Who’s In Control of Your Life?

Let me tell you three stories. The first comes from my own life, while the other two are things that I’ve observed recently.

* * *

For my own tale, let’s roll back several years.

At that time, I worked as a research assistant focusing on data mining. My job mostly revolved around writing tools for researchers to explore a very large data set in a simple fashion, essentially enabling them to make connections within the data at a click of the mouse, and I also spent a significant amount of my time digging through the data myself, looking for useful patterns and trying to make sense of it all.

I really loved the work I was doing. When I was actually doing the data mining, or when I was working with researchers to come up with ways to help them explore the data on their own, I deeply enjoyed the work. It was intellectually challenging, interesting, and meaningful. I also dearly loved the small team I worked with at the time.

What I didn’t enjoy was the bureaucratic end of it. I didn’t enjoy the travel. I didn’t enjoy the many bureaucratic meetings. I didn’t enjoy the constant filling out of forms that seemed to be largely purposeless. I didn’t enjoy the constant change in how we filed our travel receipts, the constant changes in our email services, and many other aspects of the job that were purely bureaucratic.

I was also frustrated by how there were constant promises of more resources that were sorely needed to actually improve our offerings, but those resources seemed to never actually materialize. Because of that lack of resources, I felt my work slowly turning from creating useful new things and discovering new data connections to just maintaining tools so that they wouldn’t break when other people changed things. I gradually became more and more responsible for IT management, fixing servers and things when they had problems, and that caused me to have to go into work on more and more weekends and spend more and more time effectively on call.

Over time, my feelings on this job began to shift. I went from feeling great about going to work each day to dreading going to work, particularly on days when there were meetings and particularly on days leading up to travel.

For the last year or two that I worked at this job, I felt miserable. Travel was causing me to miss several big moments with my children, including my son’s first steps. Most days were filled with bureaucracy and maintenance. I felt deeply unhappy.

So, why did I stick around for that last year or two? The big reason was that I felt like I needed the job. I didn’t have strong financial control over my life yet and thus I really needed the stability that the job provided. In short, that job and that situation had control over my life. I couldn’t walk away without putting my wife and my young children in a very precarious place.

* * *

The second story comes from a reader who I’ll call Jeff, who wrote in with a long story for the reader mailbag. After some back and forth conversation with him, he wanted me to share his story in a post.

Jeff grew up in an upper middle class family. In college, he fell in love with Suzanne, who he thought was also upper middle class until, shortly before the wedding, he learned that Suzanne’s family was rather wealthy thanks to her grandfather. Suzanne has a large trust in place for her that’s controlled by Suzanne’s mother. Suzanne and Jeff have been married for several years and apparently they’ve spent much of this time jousting with Suzanne’s mother, sometimes even in court, to gain access to the trust. It is apparently up to Suzanne’s mother as to when the money can be released to Suzanne and Jeff. He wrote in asking for advice on some other means to try to gain access to that money.

My response to Jeff was simple: try to live your life for a while as though that trust does not exist. What would your life be like if there was no trust that was ever going to appear? What would you do? Live your life that way. If the trust money comes, then it’s a boon. Right now, the lack of a trust is a bust.

After some back and forth emails with Jeff, it seems as though he and Suzanne have had a lot of conversations about the situation and have decided to do just that – to stop worrying about the trust at all and start living as though it doesn’t exist.

* * *

Here’s a third story that might seem unrelated at first, but it’s well worth discussing.

My wife went on a very long-planned trip with her sisters this spring. They had been planning the trip for almost a decade and this spring was the culmination of those plans.

During their trip, they had the opportunity to visit Chichen Itza, the Mayan ruins in southern Mexico. While there, Sarah took a ton of photographs and short videos. They were all focused on the view, a view that she wanted to always be able to remember even when her memory of it faded a little.

One thing I couldn’t help but notice is that in many of the video clips and photographs, there was a young woman who had an elaborate selfie setup that involved tripods and lighting poles and so on. She was backed up right against the edge of where she could walk and, in every video clip and picture, she was either taking selfies with Chicken Itza in the background or checking the selfies. This was going on over a long period of time.

Not once, in any of the photographs, did the young woman seem to be paying any attention to Chichen Itza. She had traveled so far to see one of the wonders of the world, and yet her full attention was on getting a great selfie or two, ostensibly to post to Instagram or some other social media service.

* * *

These three stories all have something in common. They all depict people living their lives under the control of others, not themselves.

