A lot of extremely misguided (and generally pretty unhappy) people think that “success” in life should be measured in terms of your credentials or cash flow or the things you’ve accumulated — but I’ll let you in on a little secret (a-la Fight Club ). You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. And you are NOT your fucking khakis! It’s your job to figure out what “prosperous” looks like in your world..
I’ve never chosen a particularly conventional life — at least according to most standards. I don’t care about having a big house or an expensive car. I place more importance on personal satisfaction than professional status. (I’m not even using the damned master’s degree I spent so many years paying off!) The only children I’ll ever have lick their own butts. And my home is a 29-foot Airstream travel trailer. However, I don’t consider myself an outcast or weirdo. (No matter what the photo says!) I have nose-rings and tattoos — I’m also well-educated and solidly middle-class. I didn’t grow up in a radical household. (My brother was a hippie, but he was in it more for the drugs than the politics!) My parents instilled me with a strong work ethic and taught me to want the American dream. I really did try to give it a shot — the career ladder, the house, everything except the kids. And I was “successful,” but something felt off.
Over time, I’d become more and more disenchanted with the traditional way of doing things — the “work-a-million-hours-have-no-free-time-make-money-buy-stuff-give-birth-get-old-and-retire-at-65” lifestyle did not resonate with me. (I’m obviously wired differently from most Americans, because that sounds very much like my idea of hell!) I watched my mother and father scrimp and save and delay their dreams so they could relax during those precious sunset years — then they each died prematurely, before getting to fully enjoy the fruits of their labors. I didn’t want to live that way. I refused to continually put my life on hold waiting for “someday” — I was going to have my retirement while I was still young enough to enjoy it!
People tell me how “courageous” I am to have skipped parenthood and lived life according to my rules, to have quit my job and started my own business, to have dumped the stationary life and hit the road. I guess — but it never felt especially brave to me, just right. I’m simply doing what I want, instead of what someone else tells me I should do. (If more people gave that a try, I’m convinced we’d all be better off!) But folks have a hard time listening to their hearts, because their stupid heads get in the way. They get their panties all in a twist over their “status.” Mirriam-Webster defines status as “relative social, professional, or other standing.” The key word in that phrase is “relative” — when you routinely compare your life to other people’s, you’re setting yourself up for dissatisfaction. Figure out what makes you happy IRRESPECTIVE of what everyone else is doing. That’s the only way to find true contentment.
Part of the reason I’ve been able to follow my heart without worrying about how it would affect my status is that I am (on many levels) immune to outside opinion. Sure, if someone tells me that I suck, it hurts my feelings and shakes my confidence — but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean that I’ve never really given much thought to “keeping up with the Joneses.” So many people focus on having what their friends and neighbors have, and that was never a priority for me. Our friends have decided that they need a house with a 3-car garage? Yeah, not so much. I’ll spend my money traveling, instead. Everyone else is having kids? Congratulations. I’ll come visit every so often, get them hyped up on sugar and caffeine, then give them back to you. Spending 18-hour days climbing that corporate ladder? Fuck that! I’d rather devote my time to creative projects!
What folks don’t realize is that following your heart is actually the path of least resistance. Believe me, I work hard for my dreams — but when you’re putting the time in on something you love, it doesn’t feel like effort. Raising children and showing up at an office every day — now that would be work! I recognize that I live an unusual lifestyle when compared to my friends and most people my age (actually, most people period). I can’t claim all the traditional trappings of prosperity — summer homes and boats, my name on an office door or an important title. I’ve traded all that stuff for free time and reduced stress — and I have to say, I feel pretty darned successful for having broken free from the mold!
What sent me down the road less traveled? I have no clue (I wish I did, so that I could help “vaccinate” others against feeling that they have to follow the crowd!) See me screaming in this photo, and you might think it’s in my genes. My parents definitely taught me to have my own opinions, and I was playing “devil’s advocate” by the time I was seven. Even though my family was very working class, they never pressured me into being a “successful” doctor or a lawyer or an MBA. In fact, I picked one of the least profitable majors out there when I became a Social Worker — I was always driven more by passion than a paycheck. And my parents already had grandkids (that’s one in the photo with me), so they never bugged me about reproducing. No one tried to fit me into a mold — good thing too, because they would have failed miserably, once that red hair and fiery Irish temper kicked in!
Most importantly, I was always allowed to make my own mistakes, to really screw up, and learn a lesson from it. And buddy, have I made some doozies in my time! I spent two years earning a misguided Master’s degree that I hated and that never served any purpose in my life beyond helping me get that first job out of college. But I don’t regret it, because the experience taught me an important life lesson — sticking with a situation that makes you miserable isn’t commitment, it’s stupidity! And that realization made it easier for me to back away from other bad decisions later on. So when my job became unbearable, I didn’t think twice about striking out on my own and starting a Professional Organizing business (which has served me well for more than 10 years). When we decided that having a house was not the glorious paradise of homeownership we had imagined, we did a 180 and downsized to an Airstream travel trailer — and we love it. And when our business grew too big for us to handle, we sold it and started over — one of the best choices I ever made. I just thank God that we never had kids — I’m not sure we could have walked away from that decision quite so easily if it didn’t work out!
