Why Bother? Digging Into the Purpose of Personal, Financial, and Professional Success

“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact.” – Chuck Palahniuk

One of my favorite sayings, something I’ve held onto for my entire life, is that everyone alive was born without a real frontier. We were born too late to explore the world and we were born too early to explore the stars.

If you look at it on that level, it’s kind of a sad thing. Aside from some areas of high level science and philosophy that require many years of preparation and intense study in order to explore an intellectual frontier, there really are no frontiers that we’re actively exploring. For the first time in human history, there is no clear and present frontier for the vast majority of us to explore or clear and present cause for us to take up.

Think about it. Prior to, say, 1900, there was always a frontier somewhere to explore that any reasonable person could dive into and make a name for themselves with just their own initiative and perhaps a little bit of equipment. Subsequent generations had their own grand challenges – World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement.

Today, we don’t have a frontier to explore or a great cause to take up.

Life holds no grand purpose for us rather than what we make for ourselves.

For a lot of people, that lack of central grand purpose ends up leaving a very empty feeling inside. I have certainly felt it in many ways, and I know from the many conversations I’ve had with other people that I’m far from alone in feeling that way.

Our basic needs are met, there is nothing that’s accessible that we can easily explore, and there’s no grand challenge that we’re facing as a society. So, what’s left? What’s the purpose? Why bother?

The easy answer is to fall into a life of pleasure. Our society is full of opportunities for this. In fact, most of our economy is centered around this, offering services and entertainments to offer us ways to distract ourselves and enjoy splashes of personal pleasure on a daily basis. There is no end to the films to watch, the television shows to enjoy, the tourist traps to visit, the page-turning books to read, the restaurants offering delectable foods to eat, the spas and golf courses to wile away the hours, and so on.

But at the end of the day, those pleasures wash away and I’m left with some real hard questions.

One of my favorite things growing up was hearing my grandparents tell stories about their experiences during the Great Depression and World War II. They had the opportunity to face a grand challenge on a scale far beyond what anyone in our current generations has ever faced. They stepped up to the plate and defeated that challenge, and because of that their stories of those days had real meaning. They had done something great with their lives. They had faced extreme adversity and overcome it.

More important than that, overcoming that adversity had made the world a better place for me and for everyone else. Even as a young child I could see that. Their stories about the things that they did and the adventures that they had, even when they were silly and full of fun (like a relative telling a tale of drinking in a French bar the day after rescuing the town from the Nazis, or my grandmother talking about boiling bedsheets), were part of something that truly changed the world for the better.

Those stories inspired me. They made me see the people around me as heroes – and they were heroes.

Today, I ask myself this simple question: what stories am I going to tell my grandchildren? What will I tell them that will inspire them with regards to my own life? How will I have changed the world for the better for them?

And the thing is, I don’t really have an answer.

Sure, I can tell them about The Simple Dollar. I started a website that helped a lot of people dig themselves out of a painful personal hole.

I have a few fun adventures to tell them about, like the time I drank homebrewed tequila with a rural Mexican farmer when we had no language in common, or how I got a cold chill when I climbed to the top of an Aztec pyramid and saw a place where humans were sacrificed in the 14th and 15th centuries, or how I had my ear cut off as a child (true story).

The thing is, what does that really amount to? It’s a start, sure, but what have I really done to make the world a better place?

It’s not an easy thing to answer. For me, however, I’ve come to realize that the past ten years of my life have really been a constant attempt to try to answer that question – and I’m still not there.

For most of us – myself included – there are several challenges already in place that we need to overcome so that we can even be in a good place to change the world for the better.

The Vision Challenge

It all starts with a core idea. What exactly could you do with your life that has real meaning? Different people are going to answer that question very differently, but almost everyone is going to answer with a picture of their life that’s significantly different than what their life is like right now.

For some, this could wind up being a bucket list. They want to experience the wide variety of sights and experiences that this world has to offer and then share those experiences with others.

For others, this could end up being a personal dedication to a singular cause, something that they believe in incredibly strongly and are willing to devote their life’s energy to it.

For yet others, this could be the production of a creative or intellectual work of some kind, like a great novel or a film.

Other people may have goals centered around being a family matriarch or patriarch, founding a business that employs a lot of people, or something else entirely.

