October 3, 2010

Life-Shaping Decisions

A life is a collection of events, happenstances, genetics, luck, and environment. It can be altered in a second by an accident or medical emergency. These factors are usually out of your control. But, a life is also the sum total of decisions that you make along the way. Regardless of age or present situation certain choices you make affect what happens to you from that point forward. Here are some of the decisions that have shaped my journey. Do any sound familiar to you?

People tell me I was rather odd in one regard: I knew what I wanted to do at age 12 and stayed with that choice for 40 years. A more normal occurrence is to struggle with the choice of one’s life work through the teen years, into college, and maybe beyond. But, the first time I stepped foot into a radio station in Cambridge, Ohio at that tender age I was hooked. By fifteen I was a DJ after school and on weekends at a tiny station in suburban Boston. Another dozen years of playing rock and roll records in various cities lead to a being a consultant and researcher.

I remained completely satisfied with my career choice until I stopped work at age 52. That I was able to discover my life’s passion for a career so young saved me a lot of struggles and uncertainty. The fact that I loved the radio business meant I was not going to a job everyday to earn money. I went to work everyday because I was passionate about all of it.

Marriage must be very high on any list of important decisions. Your life changes forever. It is no longer just your life, but a shared life. You are at least partially responsible for every major decision that now affects at least one other person. Your ability to compromise, to become less self-centered, and to share will have a direct effect on the marriage’s chances for success. I have been happily married for 34 years. It hasn’t always been easy; it isn’t supposed to be. But, the commitment we made to each other was forever and neither of us can imagine a life that doesn’t include the other.

From that marriage came two daughters. If you tell yourself that getting married means big changes, hold onto your hat. Having kids makes the changes of marriage look minor by comparison. The primary reason for living, the center of your world, and the force behind almost every choice you make from that point forward are different when you have children. Parents know the absolute love and complete terror that comes with children. At least for me (and my wife), there is nothing I have done that comes close to equaling the importance of the birth and development of our kids.

Not long after the birth of our second daughter I faced a critical decision that would have a huge impact on my family. We moved to Tucson, AZ for a new job I had accepted. Just a few months later I was fired. At that point I had two kids under the age of 3 and no way to support them or my wife and me. After rejecting the option of moving back to the city where I had left a previous job, I faced a very uncertain future. Then my wife and I made a key decision: I would try to start my own radio consulting and research business. It was a risky move that offered no promise of success. We’d have to spend some of our savings to launch the business. If it didn’t work we had no fall back plan.

It did work. From a very shaky beginning, the company became successful in radio consulting. It gave the family the financial freedom to not have to worry again. It allowed me to retire much earlier than I had planned. That decision to trust in myself and take that leap into the unknown paid off in every way imaginable.

Another key decision happened very early in our marriage. My wife and I agreed to live by three simple financial rules. We would always live beneath our means, we would not follow common wisdom as it applied to our investments, and we would value experiences over things. I have written a few posts about this direction for our financial life together. Rather than repeat all of that, here is a link to one of the posts that presents our approach in a bit more detail.

While I could probably ramble on for several hundred more words about decisions that proved important in shaping my life, I’ll conclude with this last one: spirituality. This isn’t the blog to get into a religious debate or attempt to convince someone else that my way is the way. What I do is attempt to live my life in a manner that allows others to see what choices I make and things I value. If that prompts questions about my beliefs and my faith, then I am happy to oblige. But, without equivocation, I can say that the decisions I have made to follow my faith and believe what I believe are at the core of who I have become.

The decisions I made were right for me at that time. If my circumstances had been different some of those choices may have been different. But, that is the amazing thing about life. Every one of us is different. At least to a degree we have the chance to shape and re-shape our life constantly. That makes waking up every morning exciting. What will the day hold and how can I shape it? What will happen that makes this a satisfying retirement?

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  1. Great post, Bob! I think sometimes we make decisions that, at the time, don't seem like major ones but looking back we see they were really a major fork in the road for us.

    I was in the Navy for 8 years and then got out for 5 years, staying in the reserves. When I went back into the Navy it seemed to me to be only a career decision. However, I received orders overseas where I met my present husband and had a daughter, two events which altered my whole life and future.

    Looking back at my entire life, I can see I was always on a path that led me to where I am today and all the decisions along the way helped to get me here.

    Sometimes we look back and say we made a wrong decision but was it really? If we learn from that and it still brought us in the end to a good place, then maybe it wasn't the wrong one after all.

  2. Well said, Joan. Only when we look back can we see the impact of one, or a series of decisions, and where it has taken us. That is why thinking through an important decision is so important. It could have a ripple effect on other aspects of our life and future.

  3. Well said - it sounds like you have made good decisions along the way. And taken calculated chances as well when you had to. Having your wife with you throughout the journey makes you that much stronger. And your faith holds it all together. Pretty good road map for a satisfying retirement...

  4. Thanks, Dave. Yes, so far, so good.

    I'm looking forward to reading your ebook later today. Congrats on the completion of a worthwhile project.

  5. Your posts are consistently positive and well thought out. Thanks.

    I tend to think of my life as conventional, inasmuch as I've had one wife (28 years), been involved with one profession with one firm (26 years), lived in one city, etc. I'm also quite pragmatic. However, it wasn't always that way. How about this .... I was home from college for the summer of 1979 after my sophomore year, and managed to get a dinner date with this beautiful girl; I mean really awesome inside and out. Then a couple of days after our first date I convinced her to go with me a two other couples on a road trip to a baseball game. We drove 4 hours to the night game, watched the game, then drove four hours back. We held hands in the back seat. With just a little sleep, she left the next morning to work as a summer camp counselor 10 hours away. No internet and no cell phones, so no follow up contact other than a couple of letters from me to her. I decided this was the girl for me. I had no idea how she felt, but I didn't give it a second thought ... I transferred to my hometown school, which was her school too. It took a little romancing on my part, but I was successful. Three years later we were married! The rest as they say, including three awesome children, is history.

    Now, one other item .... you have mentioned the importance of spirituality to you a time or two in the past, and I can completely relate. I'd encourage you to share a bit deeper on that sometime. The readers will understand it's sharing, and accept it in the goodwill spirit I'm sure you would convey.

  6. The "baseball game" date is a great story. That was a road trip and life-shaping event all in one. Following that up with a change to another school just to be close to someone you didn't know very well takes you out of the conventional life category, just a bit. I think it makes you a romantic and that's a good thing.

    Thanks for the suggestion on the spirituality issue. I've given some thought to a post that focuses on that, but so far I'm comfortable with the references I have made. My faith is central to my life and I don't hide that.

  7. I love this post. I agree about all this. Especially I love: value experiences over things. However, you have no negative examples. I know several. One friend of mine met a beautiful girl, a model. He fell in love and married to her without looking at the internal "beauty". Soon they found out they have very little common values, almost no common interests, in a short time she transformed into very fat, not kind, not smart person without spiritual life of her own. By this time they had a child. She found satisfaction in shopping and showing off to less fortunate how well she lives. She convinced him to buy terribly overpriced new house on the top of the housing bubble. They did not abandon the house when it sank in value. They work mostly to pay the mortgage, no financial future, no love, no warm home, the kid is spoiled rotten and suffering because the parents have no love to each other. Terribly hopeless situation. there were several bad decision: to marry, to have a child right away, to buy a house, not to divorce, not to abandon the house when only 3 years of mortgage (which is a complete loss of money) was lost on it.

  8. Mamma,

    That is a sad story that I'm sure is all too common. People do something based on emotion and the end result can be disappointing, or even tragic.

    Thanks for sharing the story of your friend.