The Myth of the Exceptional Life

You, too, can have an exceptional life!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read or heard the above phrase (or something very similar) over the past few years. It pops up on countless books, television shows, seminar series, DVDs, and countless other things that propose to tell you the secret to living some sort of exceptional life.

That phrase has always struck a very bad chord with me. There’s something inherently off about that message and I think I’ve finally figured out what it is.

Those of you who have read The Simple Dollar for a while know that I deeply value certain core principles when it comes to personal finance and building a life that you want. Spend less than you earn. Stop trying to impress other people. Find and work toward your true passions. Do it yourself.

Almost all of these ideas have one thing in common: you. You are the one, in the end, that’s responsible for what you make of your life. You’re the one that has to make the day-to-day choices. You’re the one that decides where your future will lead.

Which leads us back to the idea of an exceptional life – and why I think it’s a myth.

An exceptional life is inherently based on judging your own life by what others are doing. After all, you can only be an exception if there are lots of other lives that are not exceptional around you.

For the longest time, I was fueled by the desire to have an exceptional life as compared to what I grew up with. I wanted a life that would inspire envy in others and pride in my parents. I wanted a life that made other people say, “Wow.”

What I realized is that by chasing a goal that’s heavily based on comparing my life to others, I’d never get there. I would never feel like my life was exceptional. I would always have peers, and I would always have people that made me think, “Wow. Their life is much more awesome than mine.”

Instead, I needed to work solely from a metric inside of me. A great life comes not from comparing my life to the people around me, but from having a life that brings me happiness whether I’m by myself or around other people.

What brings me happiness? The opportunity to write every day. The ability to spend a ton of time with my children and my wife without the fear of being on call. A home in the country, with a barn out back, a big vegetable garden, and perhaps some chickens. Someday, the ability to write and publish a few novels. Spending time helping others in my local community and in the global community, too, whether it’s doing accounting work or building pipelines in the Congo.

Those are the things that make me happy. I know, from previous comments, that quite a few vocal commenters think that such things aren’t exceptional at all. They consider them boring, parochial, and so on. Frankly, I don’t care. I don’t judge my life and my goals by the standards they have for their life. I judge my life by the goals and standards I have for my life.

I recommend exactly the same thing for you. What do you want? Where do you want to be in five years?

Maybe it’s something “exceptional,” like traveling the world. Or maybe it’s something as “boring” as getting up at six in the morning and harvesting chicken eggs. We’re all wired differently inside.

What matters is that you constantly aim for the things that are important to you, not the things that are important to others.

Keep that philosophy in mind every time you buy an item at the store. Remember it when you’re trying to decide how you’re going to spend a spare hour this evening. Think about it when you’re evaluating and setting your goals for the future.

I’ll make you a deal. I’ll keep talking about how I’m working towards my own goals. You pull out the elements of that story that are useful to you and apply them to your own goals. In the end, we’ll both be where we want to be.