Why Being Yourself Is a Disruptive Act

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We ought to spend time and money in a way that’s aligned with our values. In reality, our spending habits are often tied to other people’s expectations of us.


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Humans are social creatures. The people in our lives influence us, both consciously and in subtle ways we never realize. We decide that we “should” climb a career ladder, buy fancy appliances and live behind a white picket fence.

There’s nothing wrong with these choices, as long as it’s a conscious, deliberate decision. Our only error is buckling to the expectation that we’re a failure if we don’t follow the script.

But influence is a two-way street. If we break away from the mold, we challenge other people’s assumptions. We create chaos without saying a word.

Being Yourself is Disruptive

Being yourself is a disruptive act. Your lifestyle becomes a mirror that forces people to re-examine their own decisions.

The result? Some people will criticize you.

The rude ones may overtly condemn you. But the polite ones will mask their assumptions in the form of a question. It’ll often be tied to age and/or an arbitrary timeline:

  • “Aren’t you too old to be living with roommates?” (There’s no age limit.)
  • “You’ve been in a relationship for 5 years? Why aren’t you married yet?” (I live by my own schedule.)
  • “No kids yet? The clock is ticking.” (OMG. If I hear that one more time …)
  • “Your project still isn’t profitable? Shouldn’t you quit?” (I’m not going to honor that with a response.)
  • “Shouldn’t you have a nicer car/house/wardrobe by now?” (Shouldn’t you stop questioning my life?)

These questions have nothing to do with you. They pertain to the person posing the questions. They want you to confirm their assumptions so that their worldview can persist intact.

(By the way, my friends who followed the so-called ‘right’ path still get hassled. “You’re getting married and/or having kids already? Aren’t you too young for that?” Pleasing other’s expectations is a no-win situation, no matter what side of the fence you’re on.)

No One Asks How You Afford Conventional Things …

From 2008 to 2010 I backpacked across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia/New Zealand. I heard tons of assumptions about how I paid for the trip.

Roughly 50 percent of the assumptions involved some imaginary benefactor, usually a male figure like a father or boyfriend. “Did your Dad pay for it?” or “You snagged a rich boyfriend, huh?” (Why is it so hard to imagine that a girl can pay her own way?)

The other 50 percent assumed that I maxed out credit cards to fund the trip. (Newsflash: noodle carts in Cambodia don’t take Visa.)

Almost no one guessed the obvious – I saved money. You know, the old-fashioned way.

I lived like a cheapskate. I wrote freelance articles until my fingers hurt. I saved aggressively. It’s not rocket science, folks.

No one questions us when we spend thousands on dollars on conventional things: Buying a house. Buying a car. Paying for grad school. Having a baby.

Those are massive, big-dollar expenses, yet no one bats an eye at how we afford it, especially if we do these things at a socially-appropriate age.

But the moment we spend that type of money on something extraordinary, questions form.

Stick With Those Who Inspire You

The solution? Ruthlessly cull the people in your life. Surround yourself with yay-sayers. Keep company with those who inspire you. Don’t waste your time trying to “educate” people who aren’t willing to learn.

This world holds plenty of beautiful people, ones who handle challenges with grace and enthusiasm. When you tell them you’re spending your time and money on something unconventional, they’ll be the first to say, “Sweet! That’s awesome!”

Here’s the true test: they’ll show enthusiasm regardless of whether or not your tastes mesh with theirs. They understand that it’s valid for you to spend time and money on something they would never want, buy or do themselves.

Here’s one of my favorite examples:

A few years before we started dating, my boyfriend Will and a few of his friends bought an $800 school bus at an auction. They retrofitted it into a house on wheels, complete with a kitchen sink, beds, couches and a veggie-oil-powered engine. Then they set out from their home in Colorado to tour the West Coast.

Most of Will’s friends share his lifestyle tastes, so this didn’t rock their assumptions about life. They’d do the same thing.

But one of his friends holds different preferences. “That sounds miserable,” he said. “I’d never want to live with a bunch of stinky people on a school bus.”

