Someone once asked the Dalai Lama what surprised him most about humanity. He replied,
“Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present, the result being that he does not live in the present or the future. He lives as if he is never going to die, then dies having never really lived.”
Late April, 2016: I’ve never had to make this choice before…
I just quit my job as a professional speaker and launched my blog. My next move is to build a consulting practice. Just two problems left to solve: one, I have no source of income, and it’s unclear when consulting will start paying off. Two, my social life is pathetic and I’m not enjoying life as much as I’d like to.
There are two ways to approach these problems:
Option 1: Do the “smart” thing and focus the bulk of my attention on building the consulting practice until it makes enough money to live comfortably. As the practice grows, I’ll be able to invest my income into my social life.
This path seems safe and familiar, and I’ve been told it’s wise.
Yet, whenever I think about using most of my time to build a business, it feels like I’m suffocating myself. It’s not that I don’t love my work – I do – it’s just putting it as my top priority feels wrong, even though logically, I should.
Option 2: Build the life I want now, even if it means spending more than I’m making (which is literally nothing for the foreseeable future).
I dream of joining cool communities, attending live events, going on dates, and throwing dinner parties for the people I meet along the way. If I did this, I’d only be able to work on my business in the background, which feels irresponsible.
This path is exciting, but it feels scary. It seems like leaping without a net.
For several days, I’m stuck in limbo.
Eventually I screw up my courage to its sticking point and make my move. I decide to put my life first and figure out the details of my business later.
I sign up for a gym, an improv class, and a coworking space (I’m not completely neglecting my business…). I buy decorations for my apartment and a sweet bike. I email the few people I know in Denver about my first dinner party, and I cross my fingers as I hope to avoid bankruptcy.
Putting my life ahead of my work was a calculated risk. I suspected that the more I fell in love with life, the better my business would do.
It’s been just over a year since I placed that bet, and one thing has become clear: it worked!
In this article, we’ll cover why putting life first is a deceptively safe bet, how the path forward differs for entrepreneurs and employees, and how it played out in my life. I’ll also give practical examples that you can do this week to help you live more fully for yourself.
To be clear, I’m not advocating hedonism, exorbitant debt, or ignoring your career. Instead, I’m encouraging you to create a life around the things and people you love before finding space for the stuff you have to do.
A note about inequity and the world we live in
I understand that many people are barely able to make ends meet and can’t consider whether it makes sense to spend less time working and more time living. To me, this is a sign of an ill society. It’s my belief that if you’re fortunate enough to have the option of prioritizing life, you should also use some of your resources to help the people around you.
The pain of putting work first
If you live in a Western culture, there’s a good chance that the timeline of your life was set before you were born. Roughly speaking, the sequence goes:
- Get an education (which will likely require a loan)
- Get a job
- Save up to buy a house and a car (both of which will require loans)
- Find a life partner
- Try to get promotions
- Scale your lifestyle to match your income
- Squeeze in a few parties, trips, hobbies, volunteer projects, creative projects, long weekends, and side hustles whenever possible
- Retire (at this point you’ll be old)
- Finally, pursue your passions and start living on your own terms! (That is assuming that you’ve taken decent care of your body and still have the requisite energy and money left over)
Do you see the problem here? If you take this path, your life will only exist in the margins. Almost everything will be about work.
Sure, there will be moments of beauty that take your breath away, but they’ll be more scarce than they should be.
A better approach is to start by building a life you love. Doing this requires courage and audacity. You have to assume that virtually everyone is approaching life incorrectly. That’s a difficult bet to make. Fortunately, there are strategies to make it easier.
How to put life first: the big stuff
Practice strategic minimalism while focusing more on experiences than stuff. Work to minimize your expenses. Doing so will increase your freedom, and it will allow you to be more selective about the jobs you take and the people you work for.
You’ll start to realize that happiness often comes from subtracting – not adding – things from your life.
Besides, the studies are clear. Spending your money on experiences produces more happiness than spending it on material items. Fortunately, many of the coolest experiences are free or inexpensive.
Next, figure out what actually matters to you. In most cases, you already know, it’s just a matter of doing it.
Have you had a burning desire to join the Peace Corps, work as a camp counselor, learn an instrument, go back to school, or travel the world? If so, it’s time to start making that happen. If you’re not in a position to completely overhaul your life (which I don’t suggest anyway), start taking consistent baby steps toward where you want to be. They’ll compound more quickly than you imagine.
Figure out where you want to live. This is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make, and it’s one that few people ever put much thought into. Are there countries, regions, people, or settings that you really love? If so make it a point to (at the very least) spend as much time as possible there. If and when you can, move.
Moving is chaotic, so don’t feel the need to rush this one, but if there is someplace you’re truly yearning to be, honor that desire and figure out how to make it work at some point in your life.
Be thoughtful about how much of your life you can enthusiastically dedicate to work. How much of your life are you able to dedicate to a job without resenting it? Remember that unless you’re intentional you’ll end up spending more time with your coworkers than your friends and family. To the best of your ability, set boundaries around your work. You don’t have to be perfect about those boundaries, but the second your job starts to define you is the second you’re no longer living for yourself and the people you love.
