Updated on February 29, 2016
For a long time I’ve been seeking value & validation in the wrong places. I thought that to be successful you had to have a fancy job title, great salary, fancy cars & a nice house. I worked hard to educate myself to a high standard. I have two university degrees (A Masters & a bachelors). Up until a few years ago I lived in a four bedroom town house. I drove a Mercedes. I bought all of the latest gadgets & gizmos. Rather than feeling validated with all this stuff & achievement, I felt lost. I felt like I was living someone else’s life. Living someone else’s dream.
From the outside it would have appeared that I had everything. The truth is I was running up massive debt’s working harder than ever & not really achieving anything I initially set out to achieve. The strange thing is, I can’t actually pinpoint exactly when it all went wrong, but I think for me it was a combination of too much social media, FOMO (fear of missing out) and earning a little more money than I used to.
Going right back to when I was a child, I had very little. I would make do a lot & our family in comparison to most other families would have been classed as quite poor. We had money to eat & pay the bills but nothing extra. I never really had much but what I did have I treasured.
My first real computer (the one that got me into computing in a big way) was an Amiga 1200. I used to deliver huge bundles of news papers to pay for it. I saved for months. It would take me 2 nights to deliver 360 newspapers and I would make £6.50 a week. I treasured that Amiga 1200 so much and it really inspired me & got me started in the world of IT. The next machine I had was a 386 which was donated to me and then my big rig was a Cyrix 300Mhz processor powered machine. Cyrix are long out of business but it was a pentium alternative and whilst not the fastest machine it taught me so much.
Contrast this to later in life, when I had iPhone’s, iMac’s, Macbook’s and a plethora of tech. Most of which was bought on finance or on a whim and non of which influenced me as much as this early kit which I had to fight for. I put a lot of money into this kit but no value.
I have loads of examples of this kind of thing. As a student I lived on hardly any money. Without parent’s to help me through University I scraped by on a very minimal financial existence but lived a very full life & I was so productive & happy. Again I didn’t have all the latest kit but I would beg, borrow & make do with all of the computer kit I could get my hands on & I never felt like I was missing anything.
Somewhere along the way this all changed and I got flash. I went from only having a bicycle, to a lease car, to a 4X4 to a fancy Mercedes estate. The same with the houses, which went from a crummy one bed apartment, to a nice apartment, to a two bedroom house then a three bedroom and onto a four bedroom quasi mansion. I was still the same person as was my wife. We still had the same needs & the same passions, but we became distracted & started placing value in the wrong things.
Up until the point in which we got into huge amounts of debt acquiring crap we didn’t need, I would have placed my value in my eagerness to always learn, to always study & seek out information. I would also place my value in being a reliable friend, a trustworthy friend, a caring person & someone who always had time for others. I was the kind of laid back person most of us will meet along the way in life. I was always surrounded by people & I always seemed to be a social anchor, with people looking to me for leadership & organisation. Around 2008 when things started to change I had so many amazing people in my life who I would class as close friends. I had the best, real social network. Then things started to change.
Around the end of 2008 when I was finishing my Masters degree, we decided to move back to my home town. We moved into a 3 bedroom house (we only need one) and unfortunately we put distance in between us and our friends & also the things which I held value in (education & simple living). We now needed a car, so we had a lease car. Our costs started to spiral and we started feeling more disconnected. This pattern continued until around 2012, at which point we had already decided things weren’t right & to start to make changes.
The thing that happened next was both extremely difficult & life changing. My wife’s dad had a massive stroke. We aren’t talking about the kind which most people are aware of, where a little paralysis and brain trouble occur, we are talking Life & death, 4 days of a major blood clot on the brain followed by extremely dangerous surgery, weeks in intensive care & then months & months of daily rehabilitation in a brain injury unit. A stroke is always pretty devastating but this was the kind which people normally don’t survive. But he is tough & he did. We spent all day, everyday at the hospital. We lived & breathed his recovery, attending physio classes and all the other things that go along with it. We watched as bit by bit his friends, colleagues & people closer stepped away. His savings disappeared in care costs & 4 house moves later, into ever smaller properties we watched as his belongings had to go. This episode was life changing for my wife & I. An event like this can’t help but change your outlook on life. Seeing the other people in the Brain Injury unit was humbling. When people’s health suffers all of the trappings of consumer life go out of the window. The one thing money can’t buy is health & in that unit I witnessed determination, kindness and gratitude on a completely different level.