Nonetheless, this guy was one of Will’s chief supporters. He never uttered a word of discouragement. He never planted seeds of self-doubt into Will’s head about how this decision would “derail his career” or “cost thousands.” When Will needed help troubleshooting the transmission or fixing the engine, this guy pitched in with enthusiasm.

“Have fun,” he told Will. “Call me if you need anything.” Then he went home to his white picket fence in the suburbs, a conscious, deliberate lifestyle choice that suited his own taste.

He aligned his money and time in the way that suited him. And he allowed others to do the same.

Live and let live. It’s a simple concept, really. But few people do it.

Most people question their friends’ dreams, especially when those choices are framed in days and dollars. “You could buy a house with that money!,” they’ll say. “You could finish grad school in that amount of time!”

Life involves a series of trade-offs. Know what you’re willing to sacrifice for the life you want. Surround yourself with people who support it. The rest will follow.

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  1. says

    Hi Paula! Loved this post – 1000% agree!

    I really look forward each week to your little rays of sunshine that get dropped into my email box! As a Hot-lanta girl myself, I love knowing that someone else in this city thinks the way that I do.

    And, coincidentally, I own some rental properties as well. Although you seem to be having a much better go at it than I am. :)


    • says

      @Colleen — Great to hear from a fellow Hot-lantan! There are lots of people like us in this city … it just takes a little searching, that’s all :-) Thanks for saying hi, and for the beautiful comment about the “ray of sunshine” — awww :-)

  2. says

    I am at an age (66 y.o.) where I dumped negative people a long time ago. I don’t want to be around people like that because they would tear down anything you want to do. My wife and raised our kids by asking questions when they wanted to do something. If they thought it through, we encouraged it. If it was following someone else’s whim, we discouraged it. By asking legitimate questions you get the other person to figure out that it is a bad choice. Remember, I said legitimate questions!

  3. says

    The kid one irks me all the time. Two that my spouse and I get a lot where we live are:
    1 – Your spouse has a good engineering job, why don’t you have kids?
    2 – You (or your spouse, *grr*) makes good money, what are you doing living in a condo? Why don’t you have a house?

    Umm, I donno, because we choose to? Because it affords us a lot of financial freedom?

  4. says

    I loved this post Paula. I had a friend recently tell me I was too old to live with roommates and that I needed to get to work on having my own home. I was dumbfounded. I’m 27 and just had a break up with someone I had lived with for six years. Living with roommates was exactly what I needed and still currently do, especially while forging on my new path.

  5. says

    I think you are awesome and love your values. I am amazed at the things you have set your mind to and have accomplished. You should be celebrating, not answering questions.

    I get asked the same questions all the time and then some:
    Why do you live in a mobile home? (because I can pay for school in full)
    Why don’t you buy something newer than your 15+ year old cars? (see above)
    Why don’t you have kids? (because I don’t want to have kids and don’t feel the need to)
    How long have you been married? Wow, 7 years, are you having kids yet, because you are so old? (seriously, just bite me lol)

    …and they get worse. Why are you in school, why is it taking so long, why are you so skinny, why blah blah blah.

    Seriously, I don’t think I know anyone, except my husband, who gives me complements, instead of asking me rude questions. I think I need to find more people that are inspirational and say good things. hmmmm, makes me think.

  6. says

    People are just trying to understand why you are not a sheep following the same pattern everyone did. Because of tradition, religion, marketing and other channels, ideas are so engraved in our minds that we can’t think differently.
    I have been living abroad for 10 years, making a good living, generating passive income, own three properties right now, and the best question I get is “so, are you going to look for a real job now?” by people living paycheck to paycheck.

  7. says

    This is a great post. I wish I had had someone put things so concisely earlier when I was still worried about making everybody *else* happy >_<

  8. says

    Great post Paula.

    You said “No one questions us when we spend thousands on dollars on conventional things: Buying a house. Buying a car. Paying for grad school. Having a baby.”

