I’m finished. It’s a strange feeling.
For fifteen years, my entire life has been oriented toward one goal. Every hour of work, every project, every risky change of course, every late night, every carefully considered decision, every deferred gratification, every hobby put on hold, every invitation turned down, every tough financial call, every reluctant “no”, every scary “yes”. Even community-oriented endeavors had to be justified; I had to ensure they would also advance the mission before I could permit myself to invest. My entire will, day and night, waking and sleeping, bent towards a single plan.
There’s a plan you’re supposed to follow. I’ve written about it before. Even starting from a point of privilege, you have to stay on the demarcated path if you want to avoid a long fall. Good grades, good school, spend your 20s working hard, get married in your late 20s, have a couple of kids in your mid 30s, support them with two professional incomes.
I got married at 20 to a woman who already had two young children, and committed to enabling her to stay home with the kids. Then, later, we had four more kids. From the perspective of The Accepted Plan, this is the equivalent of charging full tilt at the sign that says “dangerous cliff”. I’ve felt like I’m playing catch-up ever since. And thus, my own plan, an urgent program with no margin for dalliance.
For fifteen years I’ve been checking off items on a list in my head. I haven’t shared it with anyone, not in its entirety, for fear of killing its mojo. Fifteen years watching the next milestone crawl towards me, knowing I can make it, but also knowing I can’t make it arrive any faster, and that there’s another beyond it, and another, and another.
For the first time in print, The List:
Find a place we can fit in and afford
Make enough money to make ends meet without Stacey working
Switch careers away from the effective dead-end of corporate defense contracting
Work partly from home, for more time with the family
Work entirely from home, for even more time with the family
Switch to consulting to increase schedule flexibility
Buy a car we can all fit inside at once
Switch to a product business to maximize flexibility and fully eliminate geographic constraints
Increase income enough to put aside money
Buy a house in the mountains that’s big enough for the family
Move to the house in the mountains
All this time, the clock has been ticking. Loudly. I failed to reach the goal in time for the older batch of kids, a fact I may never forgive myself for.
Over the years a lot of well-meaning people have remarked on the state of anguish I spend a lot of my time in. And it’s true that I’m prone to be melancholy by disposition. But a great deal of my distress over the last fifteen years can be traced directly to this persistent hound on my trail. The fact that I have passed every day with the sure knowledge that I could not afford to stumble, or pause, or rest. All too often I’ve felt like a soldier on forced march, far beyond the point of exhaustion, unable to see or think beyond the next blind footstep.
Vacations? Absurd. Balance? Is for after the destination is reached.
The night before last the milestones became embodied as actual mile markers. As, with two cats, and the remainder of our family belongings, I drove the nine hours and change from our old rented house in Pennsylvania to our new home in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being nine hours away from the end of a decade and a half’s work. And then six, and then three, and then one…
And then the drive up the mountainside, and the big house at the end of the drive, and my kids running out of it to meet me with huge smiles on their faces. And I turned off the engine and opened the door and in a way, my life ended and then began again.
It is very, very weird to be here, now. I’m done. Finished. I won.
Of course, my life isn’t over. I have the luxury now of taking stock and deciding what I want to do with the rest of my life.
Enjoy my family, obviously. Otherwise all of this would have been for naught.
Perhaps indulge in a hobby or two.
I have the freedom now to consider what I want my larger impact to be, beyond my family circle. I’ve only just begun to think about that.
As I’ve slogged through the last couple of years, I’ve started to worry that I won’t be able to stop. That I’ve lost the ability to comprehend anything other than constant striving. I hope that’s not true.
I’m taking pains to make sure I don’t take this victory lightly. I don’t want to become one of those people who says that $100k a year is all anyone needs, and when he reaches it says $250k would be better, and when he reaches that says that really, $1m would be ideal. I want to honor this achievement by making noticeable and permanent changes to my priorities, and to the tempo of my life.
Writing this is part of honoring the moment. Because it needs to be acknowledged. From this day forth, I will not live in emergency. Starting now, normal is the new normal.
I’m tired. Tired as hell. But by gosh I made it. And how many people ever get to say that?