Today, on my way to work and on my way home, I listened to The Financial Confessions podcast’s “Burnout, Boundaries, and the Lie of Consumerist Self-Help.” A little sprinkle of advice that we often hear from our parents: you don’t need to spend money to fit in with others and you shouldn’t feel pressured to conform to social standards. Their messaging, wrapped in different language choices from how my parents have spoken of my potential and place in social groups, provided a nice little reminder I could probably use on repeat once a week. Year after year, I’ve sought to hit the next rung on my career ladder and worried too much about how my life compares to that of my peers. The earlier steps were “easier.” Or they felt easier. It is easy to forget who I was at 16 applying for my first job. I carried around a lot of nervousness. Putting my name and some basic information about “qualifications” on that paper application did not make me feel like I was a shoe-in for the cashier job I ended up working for roughly two years. Really young employee me would probably laugh now that here I stand, on the cusp of turning 39, still a nervous person when it comes to interviews of any kind. (I’m talking jobs and friendships alike.)
I loved listening to this episode today because it represents another message telling me it is ok to avoid living life like everyone else. Maybe it’s not the same construct as Eve Rodsky’s Find Your Unicorn Space but the message is pretty close in sentiment. We live in a world that constantly eats away at one of our finite resources: time. This same world is also always encouraging us to spend money, one of our other finite resources, in a quest to show off who we truly are (or want to be). Listening to this podcast today was a wonderful compliment to the one I listened to yesterday on my way home: The Lazy Genius episode #294 How to Celebrate Your Own Birthday. I didn’t plan a week of catching up on podcast listening, but the two podcasts hit me at a moment when I needed a break from my favorite rock and pop songs to fill my commute time.
Given that this year will be my last year in my 30’s, I want to be an example to others that just being you is enough.
For me, it’s time to be done thinking of a career as rungs on a ladder and that ladder you hopped on at 22 or 35 representing everything valuable you contribute to society. I’ve seen for far too many of us, it is a stepping stone at best and for others, it’s an anchor weighing them unfortunately down in a less than ideal spot in life. Yes, we can go up and down a ladder as much as we like in many cases, but some ladders don’t fit where we need to go. Maybe we should start thinking of a career as a hobby farm. We can plant a few things here and there and see what works for the space available, our individual attention span, and personal tastes. We get to enjoy seasonal fruits. We can share the excess value of my contributions where they might be best appreciated. A part of me wishes I had thought of my working years a bit more this way ages ago, but it takes the right influences to nudge my confidence level from “timid newbie” to “What the hell…let’s do it!” At a minimum, I have 23 possible years to accrue more earnings to meet my retirement goals; I could stay on part-time in my 60’s if I find value in the work or find I need extra money; and lastly, it’s always possible, my career journey ends abruptly and I am reliant on disability benefits to nudge my budget away from the red.
Based on where I am today–both in my career and budget–I wanted to mention how much happier I am now that we’ve pared back on mindless spending. This step away from the immediate gratification culture I am often confronted with has really changed my life more than a number of other choices available to me. One of my biggest spending mistakes was my previous obsession with self-help books in my 20’s. Some of it might have been that the genre was doing quite well with publishers at the time and some of it might have been not accepting the fact my post-deployment life didn’t fit the way I wanted it to at the time. I didn’t feel like I was grown up after Iraq. I didn’t feel like I fit well in the Marine Corps’ rigid structure. I didn’t feel like I was part of my friend group from back home and college either. Being lost looks different for everyone and it’s kind of disappointing to realize society is cultivating this idea that conformity is the end goal–but only until being unique becomes marketable again. Around the time that I accepted I didn’t need someone else’s acceptance, life shifted. I realized the Marine Corps was a chapter of my life, one that I could reread over and over again and take new meaning from. If I had stayed in, I don’t know that I would have learned to appreciate money they way I do now.
The podcasts I listened to this week made me feel proud again of my individuality. I don’t have to fit anyone else’s aesthetic. I don’t need to treat my aging body or my true age as something to be ashamed of and there’s no shame in celebrating my journey a bit differently. My body is not a trend to aspire to nor should my way of perceiving the world. We would be lost if we all looked, sounded, and talked the same. My interests don’t need to be trendy and I hope yours aren’t either.
As something who often hates being asked “Tell me about yourself.” I know that who I am is someone I found.
I was once lost because I kept trying to meet goals others projected onto me. Those goals hurt my love of education, how I felt about my body, personal relationships, and career interests. Once I started to care a little less what everyone thought, I started to understand the body, mind, and spirit that make up who I am. This short stature means I often need help; it can take the form of ladders, but most often, it means politely asking a taller person to put something within my reach. My mind is not dented because the hardship of serving in Iraq resulted in PTSD. I am more empathetic than I was before and small details catch my eye a bit better. (Granted, typos happen. I’m working on being a better editor every day!) My love of reading improves my mental state and while I’ve traded in fiction for the allure of reference writing material and memoirs for the most part, I find all reading to be valuable. My spirit is clumsy. That brain-mouth interaction fails me often and my spirit who forgets to pay attention often results in me falling up and down the stairs. My clumsiness is part of my charm–and bruises are evidence I lost a fight here and there with a chair, the dog who ran into me, or the counter that never moves out of my way.
The next couple of steps in my future might not be easy in my quest to embrace my individuality even further, but I’ve faced obstacles before and felt like I didn’t fit in. I don’t care to compete with others (been there, done that) and it’s getting old hearing stories to press on, regardless of the costs. I am happy to hit a year where I am ignoring the hustle culture messaging. Sure, there’s always more money to be made, but I constantly see people with a lot more and they aren’t happy. They just keep changing the goal post they call ‘happiness.’ Maybe it’s $70k a year. Maybe it’s the 3,500 square foot house. Maybe it’s x number of vacations a year. Their dreams are not my dreams, and I refuse to envy them anymore. It may take some time to stop reading an article here and there on some odd case, but I will eventually do better. The life experiences that generally make me happy and feel like I’m living the life best suited for me are pretty simple. Here’s what my full life looks like today:
- We almost always eat dinner together.
- We take turns doing the dishes.
- We don’t raise our voices when we’re angry.
- Avoiding handling money.
- Keeping my commute to a minimum.
- Ample PTO/sick/vacation time.
- Give me a vocabulary challenge.
- Help me see how to better portray my own lived experiences.
- Mix things up with easy reads and long-term reading projects.
- Gather for fun experiences (with and without alcohol).
- Improve my recall of important dates and checking in.
- Avoid gossiping.