❝A meaningful life exists at the confluence of one's values and actions.❞ -Joshua Fields Millburn
It's crowded as I walk into the restaurant and make my way upstairs. I'm there with a colleague who has it all figured out. He runs two businesses, volunteers with several organizations, recently published a book, and not so subtly lets me know that he gets three times the speaking gigs I get. Admittedly, I feel rather small compared to him. But I'm trapped now. I have to eat dinner with him.
As we order a couple of drinks, he tells me about the various projects he's working on. The feelings of being small continue because I realize that while I've been wasting my time practicing magic tricks, learning the ukulele, training for squash, and hiking and camping with my wife, he's been spending his time on more work projects than I have.
Forty-five minutes later, his bragging session ends, and he finally asks me about the kinds of projects I'm pursuing. I tell him that I work at the intersection of mindfulness and meaning in life. I share with him how I help people design a life they'd be happy to look back on instead of one they regret.
I continue telling him about the work I'm passionate about when I notice he's tearing up. He admits he's not sure he's using his time wisely. He's worried that with all the time he spends on these work projects, he's missing his kids growing up. He's not even sure if it's a good trade-off to be at this conference when he could spend time with his family at home.
Suddenly it dawns on me that he's been living his life trying to follow a traditional path of success. It further dawns on me that I felt little compared to him because I used traditional success as the yardstick. In this moment, it becomes clear that I've been living my life more authentically and that authentic living comes with more meaning and happiness. I'm able to let go of an unhelpful social comparison.
TRADITIONAL "SUCCESS" DOESN'T WORK
When people think about what will make them happy and what success might look like, they often think about getting what they want. For example, they might think they want a promotion, so they work hard to get promoted, and when that happens, they feel happy. For them, getting what they wanted was how they defined success.
That doesn't seem to be enough, though, because we get used to our situations very quickly. We adapt to what we have. Psychologists call this hedonic adaptation. So it turns out it's not enough to simply get what we want. To be successful, we have to continually get what we want.
Yet we find out that this, too, is not enough. It's not enough to simply have what we want, especially if those around us have more. Social comparison makes it difficult to appreciate what we have and, in a way, encourages us to take our lives for granted. To feel successful, many of us feel like we have to have more than those around us. Researchers found that people would rather make less money or live in a smaller house as long as they still made more than their peers or had a bigger house than their neighbors. Nobody wants to be the person with the smallest house on the block.
The result is that we chase success only to find out that there is no success. And we get burned out in the process.
DON'T REGRET YOUR LIFE
In the book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware writes about the most common regrets people have as they look back on their lives. The top two regrets are that people worked too hard and lived a life that others expected. People often work too hard because they are chasing what they think success means. They tried to get what they wanted, then tried to continually get what they wanted, and finally tried to get more than their peers. But as people look back on their lives, they realize that, even if they were successful, they had neither the time nor the energy to enjoy their success. They realized they would have instead preferred a different lifestyle.
That ties into the top regret, which is living a life that others expected. In other words, people regret not living authentically. Many people live their lives effectively doing what they think they're supposed to be doing. They end up living their lives through the lens of other peoples' values.
Nobody lies on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time with their money or that they had ruined relationships in order to buy more stuff.
KNOW WHO YOU ARE
Living authentically seems to be one of the best ways to live a meaningful life. But to do this, you actually have to know who you are. Many of us are familiar with the social identity that we've created for ourselves. A social identity represents whom we want others to think we are. It represents the masks that we wear and the personas we take on. Social identities are necessary when we live in a democratic society. Society has rules and functions, and people need to follow those rules. But our social identities can go too far if we don't know who we are underneath all those masks.
On top of our social identities sits our worldview. Our worldview could be spiritual, including our religion. It could be our philosophy of life. Effectively our worldview is how we reach out to and relate to others.
We can think of our worldview and our social identities in terms of a tree metaphor. If you walk into a forest, you see several trees...sort of. You actually see several tree trunks which represent the individual trees. These tree trunks represent our social identity because they represent our individuality. If you're standing in that forest and look up, you'll see the canopy. The canopy represents what connects all the trunks. It represents how the trunks interact with each other.
The problem with trees in a forest is that they are susceptible to external events outside their control. High winds may show up and blow away the canopy, shattering our worldview. A heavy storm may even damage the trunk. The part of the tree that grounds it and gives it protection is the root system. The roots of the tree represent our core identity. The roots represent who we would be if nobody were around to impress.
If you have a tree with an undeveloped root system, a minor outside event will topple the tree. With a well-developed root system, however, even if a tornado comes through and rips up the entire trunk, the tree will regrow because resiliency lies in the roots. Resiliency lies in knowing who we are, despite what going on around you.
LIVE IN ALIGNMENT WITH WHO YOU ARE
Once you know who you are, you can begin to live in alignment with who you are. Knowing who you are gives you the confidence to match your choices and behaviors to your values. It gives you a lens through which you can view the decisions that you make throughout your daily life.
As important as doing the things that are important to you is eliminating things that are not important to you. Understanding who you are and choosing to live an authentic life gives you the confidence to ignore the Joneses. It gives you the confidence to applaud other people who are living in a particular way but that you don't want for yourself. You can effectively eliminate FOMO (the fear of missing out) and possibly replace it with JOMO (the joy of missing out).
Not living an authentic life is a common regret in our society. People are seduced by thoughts of traditional success and take steps towards attaining that. Only later do they discover that traditional success is a never-ending cycle of disappointment. Taking some time to understand who you are and what would provide meaning to you as you design your life will help you take steps towards living a life that aligns with your core self. It helps you reflect on your life and tell yourself that you would do it again.
You get one life; live intentionally.
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Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences
Barker, Dan: Life Driven Purpose
Brooks, Arthur: From Strength to Strength
Burkeman, Oliver: Four Thousand Weeks
Gilbert, Daniel: Stumbling on Happiness
Hagen, Derek: Money’s Purpose in Your Life
Hagen, Derek: Your Money, Your Values, and Your Life
Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis
Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here
Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness
Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life
Kinder, George & Susan Galvan: Lighting the Torch
Kinder, George & Mary Rowland: Life Planning for You
Klontz, Ted: Tell Me Why?
Manson, Mark: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
McKay, Matthew, John Forsyth, and Georg Eifert: Your Life on Purpose
McKeown, Greg: Essentialism
Millburn, Joshua Fields & Ryan Nicodemus: Essential
Newcomb, Sarah: Loaded
Seligman, Martin: Authentic Happiness
Seligman, Martin: Flourish
Sinek, Simon: Start With Why
Sinek, Simon, David Mead & Peter Docker: Find Your Why
Sivers, Derek: How to Live
Stanley, Thomas & William Danko: Millionaire Next Door
Wagner, Richard: Financial Planning 3.0
Wallace, David Foster: This is Water
Ware, Bronnie: The Top Five Regrets of the Dying
Whelan, Christine: The Big Picture
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.