Dec 11

Get the Big Things Right

The Big Picture

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?


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  1. Well said. A great reminder to focus on the big things. Marrying the right person is important. But people change too. Goals and aspirations change. My wife went from a stay at home mom to CEO of her own business. I’ve had to adapt and change with her. But it’s worth it to work hard at making the big things right.

    • Dr. Curious on December 11, 2017 at 8:50 am
    • Reply

    Getting the “big things” right is a lot of pressure, and I think ultimately out of our control.

    You marry someone and you think he/she is the one, but you or he/she changes, and you get divorced. Someone might be to blame, but usually it’s out of your control. That’s not so say your initial choice to marry was “wrong,” it’s just your lot in this life.

    Same for children. I try my best to raise them the right way, but I feel very little control over how they turn out.

    Rather than allow these thoughts to cause me stress, however, they tend to let me surrender to the flow of whatever life throws my way. It quite literally, I believe, could have turned out no other way than it has.

    1. A marriage that ends in divorce is not necessarily a failure. People change and relationships end. But many of the marriages I see that fail had a low pre-test probability of success based on discordant values, personality conflicts or other huge red flags.

      I completely agree with you on children. We have less control that we think. In my mind the big decision is whether to have them or not.

      We do have a lot of control over who we let into our lives though. Who we spend time with, which relationships we let go – those are the big things and we should spend time trying to get them right.

      We also have a lot of control over where we live, where we work, etc. We all make mistakes – I didn’t get all the big things right at every point in my life, but I got enough of them right when it mattered.

  2. Great post HP. I did a similar post about “not sweating the petty stuff” but mine was solely related to finances. In other words, your house and vehicle(s) are probably the biggest expenses in your life. Save on them, get them right. Don’t worry about the lattes as much

    But as you point out one must follow this same principal for life in general. Stop agonizing over which refrigerator to get because news flash – they all keep things cold. But analyze the stuff that really matters. Like getting the proper guitar.

    kidding. or not 🙂

    1. Hahaha! The guitar purchase was a little thing, but it sure felt like a big decision at the time. I’m playing the heck out of it though!

    • BusyMom on December 11, 2017 at 9:54 am
    • Reply

    Great post!

  3. So true.
    It is great to be reminded of the big important stuff now and then. When I get too busy and am grumpy I try to remind myself how bless I am to be living so well and in a wonderful country and time in human history.

  4. I agree with the larger point of your post, but I think our life experiences are too limited to allow us to really know what some of the big things are. So we get used to relying on our cars to meet most of our needs, but that lifestyle produces a lot of negative consequences that we aren’t likely even aware of. And when people stop experiencing, valuing, and demanding things like walkable and bikable communities we end up with transportation infrastructure that focuses on moving vehicles and not people, development patterns that don’t support the creation of community, and a high demand on cheap inputs to keep our inefficient and isolating lifestyles possible (or at least possible for some people).

    I’ve recently been enjoying the work of Katy Bowman who is a very fascinating biomechanist that focuses on movement-based lifestyles. In her book Movement Matters she talks a lot about the idea that our lack of movement not only causes our bodies to change in negative and often unanticipated ways (obesity being just one of many obvious issues), but she also does a great job connecting our inherent need to get outside and move more of our bodies (not simply move our bodies more). And it isn’t just that our reliance on modern conveniences is simply bad for our health. When we outsource our movement we are also creating a lot of negative social and environmental impacts that are perpetuating a lot of inequalities.

    One of the best ways to meet more of our needs at the same time is to stack functions rather than trying to balance a bunch of stand-alone activities. This also helps with the busyness issue if we replace things like driving to go to the gym with urban adventures with our families from our house that include natural movement, time outdoors, opportunities to learn new things and interact with other people, etc.

    This largely why I view some of what other people may consider to be “little” things to be some of the fundamental things to get right. It’s only when we are living, moving through, and experiencing our communities at slower speed (that are only possible when we exist outside of our vehicles) that we can do the “impossible” of reducing traffic, making our communities safer, etc.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. It’s worth pointing out that the big things are ultimately just an infinite number of little things. It’s like a tree, where the big things are the trunk and main branches.

      I agree with your points about movement, and I think limiting transportation time is actually one of the big things. Stacking functions and living close to the things you do on a daily basis is a huge lifestyle improvement. It opens up so much time to do other things. Sometimes the problem is knowing where you will be going in 1, 5, 10 years.

  5. Awesome post.

    It’s funny, while we didn’t frame it this way, my husband and I made our move from sourthern California to Michigan due to many “big things” that ultimately have made our life a lot better, despite some tradeoffs. Sure, it is a lower cost of living area and all, but our big motives were proximity to family, ability to own a house with land near our town, the area’s general “outdoorsy” focus, and the seasons. And many things have revealed themselves this past year that have become big things to us… the vibrant community and the town. We now absolutely love our town and want to become more engrained each day 🙂

  6. Well said and a timely reminder. Although I always think it is a timely reminder to tell yourself to make sure big things are truly big things, and small things are of less consequence.

    Moving home to Norway after a couple years in London was such a big move in terms of our happiness. It was a great and exciting city in a lot of ways, but it was ruining our health and making us depressed. Back “home” with wildnerness on our doorstep is where we want to be.

    We should probably sit ourselves down and write a proper list of the things that are really important to us as well. Thanks for the prompt!

  7. Great post, HP.

    I’ve heard it said before that “When you are weak at work, you can walk out in strength if things are good at home. When you are weak at home, you neevrr walk in strength.”

    Having your priorities straight and getting the big things right is of the utmost importance.

    Thanks for driving that point home!

    • hatton1 on December 12, 2017 at 12:21 pm
    • Reply

    Another thought provoking post.

  8. I nodded throughout. Right now, we don’t have much control over our lives with my husband still in training. One day, the match won’t determine our fate and we’ll have to make all the decisions you mentioned: Where will we live? What kind of house? What type of school? What community? My mind will be spinning.

    Some people are also right, spouses change. My husband and I met years before he took his first pre-med biology class. You can imagine how much each of us has grown since then! But I don’t think change necessarily means growing apart. One thing I know about life is that it’s always spontaneous: job loss, disappointment, illness, and a host of other changes. In the midst of chaos, we can find strength in the love that we’ve deliberately chosen, and that’s our north star.

    • mrswow2017 on December 13, 2017 at 9:19 pm
    • Reply

    Great post per usual. It’s funny, as we’ve gone further and further down this path, we’ve realized that there are very few things that truly are Big things. But those big ones you really need to get right.

    I do believe that your life partner is one of them, and I don’t know that I fully understood that before, but certainly look at it now and realize how right that was.

    It’s all about keeping things in perspective and really understanding what matters.

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