Why It’s SO Important to Enjoy Life Now

Every so often I like to put money and career issues aside, and focus on The Bigger Picture. What’s The Bigger Picture? It’s life – as in life beyond money, careers, and success. If we’re honest, we should admit that just about anything related to money is a numbers game at its root. We also need to recognize that money concerns tend to be overwhelmingly future oriented. In this way, an obsession with the financial future can rob us of the pleasures of today. This is why it’s so important to enjoy life now.

We don’t know how much time we have

No matter how many – or how grand – our future plans may be, the biggest X factor is that we don’t know how much time we will have in our lives. Sure, if you’re 30 years old you may feel secure in the knowledge that you’ve got another 50 or 60 or even 70 years to go. But reality does not always cooperate with our plans. I’ve known more than a few people who never made it to 50 – or went shortly after. And even a few who didn’t make it nearly that far.

Why It’s SO Important to Enjoy Life Now
Why It’s SO Important to Enjoy Life Now
That doesn’t mean that we should live life with a mortal fear that we may die tomorrow, but rather that when we make our plans we need to be well aware of the possibility. And it should have an impact on how we live our lives.

It opens up the question what would I do with this time if I knew that my life would be ending very soon? Would you continue working at a job that you don’t like? Would you continue trying to build some sort of wall of security around your life? Would you continue to pursue career success at the expense of your health and/or your relationships?

It’s a cultural norm that most of us readily recognize the value of money, or those things in life that we can attach monetary value to. In the process, it’s very easy to under estimate the importance of time.

Many years ago, when I was in my 20s, I had good friend and mentor who was in his 70s at the time. He always told me “life goes by so fast”; I didn’t get it at the time – youth seldom does.

Here was a typical exchange:

Me: “It doesn’t feel like it to me.”
Him: “Wait.”
Me: “Until when?”
Him: “It starts at about 30, when the years start turning into decades.”
Me: “I just don’t see it.”
Him: “You will. You’re not 30 yet.”

He called it. It first hit me when I turned 30, and realized that three decades – at least one-third of my life – was already gone. I also realized that the years and experiences that had passed weren’t sitting in a jar somewhere in my closet to be accessed any time I wanted – they were gone forever.

On the surface, that realization may seem depressing. It’s not. It’s reality. And reality has a way of making you see what’s really important. If you embrace the shortness of life, you can really turn that into a positive.

We don’t know what the quality of our time will be

This is the “B” side to the limited time factor in life. Not only do we not know how much time we have, but we don’t know how good that time will be. There are more variables here and we can even imagine, but here’s a short list:

  • A debilitating health condition could change the quality of your life overnight
  • A difficult divorce could cause several disrupted years in your life
  • Trouble with a family member – especially a child – could impair your time
  • You could be drafted into the military at a time of war
  • Incarceration (most people assume this could never happen to them, but in reality it’s now more likely than at any time in US history)
  • An economic calamity, like the Great Depression, could impair a decade or more of your life

I don’t mean to rain on everyone’s good times, but understand that these are all possibilities that could compromise your life even if they don’t shorten your time. If life is pretty good right now, recognize that this is quality time in your life, that you need to live and use to the fullest.

Carpe Diem – Enjoying the people and experiences around us

I’ve never known or heard of a single deathbed episode where a person wished that they had worked harder, earned and saved more money, and had more security in life. (We can suppose that the immediate prospect of death tends to reveal the pursuit of security as an especially meaningless goal.)

On the flipside, I’ve heard and known of many people who wished that they had spent more time with family and friends, experienced more of life, did more of the things that they found pleasurable and satisfying, and had taken better care of their health. Some even express disgust for having too much concern for money and career.

Feel free to disagree, but I think that deathbed revelations are the most honest that will ever come out of a human being. I also think that we need to take this to heart.

In the end, how much power, prestige, money, and security a person accumulates is rarely a factor in how much they enjoy their lives. The problem is that those factors are mostly external – that is, they mostly serve to impress other people.

Another problem is that power, prestige, money, and security are all measurable commodities (another example of the numbers game controlling your life). If we could live forever, pursuing those objectives would certainly make sense. But how logical do they seem against the backdrop of a finite life?

The pursuit of money metrics as a measure of success in life can make us blind to the times, people, and experiences that are happening all around us right now. And it’s really what we do in life, rather than we have, that makes us happy.

