The other day I was chatting with a friend who was passing through town. He, his wife and toddler were currently homeless. Not in the cardboard box under the bridge sense, but simply chronic nomads. It was a wonderful life of travel and adventure, but with another child on the way they were thinking of finally settling down for a bit and setting some roots into a community. We talked about the pros and cons of living in different parts of the country, cost of living, and the weather, the size of their ideal community and even the possibility of living outside of the United States.
After we talked I reflected back on some of the decisions that I made in my life, and a few of them stand out as “big ones” that were the anchors that steered my life to what it is today.
- My wife
- The community I live in
- Having children
- The career path I chose
- My decision to go half-time
These were anchors. Many times we get bogged down in the minutia of things that aren’t really all that important, while we don’t spend enough time really working to get the big things right. The colors of my house or particular model of car/iPhone/pants I own are inconsequential.
The Big Picture
When we decided where to live we focused on the big picture. We selected communities that we felt were in sync with our lifestyle and values. Did it really matter all that much if the house prices were 1.5 or 2x my salary or the weather was not perfect 365 days of the year? Not really. Not in the big picture. Did it matter if my commute was 15 minutes or an hour and a half or if an average house was 5-7x my salary? Would it matter if the crime rate was so high I didn’t feel safe or if the climate made me miserable 9 months out of the year? You better believe it! Those are the bigger things.
To be honest, I didn’t get some of the small stuff perfectly right. We definitely bought more house than we needed, and although there are things I love about the location and neighborhood, I probably would have settled in a different part of town if I had to do it all over again.
But we made the best decision we could at the time. Even though the little things were not perfect, the big things were spot on. We love the vibe and feel of where we live. The size of the community is perfect for us. The weather fits our lifestyle most of the year. In other words, I don’t really feel the need to move anywhere else. I’m happy here.
When I burned out from my job (another thing I got mostly right) the other pieces of my life were in place. My work situation was not optimal, but I was still living somewhere I would live even if I had no job to go to. One anchor was drifting, but the others acted as stabilizing forces in my life. I had the same great wife (maybe my most important big decision) and family to wake up to each day. My environment was optimal. Had I been in a dysfunctional relationship in a city I hated my path may have been very different and much more difficult.
Back to my Friend…
He mentioned he values living somewhere where many things are within a short walk – grocery store, library, parks, etc. There are certainly many communities that fit this template, although most of modern suburbia ironically does not. The peripheries of most large cities are difficult for, if not outright hostile to, walkers and bikers – but I digress. As he and his wife work from home there is no commute to worry about, which should be high on the list of concerns for most people when deciding on where to live.
I didn’t organize my life around walkability, but to some extent this is one of the little things (at least to me). Ninety percent of where I need to be is less than a 15 minute drive. In retrospect, maybe I should have considered buying a house that allowed for easier biking and walking, but on my days that I’m not working I can usually get away with not being in my car anyways. When time is not so scarce, a 30 minute bike ride becomes quite enjoyable.
Many of the things that I drive to now I couldn’t have predicted when my kids were 1 or 2 years old. I really had no idea what activities they would be involved in or which neighborhood would be optimal to live in. Had they chosen different sports or hobbies my driving time may have been tripled or halved. Much of this stuff is not walkable or bikeable from a practical standpoint, as there is just not enough time or energy to fit it in.
Priorities Will Change
Being close to a library and park may be a priority today when your kid is 10, but completely irrelevant when they are 16 and have no interest in the park (and they read everything on a tablet which requires no trip to the library). Conversely you will likely be going to the grocery store once or twice a week for the rest of your life (until self-driving cars and drones deliver everything to your doorstep). If your passion is trail running and you do this every day it probably makes sense to live close to some trails, even if it means a longer drive to the grocery store.
When you move to a small town to escape the traffic, only to have four kids in club sports and find yourself driving out of town every weekend you may discover your plans didn’t work out how you hoped. These are not things most people consider before they have children. Of course no one needs to put their kids in club sports, but I would find it hard to say no to something like that as I have the means. I think these activities have value (you may not, and that’s OK).
My point is these are the little things, and the little things change. They are choices you can make that are optional. You can adapt and change them easily. Big things are usually stable or they change very slowly. They often are out of your control. Changing the vibe of your community or the crime or traffic or weather is next to impossible.
Don’t take the little things and make them the big things. Really sit down and ask yourself if something matters. Write it down, make lists, do the thought experiments. We may argue around the edges and have differences of opinion on some things, but the big stuff is usually quite similar.
Find a good partner/spouse and network of friends. Find the community that has the right feel. Develop healthy life habits and get your finances in order. Nurture relationships and find a community that makes you happy. Figure out the big things first and the little stuff falls into place.
What are the big things in your life? Which things did you get right and get wrong? What actions have you taken to correct along the way?