I used to dream that I would grow up to be 6'6″ and black. I wanted to be a basketball superstar like Michael Jordon, and that’s what it would take.
I was willing to do what it would take.
Let’s not focus on my failure to grasp genetics, though. And let’s not start calling 3-year-old Patrick a racist for noticing an NBA-wide trend.
Instead, let’s focus on dreams. I had ridiculous dreams. As a small child you have dreams that are just as ridiculous. And for a brief while you’re taught to foster these dreams.
You have dreams of growing up to be this:
At least those are the dreams that you will remember years from now. The dreams that answer the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Adults ask this from a place of love, trying to give you the spotlight. They ask it because that’s what people ask. But the question is not without its dangers.
You won’t remember your other dreams. Your non-career dreams. How you want to be a superhero, or how you want to build a whole city out of legos. Few people are asking about these dreams.
Except for your parents. Your parents are encouraging you to run wild with your imagination. They are great parents. But they are busy parents. They love you, so they’re each working 50-hour weeks so they can provide for you. So they can afford to take out a big mortgage on a big house. So you can be happy.
They’re busy driving you and your sister to and from different schools. They’re taking you both to different sports practices and music lessons. They have to coordinate with the babysitter. They have to cook and clean and take care of you.
So when you ask your parents every night if you can watch TV, of course they say “yes”. Maybe it’s not in your best interest long-term, but it’s their only chance at 90 minutes to themselves. And since you want to watch TV, it’s hard to blame them.
These are the same parents that have quotes like this one hanging on their walls:
And they’re trying. But like we’ve established: they’re busy.
As you age, you want things. And your parents love you, so they buy you those things whenever they can. Sure, that new video game console means 10 extra hours Mommy and Daddy have to work away from their family. But they love you, and they know that the video game console will make you happy.
That pattern will continue throughout your adolescence:
More wants. More work. More possessions. Less family time. More TV-parenting.
When you’re watching crap like this:
You’re bombarded with commercials for toys like this:
And you might nag your parents to buy you those toys. Or they may not interest you. But more impactful are the advertisements that you’re shown that are aimed at your parents, like this:
No, you’re not going to ask your parents to hire you a financial planner. But there are underlying lessons that are impossible to ignore. Namely:
You need money. Money makes people happy. Money defines success. How much money you have defines how much better or worse you’re doing in life than your peers.
And this is all before your 5th birthday.
Then you go to school. Your dreams aren’t directly or immediately ripped away from you. It’s a slow process. Over many years of school you’re taught to be an obedient worker.
Your life starts to sound a lot like a Twenty One Pilots song that will be released when you are an adult:
We used to play pretend, give each other different names
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face
Saying, “Wake up, you need to make money”
This isn’t a conspiracy theory story, though. Whether you are taught to be an obedient worker for the benefit of a few elite is not at all the point. You can go argue about that somewhere else.
The point is that, regardless of intention or lack of intention, the American school system curbs your expectations and prepares you for working a 9-5. And you’re taught to call it a “9-5” your whole life, even though it’s an 8-5 most places. You’re conditioned to welcome the idea of being this guy…
… or this guy…
… for 40 hours per week for the next 45 years.
And at the same time you’re taught to stop being a kid. You’re taught to be calm. You need to sit in a chair for six hours at a time and pay attention to your boring teachers. And if you’d rather play or joke around than focus and take notes? Then your parents get a phone call.
You’re taught to stop being this kid:
And to start being the kid who sits in one of these things all day long:
If your teachers and your parents are unable to reign in your kid-ness? There’s a medication for that.
You’re taught to do what you’re told and to trust what you’re taught. Critical thinking? No. And you never think anything of it. You’re explicitly taught not to challenge authority. And you accept that, because challenging authority seems like something bad kids would do.
You don’t realize that challenging authority can be as simple as reading the textbook to confirm whether what your teacher just said is true or not.
But did you even have to be taught to not think for yourself? You’re human. You fear ostracism. So unless you’re courageous, you conform. And you’re not courageous. If anything, you want more of this in your life:
And so not surprisingly, you go on with life accepting the things that are told to you, and taking them for granted.
For the next 10 years you’re repeatedly told by every teacher and every coach that you need to focus on your grades so you can get into a good college. That idea is reinforced by parents and friends and parents of friends.
It’s reinforced by every college basketball game that you watch on TV, with constant commercials like this:
You’re hardly, if ever, directly told that you need to go to college to be successful. You don’t need to be told that. This idea is so strong that it doesn’t need to be said directly. It’s assumed.
