I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life for a long time. A very long time, in fact. I worked for a decade in a career that I thought was my calling, only to realize after about eight of those ten years that I’d made the wrong choice. Whoops. I didn’t dislike the work I did as a communications and fundraising manager at nonprofit organizations, but I very much disliked the schedule and routine of working in a cubicle for pre-ordained hours every week.
Plus, I learned I’m happier working on my own for myself and on my own projects. But I didn’t start out knowing this. I went through a winding journey of spending money, changing jobs, and moving no less than five times in ten years to finally figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
One of the pivotal aspects of successful extreme frugality—which is what I practice and preach—is knowing what you want out of life and committing to that vision with ferocity. Oh yes, ferocity. The linchpin of joyful frugality is spending your money only on what matters most to you. This means eliminating all of the expensive, noisy distractions of consumerism that don’t align with your priorities and that don’t get you any closer to your ultimate goals. I’m not delving into the financial side of things today, so if you’re interested in following the steps I took to achieve financial independence, please take my free Uber Frugal Month Challenge.
But I Don’t Know What I Want To Do With My Life!
Ok, ok, you’re thinking, that’s great and all, but what if I don’t know what I want to do with my life? What if I don’t know what my priorities are? This is a question I get from readers a lot. Like all the time. I want to say daily. And I’ve got to tell you, it’s one that gives me pause because I was in that purgatory state for many years.
I had some passions and some things I liked doing—hiking, writing, nature, singing, and yoga—but I didn’t see a way to make those activities my life. What helped me cement my understanding of my vocation (spoiler: it’s writing), were a few slightly odd-sounding exercises that I like to revisit periodically to ensure I’m still on track. Here they are:
Exercise #1: The Dream Bio
For this first exercise, get out some paper (or open up a new document or tab), and write your current bio. I define “bio” as who you are and what you do. This isn’t merely a career/job bio, so include everything that your life encompasses: your work, your volunteer commitments, your family, your partner/children, your pets, your finances (for example, if you’re in debt you’d want to include that), your hobbies, perhaps your fitness level if that’s relevant to your goals.
Be honest. No one is seeing this but you so don’t be making stuff up. The idea is to encapsulate your life at present. You want to cover your high and low points and to, by omission, identify what you’re missing or what needs to change in your life. Don’t be intimidated, this doesn’t need to be a tome and bullet points work. Again, you don’t have to show this to anyone so don’t get caught up on the grammar and formatting.
Next, get out a second piece of paper and write your dream bio. A dream bio is a bio of yourself as you’d like to be. A bio of what you hope to accomplish. But don’t write it in the future tense, write it as though you are actually doing these things now. Put down everything that you want to be doing and everything that matters to you. Maybe it’s a different career, maybe it’s financial independence, maybe it’s becoming a parent, maybe it’s pursuing a hobby you’ve always wanted to explore further, maybe it’s recording an album. Short of “the ability to time travel,” be expansive in defining who you want to be and how you want the world to see you. Be precise about what you want to do with your most sacred resource of all: your time.
Now, compare your current bio with your dream bio and make a bulleted list of the discrepancies between the two. What opportunities do you have to bring the two into alignment? What do you need to do with your time, your money, your motivation, and your work flow in order to put yourself on track to make your dream bio your actual bio?
Some elements of your dream bio might not be realized for years or decades, but you can start working toward these goals today. Once you know what you want to do with your life, there’s no point in waiting to get started. Wasted time is just that and tomorrow will come and next week and next year and the next five years—you can either be making progress towards these goals or you can still be staring at two disparate bios that sound like two different people. The choice to get started rests entirely with you. My first steps toward achieving my dream bio weren’t glamourous. Nor were they exciting. Like not at all. Here’s precisely what they were:
- Save more money. A lot more money.
- Write more. A lot more.
- Simplify my life and become a better steward of my time. A lot better.
My friends, that is not a thrilling list. There were no accolades for this and no external motivators. No one even knew I was doing any of this except for my husband and close family. Mostly it involved me working really hard and not spending money. But, these were three actionable steps I could start on right away—and I did.
