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The Wooden Nickel:  Cicadas, Tortoises, and You!

The Wooden Nickel: Cicadas, Tortoises, and You!

May 24, 2024

When it comes to living a crazy life, is there anything weirder than the cicada?

Their life cycle consists of three main stages:  egg, nymph, and adult.  Females lay eggs in tree branches and, after hatching, the nymphs fall to the ground and burrow into the soil.  Then the nymphs spend the next 13-17 years feeding on root sap underground.  Once mature, they emerge from the ground, molt into adults, and live for a few weeks to mate and lay eggs, completing the cycle. 

By my non-scientific calculations, that means the ratio of weeks of life before and after maturity is somewhere around 442:1.  No wonder they come out, make incredibly-loud noises, fly everywhere and mate like crazy.  They’ve been stuck down there for a long, long time, and they need to party.

Heck, even for the common housefly the ratio of larvae (3-5 days) to adult lifespan (15-30 days) seems a reasonable because they live as adults about three times longer than as “children”. 

On the other end of the spectrum, a Galapagos tortoise takes about 10 years to reach maturity but often lives for another 90+ years.  Their adult lives are more than nine times longer than childhood.  But man, are they boring.  Most days they just sit there.  Maybe they’re thinking deep thoughts, but it seems like they’re just waiting for nothing.

Humans are typically in “childhood” for 18 years.  When they mature, they may be blessed with a decently-long adult life and will probably spend 60+ years in adulthood.  That ratio is about 1 year for childhood to 3 or 4 for adulthood, sort of like the housefly.

So while it seems like human childhood takes FOREVER (ask any teenager and she’ll agree), it really isn’t too long compared to adulthood.  It makes sense for the cicada to party like there’s no tomorrow because for a cicada there literally is no tomorrow.  They need to get all their energy expended, because in the end, those few weeks above-ground are all there is.

The cicada needs to get going quickly by emerging, molting, screaming for a mate, mating, and laying eggs for the next generation in the wink of an eye compared to its full life.  There’s no conservation of resources, no patience, no thought.  They fly around like the crazed fiends they are because they have no time to really live as adults.

For us, we need to be more judicious with our resources because we need things today, tomorrow and (hopefully) for many tomorrows to come.   If we take all kinds of risks, scream all day, consume everything we can see, and mate with no consideration of any other factors, we’re not going to live long.  Either we do something really dumb to ourselves, or society will get rid of us!   

We all know people who live a little like cicadas, and it sure seems fun for them a lot of the time.  They don’t last long in our society; one way or another they come crashing down.  Cicadas are designed that way; most of them become food for the birds or just more fertilizer for the trees.  We humans, on the other hand, need to conserve and save for the future.  Our time horizon can be long if we make choices that benefit us now and down the road.

On the other hand, we should not be tortoises, either.  Sure, they’re going to be around a long time, but if the point of life were mere existence, what a sad life it would be.  We probably know a few folks who are like tortoises as well…never spending on themselves, always saving and avoiding all risks.  I’m not here to tell anybody that saving is bad, but remember this:  Money is only useful if you spend it.  Unspent money is as much of a waste as unsaved money.

This is where a financial plan comes in handy. 

We don’t want to live like a cicada, paycheck-to-paycheck and just for today.  We also don’t want to spend all our lives denying ourselves and our families some extra comfort, fun and adventure.  Having a flexible, personal plan helps you decide how far to go.  A financial plan is not a script to follow, but a map to read.  You have destinations (college, career choices, parties, vacations, fun purchases, retirement, philanthropy, legacy)…those change over time but the art and science of planning is in deciding how much you want to live like a cicada, and how much like a tortoise. 

Be something in-between.  Maybe like a chimpanzee?  Or a housefly?  Or a human.