“If you could do anything with your life, what would you do?”
There’s that annoying question that self-help gurus, motivational speakers, and therapists asks. (I’m assuming. Never actually been to a therapist.) Among co-workers and friends, we sometimes play a slightly different game: “What would you do if you won the lotto?”
In your early years, you naturally imagine all the ridiculous shit you would buy. Then your thirties hit, and you become painfully aware that material things don’t necessarily buy happiness, and you’re forced to re-evaluate your life, your spending habits, the job that you feel trapped in, etc, etc, etc, until you feel yourself in the midst of what you half-jokingly call your “early mid-life crisis”.
It’s okay. This is normal. If you’ve luckily avoided any major health problems, substance addictions, and are not wanted by the law for any reason, then huzzah! You’re ahead of the Early Mid-Life Crisis game! (That’s it. We’re shortening that to EMC now.)
As mentioned in previous posts, I have spent quite some time now desperately analyzing, optimizing, and attempting to re-form my life after realizing in my late 20s to early 30s that I was just plain unhappy. I felt weak and always tired, likely due to working at a desk job, never exercising, rarely getting enough sleep, and eating a lot of garbage. I felt trapped in a vicious cycle of consumer debt, which is bullshit, because it was COMPLETELY self-imposed. And I had almost entirely given up on any sort of creative hobbies and careers because I couldn’t see any possible way out of my circumstances. Stuck in the 9 to 5 for all eternity. Farewell, dreams of being a professional actor, musician, etc. That stuff is sealed away back in your high school theater days, never to be pursued again. How could you possibly have the time for that, short of quitting your job and living on someone’s couch for free?
In an effort to make this post shorter than The Iliad, let me sum up the beginning few years of my EMC journey like this: I began reading the occasional self-help book. I wrote my first feature-length film script. I cleaned up my eating habits. I eventually re-wrote the film script into a novel and published with a small online publisher after running a (barely) successful crowdfunding campaign which secured said publishing. I made efforts to exercise until I finally hired a trainer, lifted heavy weights for 6 months, and got in the best shape of my life. I worked harder at improving my marriage. I felt strong. Empowered. I still wasn’t where I’d like to be, but the days were getting brighter.
Then the cracks began exposing themselves again. In a breakdown to my wife, I realized I was still feeling like I was barely holding it together. There weren’t enough hours in the day (or week) to attend to all areas of my life, and I felt that because of that, I was always failing in at least one or more. With precious little hours of free time, I constantly had to decide where I wanted to succeed and where I wanted to fail. No matter how many different strategies I attempted, a perfect balance never seemed possible. I was either diligent about health and exercise, spending quality time with my wife, trying to work on anything creative (which mostly failed because I was too burned out to THINK at this point), or spend time with friends and family. I would juggle these plates like the worst circus act you’ve ever seen until I would lose my cool, flip the hell out, and demand JUST TO GET A SECOND OF PEACE TO MYSELF FOR ONCE IN MY DAMN LIFE. And this happened repeatedly over the last year or so. Also, I was still repeating the same stupid money mistakes and therefore still in perpetual debt. (Footnote: I don’t even have kids. I am very aware that my “lack of time” issues are the merest of molehills compared to the mountainous sacrifices of my friends who are parents. I salute you.)
Finally, I started asking myself: What do I REALLY want out of life? REALLY. I thought I had the answer figured out before, but I needed a refresher. Or better, a re-framing of the question: What do you NEED? What things do you truly need in your life that in your experience give you joy in your days, give you hope for the future, and/or spark a feeling that you are on a path toward lasting happiness in your life?
Now THAT’s a question worth asking. Try to answer it yourself, right now. Start writing a list down on paper if you have to. Just do it as honestly as you possibly can. Maybe these thoughts have been brewing in your head for a while now, and this might be easier than you think. Or maybe you’re just beginning to ask yourself these things. It might be tough. Chisel away at the answers if you have to. Take a break and come back to it later. Sleep on it and revisit the list tomorrow. But get it done.
I am not a therapist. But I would imagine that if you are feeling truly lost at this point, without an inkling of what you really need from your life, than perhaps professional help may be a wise idea. I’m a bit of a hypocrite, as I’ve never done it myself, but I have countless friends and loved ones who have. If you need help, it is worth it to seek help. (This has been a half-assed PSA by Tony.)
Now, I surmised that there are a few key pillars in my life that tend to keep me sane and happy. Which I kinda already knew, but it helped to ground them in terms of “THESE ARE THE THINGS THAT ARE ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY TO MY WELL-BEING IN LIFE AND ARE NON-NEGOTIABLE.”