When I began writing Frugalwoods in April 2014 for an audience of three people (me, Mr. FW, and my mom), I felt like I was wasting my time. How was I ever going to create a writing career by writing stuff that no one ever read?!? It seemed like an exercise in futility. But here’s the thing: I knew that I desperately wanted to be a writer. I’ve known since first grade that writing is my favorite subject. Writing makes me happy, it fulfills me, it’s my thing. So who cares if anyone reads what I write? With this perspective in mind—that I was writing for me—I had the motivation to continue building Frugalwoods and to continue writing week after week, year after year. And then I wrote a book (more about that here!), which is the ultimate achievement of one element of my dream bio.
By keeping a laser focus on what I want out of life—to live in the woods and be a published author—I did it. By letting go of distractions and drains on both my time and money that ultimately weren’t important to me, I was able to discover the deep, resounding fulfillment of pursuing a career I love. You have to allow yourself the time, space, mental clarity, and ability to pursue and examine potential vocations.
Exercise #2: Pretend you’re 95 and reflecting back on your life and retelling it to your grandchildren/other young people.
I love this second exercise because it brings the whole business of life home for me. We’re all going to die. Just saying. This should not be shock to you. But what is a shock is how many people allow their lives to fritter away. To simply elapse without any real substance or purpose. People, don’t do this to yourselves.
Bring out a fresh sheet of paper and write your obituary. Or if that’s too morbid, write your life story as you’d like it to read at a very advanced age (I picked 95, but you can adjust as you see fit). Reflect on the following prompt:
When you’re at the end of your life:
- How do you want to have lived it?
- What are the things you want to have done? To have accomplished?
- What legacy would you like to leave?
- What will people say about you when you’re gone? (hint: probably not that you had the newest car or the shiniest shoes or the trendiest clothes or that you ate at the best restaurants).
I like to perform this exercise periodically to ensure I’m populating my life with the memories I want to reflect on. Additionally, this is something that helps me be a better parent. I have an almost two-year-old and am pregnant with my second and I get tired and stressed dealing with the daily rituals of toddlerhood and pregnancy. But when I’m able to remind myself of the life I want to live, I’m able to remember that one of the legacies I hope to leave are happy, well-adjusted children.
I want to raise kids who are good people and who have wonderful memories of their childhood. I don’t want my daughters to think of me as mean and tired (which is how I often feel… ) and I find I’m able to be the parent I want to be through the benefit of artificial retrospective. That sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? Yet it works for me.
I’m a person who needs to see the larger picture when I’m having the fourth battle of the day over putting on one’s shoes and socks. And if I can envision my daughter as a successful adult, I’m able to pause and be patient—funny, even!—as I patiently take her shoe out of her mouth and put it back on her foot (for the f-ing fourth time). This doesn’t always work, but wow does it work a lot. Using this in parenting is just one application of the technique. I also apply it to my work, my marriage, my homestead, my friendships, my health/exercise, and my community. Somehow, imaging myself as an elderly woman looking back on life provides me with the motivation, perspective, and encouragement to have good days and to, in Garrison Keillor’s words on The Writer’s Almanac, “do good work.”
No One Will Care How You Lived Your Life, Except You
The most profound epiphany these exercises revealed to me is that no one will care how I lived my life except for me. I say this a lot here on Frugalwoods, but let me dig into what I really mean. I don’t mean that no one will care—in fact, a lot of people will care! Your family, namely, and everyone you impact: your colleagues, children, community, friends, and more. These people will care because you will’ve been a major presence in their lives. But no one else really cares. Unless you’re a massively public figure, you have to live for you and for those closest to you.
A company that you buy material possessions from won’t care. Random people you’re trying to impress with your trendy furniture won’t care. Tertiary acquaintances and neighbors you find yourself straining to “keep up with” won’t care. As a matter of fact, a whole lot of people won’t care. So don’t worry about them. Disabuse yourself of the notion that you’re living for others because you’re not. Your life can have a profound impact on those closest to you and you have the capacity to do indelible good, but don’t confuse that with the idea that people care what kind of car you drive or how big your house is. At 95, will you even remember or care what kind of car you drove? I doubt it (unless cars and car restoration are your passions, which you would’ve identified during the dream bio exercise ;)!).
