“Modern man is conditioned to expect instant gratification, but any success or triumph realized quickly, with only marginal effort, is necessarily shallow. Meaningful achievement takes time, hard work, persistence, patience, proper intent and self-awareness. The path to success is punctuated by failure, consolidation, and renewed effort.” – Mark Twight
As my children grow older, I’ve been having more and more conversations with them about life. What does it mean to be an adult? What does it mean to be a good person? What kind of life do you want to have?
Often, those conversations end up running around in my head for days and weeks afterward. Sometimes, they end up forming articles for The Simple Dollar, because they end up making me think about my own personal choices about how I spend my money and my time.
About a week ago, I told my children that the best life you can live is one where you work hard to achieve something or make real progress on something that’s important to you and to the world and, along the way, do some things that are truly meaningful to you personally. Naturally, my oldest wanted to know my own answer to that question. What do I work on that helps me make progress or achieve something that’s important to me?
I actually had an answer to that. For me, the thing I’ve achieved is putting out a ton of useful advice written in an earnest and friendly way for people struggling with different phases of their financial life, from people struggling even to get food on the table, from people trying to figure out their debts to people unhappy with their careers to people wanting to retire early. That’s something that’s meaningful to me in a very deep way. The messages I’ve received from readers over the years have made my work feel truly meaningful.
What else in my life is truly meaningful? My family. I chose my career path so that I could spend more time with my children as they grew up. My community. I also have a ton of internal things that bring meaning into my life – learning new things, understanding the world better, and exploring the world (particularly nature) are all deeply meaningful to me.
So I talked to them about those things. Helping people make their lives better through their own actions is incredibly meaningful and also beneficial to the world. Spending time with my family and community is incredibly meaningful to me personally. I get a ton of personal value out of learning new things, out of exploring the world around me, and out of intellectual challenges.
At the end of my life, if I can look back on it and say that I did my best to help other people with my words, that I did my best to be a good father and husband, that I did my best to raise the quality of my community, that I did my best to explore and understand the world and to share the fruits of that exploration, and that I spent my extra time on intellectually challenging and meaningful things, I’ll be happy with my life.
The things I spend my money or time on that fall in line with those goals are things that I won’t regret. The things I spend my time or money on that don’t fall in line with those goals? I’m going to regret them.
In an effort to try to relate all of this to my children, I talked about my day a little bit. I told them of the things I did that day that were in alignment with those things. I wrote a really good article. I exchanged some Facebook messages with readers who were struggling with their financial life. I spent a few hours at the park with my children, getting some exercise and exploring a little bit. I read a couple chapters of a really challenging book that forced me to think about the world. Those were all right in alignment with my goals.
But what wasn’t in line with those goals? I played some mindless computer games that were what I call “empty fun” – enjoyable in the moment but forgotten shortly thereafter. I spent more money on food than was necessary. I spent some time reading a bunch of websites that were, in the end, forgettable and pointless as well. None of that helps me with anything that actually matters to me in my life.
Since then, I’ve asked my children these four questions each night before bed – and I’ve challenged myself to answer the same things.
What do you want to do or achieve in your lifetime? Yes, this question gets repetitive, and it’s easy to settle into a repeated answer given without thought. The purpose isn’t the answer, though. The purpose is to think about it every single day so that you can sometimes have deeper insights and so you’re aware of your own changing values.
My children give interesting answers here. At first, they didn’t really know what to say and their thoughts were all over the place, but I’m finding that by asking this over and over again, they’re beginning to chip out some real truths about what they value. I see the same thing in me, though to a lesser extent because I’ve thought about these issues.
What have you done today toward those things? Actions. Today. Those are the key elements here. It’s not things you thought about doing. It’s not things you might do tomorrow. It’s today. What did you do today toward making your life achievements happen?
For me, some things are routine. Writing is part of my daily routine, for example. Where I’m challenged is both in making sure I’m moving forward in other areas and also in areas that provide a foundation for all of that stuff, like personal health and personal finance.
What did you do today that didn’t guide you toward those things? This question makes me face my spending mistakes and my time use mistakes. I usually know what they are, and reflecting on them again outside of the moment helps me weed them out. My goal is to minimize the stuff in life that doesn’t add up to anything meaningful and the best way to do that is reflect on it daily.
What can you do going forward to maximize the valuable things and minimize the useless things? In other words, what needs to be done tomorrow to make it more successful than today in terms of those lifelong things?
These four questions have provided the foundation of almost-daily family conversations ever since. While I don’t typically talk about every cent that Sarah and I spend, I do reflect on them, and I’m extremely open about my time use.
If I can’t look at myself honestly, who can? Who will? The truth is that no one will. Although these conversations are useful, it’s my careful consideration of my own life that will make my life better.
I want to teach my children to be able to look at themselves and their choices honestly, too. It’s something that’s useful for any person to have in their life, as it helps you to shape a life that’s meaningful and rich rather than an empty treadmill.
What if those steps toward the things that have meaning seem dull and unenjoyable? Anything worth achieving in life isn’t easy, and often those individual steps are hard. They don’t provide easy pleasure, but what they do provide is meaningful pleasure. Exercising until you’re completely worn out might not feel fun, but there’s going to be this deeper sense there that you’ve actually done something real, and then that hard work pays off the next time you do something that requires physical exertion (like playing soccer with your kids or simply taking on the tasks of everyday life).
If you can’t find that deeper meaning in the challenging steps in life, perhaps you haven’t yet figured out what it is that you want to achieve in life. Without that central guiding sense of where you want to go, it can become even harder to really challenge yourself, because it’s from that central sense of where you want to go that the deep feeling of joy in doing something challenging today comes from.
Every time you spend an hour or you spend a dollar, you have an abundance of choices. Will you spend it on something that’s transient – something that’s perhaps immediately fun but is forgotten in the next hour? Or will you use it on something that’s meaningful, something that lasts? We’re faced with that choice again and again. I’ve found that spending it on something meaningful is virtually always the right choice, because it lifts up everything else in life. It guides my money use, my time use, and my energy use. I’m far from perfect at it, but the better I do, the better life seems.
If you’re finding this to be a challenge in your own life, ask yourself those four bolded questions from above.
What do you want to do or achieve in your lifetime?
What have you done today toward those things?
What did you do today that didn’t guide you toward those things?
What can you do going forward to maximize the valuable things and minimize the useless things?
Ask yourself those things again and again, about every dollar you spend, about every hour you spend, about every ounce of energy you spend. Use those questions as motivation to get up and do something meaningful.
You will never, ever, ever regret it.