Last Fall, one of my best friends sent me this Tweet:

I was shook.

Because – aside from throwing my health to the wayside – I pretty much live my life in accordance with the beliefs laid out in this tweet.

Most of my anxiety comes from fear of not “reaching my potential.” Thus, I beat myself up when I’m not working every second of the day as I could.

I get caught up thinking that more money will mean more security and therefore more long-term happiness. I obsess over putting in “hard work” now so that I won’t feel as pressured to do so later. I have become infatuated with growth and development.

And I make myself miserable when I can’t live up to these unrealistic expectations every day. Sure, I’ll string a handful of productive days together. But even if I do manage to “get ahead,” I usually squander whatever lead I have when I’m forced to recover from the sprint.

This creates a vicious cycle: sacrifice everything for productivity, experience exhaustion, pause for rest and recuperation, get anxious that I’m not working hard enough, sacrifice everything for productivity, repeat…

And it is this maelstrom that has made me feel like a confused mess for the greater part of the last year.

Status games

Somewhere along the line, I attributed external success to happiness. Specifically, I thought relative status would bring me lasting contentment.

This led me to buy clothes that made me look a certain way, buff up my vocabulary to sound smarter, and pursue a career in consulting that would “put me on the fast track” to a high-paying corporate gig.

Essentially, I started playing a character because I wanted all of the prizes I thought status would bring: external admiration, respect, power, beautiful women, financial freedom, etc.

And while I played the role to the best of my abilities, deep down I resented myself. I hated looking and sounding like a douchey member of the upper-middle class. The work I was handsomely rewarded for created little to no value. Most of the people I met along the way did not align with my core values.

Now, I would be lying if I said there weren’t perks to playing status games. Some of the best nights of my life were spent burning through my consulting paychecks, showing off my JCrew button-ups and Banana Republic blazers, and making out with random girls at the bar. And I definitely made some awesome friends along the way.

But what must go up, must come down. And, as the years went on, the hangovers got worse and worse. The inner battles started to take their toll. I began to wear down.

My escape

The most important lesson in career planning: before you start out, know where you want to go.

The Magic of Thinking Big

While it would certainly make for a more gripping article, unfortunately, I don’t have a “come to Jesus” story that succinctly explains why I left my corporate life behind. For me, inspiration and truth come slowly and find their way into my conscious mind over time.

All I knew was that I needed an escape plan. I didn’t know what I was going to do or how I was going to get there, but I knew I would figure it out. And I knew that getting comfortable living with next to nothing would be a good starting point.

So I bought a van and started living out of it. I still worked full-time at my corporate gig, but now saved virtually all of my paychecks and freed up tens of hours each month by eliminating my commute. I built the cash runway I needed to take a risk and spent my extra time learning about my path to freedom.

It’s hard to believe, but it has been four years since I bought that van. And today I’ve accomplished everything I set out to when I started that experiment. I traveled the world for a year. I moved to Europe (another story entirely…). I launched my own thriving online business that I can work on from anywhere, at any time.

I recently looked back at my old notebooks from five years ago. I was shocked to realize that the life I live today is almost exactly the life I wanted to live back then. And while I’m proud of myself for making my dreams come true, I still feel a ton of pressure to grow.

Instead of enjoying the fruits of my labors and being grateful for the amazing life I’ve built, I find myself focusing only on what I want more of. More money. A bigger apartment. More freedom to travel. A dog. A girlfriend. More, more, more, more, more…

It doesn’t have to be this way

We spend money that we do not have, on things we do not need, to impress people who do not care.

Will Smith

Luckily, I’m beginning to understand why I fall into these traps. I’m starting to see that my desire for more is not a product of my own thoughts: it is a product of someone else’s.

As we are seeing now – with the world economy grinding to a screeching halt – capitalism is based on exponential growth. We need people to keep spending, keep accumulating, and keep growing. Otherwise, the system simply won’t work.

So it is my conjecture that we are conditioned to never be happy with what we have. Because, if we were content, we wouldn’t need to mindlessly buy new things to cure our unease…and, consequently, the economy as we know it probably wouldn’t work.