Even if you do express doubt about the idea of college, which you don’t, you’ll be quickly shot down by everyone around you. People with college degrees from places like this…
…don’t like when you question the importance of college degrees. Naturally.
And if you don’t have enough money for college? If you don’t have the luxury of having parents that can afford to pay for college for you? Then you take out a loan. And you don’t even question it. The loan can be for any amount and with any interest rate. It doesn’t matter. You’re not interested in negotiating rates.
You’re 18 years old. What are you supposed to know about the gravity of being $80,000 in debt?
More than likely, you’re not going to college to learn about something that you have always cared about. You’re going because that’s what people do. That’s what successful people do. You have plenty of time to figure out your major after you sign those loan agreements.
You finally do decide on a major. You read two blog posts about it, and it sounds pretty interesting, and you have to pick something. You end up deciding on Human Resources or Literature or some other degree grouped in the “useless degree” category.
It’s not that the degree is inherently useless. It’s not “useless” because you aren’t bound to make heaps of money. It’s not at all that the field you chose or the work you do will be useless. I’ll be the first to tell you that your interests are more important than your paychecks. But you’ve just made a decision to take on a massive amount of debt for a degree which will struggle to provide enough financial value to pay back that debt.
For the next four years you have the best time of your life. You work hard, but you also get a little awnry at times. You’re given the first taste of freedom in your life. Freedom to get yourself into trouble but also to think for yourself. And if ever there will be a time in your life where you do think a little bit, this is it. But not too much thinking.
And then comes the big day:
Ah, graduation. You did it. And now the world is your oyster.
Except that two months after graduation you end up settling for a job at Walgreens making $14/hr. You were judicious in your job search. There just wasn’t anything else. Your $14/hr is more than the $12/hr you’d be making without that newfound degree.
The numbers don’t add up.
Meanwhile a few of your college friends are doing well financially. To keep up with them you have to spend some money. Dinner. Drinks. Entertainment. Travel.
And a bunch of these little guys:
But that’s okay because everyone says that you should borrow a lot of money. Because then when you pay it back, you’ll get a great credit score. And you can’t get by in life unless you have great credit.
You’re paying off the minimum on your student loans, and adding consumer debt even faster. Soon that $80,000 in debt turns into $105,000. Which isn’t too bad considering that:
The average American household is $203,163 in debt.
And all that debt is not for a lack of hard work. You’re working your ass off. You’ve taken a side job and are now working 55 hours per week.
Nor is the debt because you’re complacent. You’ve been diligent about advancing your career. You’ve taken risks. You’ve lept at opportunities.
Fast forward a few months and, at the age of 23, you’re making $40,000 per year.
You have a good corporate job now with good benefits. Included in the benefits package is rush hour traffic.
You leave for work at 7:20 every morning and get home from work at 5:40. It never occurs to you to ask your boss if you can work 6-3 instead of 8-5. You spend 80 minutes on the road each day even though your round-trip commute only takes 40 outside of rush hour.
Playing on the radio on your commute to and from work? A combination of songs that you’re sick of and talk shows that annoy you. But you never consider listening to an audiobook or a podcast, or even turning it all off, instead. Everybody listens to the radio in the car.
As soon as you get to work you can’t wait for lunch. You can’t wait to get another coffee. You can’t wait until you have to go to the bathroom. You can’t wait for a water refill.
You can’t wait for 5:00.
But 5:00 comes and you don’t leave. You can’t be seen being the first person to leave. Effort is important. Perceived effort is more important. Working more than what you’re paid to work is a virtue.
Yet you tell people that you love your job and you think you mean it.
You’re steadily climbing this proverbial guy:
But all that ladder-climbing is not helping as much as you thought it would. Nor is your $140/mo cable/Internet bill. Maybe the high price tag is worth it to you, but it’s something that you simply take for granted. You don’t stop to think for even a fraction of a second about whether or not this is a bill and a service that adds value to your life. Everyone else pays for it. And so do you.
You religiously watch your favorite news program every single night. It always makes you sad, but you never make the connection. You never stop to think about how CNN is showing the most horrific content because that’s the content that keeps you glued and, therefore, makes them the most advertising dollars.
You think that CNN is an accurate depiction of the world. It makes you depressed. But you can’t stop tuning in.
By 23 you’ve already settled into a life of mostly work and TV. You still hang out with your friends occasionally, and you still do some fun things, but for the most part your life is on repeat.
