“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” ~Henry David Thoreau
We all make trades in life.
We trade our time. We trade our energy. We trade our hard-earned money. We trade our attention.
Many of us move through life in constant motion, never stopping to reflect on where that motion is taking us. If it’s helping or hindering us. If the trades we are making daily are letting us live our best lives. If the trades are giving us more quality time with those we care about most. If we can turn up for them fully engaged, energized, and enthused.
Or are we turning up for them tired, distracted, and frustrated?
The trades we make in life take a toll on us physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Trading My Time, Energy, and Enthusiasm for Status and a Corner Office
Like many of us, I spent part of my life chasing the corporate dream. You know the stuff—more money, more responsibility, catchy job title, more kudos.
But an interesting thing happened along the way. With each new pay hike there was always someone earning more. Each job title change got stale quickly. More responsibility often came with a lot more headache and often more politics (something I have a low tolerance for). Progress never really felt like progress for long. I always felt like I was hitting a glass ceiling.
I noticed these feelings and wanted to understand them, so some personal reflection and introspection followed. I came to I realize I felt this way because I was pursuing things I thought I should chase rather than things I really wanted to chase. A simple but powerful distinction.
The corporate grind, hustle, and ‘networking your way to the top’ is a well-established path, but It’s also someone else’s path. It never really fit for me, and the deeper within a corporate machine I tried to embed myself, the more I realized I was seeking something else. More than that, I needed something else. This model was always going to be an ill fit for me.
So, this is the part where I tell you I decided to chase my dreams and live off my ‘passion project.’ Well, not exactly.
I make the decision to set myself up as a company of one, me. No longer would I have to wait years for a ‘directorship’; I was now director of my own ship. Thankfully, I have a skillset and experience that others find valuable and have been able to make a living since (nearly ten years as I write this).
This time hasn’t all been champagne and roses. I’ve had some very barren periods where I thought I might need a new plan. Countering that, I have also had very rich periods full of rewarding work, clients, and healthy paychecks.
Is this my job a dream job? No. There are other potentially more fun ways to earn my living (writing full time, for example). And knowing that you must find your own work focuses the mind and is inherent with a degree of risk, so it’s definitely not for everyone. You also need thick skin for this line of work.
However, my work does give me a degree of freedom and flexibility that I really appreciate (allowing me to take off and travel for long periods for example). Within reason, I get to decide the work I say yes to. I also rarely have to be in the office ‘showing my face’ and punching a clock day in day out. I can work from home, from a coffee shop, or somewhere else. My output gets measured, not how often people see me in the office.
These aspects (freedom and flexibility) are particularly important to me. More so than job titles and corner offices.
My work provides me an intellectual challenge that I appreciate. And occasionally, I get to work with some very cool people, learn lots, and make some meaningful change.
There can be gaps between clients and projects at times, but when I am engaged, I earn well (by most people’s standards). This pays for the adventures and travel, so is enough for me while also being a fair price for the people I work with.
To be clear, there’s also nothing wrong with working for others. In fact, whether you work directly for a corporate entity (employee) or are self-employed (like me), we are all serving someone. We are not all carved out to be entrepreneurs or self-employed, and that’s okay. Find your own fit and embrace it I say. There are many ways for us to earn our living.
My point is that I am aware of my trades and I am mostly happy to make them. If that changes, I will need to make a new plan.
While my example involves becoming a company of one, to support the way I want to live my life, that may be the opposite of where you are and what you need.
Your trades might be aligned to finding a corporate job where you get a paycheck and pension and someone else finds the work. That’s fine, your trades need to be trades you are willing to make.
What I am advocating is that we have an awareness of the trades we are making in life. That we become aware of where we are spending our energy, time, and efforts. Essentially, aware of where we are spending ourselves.
This is a powerful prism through which we can objectively view everything we do.
Yes, sometimes we will have to make trades that may not be our first choice, but we can do so intentionally. Realizing there is a greater good or longer-term goal in play.
Equally, we may realize we are making trades we would rather not, trades that are taking more from us than they are giving back, and we can then take action accordingly.
Questions We Can Ask Ourselves
We can keep the trades we are making front and center in our minds by asking some simple but searching questions of ourselves.
Are the trades we are making worth the energy/time/effort/money we are spending on them? Are we likely to see a return on our investment?
Are the trades we are making helping us get closer to our goals?
Are the trades we are making beneficial to our relationships? Are we present and available for the people we care about most?
Are the trades we are making leaving us energized?
Are the trades we are making aligned with our moral code?
Are the trades we are making giving us the best chance of living a good life?
If not, maybe we should be making different trades.
Be aware of where you are making trades in your life. Make them selectively. Give them your full attention and handle them with the care they deserve.