Don’t Spend Your Life Making Up Your Mind

17May17
“Huntington Hartford, who inherited a fortune from the A. & P. grocery business and lost most of it chas­ing his dreams as an entrepreneur, arts patron, and man of leisure, died Monday at his home in Lyford Cay in the Bahamas,” reported The New York Times in 2008. “He inherited an estimated $90 million and lost an es­timated $80 million of it.”

I did the math. Mr. Hartford wasn’t exactly destitute, with $10 million left.

He made page one of The Wall Street Journal too. “Died: Huntington Hartford, 97, A&P super­market heir who depleted a fortune chasing his dreams, in the Bahamas.”

In our culture, “What are you worth?” is a question about your finances and utility, not your character. To be a “suc­cess” means you have more at the end than you did at the start. We say “you can’t take it with you” but we be­have and judge as though you can.

Certainly Mr. Hartford was lucky to have had enough money to do as he wished. Was he a failure, though, as “depleted a fortune” and “lost $80 million” suggest? Why didn’t the Times and the Journal congratu­late him for spending his fortune living his dreams? “To most Americans the worst errors are financial and in that respect I have been Horatio Alger in reverse,” said Huntington Hartford.

Long ago I worked at a job I didn’t enjoy. It wasn’t a bad job; it was secure and pleasant. I was a success, but the job just wasn’t fulfilling in the ways I wanted. I spent my spare time tinkering with the simulations, research, and writing that still fascinate me. And the more I tinkered, the more I chafed at my job.

One day I complained to someone close to me, who gave me the gift of a question: “Then why don’t you quit your job and do what you want instead?” I know the option of quitting seems obvious. It had occurred to me many times. But that was the first time I heard the “then why don’t you” part.

Why hadn’t I quit? Because I’d wrapped myself in a thicket of “have to’s.” I have to have a steady income. I have to have the respect that comes with a business card from a leading-edge company. I have to, not I want to. Assumptions, beliefs, and habits, not wrong but also not laws of nature that I have to obey.

When I noticed the self-imposed have to’s I could question their influence on my decision. I quit my job the next day. I wanted to live my dreams.

In the twenty-five years since then, I’ve gone through fat times and lean. Every time I’ve asked myself whether I made the right decision, the answer is always, immediately, viscerally yes. I know I traded security for satisfaction, and sometimes I miss the security. Other people might prefer security to satisfaction. But for me, so far, it’s been worth it. And when it’s not any more, I’ll do something else.

I don’t mean to sound glib, like “just do it.” Deciding what’s really have-to and whether to pursue want-to has consequences and risks. $90 million bought Huntington Hartford a great deal of freedom and safety, more than most of us enjoy. Still, all that money didn’t force him to live his dreams. He had to decide to do that.

Lack of money might be an obstacle to living our dreams. So might the perceived surfeit of time implied by mañana: I’ll do it tomorrow.

I can attest that mañana is especially tempting on agonizing decisions. I was stuck for months on such a decision. Two things got me unstuck. One was reframing the decision before me. I’d tried but just couldn’t answer “What can I do to cause the outcome I want?” I switched to “What are the best and worst out­comes I can expect?” I answered that question immediately. I knew the answer was true even though I didn’t like it.

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