Bill Perkins on How to Live a Better Life by Appreciating Our Experiences

by | Sep 17, 2020 |

After years of books, blogs, and blowhards, I had all but given up on popular self-help advice. That was until I heard Bill Perkins, author of Die with Zero: Getting All You Can from Your Money and Your Life, discuss his book in an interview. Perkins explains how he improved his decision-making process using a unique method of valuing experiences in order to live a more fulfilling life.

After turning down an invitation to go backpacking through Europe with his roommate, Perkins realized that he had made a big mistake. At the time, he didn’t think the trip was worth his trouble. He was unprepared financially and overwhelmed academically—it just wasn’t the right time. Yet, his roommate, who was less prepared than he was, decided to borrow money to take the trip anyway. It turned out to be the best experience of his roommate’s life. After returning home, he paid off the loan and resumed his normal life. As Perkins later realized, his roommate returned from the trip a richer person. 

Perkins uses this anecdote to highlight how he calculates the value of a future experience. He uses the idea of a “memory dividend,” which refers to the future value of a given experience. This is the value above and beyond the pleasure of that initial experience. An experience, according to Perkins, provides recurring value over time; our memories of it continue to provide passive emotional income.

Here’s how it works. Suppose you take an amazing vacation to Italy. You love every minute of it, and it’s valuable as an end in itself. The memory of that experience is fun to relive every time you think about it (Dividend #1). 

That memory also enhances the value of future experiences, for instance, sharing stories about it with friends; you laugh, bond, and exchange ideas with friends, coworkers or anyone else you encounter (Dividend #2).

Furthermore, when you think about the time you shared your memory of Italy with your in-laws and how they shared similar values, it gives you pleasure. You have now extracted additional value from the initial experience (Dividend #3). This series continues indefinitely. 

That’s the idea of a memory dividend: The value of an experience can reverberate throughout all of your future experiences. It’s a reminder that the full value of an experience will last much longer than the present moment, often for decades. As Perkins learned, we are better decision-makers when we can accurately determine the potential future value of a present experience.

The idea that memories can be wonderful reservoirs of pleasure has always stood out to me, and I’m not alone. The late George Steiner, a scholar described by the New Yorker as “a critical repository of significant knowledge,” recognized that a benefit of reading great literature is that we can revisit stories, places, and people in our minds long after reading a book, and these memories can inform our thoughts and actions in all sorts of beneficial ways. Similarly, William Wordsworth’s poem, “Daffodils,” describes seeing a lovely scene of daffodils on a hill in full blossom, which enables him to enjoy the sweet pleasure of recalling that image while at home. 

For oft, when on my couch I lie 
in vacant or in pensive mood, 
they flash upon that inward eye 
which is the bliss of solitude; 
and then my heart with pleasure fills, 
and dances with the daffodils.

The stoic philosopher Seneca also wrote that pleasant memories are evidence of a virtuous life and a never-ending source of satisfaction. He contrasts this with memories of a life badly spent, which are never-ending sources of torment. These are just a few of many thinkers who understand the potentially life-enhancing importance of our memories.

Perkins not only identifies an important truth but also finds a fresh way to explain its value. Check out this interview with Bill Perkins to learn more:

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