Thus, we’re bombarded with marketing that preys on our emotions and insecurities to pry dollars from our pockets for shit we don’t need. And then we’re ushered into jobs that crush our souls just so we can pay off the credit card debt we racked up to buy it.

And then we’re tricked by the illusion of status, forcing us to constantly upgrade and signal our prosperity to the onlookers who don’t give a flying fuck. The cycle goes on and on and on and on…

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can be happy with what we have now.

Whose thoughts are these anyways?

Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.

George Orwell, 1984

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that everyone should drop their lives and move into a van, although I do take great pleasure in imagining my readers selling grilled cheeses at Phish concerts while sporting ponytails.

What I am suggesting is introducing intentionality into your daily life. In such a chaotic time as now, there is no better time to sit down and reflect on how you got to where you’re at right now.

I implore you to ask yourself:

  • Is this really the career path I want to be on for the next 5-10 years?
  • Why do I buy the products and subscriptions I buy?
  • Why do I go to the places I do?
  • Why do I hang out with the people I hang out with?

Then ask yourself: are these reasons a result of my thoughts or someone else’s?

When I do this exercise, I realize that most of my desires and actions aren’t intrinsically motivated. Let’s take my obsession with productivity as an example.

If I’m being honest, my desire to grow my business isn’t altruistic – I wouldn’t do this job if it didn’t pay. It isn’t about helping as many people as I can. It’s about accumulating more wealth so I can simultaneously increase my status and decrease my fear of going broke.

To be clear, I like my business and it’s a pleasure to work for my clients. But to sit around and speak platitudes about how I offer my services simply to “make the world a better place” would be disingenuous. Because the reality is that my unhealthy relationship with output comes from a place of scarcity.

Deep down – despite all of my efforts to overcome it – I still don’t think I have enough within me to get what I want from life. And I also believe that, if I were to lose everything, I wouldn’t be strong enough to get it back. Both are destructive and irrational thoughts.

These are the beliefs that drive my relentless focus on productivity and growth – both personally and within my business. My subconscious has convinced me that if I only make more money each year, then I will be good enough to securely get the things I’ve always wanted in life.

The trouble is, these are not my thoughts.

I was not born to constantly ruminate on my place in the hierarchy of modern society or my financial security. I like to think I was not put on this planet to mindlessly toil over a number that flashes on an electronic screen.

But whose thoughts are these? Perhaps the tweet at the beginning of this article deserves a quick revisiting…

My way forward

Long hours spent checking off a to-do list and ending the day with a full trash can and a clean desk are not virtuous and have nothing to do with success.

The One Thing by Gary Keller

So, if someone else’s thoughts don’t make us happy, what is a better recipe? Figuring out what you really want. Start by asking yourself: if I couldn’t go broke and no one would ever find out if I failed, how would I spend my time?

The reality is, this question is very difficult to answer. It takes a lot of time and thought to come to a solid conclusion. And most people simply don’t have the patience or courage to look within…because you never know what you’ll find.

But this is something I am trying to figure out for myself. And I’ve made some progress. More importantly, I’ve found the process to be extremely satisfying, grounding, and fun.

If you’re interested in doing the same and finding your own “truth”, here are some of the activities that have helped me and bring me the most overall joy:

  • learning about things that genuinely interest me
  • creating art consistently
  • talking with friends and loved ones
  • going for walks and other physical movement
  • making delicious, healthy meals (+1 for sharing with others)
  • writing down things I’m grateful for that I otherwise take for granted
  • listening to music and watching movies with an intention to understand what “truth” the artist is trying to share
  • meditating consistently (+1 for self-love meditations)
  • sleeping well, for as long as your body needs

When I incorporate these habits into my daily life, everything else just seems to fall into place. My inner voice becomes more clear and I get a heightened sense of what truly makes me happy. And it’s not the unrelenting expectation of growth that capitalism bestows upon me.

And while all of that might sound very woo-woo to you all (that’s because it is!), these are the only habits and mindsets that have helped me through the constant firehose of uncertainty, scarcity, and fear the media sends our way 24/7.

That, and the fact that we’re all going to die someday. So you might as well spend as many moments as have left with a smile on. Because, as my sister would say: nothing is real.

Remember: it’s just a ride.

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