    An interesting aside here is that the majority of all these purchases are made with DEBT … in massive doses! (Excluding the baby … hopefully.)

  9. says

    Paula, you’re so wise at such a young age. Kudos to you. I agree with all of this 100%. People who judge others are really just insecure themselves. It’s completely a reflection on them. I know that because of the times I’ve judged others, it was true of me.

  10. says

    You inspire me, Paula! I think it’s awesome when people do exactly what they want to do regardless of how others view their choices. Thinking outside the box will eventually work out and be productive. In my case, it just takes lots of trials and errors. 😉

  11. says

    I’m lucky to have a mother who is one of those people. I figured out a long time ago that if I asked my mom’s opinion “what should I do” she’d lead me in a circle and then be unhappy that I followed her advice.

    I like the less stated “other side” of your piece: align yourself with doers/goers/movers/life-appreciators. Those people with a wider world view (like Will’s friend) spend the energy others waste validating “their view” on the excitement of enjoying life as a symphony, not a single instrument.

  12. says

    This is so well put and so true of life whether it’s financial decisions that go against the grain or anything else. I get plenty of flack for my green & natural practices, frugal living, and alternative health and parenting practices, but I continue to live true to my beliefs and hopefully influence some others to reexamine their own. Thanks for your post!

  13. says

    I love this! It’s so important to only bounce idea off people who will just say, “go for it!” Or be able to let other negative comments roll off your back. I did an experiment with the producer I work with 90% of the time to test my theory in that he may not want me to really succeed. (long story). Anyway, I said, “ha ha, maybe I should start being in commercials to make some extra money.” He looked at me concerned and said, “you have no idea how hard it is (I do, I was just testing him), and besides you don’t have the right look anyway.” Ouch! So that was a double whammy insult. One subtle and one no-so-subtle. But you know, as crazy as it is, if I wanted to be in commercials (I don’t), I would do everything in my power to be in commercials, and even though it would be a long shot, having someone say “go for it, I’ll support you”, is a lot better than “it will never happen.”

  14. says

    What a great post! I love it..because it is so true. The MOMENT you do something that goes against someone’s way of thinking…or do something that someone would not necessarily do themselves, they are quick to criticize and give you all sorts of reasons why it will not work or tell you better ways in which you should spend your time/money.

    Sometimes..if they are a true friend, they are just giving you their opinion because they don’t want to see you get hurt, or lose money. But sometimes, they are simply limited by the knowledge they have and they can not see past the blinders that they have placed on their mind.

    I have two friends that no matter WHAT idea you tell them, they ALWAYS ALWAYS find fault in it and will tell you how it won’t work right away. At first it used to really bother me…but now I accept them for who they are and I tell them ideas so that I can hear possible reasons why it won’t work. I take their input with a grain of salt then I do my own due-diligence to see if there really is any validity with what they said. Sometimes it’s good to have people like that around..it helps to keep you balanced. Surrounding yourself with “yes-men”(or yes-women) will create a false sense of reality.

    But as always…like you mentioned..you have to know what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to have the life you want.
    And at the end of the day..it’s your life to live and nobody elses!

    • says

      @Simple Moolah — I love your comment, and I love the way you react to the critics: use their pessimism as a brainstorming session for possible flaws with the plan; then find a way to fix those flaws. The big difference between you and them is that you’re trying to find ways to make it work, while they’re searching for ways to validate their self-imposed limitations.

  15. says

    I’m 41, live by myself, a 12-minute walk to work. The questions: “Aren’t you lonely?” (times infinity!), “You don’t have a car? You can afford one. Are you cheap?” My least favourite: “You’re still single?! Are you gay? …Are you sure?” Yes, quite sure I’m not, thanks. Seems a little bit of a personal question to be grilling somebody about on a first meeting, doesn’t it?

  16. says

    Paula, this post went right to my heart. So many people just can’t take it if you do things differently. They can only see their own point of view. And they make remarks. I agree totally to cull negative people from your life.

    Live free or die!

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