Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s ‘A Woman of Independent Means’ Offers Both Financial and Life Lessons

When I read Grant Sabatier’s Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need three times in a row and decided to go after the financial independence thing, I pulled up this memory of watching this television miniseries, with my family, about a woman who had all the money she would ever need.

I know that particular detail because I had to ask my parents what the title of the movie meant. Of course, I couldn’t remember the title (was it A Financially Independent Woman?); only the moment where my parents explained that the woman in the movie would never need to earn money from a job.

So I looked it up. The 1995 six-hour (with commercials) miniseries A Woman of Independent Means, starring Sally Ford as the titular Woman, was based on the 1978 Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey novel A Woman of Independent Means, which was in turn inspired by Hailey’s grandmother’s life.

The novel is epistolary and written entirely from the perspective of Bess Steed Garner, who learns at a young age that an inheritance has made her financially independent. The book begins as a deceptively quick read — the first few pages take Bess from age 9 to age 20 — but becomes more detailed and immersive as Bess grows in both experience and writing talent.

It also packs in a wealth of advice about both investing and living — but since Bess is constantly maturing and changing, there’s a question of whether the reader should take her insights at face value.

Here’s a letter that the 29-year-old Bess writes her best friend, for example:

Dearest Totsie,

Your letter brought me the first bright day I have known since Rob died. The thought of joining you in Vermont for the summer fills me with delight! What a reprieve from the terrible reality of my life just now!

Once we decided to close the St. Louis office of the company, I knew I had no choice but to sell my house here and move back to Dallas — but to return without a husband and with less money than when we left is an unbearable admission of defeat. And I will postpone it as long as possible.

Your invitation for the summer is such a tangible offer of comfort at a time when words of sympathy ring hollow in my ears. I am so weary of people asking if there is anything they can do for me. Of course I always answer with a polite no, and they go away satisfied at having done their duty. If only one dared answer in the affirmative. But nothing frightens people more than undisguised need. I have kept all my old friends through this difficult time by never demanding the dues of friendship. Not that I doubt they would be paid — but only once. Friendship to me is like a capital reserve. It pays dividends only so long as the principal remains intact. Whatever personal sacrifice is required, I am determined to come through this experience without spending my principal — on any level.

The children are very excited at the thought of a trip east. We are all eager for the sight of a landscape without memories. How I look forward to holding the baby — and you, Please thank Dwight for his share in your kind invitation.

I love you dearly,

Bess

Is Bess “right” about the nature of friendship? Is she “wrong?” I’m not sure that’s the question we should be asking. A Woman of Independent Means invites readers to observe Bess as she observes the world, and take from it whatever lessons are most relevant to our own lives.

In my case, the biggest lesson I took from this book is that whenever Bess works to meet her own needs, her life — and her family’s life — improves. Whenever she does something that she believes is in the best interest of someone else’s needs without asking them first, especially when her actions go against her own needs and desires, her life and her family’s life and the life of the person on whom she’s acting get worse.

I suspect that if I read this book again in a few years, I might take a different lesson from it — because, like Bess, I would have the advantage of a few more years of life experience.

If you’ve read A Woman of Independent Means — or have some vague recollection of the miniseries, like I did — I’m curious which aspects of the story stood out to you. Despite the strong financial component of this book, for example, I don’t think it prompts most of its readers to get into investing.

But it might prompt us to view the world a little bit differently, after seeing it through Bess’s eyes. ❤️

Cal Newport’s ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ Is a Must-Read Guide to Building a Creative Career

I’ve mentioned Cal Newport on this blog before. I started implementing his daily shutdown ritual after reading Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, for example, and it has made my workday (and my evenings) so much better.

But last week I read his 2012 book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, and I am ready to GET EXCITED ABOUT IT.

Here’s the tl;dr, though I really really really think you should r:

If you want to build a fulfilling career, you need to develop both marketable skills and career capital. Being passionate about a particular line of work isn’t enough.

This is kind of the tension at the core of Nicole Dieker Dot Com, btw — like, I’m writing about being vulnerable online and mushing through the draft of NEXT BOOK while also being fairly hard-headed about how this type of career takes schedules and strategies and showing up every day.

Or, as I put it in one of my very first posts: there’s a difference between “the dream” and “the work of doing your work.”

So Good They Can’t Ignore You is about pushing through that difference, and going from the work of doing your work to building a dream career.

It’s worth noting that this “dream career” may not be related to your current creative passion; that is, the end game isn’t “full-time novelist” or “full-time singer-songwriter” or whatever. The end game is to develop a career that capitalizes on your skills, lets you control your time, and helps you create the life you want, which may also include writing novels or making music or working on political campaigns or traveling for three months every year.*

I can hear you thinking “but there aren’t enough of those careers to go around,” which, okay, sure, but Newport makes two additional points:

  • With enough skills and career capital, you can build your own career. (This is what I did.)
  • With enough skills and career capital, you can work to make the world better for everyone else.

To quote Chapter 13, Missions Require Capital:

Pardis Sabeti thought small by focusing patiently for years on a narrow niche (the genetics of diseases in Africa) but then acting big once she acquired enough capital to identify a mission (using computational genetics to help understand and fight ancient diseases). Sarah and Jane, by contrast, reversed this order. They started by thinking big, looking for a world-changing mission, but without capital they could only match this big thinking with small, ineffectual acts.

Go read this book. You might not agree with everything Newport writes, but I bet at least one or two chapters will make you think differently about your creative career.

It did for me, anyway, and I’ve been doing this for seven years now.

Next Tuesday I’m going to review a book that’s more about the emotional and vulnerable aspects of building a life. In case you’re curious. It’s all about balance, after all.

*Yes, you can go straight into trying to become “so good they can’t ignore you” at your current artistic pursuit or passion project. The book has some notes on that path as well — after all, the “so good they can’t ignore you” quote came directly from Steve Martin. But that path might be a lot harder than the one where you use your monetizable skills to build the type of capital that can help you achieve your large-scale goals.