For many people, the start of a new year signals an opportunity to start again. The turning of a calendar page, exposing an unblemished run of 365 days, feels like fresh opportunity. It’s not full of the mistakes of the past year; rather, it’s a new opportunity to begin again on whatever that journey may be.
It’s an incredibly powerful feeling, especially at first. The first days of a new journey are always the most exciting as you’re reveling in the novelty of a new routine, with new challenges and new ideas and new experiences.
But then that feeling of newness fades and many of the old impulses show up again, often in force, and it’s at that point that many of our best intentions fall apart.
This is something that’s puzzled me for years. There have been times in my life when I’ve succeeded in completely changing direction, never to look back at my past mistakes. At other times, I’ve completely failed to change my life. In both cases, I’ve started off like gangbusters and, once the new fell off, found that it became a struggle. Sometimes I failed and gave up, while at other times I persisted and succeeded.
What’s the difference between the two? Why did I succeed at my financial turnaround (going from mountains of credit card debt and student loan debt and auto debt to debt freedom and owning a fully-paid-for home in about five years) but fail at other goals, like fitness goals? What was the difference?
I think that the big difference between success and failure at major life goals is purpose. It’s not the tactics of setting a goal and making plans, though that can definitely “grease the skids.” It’s the purpose of the goal. Why are you trying to do this?
What do I mean by that? After a great deal of reflection on life changes that have succeeded versus ones that have failed, I think there were four key elements that differentiate successful changes versus failures. My successful changes have had at least three of these things going for them; most of my failures had maybe one or two of them.
First, I felt that the success or failure of my goal had a real impact on the lives of people besides myself. Many goals that I take on feel like they only really affect me, so when I fail, I’m only really letting myself down. With my financial turnaround, I felt as though my success or failure would deeply impact the lives of my infant son and my wife.
Second, I realized that the things I was losing through this change were not bringing me real lasting happiness and fulfillment in life. With my financial turnaround, the biggest thing I was giving up was a lot of incidental spending, which I had come to realize wasn’t bringing me any sort of lasting joy in life. It would bring me a burst of happiness, but it would fade very quickly. With other attempted changes, I felt like I was giving up things that were bringing me lasting happiness, giving the loss more intensity.
Third, I could perceive a positive domino effect from these changes into many other areas of my life. With my financial changes, I could see how they would eventually benefit most of the areas of my life: my relationship with my wife, my ability to be a successful parent, my career, and so on. With many goals, it’s hard to connect that goal to other areas of life.
Finally, core people in my life were actively supportive of the change. I didn’t have a social pushback against cutting my spending from the core people in my life (though I did lose some friends due to some lifestyle changes, I picked up other friends in the process). Most of the people in my life were extremely supportive of the changes and were encouraging of what I was doing in word and in deed. With other changes, I felt indifference at most from the people in my life and, at times, I felt active resistance to changes I was trying to make.
Successful changes in my life positively impact those around me, don’t negatively impact sources of lasting happiness already in my life, have a positive indirect impact on many areas of my life, and are supported by the core people in my life. Together, those factors imbue a life change with a sense of purpose.
For my financial changes, they just came together without any sort of planning or thinking. My life was extremely primed for this change mostly due to the recent birth of my son and the waves it caused.
The question I’ve been struggling with is how does one create a similar sense of “purpose” at other stages in life to help a person commit to genuine, lasting change? I do believe it can be created, as I did it to a certain extent when I switched careers, but what does that really look like?
In other words, how does a person prime their life for change by giving it a deep purpose? How do you make those four factors happen?
Let’s look at each one.
Positive Impact on Those You Care About
Sit down and ask yourself this simple question.
If I actually succeed at this life change, what is the impact on the life of the five or so people I care about the most?
This is where your immediate family can have a powerful impact when you’re making a big financial change. This simple question can transform something that seems like a personal change into something that profoundly impacts those you care about the most.
My financial change was going to make my wife’s life better. It was going to make my son’s life tremendously better. It didn’t take a whole lot of digging to see that.
This is actually a pretty powerful litmus test for many of the goals and changes in my life. I find that ones that just affect me – at least, the challenging ones – aren’t going to succeed unless I can clearly see that it’s going to have a big positive impact on the life of others. That sense of improving the lives of the people I care about most imbues goals and changes with a deep sense of purpose.
The two major areas I’m working on improving in my life going forward are health and character, and in both cases a lot of my thinking about those changes has centered around how they will impact the lives of those around me. How will being a better person impact the lives of my wife and children? How will being healthier impact the lives of my wife and children? A lot of the benefits have really become clear as of late and thus I feel a stronger sense of purpose than ever before.
So, if you’re struggling to make financial change happen, spend some time thinking about who exactly will benefit from this financial change besides yourself. How will it affect your spouse? How will it affect your children? How will it affect those you care for the most? For me, this type of thinking is incredibly powerful for adding purpose to making big changes.
Retention of Sources of True Joy
One of the biggest struggles I have with sticking with a major life change is that I end up losing sources of joy in the process.
When I made big financial changes to my life, for example, I chose to give up a number of expensive hobbies and routines that brought me joy. I’d remember the fun I had going to bookstores and buying two or three books. I’d reflect on going out with some of the other young professionals I knew after work and dropping money on drinks and other things. I’d think about playing golf with some of my old golfing buddies.
The thing is, as I looked deeper at each of those things, I realized that the joy from those things was very fleeting. While they were certainly sources of short term joy, they didn’t really produce any intrinsic long term happiness in my life, at least not in any way that couldn’t be replicated without spending money.
Take the golfing example. I would think back to the fun I had playing golf with people and I’d long to play golf again, but if I really considered it, I’d actually scratch almost that same exact itch getting some friends together to play disc golf at the park for free. Or, frankly, any sport at the park for free. The joy I got from that experience was in doing something moderately physically active with friends, not from specifically golfing.
