Most of the time, when people post memes and images on Facebook, they’re pretty dull and forgettable. Every once in a while, though, I’ll see something that really makes me think. The other day, a friend of mine posted such a memorable item.
It was simple, really. “Name five things that changed your life.” I loved reading the answers that many of my friends posted and, when I decided to post my own, I actually found myself thinking about it quite a bit.
What actually did change my life?
I tried to come up with this list in several different ways. Did my friend mean five physical objects? Or were non-physical items okay? Should I think about big picture things in life? But what about the little things that subtly make every day better?
I kept writing and editing and re-editing that list and I ended up spending more thought on it than pretty much anything that has ever been prompted by Facebook.
And as I looked at the lists I was making, a few things occurred to me.
First, almost none of the items – whether physical items or not – were very expensive. Many of them were free. Even the physical objects I named were pretty cheap. The things that really changed my life the most were things that didn’t involve a lot of expense.
Second, the things that kept coming up were things that had a daily impact, not one-time things that happened in the past. Almost everything I came up with directly affects my life every day – or at least every few days – and the indirect effects are everywhere. There were many experiences in my life that were impactful, but they didn’t singularly change my life as much as anything on this list.
Third, I found that the ultimate test of something is to imagine subtracting it from my life. If things got far worse, then it probably was something that transformed my life for the better when I discovered it.
In the end, I came up with a list of 12 things that really transformed my life. Some of them were a bit of a representation of a broad group of things and thus might be considered “cheating” in a way, but I’m pretty happy with it. To me, this list shows that you don’t need a lot of money to have an amazing and fulfilling life.
1. A strong and lasting relationship with my wife
This is easily at the top of my list. My relationship with Sarah has been the glue that has held my life together for the last two decades of my life. She is my best friend, my sounding board for ideas, my co-planner for every future endeavor, the woman I love, an amazing mother for my children, an incredible hostess, and a charming and witty companion all rolled up into one person.
Yes, I put work into that relationship, and time, too. One could argue that I’ve surely invested money as well, but the truth is that I’m thoroughly convinced that every dollar invested in that relationship has been repaid to me in some way or another, either through the direct economy of cohabitation and the tax advantages of marriage or through indirect benefits that come from her constant consideration and help.
I could gush on and on for pages about Sarah, but there’s no need. She’s the single most important person in my life and she has brought far more into my life than I can ever repay.
2. The Simple Dollar
In a way, this item could easily be extended to any major project I’ve taken on in my life that I’ve put a lot of time into. By this, I don’t mean little projects that can be completed in a day or even a week, but big projects that suck down hundreds of hours. However, among those that I’ve achieved in my life, The Simple Dollar stands far above them both in terms of success and also in terms of the proceeds from the project.
This site has been a daily part of my life for almost 10 years now. I started writing articles in late 2006 and there have been multiple postings a day pretty much constantly since then, mostly by me but also by a number of other writers. It went from a passion project on the side to my full-time gig to a small business with a handful of employees and then to ownership by another group with my continued support as a full-time writer.
It has been unbelievable in so many ways to watch this site grow, to see how it has affected people, and to watch people move on in more positive directions in their life. It’s amazing to realize that I have written almost 10 million words of content for this site. That’s just a stupendous amount of writing almost any way you slice it.
More than anything else, this site showed me that if you have a passion and direct that passion in a way that will appeal to others and really throw your heart into it and give it tons of time to grow without flagging or giving up, good things will happen.
3. A strong friendship that has lasted more than 20 years
When I went away to college, I was the first person in my immediate and close extended family to actually go to college after high school. I went to a pretty good school that was far enough from home that I couldn’t live at home or even see my family all that often, but it was a school where I literally didn’t know anyone.
That first year, I made two very good friends, one of whom has been one of my closest friends ever since. We actually first started hanging out together before classes even started that first year because we lived on the same dormitory floor. It was a friendship that grew over years until we chose to share an apartment together near the end of our college careers. I visited him repeatedly during the months when he struggled to find work after college, then he couch-surfed with Sarah and I when he did find work. He was the best man at my wedding and present within hours of the birth of each of my children.
He’s been as reliable and constant and trustworthy as a friend could be. His anarchic sense of humor has brought just the right amount of levity to countless situations in my life. He’s been there when I’ve needed him more times than I can count.
There are few things better than having a friend in life that you can truly rely on like that.
4. A really good calendar and task management system
I started this article off with a few less tangible things, so it’s perhaps appropriate to spend the rest of the list looking at things that really are physical objects – or at least intimately connected to physical objects.