We are now years on and each day is still rehabilitation. Something like a stroke really highlights the inner strength people can find & the kindness of others. While most people are busy chasing their own dreams of wealth & success, there are people who selflessly, day after day, help others without any recognition. When you are exhausted from helping and a stranger offers help, even if it’s just a lift somewhere or a favour, it is a greater gift than money or any job promotion. People offer my father in law help daily & there aren’t words to say how thankful I am for that.
We now see the world completely differently. Unfortunately for me, this isn’t the first time I’ve been through a situation like this. I went through issues first with my dad as a young teenager spending months in Intensive Care, his subsequent death when I was 17 and various other family crisis as a teenager. I now realise that value can’t be attached to stuff or a job title. I’ve seen how it can all be lost overnight & when it is, people don’t mourn the loss of the stuff, they just hope to be healthy & loved. My father in law was always busy working before the stroke. Nowadays he is genuinely excited for us to visit. He values other people, kindness, being included in peoples lives & being loved. This is a man who spent a long time in the British Army, did tours of the most horrendous conflicts of recent memory as a medic & after leaving the army would often work 80+ hours a week.
I feel that if I didn’t look at this from the point of view I bring to most things, that of being a scientist, I would be wasting one of the most valuable lessons I’ve encountered. A new TV might make you happy for a few months, but a brilliant friendship & time spent with that person will make you happy for a lifetime. Working a job that pays well may top-up your bank balance & make you feel secure, but if you don’t love what you do you will never meet your potential. And if something life changing happens tomorrow, you wouldn’t want to regret not following your passions for the sake of a well paying job!
Since downsizing & minimising I’ve found I have much more time to dedicate to people & the things I love to do. I can spend a day doing a bit of work or I can decide to go off exploring with my wife. I can do a few hours work in the morning & spend the rest of the day pondering on an idea or reading a book. I can take time to learn instead of earn. I could earn a lot of money if I put my education to use, but the fact is that I love to learn. It’s the process I love, not the certificate at the end. I find my value in being able to become absorbed in new research, or researching things myself. I love learning about new technology or different ways to re-purpose old tech. I probably live on an average part time wage but I feel wealthy. I have time for myself, time to dedicate to things I love to do. That, to me is more valuable than trading my precious hours for cash.
I intend to downsize even further. By the time we move next, I’m hoping all of our belongings will fit into a single transit van. I find value in the ability to change my situation, move house, move country, change everything with ease. I no longer find my value in stuff. I write this blog on an ancient Lenovo thinkpad X200 laptop I bought on ebay for £50. That is the old me, the true me. I’m sat on the sofa, with a cup of tea, during the working day, writing for myself.
So my question to you would be this. If you didn’t feel the social pressure to be successful in the traditional sense of the word, what would you spend your time doing? And would you need a lot of money to do it? It’s time to stop comparing yourself to others. in most cases those people feel as though they are winging it just as much as you do, they just happen to take on more debt or work longer hours. Most of us could live with less & by needing & wanting less, you need to earn less money, which means you free up time to do more of the things you love.
If I could give you one piece of advice (which I would also go back and tell the version of me in 2008) it would be to always follow your heart & do what you love, no matter what it takes. Life isn’t all about how much you earn, it’s how much you enjoy what you do while still being able to afford to live. If I had the time over I would never have moved from my small city apartment & I would have gone straight into studying for my PhD. I’ll get back there, it just takes longer to right the wrongs of bad decisions & to get my mindset away from consumerism and back on living a full life.
The thing I value more than anything is friendship. I have the best friend in my wife. We have been through a lifetime of pain & joy in 16 years and we are stronger for it. I love spending my days with her and working towards our own goals. I value the friendships I have with my close friends. They are all amazing & would do anything for me. That offers me far more security than a hefty bank balance. Money can disappear in no time, but a good friend is more valuable than anything I know of. And if you are ever in need, you will feel the same.