In 2011, I took early retirement, sold everything I owned and began traveling the world. Up until then, my life had been on a relatively standard western, or American, track. I was living well, comfortably indeed, but I felt like I was living an off the shelf, predesigned life and not doing the things that were meant for me.
Before I retired, even though my schedule was dictated by limited vacation days, I was able to discover that I was happiest when I was traveling, having new experiences, interacting with other people and expanding my comfort zones. However, because I didn’t have the time, I often found myself fruitlessly trying to bridge the gap between what I longed to do and what I was actually doing, with material things. I didn’t feel that I had much control or choice in my life, so I used consumption to fill the void.
With the opportunity of early retirement came the necessity to examine my life and decide what I wanted for my future. I could stay the course, plodding along the deeply-rutted road that I had been lazily prodded to, or I could study the possibilities, make a leap of faith and pursue my dreams of discovering new horizons. The right choice for me now seems obvious but, at the moment, plotting a new course in retirement was as scary as it was exciting.
There is no sense in pretending that taking the first steps of my new life and selling (almost) everything I owned wasn’t hard. For fifty years, my mindset was one of accumulation and expansion. Sometimes I bought things for the prestige of ownership; sometimes I bought stuff for the thrill of acquisition; sometimes I bought things reflexively or because I had been sucked in by a sale or I perceived an opportunity. After years of accumulation, I found staying upright on a reverse consumerist treadmill was disorienting. The road to living happily is not necessarily an easy one.
But, I persevered. Eventually, I began to see with each thing I sold or gave away, as door to the future opening. Getting rid of things you are attached to, but no longer add value to your life, is difficult and rewarding at the same time. For me, the best way to do it was to envision the possibilities that lightening the load would bring.
- The Things You Own End Up Owning You
- Taking a Leap of Faith
- Life is Either a Daring Adventure or Nothing At All
Before I began this process of downsizing my life, I never realized how valuable an asset time is. It was mindboggling to see how many of the things I possessed were designed to distract and entertain me but did not add actual value to my life. As Henry David Thoreau said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it,” and I was beginning to clearly see that truth.
Although it is a small side effect, for me, making a conscious decision to enjoy the sell everything and travel was about freedom; not saving the planet. But, the very act of looking at consumerism in a different light has benefits that go far beyond the individual. As the world’s population grows, scarcity will inevitably increase conflicts over resources. The quest for material goods distracts people away from actual life satisfaction and reduces everyone’s ability to concentrate on their purpose.
I am not saying everyone should sell everything and travel the world, or my life should be a model for anyone else. I have had my share of failures and disappointments and, quite honestly, through my pursuit of freedom and true happiness I have disappointed and confused people. Hypocritically, and against my own advice, I sometimes see a shiny new bauble I can’t resist, but I think everyone could benefit from examining their consumptive behaviors, refrain from decisions that don’t add value to their life or restrict their ability to respond to life’s opportunities. Every material thing you purchase makes your burdens heavier (and your wallet lighter.) It steals time and distracts.
seven eight years after I made the decision to simplify my life and focus more on experiences instead of “stuff,” I am reaping the benefits and living happily on less. I know living the semi-vagabond life isn’t for everybody, but I do think getting rid of the clutter and superfluous possessions will help anyone who wants to focus on whatever they see as truly important.