How big of a hat do you wear?

You’ve probably heard the quip about having a big hat but no cattle. Some people might phrase it as “all talk and no show”. If you’re going to flaunt any definable measure of success, you should have some success to back it up. I’d say this principle is a corollary to stealth wealth, which is defined by having your outward appearance underrepresent your level of success in life.

You might also like: Stealth wealth revisited: it applies to doctors too!

I like talking about big hats and cattle, partly because my colleagues who have never lived anywhere outside of the Northeast corridor may have never viewed life in terms of cattle ranching. Big hats are unfortunately prevalent in the medical world.  And it doesn’t matter what type of cattle either—financial or egotistical cattle, it’s all there.

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Big hats and financial cattle

I saw lots of big hats even in college. These hats came mostly in the form of spring break vacations. Some of these vacations came as road trips, others as trips to Cancun. I didn’t think much of it, since most college students had no full-time jobs. Everything was bankrolled by the family or student loans. It really didn’t matter much to me because, well, it was college. People did a lot of impractical things in college.

If you haven’t gone cow tipping before, you should!

There were big hats in medical school too. Most medical students also had no full-time income, but others may have had careers prior to enrolling into medical school.  I wasn’t too sure whether any of those big hats I saw in medical school were justified, but I had no business judging any actions other than my own.  These big hats also came in the form of lavish vacations abroad, long weekend excursions to Europe, weekly take-out meals, and home/car purchases too. I came to believe that most of these big hats were backed by lots of cattle. Inherited cattle. Borrowed cattle. Probably not any self-raised cattle.

The hats have gotten bigger after training. McMansions. Fast cars. One of my coresidents leased a mid-range BMW during fellowship, and moved on to an upper range BMW soon afterward.  Most professionals are intelligent people. I would assume that doctors who spend their careers working on brains and hearts to be some of the most intelligent people out there. I would assume that most of these people are aware that it is not wise to wear big hats without a sizable herd of financial cattle to back you up.

The problem is that we are all human.  We have our desires. I think that it’s an admirable skill to be able to mold your needs to a level significantly lower than your financial earning potential, but it is not easy for many people. Suppose that you are an interventional cardiologist. You fix heart attacks on Friday nights and holidays.  That is an impressive feat. Why shouldn’t you be able have radiant heat in the floors of your home?


Hat size should correlate with cattle size. 

There is no reason to deprive yourself of what makes you happy.  You just have to be smart about it. If radiant heat makes you happy, go for it.  Just make sure that you can balance it with some moderation elsewhere. Otherwise, you might end up like the surgeon I saw on the news who couldn’t pay his rent and got evicted. I have no idea how that could happen, but there is a lesson to be learned in moderation.

As I have gotten wiser financially, I wonder if my classmates have too.  I’m sure that the borrowed cattle will run out eventually.  When they do, I hope that they will be prepared. I did check in on a distant acquaintance from medical school recently—she was one of the people who vacationed lavishly during school. She purchased a nice $1+ million apartment and works as a geriatrician! Okay, there isn’t much of a lesson to be learned there, but I guess that some people are fortunate to probably have inherited a nice herd of cattle.


Moral of the story? It is okay to wear big hats as long as you keep a healthy and sizable herd of cattle!


(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

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2 thoughts on “How big of a hat do you wear?

  1. I’m going to go against the grain a little and say that “some” amount of frivolousness during the med school/residency time period is OK. For many folks during that time they are either single or in a relationship w/o kids. This is the time to travel since if you say end up having kids it will be harder to engage in those activities.

    That being said, I agree with your basic premise. May people (doctors and non doctors) have outward displays of wealth that are beyond what they should be doing. I bought a BMW a few years ago, brand new. (My car before that was an accord that I had been driving for like 15 years). The sales person was surprised that I was buying since he said that 90% of people lease. I’ve never leased a car and couldn’t imagine starting now. I can see why people would lease though since for the same payment I could have leveled up from 3 to 5.

    I also think there’s a mentality of what your life is “supposed” to look like. Nice house, nice car, private schools, nice vacations, etc, However, it takes more that what many MDs make to affordthat lifestyle. (Perhaps in the past in the “good old days” it was possible)…

    1. It absolutely is easier to travel and “live it up” when you are single without kids. Unfortunately medical school and residency is also the time when we had the least amount of money to spend. Many of my friends borrowed from their “future self” to fund their travels. I can’t really blame them. In fact, I believe that this should apply throughout our careers too, especially in travels and we would otherwise not be able to participate in when we’re older. (like hiking Machu Picchu).

      Yup, the “good ‘ole days” no longer exist. We do get compensated reasonably well (although I continue to believe that we are underpaid for the work we do). My goal, still, is to live the reasonably nice life without having to be victim to our jobs.

      Guys like PoF and WCI are great inspirations, but I definitely have a much higher lifestyle habit to fuel. Just have to pick what is most important to us and work around it.

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