Course Corrections

About a week ago, I was listening to a wonderful friend of mine, Heidi, talking about Amelia Earhart. Out of the blue, right in the midst of those thoughts, she burst into song, singing part of this song a cappella:

The lyrics of this song, Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight, go something like this, depending on the version:

A ship out on the ocean, just a speck against the sky,
Amelia Earhart flying that sad day;
With her partner, Captain Noonan, on the second of July
Her plane fell in the ocean, far away.

There’s a beautiful, beautiful field
Far away in a land that is fair.
Happy landings to you, Amelia Earhart
Farewell, first lady of the air.

She radioed position and she said that all was well,
Although the fuel within the tanks was low.
But they’d land on Howland Island to refuel her monoplane,
Then on their trip around the world they’d go.

Well, a half an hour later an SOS was heard,
The signal weak, but still her voice was brave.
Oh, in shark-infested waters her plane went down that night
In the blue Pacific to a watery grave.

Well, now you have heard my story of that awful tragedy,
We pray that she might fly home safe again.
Oh, in years to come though others blaze a trail across the sea,
We’ll ne’er forget Amelia and her plane.

There’s a beautiful, beautiful field
Far away in a land that is fair.
Happy landings to you, Amelia Earhart
Farewell, first lady of the air.

On her last flight, it was pretty clear that Amelia Earhart didn’t know where she was for certain, and thus when she entered a course correction, it took her even further off course. She was looking for Howland Island but, wherever her plane wound up, it was nowhere near that island as the vicinity has been thoroughly searched for any sign of her crash.

Heidi’s point in singing this song – and she always has a point, even if it takes her a while to get around to it – was to emphasize the idea of course corrections. As she put it so well, a course correction in the wrong direction makes things even worse than before, so a course correction is useless if you don’t know where you are.

It’s a beautiful way of looking at things, but it might not make perfect sense at first glance, so let me use an example.

When I first started my career, I took an assessment of where I was in my career and concluded that I needed to build a strong professional network and strong resume going forward in order to maximize my job options. That makes sense on paper, right?

The problem was that I didn’t really have my career figured out in the big scheme of things. My career path was fairly set in stone unless I went back to school for more education, but I was strongly resistant to that idea. I had student loans and didn’t want any more. I wanted badly to get on with my “adult life.”

What I should have focused on at that point in my life is leveraging the job I had to get a masters degree and even a doctorate. I was in a great position to do this and doing so would have set me up for a marvelous career going forward at a very low cost. I should have waited a little while to have children and then I would have been perfectly set up for the stable life that I dreamed of.

Instead, I was looking off in a different direction for those big things that I wanted. I wanted to have a family and a house, but I thought that what was keeping me from it was a lack of a professional network. I didn’t see my debt as an obstacle. I didn’t see the limitations of my career path with the degree that I had as an obstacle. Instead, I saw something as a huge obstacle that wasn’t an obstacle at all.

I was like Amelia Earhart on her final flight, in other words. I was going along a course that already wasn’t quite right, and I was about to make a course correction that made things even worse.

I threw lots of money and effort into building professional relationships. I didn’t put any effort into furthering my education. That came from a lack of understanding of my career.

I didn’t put money away for the future. Instead, I threw lots of money into impressing others. That came from a lack of understanding of my financial state.

I chose to have children right away, not understanding the huge time and money cost that they would bring. That came from a lack of understanding of what it took to be a parent.

I knew what my destination was. I wanted to have a thoughtful career that paid well, with a few kids and a house and a great marriage with my lifelong love. I did eventually wind up there, but I did it by landing on a completely different island that I happened to stumble upon. The truth of the matter is that my course corrections actually sent me out in the middle of nowhere, far from my intended destination, and by all rights I should have just crashed in the ocean; it was only through sheer luck and a stubborn work ethic that I did not.

My original flight plan was a few degrees off of where I should have been headed. When I saw it was going awry, I jumped in with some hasty course corrections and adjusted by a few degrees in the wrong direction. In short, I put myself in a position where I was headed for a disaster.

Here’s the reality: making changes to your life can be a great thing, but you have to make sure of where you’re at and where you want to be headed or else you’re likely to just make things worse.

This really breaks down into two distinct areas: making sure you know where you’re at and making sure your course corrections actually point you to where you want to go. Let’s take a look.

