I have had some conversations lately that have made me realize that the vast majority of people are not so much living their lives, but are being led through them. Too many people are simply doing what they think they are supposed to do, rather than thinking seriously about the time and resources they have and living according to any guiding principles. What is needed is a little fortitude, some courage, to decide what you really want out of life. You need to stick with it and follow through even if society tells you it is the “wrong” way to live.
To illustrate, let’s look at the American Dream Stereotype (ADS). This is what most of us grow up assuming the ideal life will be. It comes in three stages, young adulthood, middle age and retirement.
Young adulthood: graduate high school; go to a good 4 year college; start a career working in corporate America; get married; buy a house; pursue the two’s- 2 kids, 2 cars 2 pets and 2 weeks of vacation in Florida.
Middle age: segue out of working for corporate America and become an entrepreneur by working nights; spend weekends driving kids to soccer, dance, baseball, scouting etc.; put a second mortgage on house to pay for kids college.
Retirement: reach entrepreneurial success and retire around age 60; move to Florida & enjoy the fruits of your success.
First of all, let me state at the outset that there is nothing inherently wrong with the ADS. What is wrong is thinking that it will work for everyone, or that everyone even wants it. However, through our media-saturated culture we are taught from a very young age that we should want it. This inevitably leads to many lives lived out in search of things that ultimately hold little meaning for many of us.
In order to live a truly good life it would seem to me an imperative that we decide on what really motivates us, what we hold up as our ultimate goals or aspirations, and then live life in pursuit of that. In short, we need to stop sleepwalking through life and actually live life on purpose.
Most people, if you were able to give them some sodium pentathol and ask them what they really wanted out of life, would probably not answer a big house, lots of toys and an overly busy life. What we really crave usually centers around two or three key concepts.
- Time & Travel
- Financial & Physical Security
- Faith & Family
- Fun & Adventure
If you can figure out what you really want you can start to live by making decisions with your guiding principles firmly in mind. We all have three parts of our lives to work with: our resources, our time and our energy. When you are about to make a big decision that deals with any of these three, think about whether or not it moves you towards, or away, from your ultimate goals.
If what you really value in life is to have as much free time as possible so that you can travel, then large parts of the ADS are in complete opposition to your goals. Things like owning your own home and even having children limit the time and resources you can devote to travel. Rather than do what society tells you to do and climb the corporate ladder so you can purchase a four bedroom house in a quiet suburban community, be content with a lower paying but less time-consuming job. Rent a small apartment and use your extra time and money to pursue those travel dreams. In the end you will be much more satisfied with the life you are living.
While I certainly think some goals are better than others, the point of this essay is not to pass judgement on what you want to do with your life, it is simply to get you to see that the everyday decisions you make influence whether or not you'll end up with the life you want. We really can’t have it all, no matter what the sitcoms or Oprah tell you. Life is about choices. So make ones that actually lead to a better life.
For instance, that big promotion you are in line for would be great, right? Well, maybe if financial security is your primary goal. But what if living a life that is full of adventure is more important to you? That promotion will mean longer hours and more responsibility. Sure you may have more money to go rock climbing in Colorado, but if you now have so many responsibilities that you can never get away from work, is it worth it? Maybe less money but more freedom would be the better choice. There are adventures closer to home that you could still afford after all.
In the past we were told that if we worked hard, chased the ADS, and gave it our all, we would eventually be rewarded with retirement at 60 and a good amount of time to enjoy the high life. In reality this was always a bad deal. When you look at it objectively, who would trade their youth for some possible reward in their declining years. But we collectively bought into it because we were told often enough, from a young enough age, that it was what we were supposed to do. The recent economic meltdown has done us one favor. It has stripped away the veneer on that emotional palliative. Retirement is no longer guaranteed, and even if it comes, it will most likely not be endless days of golf and viagra fueled romps on the seashore. Let’s make the decision to live our lives today rather than in some deferred future.
Personally, my wife and I have chosen faith and family to be our ultimate goals. That has meant a lot of difficult decisions for us as a family. For instance, we have chosen to homeschool our kids and thus live on just my teacher's salary. Reconciling that with our faith-based commitment to charity has meant certain financial sacrifices. We got rid of our second car, go on camping vacations rather than trips to Disney, experiment with small scale homesteading and cook new foods at home rather than eat out, we don’t shop in malls and most of our furniture is second hand.
These lifestyle choices allow my wife to stay at home with our kids and allow us to support a number of charities that we feel are important. Many people look at this as strange. But to me having two parents work long hours just so that they can afford nicer clothes and another car seems strange. When we look at the alternative of my wife returning to work, the cost to our family and faith guiding principles are not worth the financial gain. If we can meet our needs and help others, while also preserving our time together as a family, we are living according to our principles.
Don’t get me wrong; it is not always easy to live life on purpose. This is why we must constantly exercise our fortitude in the face of what society continually tries to turn us into. Granted, our lifestyle choices are not for everyone, but that is the point. The ADS tries to tells us that everyone wants the same life, when in fact we all have very different motivations and desires. Trying to shoehorn ourselves into a one-size-fits-all life just doesn't work.
Decide what you care about,what you can see yourself truly living for. What would you trade some of the ADS for? It is all about choices; choose wisely and you will not regret the life you lead.