- Taking care of my health. I said it in an earlier post: if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything. I’m only 33 and I have already seen several friends battle terrible health conditions. Many likely unavoidable, genetic, shitty luck of the draw, etc. And some avoidable. We are no longer twenty-somethings that can eat and digest endless streams of fast food and alcohol. That Weapon-X instant healing ability is long gone. It takes work to stay functional and just plain feel okay as you age. And I plan to stick around for a good long while.
- Spending time with loved ones. Life gets in the way of seeing friends and family far too often. Days, weeks, months slip by too damn fast. There are friends I see more than my family. I see my coworkers far more than my friends and family combined. No offense to my coworkers, but that’s a dynamic I really wish I could flip 180.
- Pursuing creativity. Nothing in this life fulfills me, gives me a sense of purpose, direction, accomplishment, and satisfaction more than creativity. Even if I’m not actively working on a project, it’s the gear my brain is in. It’s stuck there. The transmission broke sometime in my childhood and I have no plans to fix it. I don’t go a single day without singing to myself in the car, or anytime/anywhere I’m alone, or simply humming epic movie soundtracks below my breath in the break room. I have dialogues with myself out loud like a crazy person, because I’m working out a new scene for a book in my head. Or re-writing a scene from an existing movie/tv show just for the hell of it. Whenever I see a live performance of music, theater, or musical theater, it lights me up like nothing else in my life. No offense to my wife, friends, and family, but you know what I mean. I feel PURPOSE and PASSION. And then I come down off that wave, and I get very depressed. Because I’ve been sitting in a 9-to-5 job for seemingly eternity, meanwhile my soul is screaming “THAT IS WHAT YOU SHOULD BE DOING WITH YOUR LIFE!!!!”
It’s that simple. Crisis defined, confronted, analyzed, explained. So what do I do with this knowledge?
“Build a life you don’t need a vacation from.” That’s a quote I’ve seen floating around the internet a lot. Sorry, I don’t know who said it first and I don’t care to go searching. I’m just assuming versions of that same quote have been passed on by supportive dads throughout generations. Build a life you don’t need a vacation from. Sounds like a dream reserved for lottery winners, right? Wrong.
I may not have complete control over my circumstances, but there are steps to be taken. I mean, us dreamers COULD all just quit our jobs tomorrow and say “I’m going to go be a successful movie star/rock star/author/painter/etc and everything’s going to be A-OK!” But I’m 33, and I have half a brain (rough estimate), so I’m not going to take that leap without looking. I need a plan.
Most people hate their jobs. I’ve gone through that pattern of thinking countless times. But my job is mostly fine. What aggravates me is not the job itself but the time it takes away from the rest of my life. 40-60 hours a week dedicated to the paycheck life. More accurately, 50-70 due to commuting. Hence, my constant struggle to fit my 3 pillars in on a consistent basis.
Last year, I listened to an episode of The Lifehacker.com podcast, The Upgrade. It introduced me to the concepts of financial independence and early retirement. This became my new obsession. Over a few short months, I’ve listened to the entire back catalog of the ChooseFI podcast, a show dedicated to spreading financial knowledge, tips, tricks, and sharing personal experiences of overcoming debt and saving toward retirement and other life goals. While I don’t expect to be retiring from the 9-to-5 life anytime soon, these resources have helped me finally do some simple adult shit in which I was displaying some severe incompetence for far too long. Things like cutting down my spending habits FOR GOOD, rather than paying down a little credit and then IMMEDIATELY filling it back up like an idiot. Also, doing a little research and actually understanding how the hell my 401k works. I’ve only had it for 10 YEARS, so I figured it was time. And finally, setting real goals, short term and long term, even lofty stretch goals which still feel like foolhardy dreams. But the point of it all, is that I’m PLANNING for them.
I’m learning to appreciate my present day more and more, but I am very much planning for where I’d like my path to go. THAT’s how you combat those feelings of hopelessness. “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” That’s a quote the internet apparently credits to Benjamin Franklin. Did he really say it? How the hell should I know? The internet gets these things wrong all the time.
So what am I planning EXACTLY, you ask? I wish to restructure my financial life so I can survive in modern society, meaning keep a roof over my head and food on the table, whilst dedicating less time to a day job and more time toward the pillars of life that bring me sanity and happiness. How do I do that? I have ideas. Ideas probably best saved for our next episode. This post is long enough, and I want to go snuggle my wife on the couch.
Because it’s cold in here and I want to use her for body warmth. Also, I guess I love her and stuff.