Figure Out Where You Are

If you’re thinking about making changes to your life, the first step in that process is to really step back and get an understanding of where exactly you are in your life. Quite often, that desire to make changes comes from a sense that something isn’t right in your life and that you’re not really heading anywhere worthwhile. Your gut feeling is probably right, but your sense of what exactly is wrong might not necessarily be right.

In other words, that moment where you feel like things aren’t going in the right direction is the exact moment when you should step back and do a serious and honest life evaluation. You need to step back and carefully evaluate your life in every dimension to figure out what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s ugly, what things are vital and what things need to change.

There are infinite things you can do for a self-evaluation of your life. What follows is a really straightforward method I use for self-evaluation; it’s something I do every several months just to make sure I am where I think I am.

The first thing I do is make a list of everything that’s important to me. I just think about my life, ask myself what’s actually important, and then write it down. It might be specific people or things like “immediate family” or things like self-improvement or a particular hobby or fitness or whatever. Just write down things that are important to you.

Now, trim those things down to five things. Start crossing off things. I find it’s easier to simply ask myself if there are five other things on the list that are more important to me than this. If there is, then I cross it off. You can always devote a little time and energy to those things, but they should be strongly secondary to the five core things.

I recommend that those things be centered around different areas of your life. You shouldn’t list just five hobbies or five family members (my wife, my oldest child, my second oldest child, etc.) or five physical attributes (my glutes, my abs, my face, etc.). Try to cover as many of the spheres of your life as possible – physical, mental, social, professional, familial, personal, spiritual. You don’t have to cover all of these, but you shouldn’t have the most important things all stacked up in one sphere or else you’ll find yourself with a very unbalanced life that feels empty in many areas.

Once you have those five things, evaluate your current state in each one of those things carefully. Are you happy with your current state regarding those things? Are you in a good place with each of those things?

You should also consider the foundations upon which those things rest. Are your finances in healthy shape? You can do that by taking a basic financial assessment, calculating your net worth and making sure that you’re spending less than you earn each month. If you’re married, is your marriage strong? If you’re employed, is your employment strong?

I usually find that getting a second viewpoint on those key things is worthwhile. I’ll talk to my wife about how she thinks our marriage is going. I’ll talk to my mentor or my supervisor about how my job is going right now. I’ll ask my trusted friends for their impression of specific aspects of my character. If I don’t have anyone to talk to about something, I’ll talk to a very close friend about it and lay out everything that I can.

I find that my perspective on those things is usually tweaked a little bit by those key conversations. Almost always, I don’t have a perfect understanding of where I’m at with the most important things in my life, and talking to those key players will often clue me in to where I’m awry. This is the basis of a bit of course correction, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Don’t sweat it if you find that your conversations with others point out ways in which you’re not where you thought you were. Almost no one is.

Take all of this together and use it as the basis for understanding where things are at in your life in all spheres – physical, mental, spiritual, professional, social, romantic, familial, and financial. Those things are often very intertwined, so don’t buy into the idea that you can really assess one area without even considering the other.

Figure Out Where You Want To Be

Knowing your current situation is valuable, but it’s much like the equivalent of having a single dot on a piece of paper. You can’t draw a line that leads anywhere without another dot to connect to. That other dot is your destination.

Where do you want to be in five years? Ten years? Twenty years? Those aren’t easy questions, either. Many people have a vague sense of the life that they want at that point and may even have it as some kind of goal, but it’s often not a truly meaningful or clearly stated thing. It’s just kind of nebulous and “out there.”

The thing is, even if you know where you are and know vaguely where you want to go, you can still course correct in the wrong direction. You can still end up with a financial and professional and personal life that’s going to a place that you just don’t want to go.

I suggest, then, starting off with a five year plan for your life. All that means is that you sit down and think about each major area of your life – physical, mental, spiritual, professional, social, romantic, familial, and financial, just like above – and sketch out what you want to have in those areas in five years. As you’re doing this, keep in mind the five most important areas you set for yourself above in terms of what’s important to you in your life, as well as the things upon which those important areas rely (like your finances).

I’ll give you an example, using myself.

Physical: I want to have a weight that’s close to average for someone of my height. I want to be in a little better physical shape, but I’m not really interested in being an “athlete,” just healthy enough to go on interesting hikes and keep up with my kids.

Mental: I want to learn tons of new things and have a sense that I’m learning meaningful new things every day.

