Back when I was in college, there was a great gymnasium about a quarter of a mile from my dormitory. I would walk over there three or four times a week to exercise. I used to enjoy low-intensity weightlifting and I also often walked on the stair-climbing machines.
I used to always try to go there during less crowded times, but it seemed like there were always people there. What I really didn’t like, though, was when I’d already be there and then a wave of people would come in after me.
Why did I try to avoid people at the gym so much? I often felt like I was somehow in the way of the people that were much more fit than I was. People in tremendous physical shape, often people who were in athletic programs at the college, would come in and stand around waiting for equipment to free up, while I was flailing around in my own mediocrity.
I didn’t like being in the way of those people. I didn’t like feeling so inept by comparison. So I stopped going.
What I didn’t realize at the time was one simple, fundamental truth: Those people were on a different journey than mine. Their journey was for their own particular self-improvement, as was mine. My journey and their journey really had nothing whatsoever to do with each other other than using some of the same equipment.
My journey towards better physical shape was mine and mine alone. I had no reason to feel bad because someone else was at a different point on their own journey toward better fitness.
When I first started becoming frugal, I had a somewhat similar experience.
I would look up and down the block in my neighborhood and see tons of shiny cars in the driveways. I would see lawns that were well fertilized and frequently watered. I’d see all kinds of little signs of people spending a lot of money to keep up appearances.
One part of me felt a little jealous. Their houses did look more “perfect” than my own. We fertilized our own yard, usually using organic materials, so it wasn’t as vibrant green as the other lawns. Our cars have always been used cars, with the exception of my wife’s commuting car which was an entry level model anyway, not the shining Lexuses and luxury SUVs that could be seen in other driveways.
On the other hand, I also felt a little judgmental. These people were spending big parts of their financial future on all of this stuff. They’d be working forever! They were in debt up to their eyeballs … or maybe mom and dad were still paying the bills!
Over time, I actually ended up learning the same lesson from both of these situations.
The truth is that you always need to follow your own path and the path that someone else is on is not your own, so don’t worry about it too much.
When I’m at the gym now, I don’t worry too much about the superathletes. I recognize that I’m on my own fitness journey and they’re on their own journey. We’re not competing with each other. Instead, we’re competing with ourselves.
When I look up and down the street, I don’t worry too much about our lives in comparison to each other. I recognize that I’m on my own financial journey and they’re on their own journey, each with benefits and drawbacks. We’re not competing with each other. Instead, we’re competing with ourselves, trying to build lives that are better than the ones we had before.
With that type of perspective, your relationship with money changes greatly.
Rather than worrying about what other people want or what other people think or what other people are doing, you can focus instead on what you want and what you think and what you are doing.
You can do things and purchase things solely because of their value to you (or to the causes that you care about), not out of some sense of jealousy or competitiveness or inadequacy.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t be competitive, but you can focus on being competitive with your past self rather than with other people. And you can choose exactly which areas you want to be competitive with.
I found that there were three specific things that really launched me into this mindset.
First, I started actively looking at my current life as a benchmark from which to improve. The idea wasn’t that I was doing poorly in any particular dimension of my life, but that I could be doing better.
For example, when I decided that I wanted to improve my finances, I started using my net worth as a benchmark. I tallied up my assets, subtracted my debts, and then looked at that resulting number as a starting point. My goal became to improve that number each month – and it still is my goal. This turned my financial state from something I compared with others using unclear comparisons (like possessions) into something I compared with myself using very clear comparisons (my net worth).
Second, I recognized that other people are on different paths to the lives they want to lead than I am. The person down the block might be on a path where their goals involve driving a new BMW to work because they’re passionate about cars, and they’re much less interested than I am when it comes to financial independence or debt freedom.
That difference in paths doesn’t make me bad, nor does it make him bad. It just makes us different. We value different things in life, and that’s fine.
When I look at it that way, I don’t mind that the guy drives a nicer car than I do. It’s something that he genuinely cares about more than I do, thus it makes sense that he’s driving a nicer car than I am. If I were passionate about my car like he was and I really wanted to drive a luxury model and that life journey was one that I put as a high priority in my life, then I, too, would have a BMW in my driveway.
But it’s not a life journey that’s very important to me, so I’m pretty content with my twelve year old car. It gets me to where I want to go, and that’s more than good enough for me.
By extension, it makes sense that I would be further along on the path to financial independence than that guy because, in comparison, it’s something that’s a higher priority in my life. Again, it’s perfectly fine that it’s not a high priority for him.
That observation leads me to my final point. The simple fact of the matter is that you can’t place a high personal priority on everything. It just simply doesn’t work. If you do that, you’re going to eventually fail at something. You’re going to fall short at something. You’re also not going to be able to give each of those areas the attention and time and energy that they deserve.
In other words, when you make everything a high priority in your life, you end up not doing anything really well and you end up failing in some areas.
I speak from painful experience with regards to this. From about 2005 to about 2008, I tried to “have it all.” I tried to balance career aspirations, a side business, a healthy marriage, parenting, home ownership, furthering my education, building a lot of social connections, improving our finances, community volunteering, and keep up with hobbies and interests.
It almost killed me and I wound up more or less failing at some of those things.
Eventually, what I chose to do is back off of some of those things and set others at a low priority. I wound up choosing one side business – The Simple Dollar – over all the others and even over my previous career. I stepped back from my educational goals. I set some of my hobbies far, far back on the back burner. I focused on my children and my marriage above all of the others, with my finances coming in a close third, and everything else was a lesser priority.
Today, I reap the rewards of that. I have an incredible marriage, three wonderful children with which I have a great relationship, and our finances are in strong shape. I don’t have the career I thought I was building, nor do I have the degree I was once working towards, but I consider those to be great trade-offs.
The key is this: These are the paths I chose for myself, and they’re my own. It doesn’t really matter to me what anyone else is doing. Someone else might choose to focus on their career first and foremost, and that’s fine. Others might choose to focus on a hobby. Still others might be centered around physical fitness or volunteering. They might set their finances as a high priority … or as a pretty low one.
In the end, all that matters is that you figure out what things are truly the most important to you and strive to do the best you can at those things. You should strive to be better at those things next year than you are right now, and find space for doing so by stepping back at other things.
Don’t worry about what others are doing. They’re on their own journey. You might appreciate something they have, but that’s because they chose to set some things at a very high priority in their life that you perhaps didn’t set in your own. Yet, you have your own rewards that come from the priorities that you set. Enjoy them. Be proud of them.
Don’t worry about what others are doing. Worry about what you’re doing and whether you’re headed in a positive direction on the things you care about.
- Related: The Power of Social Indifference