Internal and External Signals

Semaphore by hermzz on Flickr!Over Thanksgiving and the following weekend, my wife and children and I went back to our home town to visit our families. There were many nice meals, some long and lazy afternoons spent together visiting and playing games, and lots of getting in touch with people we hadn’t seen in years.

One of the big things I notice is that my personal interests are quite a bit different than most of the interests of the people in my hometown. My circle of friends and people I interact with regularly has virtually no overlap with the people there, for starters, and the hobbies and activities we engage in are completely different.

I noticed this most clearly when I was visiting my brother’s home. He’s a skilled hunter of wild game of all kinds – incredibly knowledgeable about hunting techniques, quite patient in his tactics, and very willing to share what he knows (along with some good “fish tales”). The pride he takes in his hobby is almost palpable – his den has several mounted deer heads and a huge collection of other mementos from literally decades of hunting.

When I see his excitement and pride in his hobby, I’m almost tempted to participate myself. I can clearly see the joy he gets from hunting and the passion and fun he has with his hobby comes through so strongly that I’m half-tempted to go register for a license and give it a try next year.

But, as I learned several years ago when I gave it a shot, it’s just not my thing. I decked myself out in hunting gear, picked up all the equipment I needed, and spent a couple cold weekends in the woods, waiting for that big game opportunity. When it came, though, it simply didn’t give me the fulfillment and joy that I thought it would.

When I’m with my brother, I get a ton of positive external signals about the joy of hunting wild game, and when I begin to convince myself that I want to hunt, I’m letting those external signals drive my personal choices.

When I’m alone and have time to reflect, though, my own internal signals take over and I recognize that I actually don’t have a passion for that activity. There are many other things I could be doing with my time that would provide me with substantially more fulfillment than hunting, which would provide me mostly with just a bit of camaraderie.

As I reflect on this, I realize that this same exact phenomenon applies over and over again in my own life – and likely in your own life, too. When we let external signals take control of the situation, we make poor choices with our spending (and with other aspects of our life, for that matter).

Take, for example, the prevalence of SUVs on our block. Many of the families in our neighborhood have a SUV parked in their driveway. Whenever I see those families loading up neatly in the vehicle without the hassle of getting kids into poorly-fitting car seats (as is the case in our own vehicles), and I see the families happily driving off together, the thought of purchasing a SUV goes quickly up on my external yardstick of fulfillment.

But when I’m alone with my own family, either loaded up in the car together or doing something else entirely, I recognize the simple truth that owning a shiny new SUV wouldn’t bring me much fulfillment at all. To me, a car isn’t fulfilling – it’s merely a tool to transport people from one place to another.

Once I realized the distinct difference between external signals and internal signals when it came to my spending dollar, it became much easier to make good choices with my money. Purchases that were heavily reliant on external signals included gadgets, automobiles, golf equipment (I like to golf, but I don’t need the latest driver), and most of my collections. Once I realized that I was mostly buying these because others liked them (and all I was really getting was a bit of camaraderie from the purchase), it became much easier to simply say no to such purchases.

This not only frees up money for saving and planning ahead, but it also leaves more money for the things that actually do fulfill me. I feel fulfilled when I spend quality time with my family. I feel fulfilled by a well-prepared meal. I feel fulfilled by an interesting book. These activities make me feel good whether I’m alone or with others, whether I’m happy or sad. They send true signals of fulfillment throughout my life.

Today, spend some time distinguishing between what actually fulfills you and what things in your environment are sending you false signals. Ask yourself whether or not the things you’re thinking about spending money on are truly things you find value with – or whether the signals you’re getting that drive you to buy it are coming from someone or something else. You might be surprised to find how many things that you feel are completely your own are actually driven by others around you, in both obvious and subtle ways.

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