A few years ago I drew something out on my whiteboard. I don’t have the original, but it looked something like this:
It was to visually help myself answer the question, “where do you see yourself in five years?” I never understood how to answer that question because at any point in my life, five years ago I could not have imaged where I currently was.
If you asked me at 18 where I would be at 23, my guess would be completely incorrect.
What I could do was get a sense for what my life would be like in five years if I kept doing everything the same. I called this the “5-Year Business as Usual Scenario.’
When I drew the picture, I was 24, working at a large enterprise software company, commuting two hours per day, living in my Dad’s basement. If I had continued to do exactly that, in five years I would have been living at home at 29. I doubt that my Dad would have encouraged me to go fend for myself given how much he wanted me to move back in with him. I really didn’t like that image.
So in order to change it, I had to be the one to make a change. My #1 goal in life at the time was Financial Independence, so the changes I made revolved around that. I wanted to cut down on my expenses and kill my commute since that would allow me to save more. I drew up a comparison of how much more money I’d have in my pocket when I didn’t have a commute to create evidence for what I wanted to do.
By 25, I had a job that I could walk or bike to, and had a slightly higher salary. Conveniently, my mom and sister were living abroad for a year, so I made a deal with her that I would live there in exchange for property management to get her some rental income.
It was a temporary situation because they would be coming back after one year, so I didn’t really think about the 5-year BAUS. My plan was to keep living like I was broke, working hard, and then rent a place together with my girlfriend when my mom came back.
I felt like a baby living at my mom’s, even though she wasn’t there. The pictures of baby me all around, the poem I wrote once for homework, and old memories around every corner did the job for her. I would say that this part of my life was the closest I’d been to living in hell. Things in my mind keeping getting worse and worse. I felt like I kept hearing signals from the universe that I was going down the wrong path in all parts of my life. Eventually, I reached a tipping point where I had to do something or I’d never be able to recover.
I know it sounds dumb, and looking back at it, there’s no reason as to why I should have been going so crazy. But in the thick of it, I could not clearly see what to do.
Just before turning 26 I got myself to believe that I had to push the reset button on my life. In a short span of time, I broke up with my girlfriend, found my own apartment to rent, left my job, and “retired.” I was trying to do something symbolic with the end of my first 25 years of life. What I didn’t know at the time was that forcing things to happen is not the right way to deal with situations.
Now, at 27, I have the scariest 5yBAUS I’ve ever had. No job, no girlfriend, no prospects, and a much higher cost of living. Add onto this a lack of motivation to make money because four years of chasing Financial Independence got me a pretty sizable investment account. The fear of failing at whatever I do next is still lingering in my mind. It may never go away. And the thing is, I’m extremely comfortable. I could live like this for at least five years without having to make any money, and that’s why this BAUS is so scary to me.
It’s the exact same way I felt when I was able to do my job in my sleep. I knew something had to change otherwise I’d blink and five years would have gone by. The only difference is that now I’m not making any money.
Of course, there are things that could happen which would force me to adapt. For example, if my roommate decided to move, I would have to move. If I stayed in the same place, my rent would triple or quadruple due to the after-effect of rent control. If I depleted my investments and still had no income, I would have to move back home, or preferably out on the street. I hear they take pretty good care of the homeless in San Francisco.
So of course, something needs to change here. It’s obvious that I need to get a job. I need to rebuild my emergency fund, and restart the debt management machine, so that’s what’s going to happen.
Today, I see the five year BAUS a useful gauge for how my life is going. Any time I get too comfortable, I get uneasy. It’s very difficult for me to relax when my life has become easy because I believe there should be some type of challenge to overcome all the time.
The problem with the 5y BAUS – and why I don’t recommend you use it to make any major life decisions – is because it assumes that nothing happens unless you make it happen. It’s a fun game to play with friends, but it is an extremely dangerous way to go about living your life.
Let me give you an example. At my last job, I thought I had to do something because I thought I wasn’t growing. I could do it in my sleep. I was literally on autopilot. I took it upon myself to do something, and I ended up quitting my job for some pretty stupid reasons.
About six months after I had quit, an old colleague messaged me saying that she had referred me to a recruiter and given me a glowing recommendation. It was the same person who had referred me to my last job. The recruiter messaged me as well. I was so excited. She asked if I was still working at the company she had referred me to. I said I was not. No response. No response from the recruiter either.
I’m not sure why they both stopped replying to me. My guess is that she didn’t want to refer me into a role if she thought I would just end up leaving the job after a year or so. Of course, she doesn’t know the full story, but I cannot blame her for perceiving the situation as it seemed. I might have gotten fired for all she knew, and she has her own reputation to protect.
It was an important life lesson.
It could have been an opportunity:
Let’s say I was still (sleep)working at my last job. Would she still have referred me? Yes. Would it have looked better that I was still gainfully employed? Yes. Would the recruiter wanted to recruit me? More likely.
Would that event have woken me up?
Would that event have changed my 5yBAUS without my doing anything?
There are always things in life that are not apparent to you. You cannot predict them. It would have been impossible for me to know that my old colleague would have referred me to another recruiter. Looking at your life right now and projecting what it would look like in five years is an interesting thought experiment, but acting upon it may screw up your life’s natural progression.
So here’s my advice, realized after five years of trying to get my life to look better in five years: Just relax. Don’t fret over the state of your life. Live. If you’re comfortable, enjoy. If you feel like you’re sleeping, enjoy the sleep. Something will come along and wake you up.
Just make sure not to hit snooze too many times. You might be late.