How do we map the course of our lives?
As I look back on my journey, the foundation of my transformation was in critically thinking about my life. What do I want? Is the goal happiness? Is the goal meaning? Peace? I continue to make an active effort to live with intention rather than allowing any and every circumstance, or the crowd dictate how my day will go. How our days go determines how our lives go. Awareness is key.
More specifically, I habitually question why I believe certain things, feel a certain way or do what I am doing. I consider what it is I enjoy about life and what I don’t enjoy and regularly adjust accordingly. I journal about it. I read several books a month. This is a practice, a way of life. It's not a one time effort. Every three months or so I revisit these questions and reflect.
I started as an ambitious American who was aiming to climb the success ladder. My goals were like everyone else's. I graduated from university at age 22, which was mostly paid for by academic scholarship. I got a good-paying full-time job and then bought a single family home using a Federal loan that didn’t require very much down. I moved in for less than $3,000.
I am an opportunistic go-getter and have always consumed finance books for direction. In retrospect, I don’t think I ever should have qualified for the home-loan, but that was during the early 2000s when borrowing was easy. It was a little house and I bought it for a relatively small price at the lower end of the market. It was originally to be a “starter home." Thank goodness my wits came to me before I ever “got started” on that black-hole-money-pit-lifestyle. I am referring to the popular cycle of making more money, then buying more house then having to buy more furnishings and pushing your budget to its limits continually so that your lifestyle is always a tad more expensive than you can comfortably afford.
Thankfully, I have always been more of a cautious saver than a frivolous spender. Miraculously and somewhat accidentally I managed to live below my means, which turns out to be one of the best things I have ever done for my finances. My focus at that time was saving money to travel and see friends while still maintaining a house with all of its upkeep and payments and bills.
From day one, I have rented out one or two of the rooms in my small,1,000 square foot, three bedroom home to friends for a low price. Until the day I sold it, I ran an Airbnb out of it. It was always a source of supplemental income. Many people wouldn't do that. They find it inconvenient, but it was a small price to pay for the rewards it delivered.
At 23, I didn’t know much about life. One thing I did know is that my best moments came from being with people I like and from traveling, learning or teaching rather than from sitting at my office job. This may seem like a very simple epiphany, and it is. It also launched a journey to a specific destination. If you aim at nothing, you will surely hit it.
From that simple distinct observation I wondered how I could spend more time doing that while still being a responsible and contributing member of society. In other words, without becoming a bum under a bridge, even though that admittedly has its rightful place too as people can choose that lifestyle intentionally.
A willingness to critically evaluate your life will help you to clarify what it is you are trying to accomplish, or at least what you are not trying to accomplish. In my early 20s, I began to notice that there seemed to be a lot of “grown-ups” who were apparently not happy with their life. I would hear about money issues and debt, sickness, divorce and a general dislike for their jobs, spouses and current life situation. It seemed like most people I knew were stuck in this same predicament, which led me to believe it was an easy way to end up, or likely the path of least resistance. Therefore, I decided to try to evaluate it and find ways to avoid being in that situation in my future. Jesus said narrow is the road that leads to life and few find it.
Changing your perspective
There seemed to be a need for viewing the situation at a different angle to properly evaluate it and avoid the common doldrums. If you act like everyone else then you are likely to end up just like them. The popular view in America is generally that one should graduate, typically with student loans. Then work hard and tirelessly, even at a job you dislike, for 40+ hours a week to make more money to buy more things, whether or not you need them. Try to impress people. Repeat the cycle indefinitely. You should have a multi-thousand dollar wedding and have kids and take out loans to buy houses and cars. You should buy a new outfit for every special event. You need an iPhone and a TV and Netflix and a gym membership and a smart house. But I wondered who sets those expectations on us and why must I follow those guidelines, because it doesn’t really seem to be working for most people.
Research from Harvard and other sources shows us that lasting happiness doesn't come from status or stuff. Rather, it is affiliated with discretionary time, good relationships and a meaningful life.
Why do people generally insist on working 40+ hours a week? Must a wedding cost thousands of dollars to result in a good marriage? Why should I be a slave to my mortgage for 30 years? Why shouldn’t I postpone marriage until I find the absolute perfect mate for me? Why should I spend an hour or more a day watching TV? Why does housing cost so much? Why do I need a new outfit for every event and who is keeping score? Why should I drive a new car every few years? Why can’t I live in several different states at a young age rather than after I “retire” at 65? Why can’t I make money doing things I love to do that I would do for free? This all seems exhausting at the end of the day. Who are we trying to please and what is the goal?
Do you pick your friends based on how new their outfits are? Would you scrap your bestie if she went down to the courthouse to get married? Would you abandon your brother if he followed his passion instead of becoming the C.O.O. of a prestigious firm? If your boyfriend was driving a car that is 10 years old, would you think less of him? You have a right to answer these however you please, but I found that one’s material possessions didn’t determine their value to me. Therefore, I concluded, the people who value me probably don’t care if I drive a new car or have a new dress or where I live. The people who are important to me aren’t ascribing my worth based on my display of material possessions. Furthermore, if they DO desert me because of these things then I suppose the relationship wasn’t as profound as I had imagined it anyhow and I may be better off without them.
I never lost one friend over these life changes. Some think I am strange, but they are by my side regardless.
These intentions were mindfully set early on in my life. It was no fluke that I married my dream man in an affordable wedding. We paid off our house, quit our full time jobs, pursued our passions, maintained an affordable lifestyle and lived as sun-birds by the time we were 37. We had a plan and we took small steps every day towards it. Serendipity favors action. Progress was sometimes slow and uncomfortable, but with our goal in sight, we kept motivated. Our plans changed more than once so we had to recalibrate.
In conclusion, discover what it is you really want. You can always make adjustments. It's never too late. Write down your vision. Decide what steps you can take today to bring you closer. It is possible with work and focus.
Jessica Morgan McAtee