Spiritual: I want to have a greater understanding of the major religions and philosophies of the world and what they say about the meaning of life and how to live a good life. I want to participate in a group that reflects on such things, even if it focuses on one particular religion or philosophical tradition.

Professional: I want to keep writing as I am now – reliable and consistent, with an earnest tone. I want to build some free “beginner” courses to supplement and organize what’s on The Simple Dollar, making it easier for people to dip into the years of archives of quality material on the site.

Social: I want to build up many of the friendships that I have into something stronger. I feel like I already have a healthy number of good friendships and acquaintances, but I’d like to strengthen those relationships and maybe add some more on the periphery, in the sense that I have better connections to the community I live in.

Romantic/Marital: I want to be by Sarah’s side through all of the ups and downs that life will bring us. This, of course, means constant “care and feeding” of our marriage.

Parental: I want to guide my children into adolescence and toward adulthood. I want to react to their changes with thoughtfulness and conversation rather than confrontation, and that takes time and patience.

Financial: I want to continue to walk the path to financial independence and perhaps accelerate it a little by cutting out some of our expenses. I want to make sure I’m saving for every major future expense I see coming down the road – college education for my children (for which we intend to pay for part of it), financial independence / early retirement, replacements for our current vehicles.

Those are my destinations in the major areas in my life. When I pair them up with where I’m truthfully at in the major areas of my life, I can now see two dots on that paper. Now, let’s connect the dots.

Figure Out Your Course Corrections

You know where you are, because you’ve done some self-assessment. You know where you want to go, because you’ve done some long-term visioning. Now it’s time to connect the two, and that means course correction.

Most likely, if you continue to do the same things you’ve been doing every day, you’re not going to march straight to that destination you just envisioned. If you continue to eat lots of extra calories every day, you’re not going to hit your target weight. If you continue to fluff off at work and get mediocre job reviews, you’re not going to get a promotion. You get the picture.

You know where you are in terms of the foundations of your life – the five things most important to you and the foundations upon which they rest. You know where you want to go in the major areas of your life. What do you need to do to get from here to there? That’s the key question.

Go through each of those destinations you set for yourself. Think about where you are today. Ask yourself what exactly needs to be done to get from here to there.

For each of those destinations that will require you to do something significantly different in your life than what you’re doing now, start plotting that course correction. Don’t worry as much about the big picture of what needs to change. Instead, focus on what needs to change in your day-to-day life to make that big picture change a foregone conclusion.

For example, if I want to lose weight and reach a lower sustainable body weight, what I really need to do is to focus on eating less each day in a sustainable way so that when I reach that weight, I can easily do it automatically. How do I do that? Some homework is in order, but the basic recipe is to figure out how many calories per day I would eat to maintain that target weight, subtract a little bit from that, and then start counting calories carefully and making sure I hit that target every day.

If I want to turn my financial life around and reach a financial milestone in five years – let’s say it’s debt freedom – I definitely need a debt repayment plan, but I also need a daily focus on not spending money on unnecessary things. A good way to do this is to establish a weekly or monthly budget for non-essential items, which means that everything that isn’t an absolutely essential purchase like a bill or a basic food item comes out of that “fun” budget. That includes things like a morning coffee or a book from the bookstore or a new game.

When you’re course correcting, focus on sustainable daily changes, things that you can do virtually every day as part of a normal routine. If you find that you don’t have time for something new that will take up some time, look at how you spend time right now and trim out some of the unimportant stuff. Start by turning off the television or the smartphone or the laptop, as those things just gobble the hours.

Remember, a course correction is usually just a relatively minor shift in direction. You’re not radically rebooting your life. Instead, you’re molding your typical day just a little bit so that your life naturally starts to move toward your destination. If you cut your daily calorie intake by, say, 500 calories, that’s like two fewer sodas a day, but it will lead to a substantial weight loss over time. If you cut your extra spending by putting yourself on a weekly “free spending” budget and stick to it, you’ll find yourself with more and more money for eliminating debt over time. If you cut half an hour out of your television viewing each day and devote it to a Bible or philosophy study, you’ll find yourself growing spiritually without a new time commitment on your hands.

It’s easy. Know where you are. Know where you want to go. Gently correct your course to take you there. It’s the lesson of Amelia Earhart – if you don’t know where you are and can’t define where you want to go, your course corrections won’t really help and will probably make things worse.

What course corrections are you going to start charting today?

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