The fun of grabbing books at the bookstore? I could actually replicate it pretty well at the library, enough so that the scratch was itched. It was the joy of collecting possibilities, of books to be read.
The pleasure of going out for drinks? I found that having dinner parties scratched mostly the same itch, because the lasting joy I yearned for was having a circle of close friends.
In short, I came to realize that I wasn’t missing anything lasting in my life after the changes I made. Understanding that made sticking with new routines much easier and more enjoyable.
If you find yourself feeling as though you’re giving up something you truly enjoy and value in life to achieve some personal change, tread very carefully. I offer two suggestions.
First, spend some real time thinking through the thing you’re giving up and whether or not it is truly bringing you lasting joy. For example, let’s say you’re attempting to diet and you’re considering whether or not a big pizza is truly bringing you lasting joy. Isn’t the long term consequence of eating big pizzas a big part of the reason you’re trying to diet in the first place? It might bring you joy in the moment, but it turns into the feelings that drove you to make this change.
Second, consider what similar things do give you lasting joy alongside with that momentary burst of joy. In other words, spend a lot of time looking for healthier foods that you do enjoy and make those a consistent part of your diet.
You’re never going to succeed at lasting change if you exclude everything from your life that brings you momentary joy. The challenge is figuring out which sources of momentary joy do not contribute to or, even worse, actually hinder your lasting joy and cut those instead. The purpose of a positive life change is never to make your day to day life feel miserable, and if it is, you’re almost certainly going to fail at it. The purpose of a positive life change is to keep your daily life joyful while putting you on a more positive life track that will also bring long term joy, and that involves figuring out which things in life offer bursts of short-term joy while letting you down long term and cutting those while figuring out what things are joyful short term and long term and emphasizing those.
A banana and a couple of scrambled eggs for breakfast bring me short term joy and long term joy. A giant glazed cinnamon roll might bring me short term joy but it really lets me down long term. I prefer the banana and the scrambled eggs.
A Positive Domino Effect Into Other Spheres of Life
As I alluded to earlier, one of the big reasons that my financial change felt so imbued with purpose is that it seeped into other spheres of my life. I pointed out how it benefited my marital life and my parental life, but it nudged most of my other areas of life, too.
It helped my physical life because I started eating at home more frequently and that made it much easier to choose healthier options. Believe it or not, a burger grilled at home is much healthier than a fast food burger.
It helped my social and spiritual life because my wife and I started getting more involved in our local community.
It helped my avocational life because I started to actually enjoy my hobbies more rather than just collecting more books.
There were all of these little positive nudges in my life due to my financial turnaround.
It’s really worth noting that I noticed the changes because I took the time to examine and reflect on what was changing in my life. A daily journaling habit really helped a lot because it forced me to sit down and think carefully about what was going on in my life, how things were changing, whether I was happy with those changes, and how those changes were connected. I began to notice how all kinds of changes were interconnected and how a big positive change in one sphere of life often brought about smaller but still greatly appreciated positive changes in most spheres of life, even though I didn’t initially see them.
You might not think that changing one aspect of your life can positively impact other areas, but it certainly can. Keep your eye open for it. You’ll find that when you start noticing those ripples, you begin to really appreciate how big the impact of your changes really is and it’ll imbue it with a whole new level of purpose.
Direct and/or Indirect Social Support
As Jim Rohn famously said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” While that might not be perfectly true, you are strongly influenced by the people in your life, and that influence channels your thinking and attitude toward many things. That influence makes some things feel more important and some things feel less important and that influence, channeled well, can strongly help make your life choices seem more purposeful.
I noticed this greatly when Sarah and I took on our financial turnaround. I found that as we de-emphasized a few relationships that were nudging us to spend more and emphasized other relationships that didn’t nudge us to spend at all, it quickly felt more natural to spend less. When your friends stop engaging in “retail therapy” and instead find different avenues for handling stress that don’t involve spending, you find yourself engaging in “retail therapy” less and finding different avenues for de-stressing. When your friends prefer to have a potluck dinner party or a game night at someone’s house rather than going out on the town, you find yourself engaging in potluck dinner parties rather than going out.
When you see your friends having personal traits that you desire and engaging in the behaviors that lead to those personal traits, you find yourself naturally adopting those personal traits with much more ease. It feels more and more like the right thing to do.
And that’s only the indirect part.
If you tell a close friend about a personal goal that you have and ask for their help in achieving it, you’ll be surprised how powerful of a coach that a friend can become. You can ask them for as little or as much help as you need. Good friends can serve as coaches, as mentors, as cheerleaders, and as simple advice givers. In that scenario, progress toward a goal begins to also feel like fulfillment and deepening of a friendship.
How can you use this for financial success? Simply tell your friends one-on-one about your goals and ask them to help by suggesting less expensive things to do most of the time. You might be surprised to find that your friends have similar feelings and that you’re in a situation to help motivate each other, and then you’ve found a social purpose in your goals.
The final point is simple: I don’t necessarily believe that our lives have a singular driving purpose; rather, I think that what feels like “purpose” to us is made up of a bunch of elements that influence our thinking and nudge us in a certain direction. That’s really the “secret” behind these four steps. You’re simply filling your life with a lot of nudges and arrows and signs that make it feel like your life is simply heading in the direction you want it to head.
You might need to look for those signs. You might need to plant a few. You might need to ask your friends to plant a few. But when there are enough in place, you naturally feel like you’re turning in that direction, that the new place is your destiny.
It still won’t be easy, but giving yourself that sense of deep purpose that’s ingrained throughout your life makes an enormous difference.