What is the Destination?
Updated: Apr 16, 2018
On New Year’s Day, my husband and I lay in bed with a writing prompt journal I got from Amazon intended to help its purchaser make lists and articulate thoughts. (The 52 Lists Project by Moorea Seal) While the subject of the prompt for this particular day was lighthearted, I found myself craving some deeper thought on this day of new beginnings. The prompt suggested to “List your favorite characters from books, movies, etc” and then to “Take action: Find a common personality trait between your favorite characters. What is one character trait that you admire in your favorite characters that you can work towards this week?”. (Great journal so far, by the way… I’m really loving it). Because I don’t watch a lot of TV or movies, and because I read mainly non-fiction books of the business, finance, and self-help categories, I didn’t feel particularly inspired by this question. I quickly summarized my abbreviated response to this prompt with “the common theme amongst all protagonists is that there is adversity at hand which must be personally overcome.” I went on to summarize (out loud, to my husband) that “every human being has an innate desire to be the hero of their own story… to be their own protagonist which overcomes the adversity of our everyday lives… which is why we feel so tied to characters in movies and books… every struggle is relatable in that it is simply struggle and that is the human condition.”
Succinct, efficient, boring. I simply could not be bothered to compare myself to fictional characters.
Instead, I crossed out the writing prompt at the top of the page and wrote down “What is the destination?” I turned to my husband and starting talking about fish.
My husband, who is wonderful and very used to the very different way in which my brain functions and my need to break down objectives and clarify goals and milestones, patiently listened to my rambling story about fish. Sometimes, when I start speaking, I have a plan. This time, I didn’t. I just sort of maneuvered my way through a thought process until I arrived at something that felt like a narrative that reminded me of life. It went something like this:
“Imagine you are a fish. And you are just swimming along with the current… in a school… all your best buds are around and you guys are just swimming… hanging out… everything is good. You get together and play cards, watch football… the wives chat about whatever wives chat about… it’s an agreeable life. That’s a fine way to live, I suppose, but the problem with that way of living is that all of you fish will arrive at the exact same place as all the other fish at exactly the same time. What’s more is that that place is unknown… is that there is no particular destination in mind. You swim along, you stop for food here and there… maybe make a fishy family along the way and then they can swim with you… but you are forever swimming. You are forever aimless… to a destination known only as “downstream”. You’ll know it when you get there. Whenever that is.
So being a fish is kind of like meandering along in life… going with the flow… but not having any kind of destination in particular in mind. You do all the stuff you are supposed to do. You get good grades… you go to college… you get a job… you pick a spouse… normal.
But imagine you had a boat and a paddle. Or better yet, a motorboat. You could be a motorboatin’ son of a gun with your fishy family and instead of just floating downstream… you could absolutely FLY down stream. Heck, you could go upstream if you wanted to, too. Cuz you have a lot more speed and momentum. You could literally do about anything.
But like any change in speed and momentum, there are opportunity costs associated with the change. For example, your fishy friends will be long behind you. Gone will be the days where you can swim alongside them and meander and hang out… now your interactions will have to be scheduled and intentional so you’ll both be at the same place in the stream at the same time. Your fishy friends might also be naysayers. They might not want to associate with a fish who likes to travel faster than all the other fish. They might tell you all the reasons why fishes and boats don’t mix… or why it will never work out with the boat. Worse still, there could be casualties in your wake. Fish and motors often don’t mix. As you churn up wake with your motorboatin’ ways, it’s very possible that you could disrupt or displace other more passive, complacent fishes with your mud and movement… and they might not like that much at all. They may even resent you for it. Bottom line is that there is plenty of opportunity cost associated with your decision to speed up and arrive at your destination sooner.
Now there is something to be said for both methods of travel. On the one hand, fish are meant to swim. Swimming is a beautiful thing and floating along provides for ample time to enjoy all the passing scenery. On the other hand, you will not arrive at your destination early, or at all. You may forfeit the part of the story where you no longer have to swim… the part of the story where you can just meander. Or find a fish tank. Or do whatever fish do when they retire.
There is a big piece of this fishy story that remains unaddressed: What is the destination? For some, the need for speed is enough to drive them to swim fast or motorboat downstream. Or upstream, for that matter. For the vast majority, however, the need for speed won’t be enough. They need a reward. To forgo your fishy friends and expedite your journey requires that you have a clearly defined destination and you know more or less when you’ll arrive at that destination and how intact. To give up a life of ease… of meandering downstream… of tinkering along with your buds at no particular pace… it requires a reward at the end of the stream. A destination.”
So at the end of this very long and rambling story about a fish motorboatin’ his life downstream, I asked my husband if he had any particular inclination of how he wanted to travel downstream...were we gonna float with our friends or were we going to motorboat ahead of them?
