The following blog post is part of The Road to Financial Wellness blog tour. The Road to Financial Wellness is a three-month, grassroots campaign promoting financial empowerment on a national level and encourages people to pursue their dream lifestyle. Find out more about local events near you.
About a year ago, I started learning about money. Not in the sense of how to get rich, or even the fastest way out of debt — although that interested me greatly — but what was the purpose of it? We exchange money every day. It’s how we buy apples, jeans, and a place to call home. But why are we working so hard to earn money, instead of, say, . . . happiness? The impetus for these thoughts was my recent law school diploma and a new job — the best job I could have hoped to get coming out of law school. And yet as I sat behind my desk and learned how to work with a secretary, a latent sinking feeling developed.
Was this it? For the foreseeable future — 35+ years — I would sit behind a similar desk, solve problems for other people, and spend the vast bulk of my (not insubstantial) earnings on everything from new cars to shiny new trinkets to lavish vacations. That’s what people do. But the price required to enjoy all those goodies was virtually all of my time. And I would spend that time doing a job for longer than I’d even been alive. My continued success would likely mean ever less time with my family. My children would grow older, and farther away. Even if I changed careers entirely, the result would be the same. Another job, another endless time just doing work, the same sacrifice.
Around this time, I stumbled across Mr. Money Mustache’s blog. A few weeks later I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad for the first time, and Your Money or Your Life shortly thereafter. I started contemplating the connection my money choices were having on my happiness and my future. Part of that process was considering how I got to where I was in the first place. Turns out, it’s a lot like Dorothy’s journey through Oz. Perhaps your journey is too.
The Path to Oz Begins
My whole life I’d been told to figure out what I want to do, as though this were a destination instead of a path. But to get to “what I want to do,” the path laid out in front of me was always the same: finish high school, go to college, go to graduate school, then get a job as a professional with decent pay and good benefits, and live the “good” life by working for the rest of it. Just like Dorothy landing in Oz, the entire circus of people in my life were chanting at me to follow this road — the yellow brick road — that supposedly led to success (and therefore happiness).
And so many people are on the same path, even though it’s not even effective for a huge swath of them. 45% of people who enroll in college don’t graduate within six years. Huge numbers of people switch careers more than once. Yet there we all were, walking the path, because that’s what you do. There was no other vision offered for a way to live life well. Everyone has to work.
But how many working people are actually happy, regardless of their “success”? Staggeringly few, I’ll wager. More often than not, the language I hear used to describe work is uniformly depressing. It’s Monday already. The weekend was too short. Thank god it’s Friday. Essentially, the message is to hurry up and get the work week out of the way so you can cram a week’s worth of living into two days or less.
Yet people accept this state of affairs — myself included, until recently — without question because that’s what you do on the road to “success,” which supposedly culminates with earning enough money to finally be able to buy all the trinkets/machines/luxuries that are sure to make you happy. In the same way, Dorothy’s traveling companions were equally clueless. All they knew to do was follow the yellow brick road.
Getting Trapped in Oz
Following the yellow brick road on the way to success, most people — again, myself included — disgruntled with the slow pace of success and the lack of fulfillment, decide that they can buy a little happiness with some rewards. Of course, they can’t actually afford these rewards directly, so they buy them on credit. Everything from clothes to cars to homes. (I bought them all.) These purchases are the common measuring sticks of success and happiness, so by displaying to the world that you have the indicia of success and happiness, it’s easy to mask the fact that you have neither.
And watching other people constantly displaying all these supposed indicia of success and happiness ramps up the pressure on you to do the same. I must have a better car, a bigger home, a nicer watch, a more luxurious vacation. I will display my success and happiness to the world! But all these purchases are just opiates that push dreams farther away. They are the field of poppies: beautiful, seductive, deadly. The manipulation of desire will mire you on the yellow brick road forever. Continually holding debt means being plagued by obligations that last years beyond the initial sugar rush of getting something shiny and new.
The Curtain Falls
But what about those lucky few who are either so successful or financially savvy enough to avoid getting stuck in the field of poppies? For most, they reach the Emerald City, the city supposedly full of the true rewards sought for the whole path, the part each character has been missing all along. For the Tin Man it was a heart; for the Scarecrow, a brain; for the Lion, courage. But, of course, the great Wizard was only a great fraud. He could no more give them a heart, brains, or courage than he could turn the city emerald. (It only appeared so because he made all the citizens wear green tinted glasses.)
And so it goes for so many who reach the pinnacle of their careers only to find that once the path is over, many basic questions have gone unanswered, their fundamental needs unmet. Executive suicide is surprisingly, alarmingly commonplace. Once the road ends, the great rewards obtained, all that’s left is . . . yourself, on a lonely peak.
For myself, I started to get this feeling far before the pinnacle of my career. In fact, it was at the very beginning. Maybe it was because I felt like I’d gone through so much getting myself (and my family) through law school and searching endlessly for a job that once I got that dream job it felt like I’d hit the end of the rainbow already. Not that there weren’t and aren’t new peaks to hit, new skills to learn, and so on, but the great adventure seemed mostly over. And because of my massive $200k student loan debt, servicing that debt severely limited my options, tying me to the job. I like having options, and don’t like feeling beholden to any employer, no matter how much I like them.
There’s No Place Like Home
DOROTHY Oh, will you help me? Can you help me? GLINDA You don't need to be helped any longer. You've always had the power to go back to Kansas. DOROTHY I have? SCARECROW Then why didn't you tell her before? GLINDA Because she wouldn't have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.
And what about Dorothy? How did she finally escape Oz? She realized she had the ability to take herself where she wanted to go without relying on anyone else to get her there. She didn’t need a wizard. She just needed to click her heels and take control of her own destiny. And for her, happiness was in her own backyard. Much like Dorothy, it wasn’t until I reached the end of my own yellow brick road that I realized I could take my own path toward success and happiness. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until I saw that opening that I really started examining what my values were so I could align my time and money with them, and enjoy the delicious byproducts of that alignment: happiness (and therefore success). Doing so hadn’t even seemed that important during my time on the road.
But such is the dogma of the yellow brick road: this is the only path to success and happiness! Look nowhere else! When I began connecting with my values, I realized most of them don’t require spending a lot of money. Mostly, I wanted to regain flexibility so I could spend more time with my kids and in nature. All I had to do was make that financially feasible — which would be possible with debt freedom, and incredibly easy with financial freedom. The world began looking a lot more abundant, even with all my debt.
For me and for Dorothy, recognizing our own agency unlocked a way out of Oz we didn’t even know was there. Similarly, finding what you truly value will be your own path out of Oz. This isn’t to say that you can drop everything and immediately start doing only what you truly value. I’m still working on it myself. But by seeking debt freedom and financial independence, you will free yourself to do just that. No wizard, no boss, no promotion, no luxury can give you the sense of reward that everyday moving yourself toward freedom does. Promotions, raises, and perks are no longer the reward, but tools to reach deep personal goals sooner.
And, amazingly, by not focusing on the work rewards as the end goal, but as a means to a deep, intrinsically motivating goal, you will attain them much, much faster. The path to those greater work rewards is excellent work. The confidence you will gain moving toward your own freedom will transform you into one of the most productive people at your work.
I write the above having experienced it myself.Your Money or Your Life first suggested that this would be the case, but it seemed hard to believe. And yet in the year since reading the book and deciding what I am truly working toward — not vague success, but debt and financial freedom — I received the biggest raise of my life and a bonus equivalent to half a year’s wages in my job before law school.
I still struggle with the feeling that paying off my debt is not going fast enough. But I know where I’m going. And that makes all the difference.