiosity. If there’s something that you said you would love to do but you haven’t been able to justify because you feel like it’s such a waste of time, other than the fact that you’re interested in it, that probably is a good lead.

Because I think, as lawyers, we try to be really practical. Especially for those of us -- not me anymore -- who bill by the hour. We really want to find value in all of our time. So sometimes self-care can feel selfish and like it doesn’t have that value. But learning that the value is you, the value is kind of the benefit to your sense of self. If you’re not sure what’s going to bring it, just start following what you’ve been curious about.

For me, calligraphy was an easy one. Another one for me is dance. I’m a terrible dancer. Terrible. But I know that I’ve always wished I was better at it. I love music, I love to watch dance. So that’s something that I hope one day that I can maybe take some classes. It’s going to be horribly embarrassing and I’ll have to do it somewhere where nobody knows me. So I have to drive like four hours.

There’s no real value, you know I mean, being a better dancer at this point. I just think it would feel good to be dancing. Everybody has kind of those things, I think, deep inside of them. Even if it’s been awhile since they pursued them or thought about them. So if you can kind of create those spaces of silence, you’ll start to hear kind of internally more and more the things that peak your curiosity.

Jeena: I love that. Yeah. I so agree with you. Also, I think just giving yourself the permission to do it badly or to not be great at it. I mean you’re not going to be good at the first time you do anything: drawing, dancing, calligraphy, whatever it might be.

Okeoma: Maybe that’s not even the point.

Jeena: Yeah.

Okeoma: Maybe the point is to be really bad at it and for it to just feel good. I think people just really undervalue feeling good. They just try stuff badly.

Jeena: Perfect. I think that’s the perfect place to wrap things up.

Okeoma, thank you so much for spending the last hour with me. I really, really enjoy talking to you. I always feel so inspired.

Okeoma: Thank you so much for having me on and I look forward to having you on my show one day.

Jeena: Awesome.

 

Closing

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