I’ve always been someone who sort of pantsed it through life. Which is not to say that I wasn’t successful at the things I did, just that I’ve never really had that ONE THING that I MUST accomplish. (And hopefully that’s the last you’ll see of all caps for this post.)
At one point I wanted to be an astronaut (hence starting college as a physics major), but it wasn’t the only thing I wanted in life. So, freshman year I played on about six intramural sports teams, did a play, and took classes on Spanish poetry and Asian religions. (And found that I didn’t really enjoy physics when I had to memorize the formulas, so changed majors.)
Anyway. I think it’s good to allow yourself enough freedom to find the things you enjoy in life. The path I took to my final undergraduate degree was crooked and curvy and full of digressions and detours, but it allowed me to discover things about myself I would have never known otherwise. (Who knew how much fun it could be to draw maps of language change? Not me until I tried it.)
But at some point in life you realize (or I did) that you can’t do everything. Or that to change from the path you’re currently on will take a lot more effort than it would have five or ten years before because of the choices you’ve made in the interim.
Which is why, if you know you want to do something with your life, you should think how your current choices align with that future goal.
I’ll give a personal example. About six years ago I was living somewhere else and I was getting my MBA. In one of my classes we had to write a description of where we would be in ten years. Professionally, personally. What would we be doing? Where would we be? Who would be in our life?
And the description I wrote was that I’d be running my own business in Colorado. I was pretty flexible about what that business would be and who I might be working with, but I knew as I wrote that description that I didn’t want to live where I was living for the rest of my life and that I wanted to move back to Colorado.
Now, here’s where we reach the “do as I say, not as I do” part of the lesson. Even though I had written this description and was pretty sure that in the next five years I wanted to move back to Colorado, I was also tired of renting where I lived. So, I bought a condo.
Which cost me the down payment, the increased monthly payments, the money I spent on furnishing the place, etc., etc. I loved that condo. It was beautiful. But it had nothing to do with any of the nebulous goals floating around in my head. Did it get me closer to living in Colorado? No. Did it help me start a business? No.
And when, two years after that purchase, I finally decided to pull the trigger, quit my job, move back to Colorado, and start a business, that condo cost me a lot of money to sell. So, not only did it suck up money when I owned it, but it sucked up more money when I wanted to get rid of it.
Taken in isolation, buying the condo was a perfectly reasonable decision. Tax deductions, my own space instead of renting, being a grown-up, etc., etc. Viewed through the lens of what I actually wanted to do with my life, it was not.
We all make decisions like this every single day. So you hate your job and want to quit it? Well, how much do you spend on eating out, new clothes, DVDs, CDs, books, etc. that you could instead save or use to pay off your debt thereby freeing you to quit that job?
Or say you’ve decided you want to be a writer, but you know you need a day job. Should you apply for that manager’s position? The one that sucks up every hour of free time and requires you to travel extensively and work weekends? Probably not, but most would.
Unfortunately, we usually have competing priorities in life. Not only do you want to write, you also want to preserve your marriage, see your kids, put food on your table, and have a roof over your head that doesn’t leak. And your kids would like to wear something to school that the other kids won’t laugh at. And your spouse would like to drive a vehicle that doesn’t have a hole in the floor.
So, it’s not as simple as saying “I want to be a writer” and eliminating anything that gets in the way of that goal. (Although I think some very successful people have done exactly that. Maybe not with writing, but with other things. If you go that path, just pause for a moment to acknowledge what you’re sacrificing in the process…family, friends, your humanity.)
But I do think that most people could benefit from a little more focus on what they want. Having just packed up my house and moved, I can assure you that there is a lot of money I spent over the years that I probably did not need to spend. (Books and music are my version of therapy, so if I hadn’t bought them it’s quite possible I wouldn’t have lasted as long as I did with my career or that I would have needed real world therapy instead. So, I “probably” shouldn’t have bought those things, but I suspect it would’ve required other actions if I hadn’t.)
Anyway. I firmly believe that we each need to find the path that works for us. And that what works for me may not work for anyone else. And that what seems crazy to me, may be the best solution for someone else. (I don’t see the point in owning a BMW if you have to eat Ramen noodles as a result, but for some people looking like you’ve made it is everything.)
I find myself at a point in my life where I’m probably the most free to act that I ever have been or will be, so this is very much on my mind.
What do I want? What choices will help me get there? Which will take me further away from that goal? If only I knew the answers…