And as time passes, the repetition skews stronger toward the side of the TV. And to the side of the computer. And to the side of passive happiness in general.
You more or less turn into this guy:
You find yourself staying up until midnight watching football games you don’t care about, even though you like to be in bed by 10:30. You find yourself going on your computer to “check something real quick” and then realizing hours later that the night is gone and you never went for that walk like you intended.
That’s your life.
At the same time you start to settle into the workforce a bit. You start understanding adulthood a bit. You start to have a bit of a grasp on the implications of all this debt you’ve taken on. So you cut out the $4 coffees:
And the $6 beers:
And you start chipping away at that debt.
The take-out coffee and the drinks. That’s what all the blogs said to focus on. And it’s a great start. But it’ll take you a couple more decades to realize that those aren’t your major financial issues.
By the time you’re 25 years old that $105,000 in debt is back down to $80,000. And now you’re making $50,000 per year. You’re making a ton of money compared to the average person. Life is looking up.
Despite your raise, though, your debt pay down has stalled. And you can’t figure out why. Lifestyle inflation has crept in.
You’re a few years into a serious relationship. Your girlfriend deserves $80 flowers and a nice dinner on Valentine’s day. And even though she’s told you a dozen times that she doesn’t like chocolate, and even though you don’t like buying chocolate, somehow you find yourself buying these for her all the same:
Now that you’re making good money, you buy nice gifts for your girlfriend, your little sister and your parents on Christmas and their birthdays. But you’re smart about it. You make sure to wait and do all of your shopping on Black Friday.
You don’t know why your debt payment has stalled, because you have nothing tangible to show for all the money you’re spending. You’re not fully aware that you’re spending it.
Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t do nice things for people or treat yourself to a dinner out every now and again. Of course you should. But it’s so ingrained in culture that you aren’t even aware that it’s happening.
Soon enough one of the best nights of your life is upon you. You’re engaged. And in getting engaged, you’re pressured into buying a $6,000 ring.
And how can you be blamed for doing that?
If you can’t afford to spend two months’ salary on a symbol of love, then how do you expect your marriage to last?
The least you can do as a sign of your love is to make this small financial sacrifice. In addition to being the ultimate romantic gesture, it signifies how important you consider your wife-to-be and the sacrifices you’re willing to make for her.
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend? Right? The advertisements might as well just say this:
Even if you are able to see past that utter bullshit, you’re still in a tough spot. Your wife-to-be has to also see past the bullshit, otherwise you’re still buying that ring. And even if you’re both able to see past the bullshit, you still have to be okay with a life full of judgment.
People will judge you your whole life for not being able to afford a nice ring. And they’ll judge her her whole life for not being with a man who cares about her. You could have $200,000 in the bank and these judgments wouldn’t ring any less true.
You don’t want to care what people think. But you do care.
So you buy the ring. And incur another $6,000 in debt.
Fast forward 18 months and you’re having the wedding of your dreams. 140 people. Top-shelf flowers. The Grande Ballroom. The featured menu options. It all comes in at just under $28,000. You escape this financial bullet, though, because your parents and your in-laws have taken this one for you.
You’re married. You’ve been living together for a while. You’re sharing expenses. You’re both employed full-time. Now you’re paying the debt doubly as fast. But there’s also double the debt to pay. And in the process of working to pay that debt you don’t see each other as often as you’d like.
You both work and work and work and work. You don’t have much energy or inspiration for a life beyond work. So when you come home you pop open your $1,800 laptop and browse Facebook until it’s time for bed.
This becomes your typical day. And your days become your life.
Work. Facebook. Sleep. Work. TV. Sleep. Work. Work. Sleep.
Slowly the sleep gets less and the work gets more. The Facebook and TV stay about the same. By this point you’re 29 years old and down to $40,000 in debt between the two of you. But you’re not terribly happy.
You’re done accruing debt. You know it’s making you miserable. No more. You have a 4-year plan to get rid of the remainder. By the time you’re 33 you will be debt free. Life will be better then.
At the same time you keep seeing all of your Facebook friends buying houses. It gets you thinking: you have a stable job. Your wife has a stable job. All of your Facebook friends seem happy. And you’ve always wanted to own a home. The area that you’re in? You like it enough. You could see yourself here forever.
