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Needing more than ourselves to be ourselves

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John Nordell / The Christian Science Monitor / File

(Read caption) Andy Garlick practices shooting on goal at home with Monica, his older sister, in the net, in this Needham, Mass., file photo from October, 1998. Having the self-confidence to be frugal lets you devote your resources - your time, your money, your attention - to whatever you choose, from retirement to your kids' soccer game.

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My friend Heidi recently sent me a link to a fascinating article over at Mark Vernon’s blog (a philosophy-focused blog) entitled AS Byatt, who we are, and maps again. One sentence really jumped out at me in the middle of the article, and I’ve been turning it over and over again in my head for a while.

It’s an insight that I keep noticing at the moment, the sense that our own lives are too small for us, and we need something more than ourselves to be ourselves.

“We need something more than ourselves to be ourselves.”

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That’s a brilliant way of describing how I’ve felt quite often in my life.

When I was younger, I often felt that who I really was inside was not clear to the people around me, that my external appearance was somehow much less than who I actually was. My response to that was to spend. I took on what I called “Superman syndrome,” something I discussed in a 2008 post and revisited earlier this year.

I spent out of a sense that I was inadequate, at least in the eyes of others. Alone, who I was was not enough to please them, so I used material possessions as one crutch and over-the-top spending on others as a second crutch.

After a while, as I mentioned in my follow-up post, I began to realize that people saw through the bluster:

It took me a long time to realize that I often wasn’t fulfilled when I was alone – and that, underneath the bravado, the shiny things I owned, and my material generosity, others knew it, too. Their opinions of me weren’t made of the things I bought (for myself or for them), but from my personal character.

Realizing this, I began to really focus energy on not impressing other people – and it worked. Focusing my spending on myself rather than others made it possible for me to cut back greatly on my expenses – and it opened the door to this site.

In the ensuing years, I’ve still had that sense of needing more than myself to be myself, but in a different way. I’ve come to feel that every choice I make is some sort of compromise.

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Let’s say, hypothetically, that it’s two in the afternoon. My son and daughter are standing at my office door saying, “Dad! Please come outside with us and play soccer!” At the same time, there’s a post in front of me that I’ve spent two hours researching and drafting, let along the additional thought I’ve put into it. I’m happy with the ideas and the flow of it (this has always been the important part to me), but it ought to have a grammar check before being posted – and it needs to go up this afternoon.

What do I do? Do I just go ahead, post the article, and go play soccer? Or do I tell the kids, “Sorry, not today, I’ve got to proofread this,” and turn back to my computer?

My usual choice is to just post the article and go outside with my children. My entire reason for choosing to work full time on The Simple Dollar was because of them, so that my work would never come in the way of spending time with them when they needed me. And, yes, an afternoon in the yard playing soccer is something that they need.

That choice, though, is a compromise. It’s a compromise in that it produces a post with grammatical errors in it, or a mis-pasted sentence somewhere. It means that by sometimes giving what energy and time I have to my children, I do not give that energy and time to you, the reader. That has a negative impact on the site as a whole and, over the long run, reduces my earning capacity.

I want to do both, but I am not capable of doing both.

“We need something more than ourselves to be ourselves” is what Vernon said in that post, and it rings true with every choice I make – and probably with every choice you make, too.

When I’m at the grocery store, I recognize that I have only so many dollars to spend there. I have to choose what goes into my cart, and each choice is a compromise. Do I buy this bag of goldfish crackers that my kids love? If I do, what am I not buying? Do I put back the salmon? Do I take the road that makes my kids smile in the short run – or do I spend my limited resources to expand their palate and put some omega 3s in their diet, even if they have a good chance of not liking the salmon? What’s the best use of that dollar?

How do I know what the right decision is?

“We need something more than ourselves to be ourselves.” Believing in that means I could just fall into the trap of busting out the plastic and buying both the salmon and the goldfish. Doing that, though, sacrifices other things in my life. More becomes less.

“We need something more than ourselves to be ourselves” feels like a rebuke of everyday choices. We can never be perfect. We’re always compromising something.

The only answer that I’ve found in my life is simply deciding what’s really important to you and following that, straight and true. Spend money on what’s important to you and cut back on everything else. Devote your time to the things that most matter and scale back on the other commitments. Use up your energy on what you value the most.

Guess what, my friends? There’s probably a grammatical error or a word I’ve used too often in this post. I did a quick check of it, but I can hear my children downstairs getting ready for their soccer game.

Personal finance success – or success in any avenue of life – isn’t about being all things to all people. It’s about being the important things to the truly important people. It’s about choosing your battles and focusing on winning those, rather than trying to fight every possible battle. It’s about accepting that you’re going to mess up sometimes, but recognizing that those situations are simply part of the equation and that the only route for improvement lies in the future. It’s about hoping and preparing for the best, making the best choices you can, and not looking back with regret.

I wouldn’t miss that soccer game for the world.

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