The next step varies a bit depending on whether you work for yourself or someone else.
If at all possible (and I realize it’s not always possible), hold out until you find a job that excites you. You can always drive for Uber, work at a coffee shop, or bus tables in the interim. No, those jobs aren’t glamorous, but they will tide you over until you find a job that you love.
If you’re working for yourself, build your life before you build your business. Most entrepreneurs promise themselves rewards when their company hits a certain goal. Instead of waiting to give yourself those gifts (a watch, a vacation, a gym membership, a trip to the doctor, whatever), give them to yourself now.
Besides, in many cases, people never actually give themselves the rewards they’ve promised. Once they cross that illusive line in the sand they say to themselves, “Well, even though we just hit our revenue goals, I’ll put off taking that trip until we’re a bit more stable.”
Though it seems counterintuitive, the more you invest in the quality of your life, the better your business will do.
The next step involves looking at your day-to-day life.
How to put life first: the small stuff
While the plan above is ideal, it’s not realistic for everyone. If you’re a college student who’s just graduating, you’re in a terrific position to put your life first. If you’re a mother of three, making those changes is going to be prohibitively difficult.
Fortunately, putting life first isn’t just about the big decisions. It’s also about how you approach your day-to-day. Your aim is to fill your day with events both large and small that delight you. A few examples:
- Call in “sick” and use the day to sleep, binge on Netflix, go for a walk, and catch up with your best friend. Better yet, get your best friend to call in sick too!
- Every now and then screw eating salad for lunch and grab brownies!
- Give yourself a little gift, not because you’ve “earned” it, but just because.
- Tell your friends to keep tomorrow evening free, then drive to their house, kidnap them, and go mini golfing.
- Take. A. Vacation. It’s been too long. And if not now, when?
- Stop going to those stupid networking events.
- Take 15 minutes to enjoy a hot chocolate and watch puppy videos.
- Screw getting a promotion, instead work just hard enough to keep your boss happy and invest your extra time into something else.
- Get yourself that sick leather jacket you’ve been dreaming of (or is that just me??).
- Make the little things you truly love in life (like coffee and long walks or cheesy spy novels) non-negotiable. Schedule them into your calendar if you have to.
As you begin to put your life ahead of your work, you’ll notice something surreal: as your life improves, your work follows suit. The sad part is that the inverse isn’t always true. Those who put work ahead of their lives rarely seem to achieve the quality of life they’ve been looking for.
How all of this played out in my life and business
When I decided to put life first, I made a few decisions that would remove some of the financial pressure. First, I rented an apartment that cost much less than I could afford. Second, I promised myself that I would err towards cooking and inviting people over to my place, over going out for food and drinks. Third, I did my best to get books from the library instead of buying them (books are my weakness). Finally, I got a bike to minimize my dependency on Ubers and rented cars.
From there, I more or less lived as I wanted to live. When choosing a gym and a co-working space, I went with the ones that I loved, not the ones that were cheapest. If friends were going snowboarding, I’d join them. If I was exhausted or just didn’t feel like going to work, I’d keep any meetings I had scheduled, but push everything else off until tomorrow. Along the way, I tried to be as generous to myself and others as I could be.
Of course, I didn’t stop working on my business. It’s just that it got much less of my time and attention than most people think it should.
As expected my social and personal lives took off. Looking back, I realize that this was kind of the point anyway.
What did surprise me was how this affected my business. When I was working, the quality of work I produced was better than it had ever been. Because the work was better, I started getting referrals meaning less of my time was spent on sales and marketing. When I had a sales meeting, I felt more calm and confident which increased my close rate. Without realizing it, I started charging more for my services. If a client proved to be a bad fit, I simply let her go and refunded her investment, creating space for a new client to potentially appear.
In other words, my work adapted to fit my life. Though prioritizing my life over my work was never a strategic choice, it ended up being one of the most effective business moves I’ve ever made.
Postscript: on death and human nature
“The trouble is, you think you have time.” -Jack Kornfield
As I’ve mentioned before, three of my friends died when we were all in our twenties.
One lesson their deaths taught me is that tomorrow is never promised.
Our lives aren’t meant to be spent at work looking at spreadsheets, sales analytics, and TPS reports. They’re meant to be spent loving, exploring, laughing, crying, lounging around, fighting, embracing imperfection, leaving the dishes until the morning, traveling, art, playing pranks, watching movies, protesting corrupt governments and wars, seeing concerts and magic shows, playing with puppies, and worshiping whatever sort of god you believe in.
We aren’t meant to put these things off until tomorrow; we’re meant to do them now. For some of us, that tomorrow may not come. Even if you do make it to tomorrow, when you rest on your deathbed you’ll never think to yourself, “Thank God I pulled all of those 70 hour weeks instead of spending time with my kids and lover!”
To focus on work is to focus on security. Yes, security is seductive, but we both know that humans weren’t built to play it safe. We were built to be bold and playful risk takers who live as though life were a precious gift.