During a recent meal with my family, my sister shared an anecdote about one of her graduate school classmates. The classmate was in the process of buying two houses with her boyfriend. One house in DC, and one on Maryland’s eastern shore.
As the story went, both houses were being sought out for a combined price of not less than $1.5 million.
My immediate and raw reaction: “I hope they both really love their jobs, because they are going to be slaves to them for a long time to come.”
Maybe they do love their jobs. Maybe they inherited a significant amount of money and this is no sweat off their backs. I know nothing about this couple, aside from the anecdote above. Their lives and decisions are none of my business.
It is my business, though, to think critically about my life and my decisions. When I hear stories about decisions being made that have life-long implications, it serves to remind me of the importance of getting those decisions right.
It reminds me of two important perspectives that I strive to live by. They are the perspectives of intention and awareness.
The Hard Questions
To live intentionally and with awareness, hard questions must be asked and answered on a perpetual basis. The answers are not always immediately apparent. Many times, they are hidden under layers of noise such as self-doubt and the advice/opinion of those around you (be it solicited or unsolicited).
The layers get stirred up into a foggy mixture, diluting any clarity that may have been present before. The process of answering the hard questions (and regaining clarity) is essential. In many ways, the process of seeking answers is more important than the answers themselves.
When the hard questions are denied space, then a life is increasingly likely to be built from a default template.
Living Off The Default Template
At the onset of my career, the self-imposed stress of my job consumed the majority of my energy (both inside and outside of work). As a 20-something having recently entered the workforce, I was searching for my identity.
As a result of my insecurity and immaturity, I projected my identity onto my job. Even though I didn’t really identify with it on a deeply personal level!
Because I placed a significant amount of my identity on my job, it became an end instead of a means to an end. Naturally, I had lots of peripheral stress and anxiety as a result. My job became my lifeline.
Am I doing well enough? Am I making a good impression? Are there critical tasks that I’m not prioritizing? Am I letting my team down? Could I be doing more?
These thoughts consumed me. I got lost in the noise. I lost sight of who I was and what mattered to me. It’s not that I wasn’t asking questions. I just wasn’t asking the right questions.
I needed my job to support the glamorous life of post-college freedom. I needed all the trimmings of success that our culture imposes. I was living off of the default template.
As a result, I felt trapped, suffocated, and stuck. I didn’t know there was a way out, let alone another way. I didn’t know because I wasn’t granting myself permission to find it.
The Importance Of Permission
The most important step on any path to self-discovery is granting yourself permission. Permission to question, explore, learn, and test. Permission to think outside the box. Permission to find the self-respect and self-confidence that is needed to achieve great things.
For years, I denied myself permission. I told myself I wasn’t good enough. I told myself I didn’t deserve it. I told myself I should be thankful for what I had. I told myself I didn’t matter, that my thoughts and dreams were trivial. I told myself I was making things difficult by even considering that there might be something better.
I told myself it was not possible. That life was too demanding to consider an alternate path. That I needed to focus on keeping myself afloat instead of getting out of the water.
Slowly but surely, I started granting myself permission. As I took baby steps towards my goals, things started to change faster than I expected. I started to become more confident and clear in my judgement. I started living a more courageous life.
What Does It Mean to Live Courageously?
Living courageously means giving yourself permission to ask questions, and then seeking answers with laser-focused determination and curiosity.
It’s easy to follow the default template. It’s easy to chase the things that everyone else is chasing, and to limit your options and your perceptions of what’s possible. It’s dangerously easy to make really big decisions that have life-long implications, but to take them lightly or make them for the wrong reasons.
Decisions can be made as a bandaid, as a charade or a distraction from dealing with the hard questions.
Maybe you don’t know what fulfills you. Maybe you don’t know how to even start searching for it. So you make some other decisions in the mean time. The decisions seem like a fair compromise, a comfortable default.
Suddenly, a lifetime of comfortable defaults becomes the only path forward.
It doesn’t take courage to do what everyone else says should be done, to seek material pleasures and to follow a scripted life. It does take courage to stand up to a life that is only minimally fulfilling and to take bold steps that confront this issue head-on.
Maybe spending $1.5 million on a couple of houses isn’t a bad decision for my sister’s classmate, I have no way of knowing. But the implications of such a decision are pretty huge, and they need to be understood. In this case, the implications will have ripple effects on the entire remaining life of two people. Asking tough questions en route to making life-changing decisions is necessary to living with intent and awareness.
And asking tough questions might give you radically different answers than the ones you were expecting or seeking. They might put you on a completely different path.
Doing extraordinary things will cost time and money, no doubt. And it will cost tenfold the amount in courage.
Foregoing an extraordinary life, though? That’s a greater cost than all of these things combined.