We often think that a certain level of professional success is required before we can live our lives. Whatever it is–the right job, the next promotion, or perhaps a certain income–we create a finish line at a point in the future and postpone living until it’s been crossed.
But it’s a mistake to think this way. Each of us has what we require to live an active, full life, right now. Professional success is an entirely different matter.
A big reason for this is that “the good life” has been marketed as “living life”. We’ve been sold a specific image of success and led to believe that anything less diminishes our ability to live. The new house or trendy condo, the latest car, and enviable vacations that are worthy of sharing on Instagram and Facebook. It’s the American Dream, right?
I was at the mall last year and saw a banner for lifestyle loans. In other words, loans for larger televisions, a nicer car, and even vacations and weddings. I forget what it said, specifically, but the message was this:
“Hey, so you’re about to get married. Have you considered that you’re going to need to upgrade that lifestyle and keep up with everyone else? No? That’s too bad. But we’ll loan you the money so you can keep pace with your peers. After all, it’s really the smart thing to do in your situation.”
It sounds silly, but is it really that different from what we sometimes do with mortgages, car loans, and other monthly payments? We’re so convinced that we need a certain standard of living that we’re willing to go into serious debt to finance it.
But here’s the problem: “the good life” is the consumer life. It’s neither good or bad, right or wrong. But it’s markedly different from a full, active life that provides meaning and purpose. That’s available to everyone regardless of their status or income.
I frequently see this problem in the self-help industry. For many writers and speakers, everything comes back to money: what tips, tricks, routines, and even philosophies of life will make you more productive, more engaged at work, and less distracted. How can you zero-in and focus; how can you get down to the business of making more money? I recently noticed an article from the London School of Economics which talked about the ways in which mindfulness can make employees more productive. Just think, maybe Alan Watts missed his calling as an insurance salesman.
Seneca had a lot to say about this matter. As is often the case, not much as changed with the human condition over the past two-thousand years:
It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbor’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.
I don’t believe that poverty is ideal. But neither do I believe that a poor person is incapable of living a great, vibrant life.
I don’t mean to suggest that money doesn’t matter. Obviously it’s a problem if you can’t afford to eat or pay your rent. But an increase in income won’t provide something that you have to provide for yourself.
When Megan Tan found herself broke and jobless, she didn’t allow that to stand in the way. Nor did she write an online rant complaining about how bad her situation was. She made a podcast about what it’s like to be a millennial who works at a restaurant and struggles to break into her career of choice. She found a way to obtain her own meaning and purpose.
But I get it. It’s difficult to keep your head above water when you feel like you’re drowning, and I know what it’s like to be unemployed or go to work every day at a job that you absolutely hate. I’d come home exhausted both physically and mentally, looking for some form of escapism to make me forget about it. Some way to unwind. I binged on Netflix, drank and ate a lot, and spent countless hours playing video games.
So what’s a person to do?
Based on my experience, here’s some practical advice that may help.
- Make your free-time count. The late Dr. George Sheehan, author of Running and Being, wrote a lot about this issue. We have twenty-four hours each day, and for most people they’re divided up into three segments: work, sleep, and whatever. The latter part, if used wisely, will completely revitalize an otherwise dull life. People complain about not having enough time, but what are they doing after work, exactly? Even if you’re terribly busy, you probably have thirty minutes or an hour that you can carve out of each day. So do it. Make it count.
- Try new things. If you don’t know what you like to do, then try something new. Buy a day pass at a local rock climbing gym, borrow or rent a bicycle, join a Couch to 5K program at your local running store, get on Meetup.com and find a group that shares one of your interests, visit a book club at a local coffee shop, pay for a month of yoga lessons from a reputable instructor, or volunteer at a non-profit. Get comfortable being uncomfortable, and embrace the unknown. You don’t know what you like until you give it a try.
- Cut back on the entertainment. Cancel Netflix, shut off the television, and step away from the world of Fallout. I love that stuff as much as the next guy, but there’s a point at which entertainment makes you comfortable being bored. I’ve spent countless nights binge-watching television not because I wanted to, but because I couldn’t think of anything better to do. Take a break and see if it makes a difference.
- Take a break from alcohol and other substances. Just like the entertainment, it makes boredom tolerable. That’s not what you need right now, so give it a rest.
- If you’re overweight, lose the weight. I used to weigh eighty pounds heavier than I do now. That’s the equivalent weight of some MMA heavy bags. Although the “health at every size” mentality seems to be all the rage these days, I can say unequivocally that losing weight was one of the best decisions I ever made. I changed my lifestyle, and it’s changed my life. I don’t just look better, but I feel better. It’s helped me to become more positive and outgoing.
- Do those things you’ve always wanted to do. Maybe you’ve tossed around the idea of writing a book. Perhaps you’ve fantasized about starting a company. Whatever it is, you’ll experience a positive change in your life if you get started right now. Start small if you have to, but do something every day that moves you in the right direction. Seeing small, incremental progress is a powerful motivator. There’s no better moment than the present to take action.
- Change the way you think about employment. We’ve been sold on the idea that “who we are” and “what we do” are the same thing, but that’s not true. Nor is it true that our jobs are supposed to provide a grand sense of meaning and purpose. Some of them may, but let’s be honest here: most of them do not. We work them because we need the money–end of story. But that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with admitting this. And the sooner you do admit it, the sooner you’ll stop expecting your job to provide something that it can’t. This line of thinking, ironically, has made me a better, more productive employee.
There’s so much to do. There’s so many ways to find meaning in life.
You don’t have to wait until you’ve reached a certain level of conventional success, and you don’t need anything other than what you have right now.
So what are you waiting for? Let’s get started.
Did I miss anything? Am I right or wrong? Leave a comment and let me know.