The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman

Perhaps you’ve heard or read this short story before, but it’s an eye-opener, one that can make you realize that happiness may be right in front of you, rather than at the end of a long journey.

Read it and you’ll see what I mean.

A boat docked in a tiny Mexican village. An American tourist complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his catch. “How long did it take you to get those?” he asked.

“Not so long,” said the Mexican.

“Then why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?” asked the American.

The Mexican explained that his small catch was quite enough to meet his needs and feed his family.

“So what do you do with the rest of your time?” asked the American.

“I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evening, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar and sing a few songs. I have a full life.”

The American interrupted. “I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat.”

“And after that?” asked the Mexican.

“With the extra money the bigger boat will bring, you can buy a second boat and then a third boat, and then more until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants. Pretty soon you could open your own plant. You could leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York! From there you could direct your whole enterprise.”

“How long would that take?” asked the Mexican.

“Twenty — perhaps twenty-five years,” replied the American.

“And after that?”

“Afterwards? Well, my friend,” laughed the American, “that’s when it gets really interesting. When your business gets really big, you can start selling stocks and make millions!”

“Millions? Really? And after that?” said the Mexican.

“After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a beautiful place near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take siestas with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends.”

The American tourist was leading the Mexican fisherman right back to the life he had here and now. Blinded by his cultural obsession with money and success, the American couldn’t see what was obvious. The story cuts off there, but we can assume that the fisherman wisely chose to ignore the American’s advice.

Retirement: the practice of back-loading your life

I want to focus on retirement planning in particular, since it’s the fascination du jour. This is likely due to the aging of the Baby Boom generation, in combination with a record – and seemingly unstoppable – stock market. What ever the cause, it deserves special examination.

A lot of people choose to use what are generally regarded as the best years of their lives to prepare for retirement, a time in life when all their cares will disappear and they’ll live the TV life of unlimited time of prosperity – at least in theory.

I realize that this flies in the face of conventional thinking, but I think that the uncertainties of life require that we prepare for different outcomes. When it comes to retirement, we’re not merely preparing for it – we’re also trying to predict the future. We do that by making certain assumptions, generally those that are favorable to the desired outcome of a comfortable retirement.

None of us can do that – and that’s the point. We can’t know what the financial markets will do over the next few decades, any more than we can know what inflation will do to the money we do save.

In preparing for retirement, what we’re really doing is back-loading our lives. That means that we’re accumulating the lions share of our financial resources throughout the majority of our lives in order to prepare for the last few years. But there is a lot that will be happening between now and the time that you formally retire, events that could require a lot of money, and be at least as important as retirement.

Preparing for retirement is something of Catch 22. Think about it – how much money will ever be enough to give you the kind of retirement that you want? If you reach a certain savings goal, you will most likely increase it, just because you can.

Still another issue is that preparing for retirement is extremely money centric. After a lifetime spent saving money – and concerning and worrying yourself over it – it’s not likely that you will stop fixating on money when you retire. The attitudes that you live your life with are highly likely to carry over into retirement.

That will hardly banish the worry that we hope to escape by retiring.

“The best laid plans of men and mice go awry”

That well worn saying is more than a bit humbling, isn’t it? And yet it’s true. A plan is nothing more than a goal that we set in our own minds, and then create an action plan to follow. But nothing guarantees that our plans will work. What makes this particularly concerning is that you could literally spend most of your life working on a plan that never comes to fruition, or might have even been doomed from the very start. What did you give up for the chase?

I love the saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t make plans – but rather that we need to be careful about making them too specific.

Using retirement as an example, it may be that rather than preparing for retirement – which is a single goal, with a specific date, that will require an enormous amount of money – we should instead prepare for a better life.

We can do this by adopting a broader strategy when preparing for the future:

  • Save for greater prosperity in the future, and not necessarily retirement.
  • Save for semi-retirement at an earlier age – the nearer our goals are, the more predicable they are.
  • Save so that you will have enough money to make a desired career change – that could be in five years, rather than at 65.
  • Save to create an entirely different lifestyle rather than specifically for retirement.

I realize that such a goal sounds fuzzy, but that will also help to build flexibility into your future plans. The fact that it is less specific means it is also more attainable, and will probably blend better with various changes that will happen in your life, whether planned or spontaneous.

So let me ask you a few questions:

  1. Do you ever set major plans, then question if the goal is really what you want?
  2. Do you ever “count the cost” – assess whether or not the price you will pay to achieve the goal will be justified by what you’ll get out of it?
  3. Do you ever worry that your goals are more cultural than personal, that you’re doing mostly what society says you should – rather than what you want to do?

