The other day I went to lunch with a friend who is working on becoming debt free and simplifying her life overall. I asked her how it was going.
“Ugh,” she said. “Well, I told you that Herman took a sabbatical so he could teach for six months, right?” Teaching was, her husband believed, his calling and he was excited to step off the corporate fast track to mold young minds so he took a paid sabbatical to try it out.
“Well, two days in the classroom and he said he wished he were back in his cubicle.”
“Well, he can go back,” I reminded her.
“Yeah, but he was so sure that this was what he wanted to do,” she said. “He’s so lost.”
“So, he’ll try something else. How’s the debt free thing going?” I asked.
“Terrible. We fell off the wagon big time and bought that car sitting outside.”
“I thought that was new,” I said.
“Herman wanted it so much, I hated to say no, especially since we’ve been doing so well at paying off debt. But now I’m sick because we’ve negated all our hard work with that car.”
I tried to be encouraging. “Not all your hard work. Just think how much worse it would be if you hadn’t paid off those other things.”
“I know. But now I’ve lost motivation. I’m just not sure it’s worth it anymore. If we’re just going to keep screwing it up, maybe we shouldn’t even bother,” she said.
“But you can try again,” I reminded her. “Nothing is permanent. So it didn’t work out the first time. You can think about what tempted you to go off the wagon and address it when you try again.”
She went on to talk about the problems they were having simplifying. They had gotten rid of several things that they wished they had back and had cut some things from the budget that she wished she hadn’t. Their desire to move to a more rural area was stalled by the down economy. Nothing she was trying seemed to be working.
“We’re failures,” she whined.
Throughout the rest of lunch I tried to raise her spirits. I reminded her that the path to any goal is rarely linear. Especially when the goal is as complicated as getting out of debt, simplifying your life, or finding your vocational calling. All of these things are very personal and, while you can listen to the advice of others, no one can give you the roadmap to success. Finding success is up to you because you are the only one who can know what your spending is like, what your vocational aptitudes are, what makes you happy, and what, for you, constitutes a simple life.
Yet so many people feel like if they don’t get it exactly right on the first try that they have failed or that it’s an impossible goal. They attack the goal as if it’s all or nothing. One misstep, one mistake and they throw in the towel. But life is messy and an all or nothing mindset is likely to leave you with exactly nothing.
When we were radically simplifying our lives and finances, I don’t know how many mistakes and bad ideas we had. We tried being super frugal and using every tip in the Tightwad Gazette, only to be miserable because most of them didn’t work for us. We tried numerous jobs until we found jobs that allowed us work in a way that meshed with our values and goals. (I thought at one time that I wanted to be a super career girl. What a laugh that turned out to be. Suits, heels, office politics, and corporate culture made me ill. I’m a jeans and outdoors kind of girl who doesn’t believe in office politics. Needless to say, I didn’t fit and I had to try, try again until I found a job that allowed me to be who I am.) We experimented with everything from the food we ate to what we wore and where we lived. We tried so many different ideas and approaches, I think we even confused our families as to who we were and what we were trying to become.
It didn’t all come together for several years. Had we given up (and believe me, it was tempting) we’d still be living hectic, crazy lives working at jobs that left us empty with only reckless spending to make us feel better. Thank heavens we kept at it. Now we are both very happy in our work, we’ve found the perfect approach to frugality for us, and our lives are much simpler and happier. We work and spend in accordance with our values and goals and that has made all the difference.
The great thing about life is that we get almost unlimited do overs. The only time you can’t try something again is when you’re dead. As long as you’re alive, you can reinvent yourself and correct your past mistakes. If you’re trying to get out of debt and fall off the wagon, get up and try again. If your efforts at simplifying have left you more confused than ever, back up and start again. If you’re trying to find meaningful work and you keep ending up in crummy jobs, keep trying. It may take a while and a lot of work on your part to get everything working the way you want it. Nothing is ever all or nothing on the first try. The right path to your goal is out there, you just have to try enough wrong ones so that you know the right one when you see it.