My own vision is a mix of the second and third ones, with perhaps a “bucket list” item or two thrown in there. I want to write a few novels, but perhaps my bigger goal is that I want to ensure that the people in my town and surrounding towns always have food to eat, water to drink, and a compassionate ear to listen to their troubles – and, perhaps in the future, my plans can grow beyond that by building a template for this that can be used elsewhere.

What is your vision? What would you truly like to do to leave your mark on the world? What can you do with your life to impact the world and the people around you? Figuring that out is in itself a challenge.

The Financial Challenge

Like it or not, we live in a society where a minimal amount of money is needed to provide for basic things like food, a roof over your head, running water, electricity, and so forth. That has a cost, and that cost has to be paid somehow. There’s also an expectation of a certain standard of living that some of us have, and that elevates that basic cost of living.

Even worse, many of us have dug ourselves into a financial pit of debt through the choices we’ve already made. Debt saps away your financial resources and restricts the choices that you can make, and when your choices are restricted by money, it becomes much harder to actually live up to the big vision you have for your life.

There are several practices you can take on to escape this challenge.

Lower your cost of living. Live in a smaller place. Don’t own a car, or own a used one. Make your meals at home instead of eating out regularly. Cut down on your entertainment services and expenses. Get free over-the-air television instead of cable. Eliminate either your land line or your cell. Buy generics at the store and keep doing so unless you discover that they really don’t work. Negotiate all of your bills. The key is to lower the amount of money flooding out of your life each month.

Pay off your debts. Your debts are a gigantic drain on your finances. Each and every month, you’re handing fistfuls of cash to the companies to which you owe money. Make it a big priority to get rid of those debts quickly and efficiently. Start with the debt that has the highest interest rate and make the biggest possible extra payment you can on that debt each month.

Have an emergency fund. This is a chunk of money that just sits in a savings account so you can access it quickly when an emergency occurs. You want that money to be very liquid and as risk-free as possible, which is why a savings account makes sense. A credit card doesn’t work well – it can be blocked by identity theft, credit card loss, or bumping up against a credit limit. Cash is king.

Start investing. The moment you pay off your debts, you’ll find yourself with a lot more money coming in compared to what’s going out. It is really tempting to start spending it and inflate your lifestyle. Don’t. Start investing it in a way that’s in line with your big vision. Save for early retirement or for the seed money for your business or for a year or two off from work to launch your big dreams. Maybe you can use those lowered expenses as a way to move into a lower-paying job with much more flexibility so you can give birth to your dreams.

The Distraction Challenge

Modern life is filled with countless distractions that pull us away from our big goals. Whether it’s a momentary distraction in the form of an interesting website or an email or a notification on our phone, or a big distraction like watching unfulfilling television or movies or simply trying to “compete” to see who has the biggest house and the “best” stuff in it, we are often pulled away from our big vision by other influences and desires.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I am easily distracted by interesting websites and links from my friends on Facebook. I’m often sucked in by the latest alert on my smart phone. While I find value in playing games that really stretch my thinking, I often play games that do not and those just serve as a distraction.

Those distractions eat your time. They eat your money. And they leave you with far fewer resources to tackle the big things you want from life. Here are three strategies for defeating distractions.

Cut distraction producers out of your life. Turn off your smart phone – or even downgrade to a “dumb” one. Cancel your cable subscription – or even ditch your television. Delete those distracting games from your computer.

Put reminders of your big goals everywhere. If your big goals are constantly in your mind, it’s easier for those big goals to find their way to the front of your mind when you’re at an idle moment. Make your computer screen saver and your wallpaper reminders of your goals. Put goal-oriented pictures all over your fridge. Decorate your house with them. Tape one to your rear view mirror. Wrap your credit cards with a picture of your goal.

Have an organized system for managing spare thoughts and to-do lists. I use a pocket notebook for writing down any and all thoughts as they come to me so that they don’t stay in my head and distract me; I process that notebook twice a day so that I don’t lose track of those thoughts. I use Todoist to keep track of my to-dos, and everything just goes in there so I’m not holding things in my head and I can focus entirely on whatever I’m doing.

The Responsibility Challenge

Most of us have signed on for many responsibilities in life that will often stand in the way of devoting a lot of time and energy to our big goals and our plans for achieving them.

For me, the responsibilities are numerous. I have three children, for starters. I’m the president of one civic group and an active member in several others. I have writing contracts signed that require me to write a certain amount each and every day.

