The Fine Line Between Contentment and Ambition

I listen to music every day of my life.

A while back, I was in a (self-inflicted) situation and that resulted in me losing one of my favorite tangible things in the world. My Studio3 Beats by Dre headphones. Their music quality and noise-canceling feature are still by far incomparable to their competition.

Really they were my escape. My crutch. During my workouts, it was like I was on an island all by myself. When I ran, I could close my eyes and for a moment I could actually float. They are expensive by most headphone standards. And sure, money can’t buy happiness, but I can honestly say, they increased life’s satisfaction

Science tells us that all actions have a reaction and life tells us that all choices have a consequence.

That person you see when you close your eyes… doing the things you want to be doing… that’s ambition.

Contentment is the person you see when you close your eyes, redoing things that have already happened but with a different outcome each time.

It’s like running forward while looking over your shoulder. It does two things: seriously slows you down from where you’re trying to go, and two, causes you to make many more unnecessary mistakes.

We’re all just people – some of us are lost. Walking forward while looking back. Occasionally, we’ll bump into another lost person looking over their shoulder. And we’ll each finally turn our heads to see what we just hit. Speechless. As if our consciences could speak to each other.

Then there are some people in this world, walking forward, looking straight ahead as if they were a dog keenly following a scent’s trail. They know exactly where they’re going. These are the most dangerous people. Because when you only look straight ahead as you walk forward, you can run. And boy can these people run.

These are the people we look up to.

To this day, I have not gone back and repurchased those headphones. My justification at that time: the day I found them, they were 50% off. But now, no matter how I look at it, it’s still hard to justify paying $350 for a pair of headphones. Even if I can “afford” them?

What does that mean? Why wouldn’t I if they meant so much to me?

I’ve adopted this idea of afforded comfort. Much like the phrase “living below your means,” it is the fine line between splurging on yourself and staying within your means. Which means there’s a sacrifice that needs to be made.

There is a camp of people who like to shit talk other people for their purchases. At times, rightfully so. But sometimes you have to do what makes you happy. Of course, I’m not saying a person who makes $50,000 a year should buy a car that’s worth $40,000 (even though we know people who still do). But if driving a certain type of car makes you happy to get up and drive to work, to drive your kids to school, or reminds you that hard work gets you what you deserve – then you need to make a choice. The truth is if everything you buy is always discounted or used or “cheap” to you, eventually you’re going to get tired of everyone having nice things and you getting the bottom of the barrel every time.

The problem with this tradeoff is that you can’t do both.

But who’s going to know? In the real world, there’s no one who is going to say you can’t buy this or that. Ultimately, you make that call. That requires discipline.

Discipline is a word we tend to only think of when it comes to the gym or our diets. But discipline is not a character trait. It’s an art. It takes time to foster, to mold. It is not a binary input, you either have it or you don’t. Discipline is the art of knowing when to decide action right now over another time, and my future self over today’s desire/impulses/complaining. 

The skill is in knowing when to apply which.

Those people who know exactly where they are going are dangerous because they have mastered the tightrope walk between having a long-term view, going after what they want, and living in the moment. Experiencing the present. An afforded comfort.  

A better example is what I learned from my debate with my coworker, over whether I should continue living outside the city or move to the city to get the real “New York experience.” He was adamant that he much rather enjoy the shorter commute to the office, no car expenses to worry about, and other aspects of city life over a little extra space and maybe a 20-30% reduction in housing costs.

Where I responded with, “I’m sorry but I’m not willing to compromise my savings rate for a few extra perks.” In disbelief, he echoed, “savings rate?!” 

His argument was that we have to take advantage of the now. That someday I’ll be making much more money and I’ll look back at this time of my life and wish my best rebuttal wasn’t “but what about my savings rate?” He had a point. We both laughed and agreed that I probably had my quantitative, financial advisor, hat on too tight. But it still left me wondering, am I making the right decision? 

Life is about tradeoffs and priorities. Although I know it won’t be like this forever, and despite the fact that I do have some sense of job security, my comfort lies in knowing that I could afford a few more months of rent. A vacation to see my brother in Europe. Not waiting for the next paycheck to get overpriced drinks when I am in the city. Knowing that my safety net is there is my comfort. 

Afforded comfort doesn’t mean you have this financial circumference that you cannot reach over and grab what lies outside those boundaries. It also doesn’t mean that you cannot expand your financial circumference. One will realize, access to a credit card, tapping into the equity of your home, or borrowing against your portfolio, can artificially do that anytime. 

This concept was intended to mean that you recognize your circle of reality. All the bullshit marketing that’s being pushed on you is meaningless. “I have what I need right here.” But the edges are actually this plasma-like border that will contort when you push out. And if you push hard enough, it will puncture enough room for you to grab what once seemed to lie beyond reach. 

Again, only you can decide whether it adds/benefits to what’s in your circle, or will it take up that most important resource you have? 

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