Growing up in a poor neighborhood with a single mom was not, as they say, child’s play. Drinking and drugs and familial anarchy permeated the walls of our cockroach-infested apartment. Not to mention all the baggage that comes with that lifestyle: discontent, anxiety, uncertainty, depression.
To add insult to injury, we were broke. Like, flat broke. Dead broke. Poor as church mice. I’d have to remove my shoes to count how many times our electricity got shut off on Warren Street.
By the time adulthood was at my doorstep, I thought if I made enough money, I could circumvent Mom’s path; I could somehow achieve happiness (or at least finance it). So I spent my twenties traversing the corporate ladder.
Fresh out of high school, I skipped the whole college route and instead found an entry-level sales job with a corporation that “let” me work six, sometimes seven, days a week, ten to twelve hours a day. I wasn’t great at it, but I learned how to get by—and then how to get better.
I bought a big-screen TV, a surround-sound system, and a stack of DVDs with my first big commission check. By 19 I was making over $50,000 a year, twice as much as I’d ever seen Mom bring home, but I was spending even more, racking up the credit-card debt. I obviously needed the three M’s in my life: Make. More. Money.
So I worked harder, much harder, and after a series of promotions—store manager at 22, regional manager at 24—I was, at age 27, the youngest director in the company’s 140-year history. I’d become a fast-track career man, a personage of sorts. Which meant that if I worked really hard, and if everything happened exactly like it was supposed to, then I could be a vice president by 32, a senior vice president by 35 or 40, and a C-level executive—CFO, COO, CEO—by 45 or 50, followed of course by the golden parachute. I’d have it made then! I’d just have to be miserable for a few more years, to drudge through the corporate politics and bureaucracy that I knew so well. Just keep climbing and don’t look down.
And so I didn’t look down; I looked up. And what I saw was terrifying…
“You shouldn’t ask a man who earns $20,000 a year how to make a hundred grand,” a successful businessman once told me. Perhaps this apothegm holds true for discontented men and happiness, as well. All these guys I emulated—the men I most wanted to be like, the VPs and executives—were not happy. In fact, they were miserable.
Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t bad people, but their careers had changed them, altered them physically and emotionally: they’d explode with anger over insignificant inconveniences; they’d scowl with furrowed brows and complain constantly as if the world was conspiring against them, or they’d feign sham optimism which fooled no one; they were on their second or third or fourth(!) marriages; and they almost all seemed lonely, utterly alone in a sea of yes-men and -women. Don’t even get me started on their health issues.
I’m talking serious health issues: obesity, gout, cancer, heart attacks, high blood pressure, you name it. These guys were plagued with every ailment associated with stress and anxiety. Some even wore it as a kind of morbid badge of honor, as if it was noble or courageous or something. A coworker, a good friend of mine on a similar trajectory, had his first heart attack when I was 28. He had just turned 30.
But I was going to be the exception, right?
Really? What makes me so different? Simply saying I was different didn’t make me different. Everyone says they’re different, says they’ll do things differently, says things’ll be different when I’m in charge, just need to sacrifice a few more weeks/months/years until I make it there. But then we get there, wherever there may be, and then what? We don’t work less. If anything, we work more. More hours, more demand, more responsibility. We are dogs thrashing in the collars of our own obligations. On call like doctors, fumbling through emails and texts and phone calls on the go, tethered to our technology. But unlike doctors, we’re not saving anyone. Hell, we can’t even save ourselves.
You see, money didn’t grant these men happiness; money didn’t bring them a sense of security. The pursuit of money—the blind quest for more—crippled them, transmogrified them, actually made them less secure. I knew guys who earned half a million a year but who were such a financial mess that they couldn’t get a loan for a Toyota Corolla. And all these men had one other thing in common: many moons ago, they too thought they’d be different.
Like them, I figured once I achieved a certain level of success, as soon as I’d “made it,” I’d no longer need to worry about money. But the truth is that, back on Warren Street, it wasn’t the lack of money that made us poor. No, Mom and I were poor because of poor decisions. Repeated poor decisions.
These days I earn far fewer greenbacks, but my decisions are better. Last year, as a 31-year-old indie author, I brought home less money than my 19-year-old commission-check-earning self—way less actually. But I also paid off debt, traveled the country, felt more secure. Most importantly, I didn’t worry about money.
So I guess this is what it feels like to no longer worry about money—a feeling I didn’t need to earn a pile of cash to feel. It turns out that repeated good decisions—not money—allow us to let go of the worry that plagues us. Once I let go of the worry, I had nothing to worry about.
Joshua Fields Millburn