Most of us are familiar with falling into the trap of “keeping up with the Joneses.” In case you haven’t heard of this before, it’s the concept of running on a consumption treadmill in an attempt to keep up with the lifestyle of your friends, neighbours, co-workers, etc. You see your friend buy a nice house and a fancy car, so you also go out and buy a nice house and a fancy car. Instead of amassing real wealth, we end up disguising how broke we truly are by purchasing all these traditional capitalist symbols of a “successful life.”
Further inherent in this idea is that we are afraid to feel less-than, so we attempt to match the lifestyle of our peers. The problem that I have with this concept is not that we become broke but that we participate in a cycle where we focus outward to what other people are doing, and use that as a guide for not only how to interpret our happiness but also as some sort of guide on how to live our life. The truth is that what makes someone else happy does not mean that it will make us equally happy.
When I started my first real law job, I thought that I had made “it.” I couldn’t actually explain to you what “it” was, other than I was earning more than I had ever made before in my life. I not only acknowledged my financial privilege, but I also abused it. I spent ridiculous amounts of money on eating at fancy restaurants, buying expensive clothes and spending money on things that I didn’t need. It wasn’t that I necessarily thought that I deserved to reward myself, but rather I saw that my colleagues who worked in my profession maintained this particular lifestyle. I thought that their spending habits was something I needed to emulate simply because we had the same occupation. It was completely illogical but had such a profound impact on my thinking.
It wasn’t until I started confronting my debt and found myself in a committed relationship that I seriously started thinking about my long-term goals. I soon realized that spending all this money on immediate pleasures was not only illogical, but reckless. I mean, I wasn’t any happier. I began to worry that I may have to eventually 'sell out' (a.k.a. work a high-paying job that would make me miserable) in order to fund this upscale lifestyle.
The Flashbulb Moment
I started thinking about what I wanted to achieve in my life. Not just in the next five or ten years, but from now until my last dying breath. When I’m sitting on my deathbed, barely conscious, and I’m reflecting on my entire life – what metrics would I use to determine whether I had a meaningful and successful life? What accomplishments would I be most proud of? If I have grandchildren, what stories, lessons or advice would I choose to share?
After much thought, I eventually narrowed down five, somewhat specific, objectives that were the most important to me. While, I’m sure those things may change over the course of my life, the exercise provided amazing clarity.
Yes, it’s kind of morbid and uncomfortable to think of your impending demise. No question. But it allows you to assess what does and doesn’t matter. It wonderfully forces you to evaluate your daily choices within this greater perspective, which has remained free of influence from others. As a result, you will care less about what others are doing and you will be less motivated to spend money on things that aren’t aligned with your goals. Because in the end, it doesn't matter. You're going to die. And you can't take anything with you.
And so, do yourself a favour, and pause for self-reflection. Look inward. Figure out what matters to you. Determine your big, hairy life goals and your purpose will emerge. After that, design a practical, yet flexible, road map to get you there. Without this awareness, you will become too dependent on living in the present, and fail to sufficiently plan for a rewarding future. Play the long game. Think about your death.