Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Value Of Being In A Good Place

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I had a coworker who was in a bad place in life.

She was a handsome woman in her low fifties, constantly stressed out and getting grayer by the week. I get the feeling her career had dead-ended a few years back, or at least this was the narrative she was telling herself at the time.

She was the sort of person who was constantly putting out one fire or another. She juggled dozens of important projects at once. She could go from being in good cheer to being in the blackest of moods in a breath. All it took was one unplanned event and anything good which had happened to her that day would crumble, like a pile of sugar cubes under the onslaught of an ice tea spill. She was the sort of person who would curse at her computer monitor and thought that multitasking was a viable method of time management.

You'd come in to work and she'd be there already, with a nest of paperwork around her which told you she'd been there since the low single digits of the morning. You'd leave and she'd still be in her office, banging away at her keyboard, writing project outlines on a whiteboard, taking calls with a grim facial expression, completely settled in for the duration. She didn't take lunches and only took breaks when exhaustion forced her to.

Even on days when she had cleared out all her workload, you could tell she was on edge. There were things going on in her life which were eating her mind. You'd ask and it would be a litany of nits: new tires, mortgage payment, unexpected medical bills, sometimes her spouse was in a bad place at his job. You get the idea. Small-to-moderate emergencies. Nothing to point to which would indicate that any one thing in her life was making her life awful. More of a cumulative zeitgeist thing.

And yet.

All the bad times at work, according to her, were balanced by the good, which were very good. She made a decent salary. She ate out at nice restaurants. Her car was high quality and fairly new. She went on vacations regularly. Her good times were good. Not extravagantly so, but pretty nice.

If you mapped her days out, they would be like a pendulum. Good. Bad. Good. Bad. Over time, though, the bad times outweighed the good, because even when things were going right, she was still stressed out and tired and that would pile up after awhile. Her bar for a day-destroying Bad Thing crept lower over time. After a while, it wouldn't take much to tip her off balance.

This is probably the point in a usual entry where I'd launch into a tirade about personal finance, emergency savings, budgeting or whatever, but really, this is more about moderation.

There's a culture in America centered around the work-hard/play-hard ethic. Put in fifty or sixty hour weeks for decades. Then you can spend all your free time (which you won't have much of) going on expensive cruises. Buy the biggest car, the nicest house, enjoy yourself so hard your fucking face hurts. Be better at your job than anybody else so you can play harder than anyone else.

I suppose that's great if you're Don Draper or something, but most people burn out--hard--living like that. My ex-coworker, for example, flamed out a few years after I first met her. Just got to a point where she stopped working altogether and was let go shortly after. I lost track of her after that. I think she started her own business out east, is semi-retired and much happier than she was in that last job. But I digress: this is supposed to be a cautionary tale, not a road map.

It happens more than you might think. Some people in some lines of work refer to it as golden handcuffs. Others call it the treadmill. I just call it stupid.

A better idea is to step back. Make your good times less awesome so your bad times don't have to be so bad.

Instead of a big expensive car, buy a less expensive one, keep the money you just saved in savings so when you blow a tire, you don't have to run up a credit card. Instead of eating out two or three times a week, eat out once a week, savor it more. Restaurants are only a treat if they're an occasional thing, anyway. Eat out too much and you're just eating.

If you spend less on the good days, it means you will have more money lying around to head off minor emergencies, which helps you sleep better. After awhile, you'll have enough money lying around to head off the big stuff, too, which is a great relief.

Yes, there's the urge when you have a pile of money lying around to spend it on amazing things. Nothing wrong with that, but fight that urge. The piece of mind involved in having options is priceless.

When you have options, such as a side gig, or enough money laying around you're not handcuffed to your current job, you'll find yourself with a strange new thing called "perspective." The emergencies your coworkers are freaking out about begin to seem slightly silly and trivial.

You might realize that working endless long hours is kind of a chump's game, anyway. If anybody takes issue with you turning down extra work, you can say no, with a level of confidence which can only be derived from knowing that you can afford to not work for a few months while you look for a better job. And ultimately, that confidence will make you better at your current job. Why?

Without that overtime eating into your free time, you'll have more time to sleep, see your friends and family. You'll be able to pursue hobbies in a satisfying manner instead of sneaking time out between stressful moments like a guilty schoolkid cadging a smoke behind the high school gym.

When you're better rested, you make better decisions. You prioritize better. Instead of band-aiding emergencies, you'll be focused enough to see root causes and address them, leading to fewer emergencies from that source in the future.

You get the idea. It's a cycle. Get better at moderation and the bad times get less bad. Sure, the good times will be less awesome, but you'll have more of them and more evenly spaced, which is in my mind, far superior.

People are convinced that running harder on the treadmill will get them somewhere when the reality is that there is no finish line. There's no game, either. There's no race. You're ultimately beating yourself to death over nothing.

All those years my coworker spent working herself out of her own job? She could have been saving a bit, a little at a time. Running under less debt. Sleeping more and formulating an exit strategy or options. Or simply enjoying life instead of slumping her way from one minor bullshit emergency to another.

Getting back to the title, the value of being in a good place is realizing that you're in a good place and preparing so the next bad place isn't so bad.

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