Finding a life that truly makes you happy requires flexibility. We are all taught at an early age that quitters never win and winners never quit — I’m here to tell you right now that this is bullshit! Sometimes, quitting is the best possible thing to do when part of your life is broken — whether it’s a relationship, a job, your living environment, or just an overloaded schedule. You can’t make room for new experiences until you create a little space. But some folks are determined to stay on a road that is quite obviously leading them in the wrong direction for entirely the wrong reasons — sticking with a career they hate because they can’t bear to walk away from the paycheck, or a marriage that sucks them dry because they are afraid of being on their own, or a lifestyle that is driving them into bankruptcy because they think that starting over will look too much like failure. If you are unhappy, the only way to get happy is to change something. You can’t keep doing the same things in life and suddenly expect different results — I mean, if you’re not willing to try “different,” how do you ever expect to get to “better?”
My goal is to be a “lifestyle entrepreneur” — I don’t want to have to take out my nose ring or hide my tattoo or wear “banker’s business blue” (I was never built for the corporate world, I’m much too funky!) I will never make millions of dollars at my work, but I get to do what I love, from anywhere in the world. The line between work and play is blurred for me — I love being able to turn my life experiences into something meaningful for my clients. I can work from the back porch of my mother’s house or while camping in the Rockies or sitting on a beach in Tahiti — flexibility, mobility, and free time are more important to me now than money.
I have no interest in a set schedule — whether I wake up in the morning wanting to write blogs or take photos or sculpt or have a day off, I insist on having the freedom to choose. I don’t want my business to be limited to one arena — my career has to allow me to use all of my skills, express every facet of my personality, and give me complete creative freedom to head off in any direction I choose. I will only work from home, for myself, keeping my business small enough for one person to manage — I refuse to ever have employees or become a slave for someone else again!
My relationships are hugely important to me and I have to feel as though I’m making a contribution to the world — I want time in my schedule for friends and family, charitable work, my clients, my art, for whatever I feel like doing. I want to maximize my accomplishments and minimize the time investment, so I have plenty left over for “living.” I will not have my free time limited to Saturdays and Sundays, rushing around trying to fit in everything you didn’t have time for during the week — I like being able to go grocery shopping when everyone else is at work and hit the zoos and aquariums while the kids are in school. Most of all, I refuse to wait until I’m 65 to retire — I’m taking “mini-retirements” every day of my life, instead!
You will notice that I use the words “insist” and “require” and “refuse” a lot. I believe that once you commit to your goals, you need to draw some boundaries around those dreams to protect them. Without your own personal “policies and procedures” in place, it’s easy to give in to pressure from other folks who want to use up your time and energy for their own purposes — and suddenly, you find yourself heading down entirely the wrong path in life. But when you have a strong set of guidelines to follow, you can stick to your guns and tell people “no” when their request is not in alignment with your goals and values. You can be sure that you are achieving your brand of success when you ask the following questions:
As an Accountability Guru, I teach my clients to create S.M.A.R.T. goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely) — so they have a yardstick against which to quantify progress. But as a follower of eastern philosophy, I also believe that we can thank impossible-to-fulfill expectations for most of our frustrations in life. When you require a specific outcome to be happy (to lose 20 pounds, get married, make a million dollars), chances are you’ll be disappointed by your efforts. However, when your goals describe a process rather than the result (commit to a regular exercise routine that will make me healthier, meet new people, share my expertise with others in the form of a book), then they become very attainable. I call these “free-range” goals.
My intention is to spend every day “in integrity” — living according to my own highest standards, making every choice a conscious one, and serving as a role model for others in everything that I do. I want to operate from a larger perspective, seeing beyond my own doorstep, showing respect and compassion for all humans and their failings. I’m happiest when I’m in the moment — making sure every experience (from traveling abroad to washing dishes) is meaningful, finding enjoyment in even the most insignificant or mundane activities. I try to always be growing, expanding my horizons, and adding value to the world around me. I want to be known as someone who pushes boundaries, makes life better, and helps others increase their capabilities. That’s a tall freaking order! How will I have any idea if I’m on track? By asking whether or not my daily activities are in alignment with my deepest values.
It also helps me to perform the occasional a reality check — making sure whatever I’m doing at that moment is beneficial to my larger goals.
And finally, rating the quality of my life (finances, health, appearance, relationships, career, personal activities, personal growth, and/or efforts to make a difference) on a scale of 1-10, how will I work to make that a “10” this week? I know I’m going to fail (and often) — but I’ve learned to cut myself some slack. When I have a “2” kind of a day, I just start over the following morning, aiming for a “10” the next time around. (Then if I average out to a “7” or “8” for the week, I know I’ve done okay.)
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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream. Learn more at and RamonaCreel.com.
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