Revisiting The Longest Night

“It’s kind of funny…the moments on which life hinges. I think growing up you always imagine your life–your success–depends on your family and how much money they have, where you go to college, what sort of job you can pin down, starting salary…But it doesn’t, you know. You wouldn’t believe this, but life hinges on a couple of seconds you never see coming. And what you decide in those few seconds determines everything from then on… And you have no idea what you’ll do until you’re there…” – Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics

About five (!) years ago, I wrote an article for The Simple Dollar entitled The Longest Night. It’s a post I’ve linked to many times since then.

In that post, I discussed the night when I realized that I needed to make a fundamental change in the way I was spending my money. I had realized for quite a while that I was making financial mistakes, but I hadn’t really made an emotional connection to those mistakes until that night when I sat in my infant son’s bedroom, holding him and realizing how my awful spending choices were wrecking his future.

This was the bottom. Not only was that perhaps the worst financial position we found ourselves in, but it was also the low point emotionally as well.

Over the last few years, whenever I’ve reflected on that night, I’ve been drawn to a few questions.

Is a “bottom” really necessary for personal change?
I think this depends a lot on the person, actually.

For some, simply noticing that a behavior isn’t working well in their life is enough to spur change. One of my closest friends is like this. His philosophy is basically that if something is wrong enough in his life to be bothering him, then that means some things need to change to correct it.

For others (like myself), simply noticing a problem isn’t enough to correct it. Often, that problem is counterbalanced by things that we value (at least in part). An increasing debt problem is counterbalanced by an apparent freedom to spend. An increasing weight problem is counterbalanced by a joy of eating. An increasing fitness problem (you get out of breath easily) is counterbalanced by a joy of sedentary activities.

In the moment, it’s easier to pay attention to that joy. We might know on some level that this choice is just going to contribute to the problem, but in that moment, the problem doesn’t seem serious enough to counteract the enjoyable thing we’re about to do.

For that line to be crossed, we have to reach a point where the drawbacks of that enjoyable activity outweigh the benefits. For a lot of people (myself included), it’s usually a pretty emotional revelation when that point is crossed. It’s something we remember as a low point in our lives, and it usually comes when we’re hit hard with the consequences of our choices.

Can you create a “bottom”?
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

In other words, I believe you can create the conditions for someone to have a “bottom” when it comes to their personal problems, but you can’t force that person to have the personal motivation required to make that change.

A good example of this is an intervention. When a person is struggling with a problem in their life, having their loved ones step in and, as a group, tell that person that there’s a real problem that’s not just affecting their life but the lives of others can be a “bottom” for some people. For others, it doesn’t create enough of an impact.

Can you create your own bottom? It’s trickier, but it’s possible. My own bottom happened through serendipity, but for me, the one thing that pushes me to alter my behavior is seeing how it impacts the people I care the most about. If I wanted to create a “bottom” for a problem I was having, I’d honestly start with my own children. I’d ask them some tough questions about me (or have Sarah do it and record the results).

How can you sustain the rebound?
The key for me was to hold on as tight as possible to the things that caused me to truly break down and commit to a change.

For me, it was my children. I did things like wrapping a picture of my children around my credit cards and putting pictures of them on my rear view mirror in my car. In fact, on the rear view mirror in my car, I taped a picture of my children and the total amount of the debt I was facing. My eyes would drift to that every time I got into the car, and each time it hit me in the gut.

The regular return to the emotional breakdown of my “bottom” provided a lot of the guidance I needed to make all of the financial and professional changes I’ve made in my life over the last several years.

That April night in 2006 was a life-changing moment, though I didn’t see it at the time. It set me on a completely different path for my life, one that I’m incredibly glad I chose.

Trent Hamm
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.

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