In my own situation, I lived my life under the control of my supervisors and the bureaucracy of my workplace. I absolutely loathed it, but I persisted under it for years. Why? I had chosen a lifestyle that required the income and stability provided by that bureaucracy. I had ceded control of my time and energy over to them.

In Jeff’s situation, he and Suzanne lived their life obsessed with the money sitting in that trust and constantly battling Suzanne’s mother for that money. That battle absorbed tons of their time, energy, and focus, and although he didn’t get into it, it seemed clear that the relationship with Suzanne’s mother was weakened by the fight. In that case, Jeff and Suzanne had ceded control of their time, energy, thought, and focus over to their mother-in-law simply out of a desire for more money.

In the story of the woman at Chichen Itza, her focus was solely on producing an amazing selfie, ostensibly to share with others. This took her attention away from the destination of a long trip and the grandeur of a wonder of the world. Instead, she focused on the lighting on her face and the camera she was using. I suppose she may have been a professional photographer and a model at the same time, but it seems far more likely in our modern era that she was simply trying to get the perfect shot for Instagram. In other words, she ceded control over her own time and focus to her Instagram followers, causing her to miss out completely on the amazing opportunity before her.

In all three of those stories, someone else is in control of a person’s life and decisions. I wasn’t in control of my professional decisions or their own financial destiny. Jeff and Suzanne weren’t in control of their familial decisions or their own financial destiny. The woman taking the selfie was ceding control over her time and focus in one of the most amazing places on Earth to anonymous Instagram followers and other social media “friends.”

* * *

If there’s a lesson I’ve learned throughout my adult life, it’s this: there are few surer routes to unhappiness than ceding control of your life over to the whims of someone else.

When you cede power over your life to your boss out of financial need, you give your boss the power to take away your free time and all of your energy. Even if your boss doesn’t do that, that power still rests in their hands.

When you cede power over your life to someone who might give you money, you give that person power over your attention and your thought and your time and your destiny. Even if that person is very giving in terms of that money, they still retain that power and can use it as they please.

When you cede power in your life to social media followers and constantly do things that you think will impress them or interest them or make them envious, you give those anonymous followers the power to shape your decisions and shape how you use your time. You’re no longer doing the things you want to do; you’re doing the things they want you to do and hoping for their approval.

Those situations bring unhappiness. I’m speaking from my own experience and the experiences of many people in my life and many readers. Whenever you feel like you don’t have control over your life and you’re forced to bend your life over and over to the whim of those who do have control, it brings about sadness and serious dissatisfaction with life.

What about situations that come with responsibility, like becoming a parent? In those situations, there are definitely moments where you feel trapped and out of control, and those times do bring bad feelings. However, they’re typically counterbalanced by the good moments and the fact that you chose this responsibility. Also, responsibility often leaves some level of control over the situation – you do control how you choose to parent your child.

On the other hand, you don’t have control over the fickle nature of social media followers or the whims of your boss or to those who can turn off the spigot of money you’re relying on or the organizations to which you owe money… this list goes on and on.

It’s that lack of control that brings unhappiness, and making financial and lifestyle missteps is one of the surest ways to lose financial and professional control and freedom in your life.

This doesn’t just manifest itself in terms of personal unhappiness – that’s just the start. It has negative physical and mental implications due to the stress of the situation. It has negative financial implications because many people drown themselves in “treats,” giving themselves little bursts of pleasure so that they can temporarily feel a burst of joy.

What can you do? It’s easy. Start taking control back. Even if you can’t fully wrest control of the situation back immediately (sometimes you can, but often the situation is deep and complex enough that you can’t), you need to start down that path.

Here are some strategies for doing just that.

Spend a lot less than you earn and bank the difference, so that you can make changes to your life if they’re warranted. Walking away from a miserable job is a lot easier if you’re already living on less than you earn and have been doing so for a while and you’ve put away the extra money for the future. In essence, it was the start of our financial turnaround that gave me the ability to try new things and then eventually have the financial freedom to walk away from a job that was leaving me feeling crushed.

The power of this strategy is that it frees you from being under the control of anyone who can turn the spigots of money in your life on and off. Before long, you’ll have the freedom to be able to move to another opportunity (like moving to a new job) or to just start ignoring a particularly troublesome one (like Jeff and Suzanne’s family issue). Eventually, you won’t need to think about a spigot at all – it’s a convenience, but not a need, and you can walk away if you don’t like the relationship without needing to just jump to another opportunity.

