The number one regret of dying people is that they worked too much.
I don’t think this is news for most of us. Most people believe it. Most alive people would agree they very rarely feel alive in their life---never really being ok with it, but never really knowing what to do about it. Always working toward happiness, but very seldomly getting there. It’s amazing that we live in a society that we have to try so, so, so hard, to just enjoy our lives. Happiness is kinda sold to us. Marketed with a very high price point because we are taught our whole lives that we have to earn this feeling of aliveness.
It’s late February 2018, I had my daunting to do list, one of which I specifically was not looking forward to, but with Tax Day steadily approaching I begrudgingly settled in, with a rare hour or two of free time, to start to fill out my taxes. When I was in college, I would get money back every year. I received generous grants for college, for being from a household below the poverty level, and would get returns for interest paid on student loans. Rather linearly, I’ve received less money back, and then, about 26, I broken even, and have had to actually pay going forward. For 2017, I was surprised to have reached a new income bracket, and therefore, had to pay much more than usual. The fact that I kinda hate the government right now, and have to pay them more money, hurt, but I quickly forgot about it when I saw the number of how much I made that year.
91k. I stared at my computer screen. “No.” I actually vocalized out loud.
It seemed wrong. I checked to make sure I wasn’t looking at someone else’s account. I rechecked the math 10 times. I divided that by 12 to see a monthly average. I compared it to last year, another big jump. I compared it to what I think my mom makes, more than she would ever see. I felt badly for her helping me with a flight home for Christmas last year. And then I realized I was late for improv rehearsal and had to run out. In the Tenderloin, in San Francisco, rushing past people with their dogs, and blankets, and gifted takeout food, and tents, sleeping on the street. I was terrified of one of them asking me for money. How could I say no? 91k. That’s so much money. I have so much money. How could I say I don’t have any money to give them?
My brain still spinning, I welcomed the distraction of rehearsal, but as soon as I left the shock of my income weighed even heavier.
Every charity I didn’t give to. The time I went to the thrift store, and the cashier thought the backpack I was buying was already mine, and didn’t ring it up, and I didn’t say anything. The times when I was petty and split the cost of appetizers.
Laying in bed that night, statements like “I am a wealthy person. I make more money than the average American. I have an obligation to help people. I am financially privileged.”
It felt icky. I felt like a superhero who didn’t want their power. All of it felt so, just not who I wanted to be.
I tried to be proud. I remembered the day, in 2001, when I came home and saw the pink sticker on my front door, explaining that we had to be out of the house I had lived in my whole life, in 3 days. The $650 a month for rent my father couldn’t come up with. The fact that that number, $650, is burned into my memory, because my dad talked about it every single month. The conversation my dad had with the guy at the EconoLodge to try to convince them that he would pay soon. Me sitting in my dad’s 1989 velvet red Chevy van, with however much of my 14 years of life I could fit into 3 days of frenetic packing. It was about 2 am because we had until midnight, when the cops would came to escort us out, to keep packing, and we needed every second. I was a freshman in high school, and it was finals week. I had an Algebra final the next day. I was a good student and got good grades. I knew this was how poverty works in cycles. I knew other kids had comfy chairs to sit in to study that same night.
I always felt confident that I wasn’t going to end up like my parents, but I didn’t really ever dream I would see 91k. Looking back now, I never really had aspirations to have a lot of money. I always wanted to pursue adventure, excitement, and meaning out of my life.
Back in my bed, home from rehearsal I was trying to sleep. It was dark, I was burning a $14 candle because I liked the Woodwick ones that crackle a little. I pictured the other kids around the world who couldn’t study because they didn’t have a home. I thought about the money I had spent on expensive yoga pants, or fancy beer because I didn’t even look at the price tag, buying organic bananas, which cost twice as much, even though I know organic bananas are no different than conventional bananas because I don't eat the peel, all because I didn’t have anything else to do with my money. I wished I could just give the kids the money instead.
My eyes watered. I don’t want it. Let them have it. How do I give it to them? Crying, as I finally drifted to sleep.
Up very early the next day to rush to work, it all felt so dumb---so unnecessary. I thought about all the hours at work I put in to make all this money I didn’t want. All the free time I missed out on, and stress I had about making sure I made enough money. The bewilderment of watching my bank account going up, but not having much I wanted to do with it.
Is this the American Dream? Is this a rags to riches story? It didn’t feel like it.
My career reached a point where I knew I was working more than I actually needed to, but I really loved my job. I would get emails from parents, of children who were being shamed by their PE teacher, girls who absolutely hated moving and exercising when we first met, begging for a second or third day of the week, kids who told their parents they had to quit gymnastics because they don’t look like the other kids in leotards, boys who couldn’t deal with the toxic masculinity of high school sports, but want to exercise, how could I say no? My schedule was beyond full. The parents were really happy with the kids’ increase in confidence and health, and were sending their friends’ kids.
