by Colin Ryan

What My Scottish Reverse Mentor Taught Me About Money, Life and the Perfect Job

Mentors are supposed to show us how to live our lives, but what about those who show us what not to do? Colin Ryan tells us how working with an unlikely Scottish “reverse mentor” changed his views on money and life, for the better.
Colin Ryan Scotland

Right after college, I saved every penny I had and did the scariest thing I’d ever done: I moved to Scotland. This was influenced more than I want to admit by the fact that I’ve seen the movie Braveheart a lot of times. As far back as I can remember I’ve wanted to live a life of passion, and Braveheart is a story about a group of people who were—and you’ll have to imagine the following in Scottish brogue—not afraid to die, but afraid to not truly live.

Let me just say, if you’re going to live in Scotland, and you’ve seen the movie Braveheart, that’s not enough information. They’ve made some updates since the 12th century. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a castle, and then next to it, a Taco Bell. Must’ve been a deleted scene.

I got my first real, grown-up job at the Royal Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh, which was in an actual castle. To be clear, I worked in the mailroom of the castle. Basements of castles (where the mailroom was) are traditionally dungeons, which feels more accurate. For six months I sat in a dungeon, sorting bags of mail into slots. A life of passion indeed.

My deskmate was a 52-year-old Scotsman named John, and he was hilarious. After I introduced myself, the first thing John said to me was, “Oh right, you’re American,” and then pretended he was playing a banjo! I couldn’t be mad—that’s the most adorable way to stereotype 300 million people.

As we did our mind-numbingly boring tasks, John taught me all kinds of things: the true history of Scotland, how to properly order a Guinness, and a number of wildly contradictory theories on what women really want.

Colin Ryan Phone Booths

Being an American visitor, I wanted to see as much of Scotland as I could. On weekends, while John spent his paycheck at the pub, I spent mine on train trips all over the UK. I climbed the towers of Oxford, I stood on the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and I looked down from the white cliffs of Dover. And I did all this on a shockingly meager paycheck.

I found travel was a great opportunity to save money.

I found travel was a great opportunity to save money. I packed some of my meals ahead of time, so I didn’t have to eat every meal out. This was especially helpful on travel days when I couldn’t get to the grocery store—a container of sandwiches will save you money all day long. And by building in time so I could take public transportation, the taxi that would’ve cost $30 was replaced by a city bus that cost $2.

Every Monday, I would return to work and tell John about my travels, usually while he nursed a hangover. I would say:

“John, I made it to the island of Iona… John, I walked the entire castle walls of the city of York… John, I saw the stone circles of Castlerigg… John… have you ever seen them?”

And John said, “The only circles I saw this weekend were under my own eyes.”

After about a month of this, John told me I’d seen more of Scotland than he had.

John loved to complain. He complained about his kids, our boss, his bar tab from the previous weekend, and the car payments on the BMW he couldn’t afford.

When your work becomes a routine, it’s easy to get bored and get into a spending cycle. I found it’s also very possible to save for future travel by setting small goals each paycheck, and removing temptations. You can have your check direct-deposited, and build a budget to figure out your recurring monthly needs (housing, utilities, groceries) vs. your discretionary wants (clothes at retail price, restaurants, coffee shops, subscriptions, lottery tickets). Respond to your findings by setting a small goal, like practicing a weekly one-day fast from your biggest spending guilty pleasure. I know John never tried this at the pub, but your most effective strategy is to focus on hanging out with people who don’t pressure you to overspend.

Every day John would stand up and announce loudly how many days he had left until he could retire. “Eight years, nine months, and 12 days.” With his thick Scottish inflection, it was charming, and depressing at the same time. I thought to myself, “We’re a long way from ‘They’ll never take our freedom!’

That’s when a strange thought occurred to me: our lives are filled with people who can inspire us. Either they inspire us to be like them, or they inspire us to be anything else but them. I call these people “reverse mentors”. To this day, I contend that John is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met; I’ll always be grateful that I got to sit beside him. John taught me that complaining about your life, which is fun and often funny, is not the same as changing your life. Because you don’t just get handed a life of passion, you have to fight for it.

The biggest thing John taught me is a formula for finding your dream job: save up the money, and build up the courage to leave every wrong job you take first; especially the jobs in castle dungeons. Every time I found myself on the wrong path, I thought of John, and found the courage to keep searching, to keep saving, until I built a life I’m truly passionate about.

Featured everywhere from NPR to The Moth and Reader's Digest, Colin Ryan is an award-winning comedic financial speaker (seriously). Listen to his winning Moth story on National Public Radio here. He is based in Burlington, Vermont.

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