Less But Better
Mrs. EE and I are both doers. We both worked essentially full-time while going to college full-time. When we graduated, we each started our jobs before degrees were in hand. We have continued this frantic pace for about 15 years of our working careers. While working and advancing in our careers, Mrs. EE has picked up 2 additional Master’s degrees. I’ve picked up an additional degree and a designation as a certified specialist in my area of practice. We’ve taken up backpacking, skiing, rock climbing, and then combined them all in our love of mountaineering. We’ve bought a house, sold it and built another. We’ve traveled the world. We’ve started this blog. Oh yeah, and somewhere in there we had a child.
In our society, our work ethic and achievement is celebrated and rewarded. We make good money. We are promoted at work and given more responsibility. Our story has been featured on mainstream websites and held up as what is possible.
What we’ve never done very effectively is sit down and think about what the hell we’re actually doing and why. What do we really want? One of the best things about having a blog is that it forces you to sit down, reflect, and think. Recently, this led me to ask the question: “Have We Got It All Wrong?”
The post that you are now reading was meant to be the follow up to that one. My working title was “The Life Report Card”. The post was a self-assessment of where we were spending our time and energy. I would look at all the areas of life that we thought were important and give ourselves a grade in each. Basically, I was trying to figure out where we could improve. How could we “have it all”?
At the same time, I started reading the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. I had to delete everything and start this post over. This book made me realize that maybe we have got it all wrong.
This book felt like is was written specifically to us. It has challenged me to think in a totally different way. In the spirit of essentialism I am going to summarize the book into one visual and one 3 word phrase.
The visual is the intro to the post. I have adapted it from a diagram in the book. The ends of the spokes represent the places we expend our energy. The image on the left represents the way our energy is scattered in many directions. The image on the right represents the equivalent amount of energy focused to one unified purpose.
The phrase “Less but better” is a quote from the book. I found it very powerful and have been trying to apply to my life since the moment I read it.
We Can’t Have It All
As I started to do the self-assessment, I realized there are many things I love to do, want more of and to be better at. If I dedicated myself, I/we could easily accomplish any of the following things within the next year.
We could sit down, eat dinner and play with our daughter and read her books before bed all without the distraction of work stress, phones, e-mail, etc. I could train for, plan and pull off a major mountaineering expedition or comfortably lead hard rock climbing routes. I could easily spend a couple of hours reading, meditating, praying and reflecting every day and develop my faith more deeply. I could spend quality time with different friends and family at least 2-3 times every week. I could educate myself on real estate investing, sell off our paper assets and be financially independent with a slightly leveraged real estate portfolio with no more assets than we already hold. I could increase the readership of this blog 10 fold with consistent effort in marketing. I could be excellent in my profession. I could begin volunteering and doing charitable work on a regular basis. I could dedicate myself to fitness and have the strength and endurance that I had 10 years ago. The list could go on forever.
I could easily do any of these things, maybe two or possibly even three. I can’t do all of them. However, we constantly try. We think that if we just had a bit more time or a little more balance in life we would be happy or fulfilled. We won’t. Less but better.
The fact is that where we have got it all wrong is being envious. Envious of those that are getting out and having more adventure than us. Envious of those who have already achieved financial independence. Envious of those who have more time with their kids while we take ours to daycare. We could have any of those things, but we can’t have all of them right now. Less but better.
We have got it all wrong by buying into the marketers and societal expectations. “We can have it all”. WRONG. “We can do more.” WRONG. “We can sleep when we’re dead”. WRONG. Less but better.
We must decide what our own purpose is in life and pursue it to the fullest. Now. Less but better.
What is Important?
So of all the things on that diagram that suck our energy and pull us in different directions, what is really important? What is our one purpose in life? What do we want right now? These are hard questions. They challenged us to reject the idea that we could do or have it all. It was humbling. At the same time, it was also freeing.
I can’t say that we have figured it all out. These are things we will think about and work toward for the rest of our lives. We are going to start trying to simplify life and focus on just the few things that matter most to us.