And it makes a lot of sense to start with this one, at least in my eyes.
I am a father of three. I am a husband. I have a challenging career. I have a couple of side gigs, too. I am a homeowner. I volunteer in the community and for political causes. I have a very healthy number of friendships that I want to maintain.
If you add those things together, it makes for a very busy schedule. A typical day has a healthy handful of scheduled events at certain times, a frighteningly long list of things to be done, and usually several brushfires that need to immediately be put out. That’s just the normal course of everyday life.
If I did not have a strong, reliable system for keeping track of dates and appointments and tasks and things that need done, all of this would fall apart. I simply could not continue to juggle all of these balls. Just like a juggler, I need a system in place to keep all of those balls in the air, and that system is a smart calendar and to-do list.
I currently use three elements to keep all of this going. First, I use Google Calendar to manage all of my dates and appointments. It sends me alerts in advance of events and makes it easy to see my daily, weekly, and monthly scheduled events. Second, I use Remember the Milk to keep track of all of my tasks (though I very highly recommend Todoist for new users – I’m just wedded to the specific quirks and features of RtM at this point). Third, I use Panda Planner for an offline daily review as it provides a great format for it, though previously I just used blank pages.
5. A slow cooker
How on earth does a slow cooker wind up on this list? It might seem like a bizarre choice, but our slow cooker has enabled our family to eat a lot of meals around the table together that would have essentially been logistically impossible during busy evenings, and I find that our family meals are the centerpiece of our days as a family and a big part of our strong family bond.
It’s pretty simple, really. If an evening looks busy, we make supper in the slow cooker. We have a huge variety of recipes that we use, from lasagnas to sandwich mixes, from enchiladas to soups and stews. We can prepare these meals in the morning and set them to cook automatically during the day so that when we’re all at home, we have a meal ready to go. All we need is a 15-minute window where everyone is at home together – or a significant portion of our family is together – and we can have a family dinner regardless of whether anyone has been around in the late afternoon and early evening to prepare it.
Our almost-daily home-cooked family dinners around our dinner table are a central part of our family life. It gives us a chance to see each other, to talk to each other, to share our day’s experiences, and to eat something reasonably healthy and tasty together. Without a slow cooker, this would essentially be impossible most nights.
6. A good pillow
When I decide to end my day and head to bed, my goal is to fall asleep as fast as I can so I can get the best night sleep possible in the time available. That means getting under the appropriate amount of covers in a very dark room, but for me, an absolutely essential part of that is a good pillow.
Simply having my head at the right angle when I lay on my side (yeah, I’m a side sleeper) to fall asleep makes all the difference. If it’s at the wrong angle, I toss and turn and can’t fall asleep for a long while and usually wind up with a restless night of sleep.
That’s why, at home, having the right pillow is absolutely magical. For me, it’s central to getting a great night of sleep, and a great night of sleep provides much of the fuel that gets me through a busy day.
7. A good pair of shoes
I’ve worn dirt-cheap shoes. I’ve worn expensive shoes. I’ve worn generic dollar store shoes. I’ve worn dress shoes of all kinds and athletic shoes of all kinds.
In the end, a pair of shoes that allows your feet to tolerate many miles of walking without blisters and without significant discomfort is absolutely vital.
For me, a pair of shoes like this isn’t all that expensive. I have a few brands and models that I watch for in my size with online sales, ones that have worked for me many times in the past. I’m personally a big fan of New Balance shoes, both in terms of walking/running shoes and casual shoes. I can walk and walk and walk in those shoes without getting blisters and without getting sore feet.
I’ve experienced awful foot blisters before. I’ve experienced incredible sore feet before, once in the midst of a family vacation. It’s just miserable. Simply having feet that aren’t sore and blistered is wonderful.
Good shoes make my life choices so much more flexible. I don’t even give it a second thought when I feel like going on a long walk, even if I know the kids are going to want to play soccer later.
8. A good all-purpose kitchen knife
When I first moved out of the dorms in college and moved into an apartment, I had no idea how to cook my own food. I was lost. I picked up a few cheap pots and pans and made some fumbling attempts, but honestly I was so broke that I lived on a steady diet of ramen and free food on campus for at least a couple of years.
It wasn’t until I had launched my professional career that I actually had the opportunity to try cooking for myself – and I was pretty awful at it. I messed up almost everything I tried.
Over time, however, I came to learn how to prepare quite a few things in the kitchen. I now cook all kinds of things and prepare all kinds of meals for my family.
