"Now what? Did it take getting everything I ever wanted to realize that everything I've ever wanted wasn't what I was supposed to have, all the things that were going to make me happy, fulfilled, free? But I feel boxed in. There is chaos inside me. If it's lonely at the top, then it sure is crowded and miserable at the bottom."
Straight out of high school, Joshua Fields Millburn charged headfirst at the American Dream. By his mid-twenties, he was living it: impressive job and salary, giant house in the suburbs and a pathological accumulation of material posessions. Then he lost his mother and his marriage in the same month, and wondered if he'd gotten it all wrong.
Everything That Remains is the story of Millburn's realization that the life he so zealously pursued was making him miserable.
We do a lot of things by default.
- Hey, there are donuts sitting out at work, I'll have some.
- My car is five years old, I'll get a new one.
- It looks like 60 hours per week is what it takes to get ahead, so I'll work myself to death.
It's very easy, and common, to just roll with the inertia of everyday life, whatever that may mean for you. It's much harder to examine that life critically and decide what to do.
Default life vs. intentional
Millburn's career earned him great wealth and status, and a correspondingly high level of anxiety and stress. This was his default—the goal he'd set in his mind from a young age. Quitting his job, selling most of his posessions, scaling down his lifestyle (a giant suburban house to a small city apartment) was his intentional life.
What's the difference?
The default life is about following, or keeping the inertia going from whatever initially propelled you. In Millburn's case, a rough childhood with absent father and alcoholic mother created in him a drive to excel, to make money, to take ownership of his own life, so he dove in to a sales position right out of high school, climbed the corporate ladder, but also made himself miserable.
The intentional life is about actively cultivating the life you want. It may mean scaling way back on space and possessions as the author did, taking time off to travel the world or live abroad, or changing your career or college major. Or it could mean dumping friends who bring you down, or avoiding family members who do the same. Doing this is hard. At least at the beginning. It will always seem easier to "go with the flow" (or insert other cliché here) rather than make hard choices, intentional choices, about what to do.
Some people seem better suited to making these choices than others—better able to make little course corrections as they go, rather than let the inertia of a default life accumulate until there's no choice but to make a massive change. Millburn took the second route, at least initially, but the end of the book finds him happily experimenting with lifestyle tweaks on a regular basis.
Win a copy of Everything That Remains
Do you have a story of awakening, to creating an intentional life for yourself? Post it in the comments or email me. I'll share the best story here and send the writer a copy of the book.
Watch "A rich life with less stuff" by The Minimalists