As an engineer, when I start work on a new project, one of the first questions I ask is “what am I trying to accomplish?” Only once I can explicitly state the goal can I then start to propose possible solutions. This probably sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how often people will start working on something before they really know what “done” looks like.
Let’s imagine you work at Acme Co. and a customer said “I’d like you to build me a device that keeps things cold!”. “Sure thing!” you say. You disappear for a week and come back and deliver the customer a full-size refrigerator. The customer looks upset, and you inquire as to why. “I’ve built you a wonderful cooling device, is there something more you needed?” “Well,” says the customer, “it’s just that this cooling device is far larger than what we need for keeping our insulin cold.”
You’ve built a product that keeps things cold, but it’s very inefficient for it’s intended use. You probably should have asked the customer details about what they were really wanted out of the product before you started work– whoops!
This example is contrived and sounds ridiculous– of course you would ask more questions before starting your work. However, there’s a product that each and every one of us dedicates lots of time building and yet most of us don’t take the time to stop and ask what our true end goal is. That product is our selves– our lives.
Like the cooling device, we all have a very vague common goal– the goal of happiness. But what are the specifications for your happiness? As unique individuals, we each thrive off different things. If you don’t stop and ask what brings you, specifically, the most happiness, then how can you expect to build a life that fulfills that expectation?
This is the inefficiency of leading a normal life. Our normal lives do (hopefully) bring us happiness, just as the giant refrigerator is capable of cooling the insulin, but that happiness (and much more) could likely be achieved with less effort, just as the insulin could be cooled using much less electricity and occupying much less physical space.
When I say “normal life”, I’m referring to a middle-class life in a developed country. I’d define that roughly as follows:
- Get a good education
- Get a good job
- Collect money
- Buy lots of things
- Eventually retire
Generally, in a “normal life”, there is the assumption that happiness is going to be found in consumerism– in buying things that we want with all that money we’ve made. There is certainly some truth to that– there are things we can buy that dramatically increase our happiness (a roof over our heads, clothes on our bodies, and food in our tummies are the first things that come to mind). However, what percentage of your spending is directly in-line with your life goals? Did that splurge on Amazon.com last week bring you any closer to your dream of hiking the Inca trail?
Your real life goals can likely be achieved much more efficiently, spending far less time and money, if you focus your spending accordingly. Perhaps that extra set of guest bedding isn’t really needed after all, and the money saved can go into the Machu Picchu fund?
Take the time to explicitly state your goals, and then examine your spending to see if your capital is being used efficiently. You may be pleasantly surprised to find out how much more you have once you eliminate unneeded waste.