How to do everything

I’m reading a lot of inspirational literature and listening to a lot of the same kind of audiobooks as we gear up for our Big Life Change. One of the best results is that I am learning to give myself permission to not do all the things I think I should be doing if I am just not into doing them. Like I finally gave up reading Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and growing my own herbs, and I don’t even feel guilty about it.

This is all part of learning to play to my strengths, which in my case do not include devoting large swathes of time to reading once-trendy academic tomes or gardening.

I’ve noticed that I am really good at plunging deeply into what genuinely does interest me, but it’s been years since I’ve given myself permission to be exclusively interested in one thing.

When I was in elementary school, it was horses. My walls were plastered with pictures and posters of horses, my blankets and pillows had horses on them, I devoured books about horses, and everyone knew that a horse knick-knack was a pretty safe bet for a Christmas or birthday gift for me.

I did not always use these powers for good. I also remember a couple of years just before middle school when I felt the same kind of passion for The New Kids on the Block and I would make my relatives quizz me so I could prove I knew everything there was to know about them.

This is probably true for most people. But then, as you get older, as you start to study more subjects and your studies become more compartmentalized, it makes sense for your parents and teachers to convince you to be more of a jane-of-all-trades. You have to be a good student in all subjects, you should also play a sport, play a musical instrument, eat healthy, watch interesting films, listen to good music, and eventually pay your taxes, save for retirement, invest in sensible funds, and go on a short vacation once a year. And then once you have kids, you have to devote the right amounts of time to being both a parent and a good employee.

It’s all so balanced. But then if balance isn’t your thing, if you aren’t good at juggling your responsibilities and aren’t enthusiastic about doing every little thing right, then you are constantly going to feel like a failure and there is always going to be someone judging you.

And there you are: Jane of all trades, master of none. But what if you want to master just one? What if having just one A+ in life is better to you than have lots and lots of Cs?

I’ve heard it said that how you do anything is how you do everything. I was masticating on this for a few weeks when I had a little epiphany.

I’ve know for a long time that if I want to get in shape or I want to eat healthy, I get much further by gorging myself on steamed vegetables and fresh fruit than I do on telling myself not to eat that bag of chips. I trick myself.

“Self, if you want that bowl of ice cream, you have to eat all these veggies, all these rice and beans, first.” Once I eat my veggies, I’m really full and I don’t want the junk food anymore, or at least I don’t have room for very much of it.

Then I realized that my approach to money was similar. Since I started earning an allowance, I always thought that my savings would come out of “whatever was left over” from what I earned. I realized last year that for those past 15 years there was never anything “left over”. But once I set up automatic deposit from my paycheck into my savings account and the automatic contribution for my 401k, I realized I didn’t even miss the money.

I’m not strong at self-discipline (few of us are) and I can’t always see the big picture when it comes to my financial future, but I can figure out how much money I have to spend every two weeks. And watching my savings increase little by little every two weeks has been way more motivating for me than watching the balance on my student loans shrink–ever so slowly–ever has been. I’m going to increase the amount I’m saving week-by-week until I feel the burn.

Once I realized what my “strengths” were in terms of food and money, I had to look at how I could apply this zealotry-as-strength in other parts of my life. For a long time, I’ve been trying to study Chinese, read anthropology texts, become a marathon runner, be an excellent cook and homemaker, an outstanding employee, read all the books that everyone else was reading, keep an eye on all the big conversations online, and follow all the popular TV shows.

Ultimately, I couldn’t commit to any of these things, I was never giving anything 100%, and I was constantly feeling guilty about it. But as I’ve become clearer about my goals–security and freedom–and more committed to earning and investing the money I need to attain them, I’ve had less patience about the obligations that aren’t moving me toward those goals. Chinese lessons, elaborate meals, daily crocheting time, novels, and TV shows have all been replaced by hours of working on our website, reading books about wine, and learning how to invest.

It’s strange to be moving in these new, foreign directions, and even scarier to be taking my foot off the brakes and letting myself get up to 100 mph like I used to when it came to horses or NKOTB. It’s scary to give your world–your family and friends–the middle finger and say, “I’m not gonna use my time, money, and talents for anything that isn’t important to me.” And it’s not because you don’t love them or because you don’t want to be a good person, but because you know that if you try to be everything you can’t be anything.


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