This can be challenging because one of the most obvious places to start is to cut out the stream of low-value “treats” that many people who feel unhappy and trapped use as a stream of happiness bursts in your life. You have to seek out other sources for those moments of bliss that don’t require spending money.

Spend less than you earn. Make that gap as big as you can without introducing new misery into your life. Use that gap to get rid of debt and start saving for the future, whether it’s retirement or any other significant life change. That’s the recipe.

Focus on building relationships with people who enjoy doing the things you would do on your own (or with an army of clones of you). One of my favorite questions to ask myself is “what would I do if I had to live the rest of my life on an island with 100 clones of myself?” Meaning, in other words, that they all had the same internal desires that I do.

What would I do? I’d read a lot and have conversations about those books. I’d go on lots of hikes and explore every inch of the island. I’d play a lot of long, complex board games. I’d make amazing meals and a lot of fermented foods and craft beer.

Thus, this advice tells me to find other people who like to read a lot and talk about the books that they read. This advice suggests that I find people who like to do easy and moderate difficulty hikes (I don’t like rock climbing and my balance isn’t superb) and go on hikes with them. This advice suggests I find people who like to play long strategic board games. This advice suggests that I make a lot of meals and good food and beer and share them with people who appreciate them, and maybe find people who like to make them, too.

Those are my people. I need to find them and build friendships with them. That way, I find companionship and friendship and affirmation by doing the things I naturally want to do anyway, rather than having to mold myself to appease others. This gives me much greater control over my free time and my hobby time.

Who are your people? What are the things you would do on an island by yourself and 100 clones of yourself? Figure that out, then find people who like that, too, and make friends with them. That way, you don’t have to change who you are or spend time or energy or money on things that you don’t really care about in order to feel friendship and acceptance.

Learn how to say “no.” Many people find themselves eventually trapped by a mountain of commitments and arrangements they brought on themselves by being unable to say “no” to others when they’re asked for something. This often leaves them feeling overwhelmed and unhappy and typically not performing at their best at any of those commitments.

Here’s something to consider if you’re in this camp: if you feel overwhelmed with commitment – or will feel overwhelmed if you take on something someone’s asking of you – remember that you will not perform at your best on this commitment or on the other commitments you have if you say “yes.” In fact, by committing to more, you’re likely going to end up with that other person in a worse position than if you had simply said “no” right now.

I often turn things down by saying some variation on this: “I really appreciate that you asked me to help, but I have to say no. My plate is already really full right now and if I took on that thing as well, not only would I not be able to give it my full effort and attention, I would also be letting down the things I’m already committed to.” I usually then follow it up with a suggestion of other people who might be able to help.

Saying “no” in that way is more valuable than saying “yes” to something that overwhelms you and that you can’t live up to in a quality fashion. It is far better to say “no” than to let someone down when they’re relying on you or to deliver a bad result. Plus, saying “no” preserves your sanity and also gives you the space you need to excel at the things that you do choose to keep on your plate.

Give yourself the power to have control over what’s on your agenda, so that you can fill it with just things you can excel at without being overwhelmed.

Finally, be very wary of long term commitments you can’t easily back out of. I absolutely love being a parent and it’s a role that fulfills me deeply, but if someone is asking me if they should have kids and they’re really unsure about it, I’ll usually advise them to not have kids. Don’t commit to having children unless it is a full-bore full-throated deep commitment, because a child deserves that from their parents.

This is true with any long term commitment you may face in life. For example, don’t get married if you don’t think you can live up to those vows or you’re not sure you can live your life with this person. It’s better to say “no” than to say “yes” and fail that commitment and that other person who put their trust in you.

If you’re agreeing to something over the long term, you’re ceding some control over your life and breaking that commitment is likely to be painful. Be very careful when doing this, and make absolutely sure that this is something you truly want. Don’t walk into a huge commitment without high confidence.

The message in all of this is simple: most of us feel happiest when we have maximum control over our lives. When we cede control over our decisions to others, by allowing things like our boss to push us into unpaid overtime or unethical tasks, by allowing ourselves to become financially dependent on things other people control, by allowing our emotions to be controlled by the approval of others, by committing to things and then growing to regret them, we bring unhappiness into our lives, and that unhappiness is often temporarily dealt with by overspending.

Take control. Cut those patterns out of your life. You’ll be happier for it.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.