As we look at that diagram, we don’t have that one focus for all of our energy just yet. However, we have sat down and talked about what is truly important to us. We have prioritized things and will try to live our lives according to this whenever there is a conflict for our time and energy.
Our list looks like this:
1.) Our faith in a god that is bigger than us. We must live a life of honesty and integrity in all that we do, staying true to our principles and values. Everything must be done in this context. When anything else becomes a god, be it money, hobbies or even something as important as our own child, we lose our way and end up less fulfilled.
2.) Our immediate family. This is the constant that we both agree on as our joint purpose in life. We will do everything we can to build a strong marriage and provide a loving and supportive environment for our daughter.
3.) Our health. Without our health, everything else is kind of pointless. We need to devote ourselves to regular exercise, eating well, reducing stress in our lives and getting sleep.
4.) Family/Friends/Social. This is the area that we most neglect now as we get so caught up in our own needs and demands. We have chosen to base our lives in a location to give us proximity to our family and friends. Yet, we so often get caught up in being busy that we rarely make time for them. Sure we see our family regularly, but usually it is a few minutes when dropping off or picking up our daughter as we rush off to our next thing. We never regret it when we make time to sit and enjoy the company of friends or family, yet we rarely make time to actually do it.
That’s our list. Anything else really isn’t very important in and of themselves.
What isn’t all that important?
Basically the answer to that question is everything else. However, several things jump immediately to mind that we have elevated to a level of importance that they don’t deserve.
2.) Our Hobbies/Adventure
It may seem odd to see these things written as we write a blog about personal finance and early retirement. However, money and financial independence it will eventually bring are merely a means to an ends to allow more of our time and energy to be devoted to the other things that are higher on the list. Money is merely a tool, granted a very powerful one, that will allow us to live the life we want.
Likewise, while we love to write about our adventures hiking, climbing and skiing while traveling the world, at the end of the day they are not that important in and of themselves. They are only important when put into perspective, as a means to advancing toward what is important to us.
Being in nature can give the sense of how vast and beautiful a world we live in and how small we are in it. Seeking adventures can provide motivation to maintain our fitness, provide challenges to alleviate mental stress of day-to-day life and bring us closer together as a couple. It can provide social opportunities with others like us. Travel has been a way to experience new and different things and escape the stress of daily life.
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if we climb 5.11 rock routes or 5.4 as long as we’re having fun. It doesn’t really matter if we ski longer runs in deeper powder somewhere out west this winter or just spend most of our time cruising down green circle slopes with our daughter at our local ski hill, as long as it gets us outside in the dark cold winter and brings us closer together as a family. We would love to venture across the world or at least the country, but even if we just go to the other side of town it is still good if we are meeting new people, sharing new experiences and learning something new and interesting.
All of these things are simply a way of relieving stress and living a better life. We have become obsessed by always wanting, even needing more. Maybe what we need is less but better.
With that, another of those things that has been distracting from our priorities is writing this blog. We started it to motivate us and hold ourselves accountable to learn to achieve financial independence and plan and execute our early retirement plans. It was a way to make new social connections and develop writing and technology skills, which we could potentially use to earn some income in early retirement. All of those are in alignment with our priority list.
As we’ve grown and developed, I find myself distracted and overwhelmed by the demands of the blog. I am checking e-mails and trying to reply to comments on work time. My work suffers as I am not totally committed to a job I agreed to do. I find myself distracted checking the blog to monitor traffic or edit a post when I should be enjoying the limited time with my daughter and wife after work. My morning writing time runs into my workout time and I skip workouts once or twice a week. The blog has grown into another thing that takes time and energy that I don’t have time to devote to it.
Through this blog I have discovered a passion for writing that will be a part of my long-term future. For now, creating consistent quality content and trying to grow the blog has simply become too much. We will continue to monitor and publish monthly updates of our progress. Beyond that, I don’t promise anything else at this time other than this. Less but better.