Those things are responsibilities. Choosing not to fulfill them lets down a lot of people – some of them incredibly so – and would also destroy my reputation and have a big negative impact on my finances. That’s not really an option either.

Here are three strategies for handling and preparing your current responsibilities.

Build security for the things you’re responsible for. If you have children or even if you have a spouse that’s dependent in any way on your salary, make sure that you have adequate insurance on yourself so that they’re taken care of if something happens to you. Get your finances in order, too, so that if things don’t happen as you might hope that they would, your family’s not stuck in a rough spot.

Plan ahead for passing that responsibility to someone else. For other responsibilities, you should always document your procedures and try to bring things around to a point where it is easy to hand them off to someone else. Whenever you leave things in a mess, you’re risking damage to your own reputation and the potential for real liability.

Step back from some responsibilities in a mature fashion. Unless a responsibility is something that’s directly in line with your life goals – or is an intrinsic life responsibility that you chose, such as having children – don’t be afraid to step back from some responsibilities. Doing so will free up time, resources, and energy for taking on the bigger goals you have in life.

The Social Challenge

Many people in your life might look negatively upon some of the changes you’re making. There are a lot of reasons for that – some of them may be genuine concern, while others may be jealousy. You also may find yourself in social and familial circles where no one is working towards anything like what you dream of.

Don’t be held back by those social restrictions. Remember, you are the one that chooses the relationships that you have and what importance they have in your life.

While it can be difficult to start making changes to your social life, sometimes it’s really necessary to clear emotional roadblocks to where you want to be going. Here are three strategies for taking on that social challenge.

Stop caring what other people think. The only metric that matters for your personal success is you. The only input that matters for this success is the input from sources that you choose. As for everyone else? Their opinions don’t really matter much at all, so don’t worry about them. Don’t worry about what others think of how you spend your time, how you spend your money, or anything else.

Articulate your choices in terms of what you’re trying to achieve. Whenever someone else notices something you’re changing in your life, be sure to describe it in terms of your big goals. “I’ve always wanted to do X, but I realized that if I kept doing Y, it was never going to happen. So I’m giving it my best shot.”

Seek friends with a similar positive mindset. Look online and in your community for social groups that are interested in whatever your big goal happens to be and get involved with those groups. Cultivate friends that have a positive mindset toward those things and are making powerful choices in their lives to make it happen. When your social circle is making the same big steps toward the same big goals as you, it becomes far easier to make those steps yourself.

The Physical and Mental Challenge

Without a sound mind and sound body, it’s hard to make positive steps in your life. You need to feel good, have plenty of energy, and be mentally alert both for making positive steps in your life as well as working toward whatever your big goals are.

Most of the strategies for doing this are very simple. Here are four that I use in my own life each day.

Get plenty of sleep. This is an easy thing for a busy person to trim, but it’s almost always a mistake to cut back on sleep. When you feel tired, go to bed. When you’re sitting there doing something mindless because you have little energy near the end of your day, go to bed. Allow yourself to get plenty of sleep – the best night of sleep is one where you wake up naturally.

Eat a healthier diet. This isn’t too hard, either. Just try to ensure that the majority of the food you eat is fruits and vegetables, and drink water as your primary beverage. Those two rules alone will put you on the path to a much healthier diet than the average American and you’ll feel the results in your energy and mental focus.

Get some exercise. You don’t have to go out there and cross-train like an Olympic athlete, but getting some moderate exercise each day is good for your energy levels and your mental focus. A brisk walk is a great thing that anyone can do to get their blood pumping a little, and the benefits of that go far beyond your weight.

Challenge your mind in new ways every single day. Try to take on a challenge each day, whether it’s learning something new, solving a puzzle or playing a mentally challenging game, or taking on a new variation on the problems you often solve. The ability to wrap your mind quickly around new concepts and new problems will help you in almost everything you might choose to do in life.

This Is Your Life

It’s yours. No one else controls it. No one else gets to decide what you do with it. You do not have to live it in line with others might expect. You don’t have to do things the same way everyone else does.

Instead, you can choose to do something different, something that will leave a mark on the world. You can do things that will give you endless stories to tell, or you can do things that will help people in their lives.

Your life probably has some obstacles in the way of doing that. Push those obstacles aside.

You only live once. Don’t waste it.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.