If there’s one single tool that is the most indispensable in my kitchen, it’s a good all-purpose chef’s knife, like this one. Keep it honed and it will basically do anything and everything you need to do in the kitchen, cutting meats and vegetables in countless ways. Sure, pots and pans are important tools, too, but having a knife that you know exactly how to use after many years of practice makes so much meal preparation as easy as can be.
- Related: ‘Buying It for Life’ in the Kitchen
9. Ledges State Park in Iowa
I could simply say “state and national parks” in general here, but this is far and away my favorite park.
I love walking on the trails here. I love going off the trails here. I love the picnic areas. I love the streams. I love the recreational spots. I love the widely varied terrain. I love the widely varied trail difficulty.
I’ll often take day trips to the park in the spring. I’ll find a very shady spot to work, rattle off a few hours of writing, and then put my bag back in the vehicle and go on a trail walk. The scenery of the park, the way I feel after climbing up a big hill and looking out over the top of it, the sounds of nature, the smells, the relative solitude, the beauty of it all… it just inspires me and makes me feel alive.
I could talk positively about many other parks, but Ledges just feels like “my” park. It makes me feel renewed in a way that few things ever have.
10. A chess board
Perhaps this is just emblematic of strategic board games in general, but I think a chess board simply winds up on top of the pile for me, even if I’m not particularly good at the game.
Why does it appeal so much? It’s easy to find the pieces for it almost anywhere. It’s relatively easy to teach – my five-year-old knows the basics. Yet it’s so deep that it is essentially impossible for the human mind to master. You can chase that rabbit down the hole and it just keeps getting deeper.
It’s also been a big part of how I bonded with several close friends. One of my roommates and I bonded over chess, as we kept a constant game set up in our house and made moves on the board once or twice a day and would have a great postmortem at the end of the game (as we both would take pictures of the board and make notes at various points). I bonded with my wife’s younger sister over chess, too, building one of my first strong connections with her family.
If I were stuck on a desert island with another thoughtful person – or even just with myself – I’d probably start making a chessboard out of whatever materials I could find.
11. A library card
I’ve been an avid reader for most of my life. Some of my earliest memories involve sitting on a pile of pillows in my closet reading books (it was kind of my “reading nook” as a child). Even now, I read about two books a week – usually one fiction and one nonfiction.
The only way I can really feed that passion for reading in a way that wouldn’t bankrupt our family is to use the library. I can simply go to the library, wander the aisles, find countless great books to read, and take them home, for free. The library isn’t just a source for books on the shelves, either – I can request just about anything I want and they’ll eventually get it for me. Wandering the shelves becomes something of a book discovery tool for me, too.
Not only that, it’s also kind of a central part of our family bonding. I take my children to the library at least once a month and they do the same thing. They explore the shelves, find interesting things, and take them home.
You’ll often find everyone in our family sitting around our living room reading books from the library together. It’s become a tool for growing our intellect, our imagination, and our family connections, too.
12. A journal
I’ve written in a journal with amazing regularity since I was about 10 years old. It’s contained a lot of different things over the years: the things I did that day, my thoughts on the books I was reading or the music I was listening to, my frustrations and joys regarding interpersonal relationships, the things I learned, the big problems I was thinking about, and so on.
Those things are valuable, but the thing that carries a journal onto this list for me is how my journals have been a tool for me to plot out my future.
Many of my journal entries, even from the earliest days, are about plans for the future. They’re concrete expressions of dreams, in other words. I’d write about something I wanted for myself in the future, but I wouldn’t stop there. I’d start constructing a plan to make it happen.
I’ve never wanted to be fabulously wealthy. I’ve never wanted to be famous. Instead, what I’ve always wanted is a comfortable life with the freedom to do interesting work and with a family around me that loves me. Over the past 25 years or so, I really have achieved those things, and it was all planned out and considered in the pages of my journal.
It’s easy to start a journal. You can start an electronic one on your computer essentially for free, or just go buy a college-lined notebook for a few dollars at the store. Then, just start writing down the things that are on your mind and piece together how exactly you arrived at those thoughts and, if it’s a goal, how you might move your life in that direction. Sure, a lot of it won’t come to fruition, but enough of it will that your life will be far better for it if you stick with it.
When I think about things that have shaped my life, these things bubble to the top. Many other things that are part of my life are deeply important to me, but they almost all take a backseat to the things on this list.
Yet nothing on this list is expensive. Many of the things are free. The value that they bring to me is either through the investment I’ve put in or in how they support the fundamental needs of my life – food, sleep, basic comfort, family, close friends, and health, both mental and physical.
In the end, if I can maintain those things, I’m going to have a pretty good life. For me, the things on this list play a big, big role in supporting that life.
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