I am the one thing in life I can control

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Three weeks ago, I drove from Portland to Colorado Springs to participate in Camp FI, a weekend retreat for people interested in financial independence and early retirement.

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t drive this distance. It’s a 1300-mile trip that takes at least twenty hours to cover. Or, if you’re me, it’s a 1400-mile trip that takes 23 hours of driving spread over two days.

But, in case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and although I’m not nearly as cautious as many of my friends, I don’t relish the idea of confining myself to close quarters with dozens of strangers for hours on end in an airplane. Besides, I like to drive. And I love the beauty of the American west. And I needed some time alone to think deep thoughts — and to listen to the Hamilton soundtrack over and over and over again.

Around noon on Day Two, as I exited I-80 in south-central Wyoming, I was listening to Hamilton for the fourth time in 24 hours when I was smacked in the brain by a lyric I hadn’t heard before. I pulled off the side of the road to think about it — and to make some notes.

Wait for It

For those few who are unfamiliar, Hamilton is a hip-hop musical that tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton and his contentious relationship with, well, everyone — especially Aaron Burr. Burr is the nominal antagonist of the show (although, truly, he is no villain), Hamilton’s most prominent frenemy. Burr is also a complex character.

Alexander’s biggest beef with Aaron is that his rival seems wishy-washy, as if he has no moral compass. (“If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?” Hamilton asks early on. It’s a question he asks repeatedly throughout the show.) To Burr, though, this chameleon-like nature isn’t a character flaw. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s a strength. He’s adaptable and patient; he believes Hamilton is too loud and too reckless.

Each major character in Hamilton gets a song to define who and what they are. Burr’s song, “Wait for It”, comes in the middle of the first act.

Burr sings:

Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. It takes and it takes and it takes, and we keep living anyway. We rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes. And if there’s a reason I’m still alive when so many have died, then I’m willing to wait for it.

And then Burr says: “I am the one thing in life I can control.” I’d never actually heard that line before. But there, in the middle of the rolling Wyoming hills, the lyric hit me like a ton of bricks.

Leslie Odom Jr. sings Wait for It

This is a powerful line in the context of Hamilton, sure, but for me personally, it’s something close to a guiding principle. I’ve written extensively about the power (and necessity) of being self-directed. It’s one of the primary themes of this website.

But here’s the thing: As important as this notion is to me, I sometimes lose sight of it. This is particularly true when my struggles with mental health become severe, when the depression and anxiety threaten to pull me under. In these moments, I forget about personal agency and locus of control and related ideas. When I’m in the throes of depression, everything is overwhelming (even the simple stuff), and it feels like I’m in control of nothing.

A Very Strange Year

This has been a strange year. I know, I know. Everybody’s saying it. But it’s true! And while we, as a society, are “enjoying” this crazy year together, my own personal 2020 has had its own special flavor of weirdness.

As you’ll recall, 2019 sucked for me. Objectively, my life was great, and I could see that. But subjectively, I was miserable. My life-long depression reached some sort of crescendo and was made especially spicy thanks to some new, unwelcome generalized anxiety. Mental health issues stopped me in my tracks last year.

After several months working with a therapist, I made some progress. In January of this year, I took a break from alcohol and began waking at 4:00 or 4:30. It took a couple of weeks to adjust to this new routine, but by mid-January I felt great and was enjoying my greatest productivity in years. Yay!

As our country (and the world) descended into chaos in March, April, and May, I still felt great. I was insanely productive, both for business projects (such as creating my upcoming FIRE course for Audible) and household projects (such as landscaping the back yard). I was flying high. There was a stark contrast between the overall mood of the world around me and my personal mood. I almost felt guilty. (It’s an odd thing when you’re doing well individually while so many other people are suffering. I’m not sure I like it.)

Then, in mid-June, things went haywire. Slowly at first — then all at once — my depression and anxiety roared back with full force. I found myself paralyzed by fear once more. Blarg! Was I drinking too much beer? Taking on too much work? Overwhelmed by current events? Flustered by chaos here on the homestead? (Our fence fell down. The hot tub broke. The fridge is dying. The sewer line is clogged. And so on.) Whatever the cause, I’d reached a dark place by the end of June.