To bring things back into the realm of understanding, I was asking directly about whether or not we were going to drift aimlessly through life and arrive at retirement around the age of 67 or 70 with just enough money in the bank to live a fairly modest life… or whether we were going to sprint for the goal post, having saved early and aggressively and placed our money in long-term growth vehicles early and often so that we could retire very comfortable in our (hopefully) early 50’s. Were we going to strategize now about developing passive income sources so that our money works for us now? Were we going to engage in the lifestyle creep that keeps the Jones’s in constant debt and chains or were we going to make the decision to live modestly with what we already owned and not worry about what the Jones’s are doing?
Even describing the destination in vague terms doesn’t cut it, though. I mean would you forgo a shiny new car that you can SEE and FEEL for a vague statement like “well we need to have plenty of money for retirement.” NO. You wouldn’t. And neither would we. It needs to be specific and tangible. It needs to be real enough to motivate you to motorboat.
So the prompt of the day became “What is the destination?” Because it’s not enough to simply state the destination in broad terms… we need to get focused about what the day-to-day looks like. We need to visualize the destination and all of its minor details. It’s an exercise in fantasy as well as a real, hard look at the things that make you tick… the things you are passionate about… the things that make you want to get out of bed in the morning. Because retirement won’t be about getting up for work (or at least let’s hope not). Retirement will be about getting out of bed to pursue the things which bring you joy… the things that you are passionate about.
Let me share with you what our list looks like… Our response to “What is the destination?”:
Have Zero Debt.
Spend less than you make.
Avoid lifestyle creep. Stay committed to this.
Prioritize investments over dumb shit. “Pay yourself” first via investing.
Minimize discretionary wants (i.e. “dumb shit”)
Have regular money conversations. Stay on target. Make it normal to talk money.
Create/Update net worth statements monthly and annually.
Pay off our current home (10 years, baby!) and pay cash for the next one.
Invest only in income-producing assets (hint: this isn’t your house).
Live intentionally. Live with less. Practice gratitude.
Talk about intentionally living until people are annoyed with you.
Teach your children to live intentionally.
Free or low-cost hobbies/activities! (Hiking, Picnics, Host Afternoon Tea, etc.)
Have enough in retirement savings to have the financial freedom to:
Golf every day. Live that #CountryClubLife. (Mitch)
Have a sports car. Have time to drive it. (Mitch) (I think this one is dumb… but it isn’t about me.)
Have time to pursue creative hobbies (Mitch)
He doesn’t know what these hobbies are yet… but that’s ok.
Have a single (paid-off) (modest) primary residence. Live near the water. Visit the water. (Meg)
Continued passive income generation (Meg) (Look… I dream about that, ok?)
Freedom to pursue creative outlets (Meg)
TIME. THAT IS MINE. (Meg)
Freedom to travel (both)
Wake up with the sunrise, do yoga, drink coffee, walk to beach or water (Meg)
Live near family. Time to spend with kids/grandkids. Strong family relationships. (presumably we’ll have both)
Weekly massage (Mitch)
Leave an inheritance (this might seem like a weird “destination” goal but it’s important to both of us, along with educating our kids about money, income, spending, and living within their means). Talk about money early and often with our children. Our kids need to be financially-savvy.
Retire Early. Like 50-ish. Young enough to still kick it.
So as you can see from the list above, some of these things are super specific in tactic… others are sort of vague in principle but specific in outcome. The great thing is that this list is totally up to you! You just need to sit down and have a heart to heart with yourself (and your partner, if applicable) to really ask yourselves what makes you tick and what you are working towards. I know plenty of folks who drifted into retirement unprepared and without their financial affairs in order (and some without their health) who stay in pajamas until late afternoon and watch Dr. Phil most of the day. Without a plan, this could be you. Worse yet, you might not even get to start THAT party until you are like 75 or 80. WORSE YET EVEN, is that someone else (gasp! Your kids!) might have to foot the bill for your care if you are unprepared. Can you imagine having worked your whole life and having nothing to show for it? THAT IS LITERALLY THE REALITY FOR MILLIONS OF PEOPLE.
My dad used to tell me I was always swimming upstream… That I always felt the need to go against the norm and make things more difficult than they needed to be (THAT’S WHAT MOTORBOATING LOOKS LIKE TO THE DRIFTERS)… until I didn’t. I moved to Northern Virginia and let the stream kind of take over. I got a job and advanced well enough into a career… found a husband… I started the path downstream. Then he told me one day while I was talking with him on the phone that for the first time in my life, it appeared I was swimming with the stream. It’s coincidental that this analogy stuck out to me so much… because I so vividly remember him telling me in passing that swimming upstream was my thing.
Fast forward just a few short years, and the stream is my bitch. I am a motorboatin’ son of a gun who is investing, saving, aggressively paying down a mortgage, and working tirelessly everyday at a full-time job AND build a side hustle. There will be casualties in the wake… you can bet on it. But one thing is for sure: I will not be one of them.