So you buy a home. A gorgeous, modern, $350,000 home on a 30-year mortgage. Yes, technically speaking, you’ve just taken on another mountain of debt. But this is different. Your whole life you’ve been taught that a mortgage is a “good debt”. It’s an investment. And at 30 years old, you’ve just committed to your next 30 years.
But it’s worth it. Because this will make you happy:
With 5% down, you’re stuck paying PMI for years. You’re paying the minimum toward the mortgage each month because you bought at the very, very top of your price range. But let’s be honest. You’re also paying the minimum each month because… who doesn’t pay the minimum each month? The bank told you a number to pay so that’s the number you pay.
In the first six months of home ownership, that $40,000 of “bad” debt balloons back up to $60,000. Furniture. Light fixtures. Stuff like that.
And that debt cycle continues. You pay down a bunch and then you redo your plumbing. You pay down a bunch and then you get a new water heater. You pay down a bunch and then you get new kitchen appliances. You pay down a bunch and then you do a bathroom remodel.
Sometimes you get close, but you never get to zero.
Oh and that mortgage? You somewhat grasp the financial costs of it. But you never consider the life costs. How many opportunities will that mortgage prevent you from in life? Potentially none. But you’ll never know that for sure. And that won’t stop you from looking back on your life and wondering when you are older.
No, a mortgage is not a life sentence. You can sell. But that’s a big hassle and a big expense.
Preparation + Months of Waiting + Closing costs + Commission = Suck
It’s massively inconvenient. And that inconvenience will be enough to turn you away from most or all spontaneous opportunities that come up in life.
Your friend will text you one day and say “hey man, you and your wife should totally move to Arizona with us for a couple of years.” And you’ll respond “dude, you know I would, but I’ve already got this house here.” He was probably just dicking around anyway. And you probably wouldn’t have really gone anyway. And Arizona probably would have sucked anyway. But you never find out.
Your trend towards social conformity only grows stronger as you age. Your life looks exactly like the life of everyone around you. You spend every Sunday morning in church because that’s what everyone else does. You spend the rest of your Sundays, along with Monday nights and Thursday nights, watching Football. Because that’s what everyone else is doing. You always make sure to watch the most popular TV shows so you can talk about them at work.
Your Mondays look like this:
Your Tuesdays look like this:
Your Wednesdays look like this:
Your Thursdays, because you decide to spice it up, look like this:
And between the time you leave work and the time you turn on the TV, your life looks a lot like this:
You eat the same crappy diet as everyone else.
You have a donut every morning and a soda every afternoon. You constantly snack on the junk food that your coworkers bring in.
Sometimes you deviate. Sometimes you get inspired to eat adequate protein, healthy fats and heaps of vegetables. And lots of water. You lay off the vegetable oils and the processed foods. This lasts for three days. Then you’re right back to eating Subway and Doritos.
You occasionally get the drive to do some exercise. You hop on the elliptical for 90 minutes. Two hours later you massively overeat because you “earned” it. You seriously ponder why you’re overweight. “It’s just not fair,” you think.
Just like that, you’re back to the same diet and lack of exercise as everyone else.
And you go on the same typical vacations as everyone else.
You even poop like everyone else.
Without knowing a thing about you, a random critical-thinking stranger could probably guess exactly what you’re doing at any given point in your week.
Luckily for you in this instance, your lack of thinking shields you from realizing the monotony of your life.
Pretty soon it’s time for kids. By the time the second one pops out you’re in your mid 30s. Your careers are continuing on their upward trends, just as they will for the rest of your working lives.
The thing is, though, you don’t have the time to be a parent. At least not the kind of parent that your kids deserve. Aside from the wellbeing of the kids, you also neglect the wellbeing of yourself. These kids are an – albeit incredibly cute – bucket of stress that you’re not prepared for.
Of course providing for your children is important and you are to be commended for taking that role seriously. And there’s no doubt at all that you love your kids with all of your heart.
It’s just that, well…
Maybe your heart is misguided.
You dump your kids in daycare at first, and then in after-school care later on so that you can pay for their big house and make sure they have all of the latest Xbox games. From any outsider looking in, you are the perfect parent.
Which isn’t that far off from true. Because you certainly care as much as anyone could. And that’s got to be the most important part. But you don’t always think.
You don’t think about how, even though your kids ask to do this:
Maybe long-term they’d be happier with a bigger dose of this:
And not-thinking has become a pretty consistent staple of your life. It’s easy. Let’s let Stephan explain why in his marvelous Australian accent:
Weighing the plausibility and the source of a message is cognitively more difficult than simply accepting that the message is true – it requires additional motivational and cognitive resources.
