A little over a month ago, I quit my job. I left without another position lined up, and even though it was a premeditated decision, it felt akin to leaping out of an airplane at 12,000 feet without a parachute.
It’s been nice to have an open schedule. I’m spending time with my parents, doing some writing, and finally getting enough sleep for the first time since birth. But the intoxicating freedom of my decision has come with an unforeseen drawback: I no longer have any idea how to measure the value of my life.
We spend a lot of our lives at work. It makes sense, then, that either intentionally or by happenstance, we measure our value based on how successful we are at our job — and, as naturally follows, by how much we get paid. After all, our employers are literally paying us for the value we create. The more you make, the more valuable you are, right?
It quickly becomes an easy — and dangerous — way to measure your worth.
That’s an unpleasant side effect of being unemployed, even if my unemployment was by choice. After more than two years working full-time, I often wake up in the morning feeling *gasp* GUILTY that I don’t have some place to rush off and be. After all the time I spent saving my money and letting go of my possessions so I could live a more flexible life, I now feel too guilty to actually enjoy it. I’m strung up tighter than a calf at a Texas rodeo.
This strange, self-imposed feeling of inadequacy I’ve been experiencing since I walked away from my job has forced me to start asking a really important question: How do I want to measure the value of my life?
When I say “value,” I don’t mean how many dollars I think my life is worth (my insurance company already does that, thank you very much). I mean, how am I going to measure my triumphs in this life? What does success look like to me? What do I value?
For a while — and, admittedly, still now — I fell into the trap of measuring my success by the money I made and the number of things I ticked off my to-do list. Maybe many of you feel the same. Getting things done made me feel competent and productive, and watching my savings account grow provided me with security and a sense of purpose for my future. More than that, working for my paycheck gave me a feeling of accomplishment: I earned that money! I’m worth this many numbers!
And then I walked away from it. And a month in, I’m still surprised by the sizable void it left behind.
So the question remains: How do we want to measure the value of our lives? The number of zeros in your savings account feels like an easy default, but it’s important to look beyond that. What’s important to you? Is it the number of languages you speak? The number of friends you have? The number of cars you own? Is it how many people you help in this life? Being humble and kind? Raising decent children? (I hear that last one is tougher than it looks.)
Using money to estimate your worth is so second nature because it’s a quantitative way to measure value. When gossip news outlets talk about celebrities, it’s always a conversation about their net worth or the price of their newest California mansion. When I worked in PR, our team spent a lot of energy quantifying the importance of our company’s reputation into dollars to make sure leadership would take it seriously. Qualitative measures of value — such as altruism, kindness of spirit, patience — are much more difficult to pin down. But does that make them less important?
While I don’t think money should be the solitary way we measure the value of our lives, I understand its necessity. We have to pay our way to live on this planet. We need money to keep a roof over our heads and food on our tables. We need it to satisfy our own need for security before we’re in a position to help others.
Perhaps most importantly, money provides us with the freedom to impact the world as we see fit. Mark Manson, a blogger and internet entrepreneur, has some very insightful views on money and its purpose in our life in his article “The Real Value of Money.” In it, he suggests there are many different forms of value — time, knowledge, happiness — and that money is a means of interchanging these forms of value. It’s simply a vehicle, devoid of value itself.
I’ve struggled for a month to write this blog post. During that time, I’ve waited for an epiphany about how I’ll measure the success of my life so I could use it in the conclusion of this post, wrap it up and move on. And after agonizing about it over a dozen late-night Frasier episodes, I still don’t have an answer. Probably because the answer isn’t that simple.
So for now, I’m providing myself with an open schedule to write. I’m spending time with my family and turning my attention to others who need it most. I find that’s when I’m the happiest — and it rarely has anything to do with the money in my pocket.
How do you measure your successes? What role does money play in your identity? Let me know in the comments!