In our childhood and youth, we learn from our parents and our environment what is important and what is not. If like me, you grew up in an industrialized country, the ideal is to have a good education, to be able to do a job that is as prestigious and well-paid as possible, and then retire sometime after 60 and enjoy retirement. We get an idea of what it means to lead a happy life. We know that there are some difficulties, hurdles and dry spells to overcome on the way, but the promise is clear: Then (sometime) you will be really well.
In the middle of life, in my case when I was 45, many people realize: “Well, now I’ve been doing this for half a lifetime and the promised happiness hasn’t come true yet. If it doesn’t work this way so far, what is the probability that it will suddenly work in the second half of life with the same means if I continue to do the same as before? The doubts are justified and therefore many people in this phase of life question their life plan and think about what they should actually do with their life.
Early on in my career, I had the feeling: This salary (it was 50.000 €/year in Germany) is enough for me to live well. Everything else is luxury, not absolutely necessary and will definitely bring more responsibility and burden. But of course, my responsibility and salary have continued to increase and to my surprise, my dissatisfaction with the salary grew with increasing income. More and more often I had the feeling that colleagues with comparable responsibilities earn more and I have to fight to get paid fairly. The more I had, the more I wanted. How absurd!
Rich is not who has much, but who needs little
After my two sons, Theo and Felix, were born and after we had bought a property, the responsibility and pressure increased. Now time became my scarcest resource and yet I invested more and more energy in my work and at the same time tried to be a good father and my wife a good partner. The first thing that fell by the wayside was time for me, time for relaxation and time to think about life as a whole.
Through my burnout, my body forced me to think about these issues and I am grateful to him today. Looking back I realized that I had packed more and more into my life and at the same time I had high expectations of myself and my results. This life crisis lasted 1.5 years and included a stay in a hospital, therapy, and medication, which ultimately helped me well.
Since I was on sick leave, I had a lot of time to think and feel what was really important to me, what was good for me and what was not. I decided to slim down and simplify my life. The first decision was that I didn’t want to go back to my old job, although I really loved the company and my colleagues! This was the most difficult and longest decision of my life. I resigned from the Lions Club where I had been a member for 7 years and had made many friends. I stopped reading or listening to the news, deactivated email on my mobile phone and left it home as often as possible when I went out. I started to do sports regularly and changed my diet. I drank less, only met friends who were really good for me and used the time I gained to relax, spend time with my children and think about my future.
It was clear to me that I wanted to start my own business again in order to be more independent. But now it was no longer important to me to do something extraordinary that everyone would be talking about, but it was enough for me to find something that could provide for me and my family and be managed with a few hours a day. Because I also learned this during this time: It is so nice to spend more time with my children and to really be “there”. This also made our relationship much deeper and more intense. It makes such a big difference whether I walk with my 2-year-old son in peace and quiet and without pressure to the nursery and we watch a beetle together for 5 minutes on the way, or whether I stand there and only pretend to have the time and moan inwardly: “Hurry up, little man, I want to go to work!
But I am also learning a lot about our society in this crisis: In our affluent society, we are educated to subordinate everything to earn a lot of money without having a measure of what is enough and what we actually want to do when we have enough. The great happiness therefore always lies in the future and is supposedly only a purchase away. This is also plausible because our affluent society depends on us always creating new needs in order to consume more and more. If a lot of people suddenly remember that they don’t need much at all, then the companies, the economy and ultimately the employees would be much “worse off”, because there is not so much to produce and sell. So we are all part of the problem.
So I decided not to get involved anymore. But how could I escape my personal hamster wheel and build something new when my family depends on my salary? So I had to find a way to combine the two: A steady paycheck with the freedom to develop and implement new ideas. I spoke to my employer and managed to get a sabbatical. This gave me a year to create something new. And now I’m writing the book that I wish I had and has been a matter of my heart for many years.
Of course, I now have only a fraction of my original income, but I was willing to accept cuts for my new freedom. So I gave up my car to do more cycling and car-sharing. Everything has its price! This is a very profane but elementary insight that became very clear to me in my crisis.
Wealth and the value of money
For my book I define “wealth” in the style of Timothy Ferriss: Wealth is composed of three things:
- Time to do the things with the people that make you happy,
- to decide independently about oneself and – last but not least –
- Income to finance his lifestyle.
The practical value of money multiplies with the number of W questions you can control in your life: What you do, when you do it, where you do it and with whom you do it. Here is an example:
Imagine you have a high income but neither the time nor the independence to answer the above W-questions to your liking. This is true for pretty much all the people we call “successful” today: Eating perhaps the best food and drinking exquisite wines, but in the context of business dinners, with people who may not like them personally, where you are under pressure to achieve a certain goal, only to come home late when your partner and children are already asleep.
Now compare this with a life where you have only an average income, but instead have the time to do the things that make you happy in the here and now, alone or together with other people. Then maybe you are sitting on a park bench with your partner on a warm summer evening and you are eating a fresh baguette with a glass of red wine, holding each other in your arms and having a relaxed conversation. Or you fool around with your children in the autumn forest, throwing leaves at each other and tickling them until they quicken for laughs, and then you enjoy a hot chocolate.
Who do you think is happier at that moment? What moments do you want to look back on when you reach the end of your life: the business dinner or the time with your loved ones?
What are your thoughts and experiences with midlife crisis, wealth and the value of money vs. time and flexibility?