But I’m Not 25. Or 30. Or 50…
No worries! Frugalwoods is fortunate beyond belief to have readers spanning a number of generations and I want to take a moment to say that my urging to figure out what you want to do with your life doesn’t need to happen at the traditional “beginning” of your life. If you’re reading this, you’re not dead yet! So why act like your life is over? It’s not!
Here’s an example: I met a new neighbor of mine who recently purchased her dream homestead and is transforming an antique house and barn into a productive farm with animals, vegetables, and homemade farm goods. On her own she has already accomplished ten times what Mr. FW and I have with our land. And by the way? She is in her sixties. At least. She might be in her seventies. I’m not making this up. As she explained to me, this is her dream. This is what she wants to do and this is the legacy she wants to leave. So she’s doing it. If that’s not motivation to start now and don’t look back, I don’t know what is.
No matter where you are in your life or on your journey, it’s not too late to change course or amend your lifestyle. Why live a life you’re not passionate about, whether for the next fifty years or the next five?
A Reflection On Privilege
I want to take a moment to reflect on, and acknowledge, the immense privilege that surrounds an ability to pursue a dream bio and an ideal life. Following this path entails having the financial ability to do so, which is predicated upon a great many factors. From income level to career path to education to geographic location to health, our finances are impacted by diverse factors that aren’t always (and in fact, often aren’t) fair. I don’t want you to take this advice as Pollyanna-ish “follow your dreams” bluster. It’s not. Rather, it’s an encouragement to identify where you are now and where you want to go. Wherever that may be. However incremental that might feel. If you’re interested in more reflections on privilege, you might enjoy the following posts:
- The Privilege Of Pursuing Financial Independence
- Striving For Compassion In A World of Judgement
- Starting The Thanksgiving Season With Gratitude
I think it’s important to recognize that merely having the ability to articulate dreams is a privilege. Just asking yourself these questions, and writing out the answers to these exercises is, in my mind, a privilege. These are higher order concerns, and concerns that can only be addressed after base level needs have been addressed. And those base level needs aren’t insignificant. Having enough food, clothing, shelter, a stable environment, a savings account—these are all profoundly out of reach for some people. What we do here is unusual. The conversations we have are privileged and fortunate.
Perform A Time Audit
Once you’ve written out your dream bio and your obituary, it’s time to perform a time audit. When I began my journey to a life of writing, homesteading, and financial independence, I was working a full-time job. I didn’t think I had time to do any of this stuff. How wrong I was. I outline the time audit I performed in this post–How To Be Frugal With Your Time, Not Just Your Money–but briefly the idea is thus:
- Write down how you use your time every single day for at least a week. It’s like tracking your expenses, but for your time.
- Then ask yourself:
- What are you doing with your time?
- What do you want to be doing with your time?
We all have the ability to make time to do what matters most to us. We might need to give up TV or movies or dinners out or shopping, but that time is there. Just like there’s almost always more to cut from our spending, there’s almost always more time in our days than we realize.
You Have Enough Money To Do This
I am willing to bet that you already have enough money to do what you really want to do with your life. Many of us, in fact, do. Please see the reflection on privilege above for an understanding and context that this is a very fortunate, rarified experience. For the vast majority of people and the vast majority of situations, it’s not that they can’t afford something, it’s that they’re not prioritizing it.
I’ve seen enough of your budgets and heard enough of your stories and consulted with enough friends and gone through this enough myself to know that it’s all about prioritization. When you spend money ONLY on what matters MOST to you, you will have enough money. Same goes for your time. When you strip away all the pointless spending that doesn’t strike at the core of your dream bio and that doesn’t populate the future memories of 95-year-old you, you’ll have enough money. I can (almost) guarantee this.
For example, it’s not that you can’t afford to go on vacation to Italy this year, it’s that you can’t afford to go on vacation to Italy this year AND eat out all the time AND buy pre-made food from the grocery store AND go to concerts AND lease a new car AND buy clothing… you see where I’m going with this.
You have enough money to do what you MOST want to do, but you (probably) do not have enough money to do everything you might possibly, perhaps want to do. Eliminate instant gratification and replace it with a steadfast focus on longterm goals. Let go of the ‘treat yourself’ culture and instead embrace the profound fulfillment of doing what you most want to do every single day.