Part I: Do You Actually Use That?
I moved out of the hotel in Philadelphia where I’ve been staying for the first six weeks of my graduate program (thankfully included with the tuition). I brought almost the same amount of clothes as I packed for my seven months teaching English in France, since it was only an SUV ride from home. I probably wore about half of them. I’m about to go to Paris in a few days, and will have to pack a bit more strategically. Instead of throwing clothes I am okay with in a bag, I’ll have to thoughtfully put together a wardrobe of pieces that I really like and can be mixed and matched, because I am going to be wearing them quite often.
Anyone who has moved can attest to the fact that physically transporting stuff is annoying. Probably because we don’t ever need that much anyway…
Part II: Constraints are Liberating
My design professor explained that to an architect or other designer, having no budget or structural limitations actually made for projects that were less creative and functional. I am looking forward to having a simple but versatile wardrobe (and maybe justifying a few splurges on that premise). Psychologist Sheena Iyengar’s book, The Art of Choosing, supports me with dozens of studies pointing to how having more choices can just be paralyzing and stressful, not necessarily making for greater satisfaction. The freedom to choose imposes responsibility for the decision; having a wide array of options does not mean having a perfect option, it just means making a decision is harder.
If you don’t believe me, ask yourself what you would do FIRST if you had unlimited money, or could fly, or could never fail at anything. Gotcha.
Part III: Know What You Need
This usually comes through pain, or realizing the possibility of loss. When you look at a child playing in the park and think, “Wow, I might never have one,” does your heart ache? When you are single, do you see an old couple and wish fervently for a hand to hold? Spinning a globe, do you regret not seeing Paris, or Naples? Timbuktu or Jerusalem? The pyramids or the Great Wall? These realizations usually come through a lot more misery and heartache than these examples suggest, but they illustrate the fact that some things are wants and other things are deep seated needs. Of course, you can live without getting married, having a child, or seeing the world. Some of the most self-actualized, happy people ever like Saint Francis of Assissi have gotten along pretty well without them. But maybe you need to write that novel, or see your family for Sunday dinner.
Whatever you can’t live without, DESIGN YOUR LIFE AROUND IT. Do things that you want, but not at the expense of what you need. Aah, but you can’t quite control a lot of those things, especially when they involve other people and circumstances beyond your control…
Part IV: Establish boundaries
Know who you are, what you want, and what you are willing to do to get there. Will you dye your hair blonde to be a popstar? Become a Jew a la Charlotte in Sex and the City to marry the right man? For 90% of things that involve dealing with other people, knowing your own boundaries and how you are is key. For those accomplishments that are somewhat more individual, like planning a trip, you might be willing to stop eating out to go to Antarctica this year, or you might not. Know your limits and embrace them. You will probably only figure them out through experimentation, but be willing to accept yourself unconditionally. This way, when dealing with things out of your control (like weather and other people) you will not lose yourself. So even if you want to get married, that doesn’t mean to go on the Bachelorette or get a yenta because the clock is ticking- it means know how to do you first.
Part V: Live for something greater than self-satisfaction
We are conditioned from birth to always want more, more, more. To equate possessions with identity, buying stuff to being accomplished, and to controlling other people with security. The truth is, all of these ideas are bull. None of the above will make you happy, but nor will living to check things off the bucket list either. The greatest freedom we can achieve is freedom from the self, from the me, me, me. Not from individuality, but from ego, from the bottomless pit of want, want, want. That might mean, I could work another 5 hours and make more money, but I have all that I need so I will go home. Once you get home, you don’t have to run the Boston Marathon or go feed the homeless, but you could. You could also just chill. The reality is, past a certain point, for most people, you will have had enough of whatever it is you crave (hint- even altruism. You can only give the shirt off your back so many times before it gets chilly…)
If you don’t care about anything or anybody but the fulfillment of your own wishes, start doing it now. Because even if you have it all, you will really be missing out on the rest of the universe that is not you. We are all fundamentally connected, and embracing this truth can only enhance your life. For the vast majority of us who won’t have everything we want all the time, reflecting on starving children in Africa or seeing other people succeed in their careers can give some needed perspective. Not only could it be worse, but it probably will get better. And being connected means sharing in the vastness of human experience that you will never in your finite lifespan be able to live as an individual.
Special addendum: Regarding Fear of Missing Out
This has been discussed in a couple twenty-something-advice books (should I be embarassed for seeking help? Idk) It refers to the idea that you might not get to do everything you want to do in life, and you better hurry up and do everything now before you get old. Because who travels, lives the swingin single life, etc after a certain point? Life ends after 30, right? Having any significant commitment, such as a career full time job, is only going to weigh you down so avoid any kind of constraints until you’ve had a chance to do everything that you, you, you want to do.
There is a lot of validity to a lot of this, and it is true that once you have a mortgage or start thinking seriously about a person besides yourself, you will not have the same freedom you do now. But as a who has not had a long-term career-track job(I’ve moved 4 times in six months), all the freedom and lack of ties in the world will not bring fulfillment. Ever, unless there is a reason why you are not tied down, or you are just the kind of person who isn’t into attachments.
The truth is, at any stage of life, you can kick your rear into gear and live it fully. In fact, it doesn’t take an Eat, Pray, Love style spiritual quest (of course, I read that), it just takes the decision to start now. Remember, it all began with that Italian dictionary…and a divorce. If you listen to that inner voice, you can figure out where to start, and end, things to live a good life.
There will always be opportunity costs of things we can’t have or do while pursuing something else. You will always miss out. You can’t have it all, but you can have enough. Don’t worry having as much as you can of everything, just know what it is that will satisfy you.
Enough is not a benchmark to judge what you currently have or what you have accomplished so far, it is a ruler to measure what to put your efforts into. Do pursue relentlessly, but chillax along the way. You are still breathing, and you haven’t achieved that goal yet. Remember, your life has meaning outside your own goals for it (or so we hope).
So go through your shoe collection, give away that nail polish you have never worn, and stop beating yourself up for all that you won’t do.