( Photo by natalielucier )

10 Responses to Why It’s SO Important to Enjoy Life Now

  1. Hi Kevin, good stuff! I live in wealthy community and it’s a bit unsettling when I run across folks who have amassed a whole pile of dough, yet realized all to late that the good life they pursued with such tenacity had already passed them by while they were busy “making bank”.

    While it’s imperative that we set aside funds for our “retirement” or our “later years” or whatever you want to call it, we must also remember that we are always making a trade-off of time for money. And the older we get the more important the ‘time’ side of the scale becomes.

    It would seem that retirement saving has become a sort of idol for many within the online “Financial Independence” community. I read a lot about saving up for a future time of doing whatever whenever, but not nearly as much about whether or not all that ‘doing’ includes more time giving back.

  2. Hi Chaz – I think that you lose more then time when it comes to preparing for the future. You can also lose health and relationships. And while I realize that not nearly everyone is Christian, you can also become so rote in your behavior that there’s no time for a relationship with God, or as you say, for giving back. It’s reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge, but I think that lesson is lost on most people today. Retirement has become America’s new holy grail, and once you’re on that treadmill it’s difficult to get off – or even be able to see beyond it.

    We should set aside money for retirement (or as I said in the post, for greater prosperity to create more options as the years past), but I can’t get past the realization that for a lot of people retirement is more than a financial process, it’s a life’s philosophy. That’s really absurd when you think about it, but totally likely when it becomes your main driving principal in life. For a lot of people it becomes just that, and leaves little time for much else.

  3. I should read this daily. I’m a highly future oriented person. That is a good trait for making plans, coming up with big ideas, goals, etc. But I forget sometimes (a lot) to be in the moment.

  4. Hi Jo – It might help to embrace the idea that moments that slip by now can’t be recovered later. That will keep you at least partially rooted in the present. I used to be completely future oriented myself, but after a while you begin to realize that the future never arrives when you think that way. It’s good from a standpoint of saving and investing for the future, but it should never be the be-all in your life, otherwise you miss too much.

  5. I feel like a lot of people buy plenty of things just because society is also doing it as well. People get pressured into buying extra things or name brand clothes that don’t really matter. I don’t personally care about special name brand items and the prices are definitely not worth it.

  6. Hi Alexis – You’re “preaching to the choir” with me! I shop at thrift stores for clothing, and only venture into department stores when they’re having sales of at least 40% off (mostly JC Penny and Kohls). My wife and I have taught our kids the same thing. We also drive older cars and eat most of our meals at home. I think that part of our ability to enjoy life is to let go of many/most of the expensive toys/entertainment and spending patterns that are so common in our culture. The less money you spend on these things, the less you need, and the more you have for savings that make it easier to relax and enjoy life.

    It’s so sad that the “little things” like family, community and self-improvement/accomplishment have been cast aside in the pursuit of better looking stuff and gold-plated entertainment. I often wonder if people even know or understand what they’re giving up to “live the life” (like the TV life).

  7. Great post! I think many people put too much focus on their careers, working overtime and put their life on the back burner. I used to be that person. Sure, I put 100% into my job but my job is no my life. I don’t want to look back and have regrets. I believe balance is important with everything in life. I don’t follow what society says we “must” do rather we base our goals around what we want.

  8. Balance – I hear you. That’s the key to everything. If you’ve ever known anyone who enjoys their life – but doesn’t have a ton of money – you come to realize that you can have a good life just by balancing things out. I’ve had the privilege of knowing several people who were happy to the grave and didn’t have much material success. Years ago I saw a saying – “Something to love, something to do, something to hope for – That IS success”. I’m guessing that people who have a strong money fixation find such thoughts to be at least mildly disruptive.

  9. Great article and comments. I, too have been (and still am) future orientated. Having worked and sacrificed 10 good years of my life starting at age 22 I’ve only recently changed my ways. (Loosely) semi retired age 35 life is better than ever and I balance money now rather than hoard it for the future that never comes. The Wife & I work around 2-3 days per week each and have the ability to travel some if we feel like, which is really ‘living’ to us

    We could all die tomorrow, balance is key

  10. Hi jez – You should write an article about what you’re doing, and how you were able to reach this point. It will be helpful for a lot of people. I’ll publish it here if you’re willing.

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