It felt like my life was out of control. Like Alexander Hamilton, I felt like I was stuck inside a hurricane.

Fortunately, I recognized the problem quickly. And that moment in Wyoming — hearing Burr sing “I am the one thing in life I can control” — was key, a wake-up call. It reminded me of my philosophy. I realized that I was focusing too much on my “circle of concern” rather than my “circle of control”.

[Circle of Concern vs. Circle of Control]

I fought back.

During July, I took several steps to combat my depression. Among others:

  • I stopped drinking alcohol. I had my last drinks on Independence Day. My goal is to go one year without the stuff. No, I’m not being 100% strict. If I find myself in a social situation where it’s better to drink than to make a fuss, I’ll drink. But not much. And these situations should be rare indeed. (I’ve had one such occasion since Independence Day.)
  • I called my doctor to ask about medication. While I’m not opposed to meds, I generally don’t like them for myself. I don’t like the side effects. Plus, I have this stupid idea that I shouldn’t need them. Well, in reality I do need them, that much is clear. So, we’re playing with things to see what works.
  • I uninstalled my stupid videogame. (Again.) If you’re a long-time reader, you know that computer games are my kryptonite. And in small doses, there’s nothing wrong with gaming. It can be a great way to relax! But when I’m in one of my funks, gaming becomes an escape, a way for me to avoid reality. Until I’m moving forward under my own steam again, it’s best that I simply avoid the temptation entirely.
  • I shifted physical fitness to my top priority. Like it or not, my body image has a profound effect on my overall self image. I wish this weren’t the case, but it’s true. Plus, eating right and exercising is conducive to long life and an effective way to fight depression. So, with help from my buddy Jonathan at Choose FI, I’m embarking on a six-month quest to lose thirty pounds. (I’ll write more about this soon.)

In short, I stopped allowing myself to be a victim of external forces and started exercising agency. I am the one thing in life I can control. I need to exercise that control in whatever ways I can. It’s the only way out of the pit of despair.

It’s far too early to say how much these changes (and others I’m making) will help me, but I’m confident that things will improve in short order. They already have to some degree. I mean, the first thing I wanted to do this morning was write an article for Get Rich Slowly! (And I have a list of other things to write about too.)

Coming Out of the Dark

During my two weekends at Camp FI in Colorado Springs, I spoke about the true history of financial independence and early retirement. (These ideas have been around much longer than most people think.) My talk was rough, and I know it, but I hope to develop it into an interesting and useful presentation in years to come. And I hope to share a written version of this presentation here at Get Rich Slowly in the near future.

But for me, Camp FI is less about sharing what I know and more about connecting with like-minded friends and colleagues. I had a blast both weekends. I hung out with new friends and old.

I got to spend a bit of time with Michelle Jackson (who is one of my favorite people). Between weekends, I spent four nights in Mr. Money Mustache‘s basement. He and I hiked, swam in a creek, and had deep conversations on his delightful deck. I had lunch with Piggy from Bitches Get Riches (and met her chickens). I also had lunch with John from ESI Money. I got to know Mr. Refined from Refined by Fire. And so on.

Hanging with Michelle Jackson

Hanging with Piggy from Bitches Get Riches

Diania Merriam presents to the group

By the final night of the second weekend, I was more relaxed than I have been in months. Maybe years. As I sat outside with the die-hards until the wee hours of the morning, telling stories and laughing, I felt alive. I felt myself. I felt as if I were in control of things once more.

My road trip helped me re-realize something else important about my depression and anxiety. My suffering is intensified when I spend too much time alone. I feel better about myself (and my fellow humans) when I interact with other people, whether friends or strangers. I genuinely like people. They’re amazing. I need to do a much better job of seeking out human contact if I want to maintain my mental health!

If only we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic…



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