After long, stressful days at work, you need a few minutes to relax. Which is understandable. As a result, instead of feeding your kids a diet of attention and home-cooked meals, they get fed a diet of please-go-play-on-your-iPad-for-awhile-and-leave-Mommy-and-Daddy-alone with a side of boxed Mac and Cheese.
And just as your parents turned more to TV-parenting with each passing year, you turn more to iPad-parenting. It’s so easy, and just like your parents:
As your stress levels continue to rise, so too does your tendency to pacify yourself with mindless hits of dopamine. Junk food, Facebook, TV. Anything that provides an instant, readily-available relief.
Before too long you’re no longer the parent who’s analyzing your daughter’s every move at her soccer scrimmage. Instead, you’re the parent who’s constantly on his phone. And your wife has gone down the same path. You both miss moments like this that you’ll never get back:
As your children vie for your attention, it becomes harder and harder to obtain. Maybe they “act out” in order to get your attention. Or maybe they are just sad.
But either way, they’re very aware. And likely you’re completely unaware. They’re just “going through a phase.”
But this isn’t a story about parenting. Your kids grow older and eventually move out and likely follow this same life trajectory. This isn’t a story about them either.
The truth is, there’s not much to tell from this point on. You’ve crafted your life, intentionally or not, and you’re sticking to it.
You keep working hard and moving up the corporate ladder. And you keep being “happy” about that. Soon enough your assets outweigh your liabilities. And then eventually you have no liabilities at all.
You turn 65 and your house is finally paid off. 65 instead of 60 because you refinanced to put on that huge new deck just like all of your friends have.
As the years go by, your aches and pains grow. Your whole life you’ve gone from the bed to the car to the desk to the couch. Your back hurts. You go to the doctor and he says “Oh your back hurts? Here take these.” Your back hurts a little less for now. And it hurts a little more in a few years. It never gets better.
Five years later you retire. You have a comfortable amount of savings at this point. Your finances are no longer a concern. You can easily live on the amount of money you have and then some. You can afford to take a few vacations here and there as well. And you’ll have some leftover to pass onto your children when you kick the bucket.
You did it.
This story gives every benefit of the doubt. It contains no tragedies. No divorce, no car accidents, no layoffs, no food stamps, no cancer. Nothing went “wrong” in this story.
This story isn’t about a “lazy” or “unmotivated” or “scared” person who is stuck in the same job his whole life. It’s about a constantly advancing career. It contains no career struggles. It contains no career stagnation.
This story assumes that you stick up for yourself. That you ask for raises when you think you deserve them. That you look for new employment when you think you’re being undervalued.
This story is the American dream.
Work hard, grow in your career, earn more and more money every year, buy expensive things, and have enough money left over to pass some off to your kids.
Hopefully, though, this was not a story that you want to model your life after. And if you don’t want your life to end up this way, the prevention is simple:
Think for yourself. Question things sometimes. Have a healthy amount of skepticism. Play both advocate and devil’s advocate to major life decisions. Don’t rush into those major life decisions impulsively.
Again: think. And realize that it’s never too late to start thinking.
For me personally, that thinking has led to a few counter-culture mindsets. Most notably I’m a minimalist and an atheist. I don’t wear shoes very often. I speak my mind. I don’t watch TV, and actively avoid all news outlets. I’m “weird” by most conventional standards.
But that’s only me. The point isn’t where you end up. The point is that you get there on purpose.
I haven’t always thought. I have a condo that I don’t want and a mortgage to go along with it. I own a car that’s far too nice because at the time it was sexy. I’m lucky that my college degree (in Computer Science) is something I use. I work 40 hours per week, but I’m fortunate enough to generally enjoy my job.
I have parents that didn’t take the easy way out. I played outside. I explored. My video game time was severely restricted.
I’m lucky. And even being lucky, I’m guilty of at least half of this story.
Maybe it seems hypocritical of me to have written this story. Maybe it is. But the point of the story isn’t so much how you’re living your life. The point is to be aware of how you’re living your life.
I’m not here to judge. For you, maybe massive debt and long hours and fancy things are what you truly want. That’s fine. Maybe, just like me, you decide that the negatives of a 40-hour work week are worth it. But at least, by challenging conventional thought, you’ll know it’s what you want instead of just thinking it’s what you want.
An unintentional life accepts everything and does nothing. An intentional life embraces only the things that will add to the mission of significance.