I came up from a poor family, I created a career that I absolutely love. I know my work is adding positivity in the world, and is financially successful. I live in my dream city that I handpicked, and I live on a beach, and see the water everyday. I am in an amazing improv troupe that challenges me artistically.
I had created a dream life.
No really, my first real coach, and one of the most influential mentors to me as a young adult, took me to breakfast once, in like 2012, and asked me what my dream life looks like. That’s nearly exactly what I told him. And now I had it.
And I felt like I was drowning in it.
Seeing that number on my tax return, really shook me. As many times as I checked the name, I knew it wasn’t really me. It felt wrong. I knew I wasn't living my life. But I couldn’t understand what was missing.
Sundays I work like 11 hours straight, they are always long, rewarding, challenging, and emotionally exhausting days of giving myself to my teen and youth clients. I don’t get breaks, not because I don’t want to have them, but because I’m trying to squeeze in appointments to serve as many kids as possible. Whenever I get a last minute cancellation, I am always really happy to leave and get some sun and food, neither of which I have much access to on Sundays.
One Sunday, a few Sundays after I submitted my 2017 taxes, I had a cancellation, and headed over to this ACAI bowl place across the street from my work. It was such a beautiful day, the sun was bright and it was warm. When I got there, there was a sign on the door: “Went Surfing. Sorry. Had to.” I’m not sure I have ever been more jealous of someone in my life. I stared at the door, the sign. The lightness of it. The lights turned off inside. The strategic choice to potentially piss off customers. The fact that they dismissed those thoughts, that I, as someone who runs a business, know they had to have considered. The fact that the handwriting was in highlighter, curvy, large and friendly, I suspected it was a woman’s handwriting. I pictured her surfing. I pictured her being the CEO of a company that sells ACAI bowls. I pictured her being able to be both. I saw myself in the reflection of the door. I felt the sun nearly invite me into it. I knew I had to go back inside soon. I realized what’s wrong. It really seemed so obvious. I want to go surfing.
I had been so busy building this dream career and life, I forgot to have the time to enjoy it.
The balance that this ACAI bowl company owner/ surfer was able to find inspired me, as I hurried back to work, without an ACAI bowl, but with a new outlook, I knew I had to make some really big, really scary changes in my life.
My friend who is a parent, and I recently had a conversation about healing. He argued that parents often put so much of their efforts into healing their children, they don’t realize how harmful of a cycle they are creating by giving up on healing themselves.
I cannot help these kids if I have nothing to give. I cannot fake it. I don’t want to fake it. I don’t want to be someone who tells them what to do but hasn’t done it. I want to be someone who is actually successful and gets to share my thoughts with them and hold space for them. I want to be a real role model of a successful life, not just on paper. Not just on my tax returns.
I am so thankful for these kids. If it wasn’t for them, and trying to be my best for them, I don’t know if I would have the energy to try to change. After putting so much effort into creating this seemingly perfect life, admitting it’s not balanced was hard.
I see it in them too. So many kids tell me about how they are so stressed about achieving goals that they don’t have the time, or the empowerment to truly wonder if they really even care about. Fourth graders losing sleep about an assignment at school that they are convinced will determine if they get into the college of their parent’s dreams.
Whose definition of success are you pursuing?
This is something I ask kids at work a lot.
I knew I had to really ask myself this too.
When I explained, over breakfast, to my first coach, years ago, what I wanted. I definitely didn’t picture being this busy.
I definitely imagined a lot of surfing. And poetry, and hiking, swimming, long slow workouts, yoga, books, biking, cafe’s, trains and trips, theatre, dancing, mountain biking, writing, jumping off cliffs, meditation, creating, wandering around the city aimlessly, wandering around other cities aimlessly, falling in love, falling out of love, taking lots of random classes about things I’ll never understand, sleeping in, watching sunsets, Sunday brunch, fancy diners, dive sushi places, going on midnight walks…
But I let myself believe those things would come when I had earned them.
That’s the American Dream that’s being sold to us right now.
Whose definition of success are you pursuing?
Feeling alive is a birthright.
Doing the things that make you feel alive should be the majority of your life.
Nothing else really makes sense to me.
I do not want to spend my life building something that I don’t ever get to play with.
Or I only get to play with for a few exhausted hours every weekend.
I would argue that’s the meaning of life: To be alive.
Jobs, and money, cars, clothes, titles, and responsibilities---those are just the buy-ins.
How expensive is your life?
I love my job. I’m proud of what I have created, however, I’m starting the very challenging process of backing away some, because in order for me to be a happy person, and a real example for these kids, I have to define my own success, and sometimes, I have to take the day off from them and go surfing.