Sooner or Later, You’re Going to Be Yourself
I don’t know if it was the American air or my stats professor going on about Tim Ferriss, but one day while studying abroad, I decided I would start waking up at 5 AM simply because I liked it.
I love the quietude of early mornings. The world is asleep, and there’s peace in knowing that alone. But it’s also a great time to read, to learn, and to get things done. There are no distractions. You can be slow and focused at the same time. There’s no rush, and by the time everyone you know has breakfast, you’ve already accomplished a good chunk of what you want to do that day. A half-done to-do list at 9 AM is comforting. Bottom line? I love waking up early.
There’s only one problem with it, and it’s the same problem with everything you enjoy that 99% of the world doesn’t: It’s weird. Not because it’s actually strange but because by not doing it, the masses have deemed it so.
If you don’t follow the herd, sooner or later, the two of you will clash. You will get confused looks for adjourning to your chambers at 9 PM, tough questions for choosing sleep over parties, and nasty whispers behind your back for either, which, luckily, you’ll rarely find out about.
Sooner or later, you’ll stop being invited, and your socially conditioned mind will ask you some devious questions: Do you really want to give up socializing? Don’t you love the company? Would it hurt that much to blend in a little?
When your brain shows up with those questions, it’s important to ask equally uncomfortable but more important ones: Who am I really? What do I want? Am I regressing, or is this a true step towards being my most authentic self?
If you determine that you are indeed living more in sync with yourself, and that your mind is mostly trying to trick you, it is your duty to shut the voice of doubt down. Stomp it. It needs to be as flat as a piece of cardboard about to go into the trash. Jump on it. Don’t give it another chance to inflate. Clutch your newly found piece of the self-puzzle, and hold on to it for dear life.
Lying there in the glowing red of the dawn, I learned an invaluable lesson: Sooner or later, you’re going to be yourself — so what’s the point of waiting?
There are only three currencies in the world: Status, time, and money. Whatever price we’re asked to pay, it comes in different combinations of the three, and most of the time, we worry about the wrong components.
Time is the most valuable currency because it’s the most limited and the hardest to get more of. You have a fixed, unknown supply, and the best you can do is to free as much of that supply as you can to be spent as you please rather than follow someone’s orders, thus freeing their time instead.
Of course, time is the currency we most willingly throw away. We routinely spend 20 minutes trying to find a $5 coupon for a piece of clothing we hope will make us look good, and we deliberate for days whether we should actually record that Youtube video that we’ve been itching to make for months. We donate our time to strangers and distractions, and we allow our habits to suck up plenty of it without reflecting on where those habits are really carrying us.
If we did it right, time would be the first thing we consider with each decision large or small. “Will I feel like this time was well spent in hindsight? What will this add up to in the long run? Does this matter enough to me to justify spending an hour on it?”
That too is a lesson I learned in red, though it was the color of the sun fading, not rising, this time.
In German colleges, you usually have one final exam per subject. That’s it. 100% of your grade, determined in one two-hour session. The pressure is insane. You’re never done studying because you’re always afraid to fail.
In the US, I could see my grades slowly coming together with many little tests, midterms, and participation grades. I knew how much I had to do based on where I was at and thus felt like I finally had the time any student should have — the time to ponder life, work, education, and what it all means to them.
I spent the morning hours learning, uncovering countless new career paths I wanted to try: vlogger, blogger, startup founder, and so on. The nights I spent wandering around the woods, thinking. Unheard of! There was a lake behind my dorm. Sometimes, I even turned the sunset into a time lapse. Creativity!
The more time I spent like a hamster finally released from his wheel, the more I realized:
- I loved passing time in inexplicable, seemingly non-sensible ways, convinced it would always somehow add up later (usually, it did).
- The career path I was on would not allow for any of it. Soon, I would have to return to my wheel and stay in it for a long, long time.
Suddenly, my plan of becoming a partner at a big consulting firm transformed from a dream into a deadly vortex, and it scared the living hell out of me. I did what anyone does when something terrifying is about to swallow them whole: I pulled one more hamster and ran like hell.
The reason I got on the consulting train was money. Money is funny. It sits between time and status, and despite feeling the most tangible and easy to understand as a currency, it’s little more than a mediator between the two.
Since we need some money to survive, we ascribe a disproportionately high value to getting more money at any time. We think it’ll make us safer. In truth, you need quite little to survive, and beyond that, money is nothing but a video game. It’s all numbers on a screen. Three zeroes more, three zeroes less. And?
Money is an entirely man-made construct. Without humans, money would be worth nothing. If humans disappeared tomorrow, some animals would chew on dollar bills (and probably get sick from it), that’s it. They have no use for coins and paper.
To us, money has value because we can trade it for either time or status. Often, we end up spending it on status and then complaining we don’t have enough time. You wanted to take three months off to start a business, but you just had to get a motorcycle, didn’t you? We tie ourselves up with financial commitments and then calculate how many raises we need to finally get out of them. “By the time I’m 50, I should have it all paid off!” That’s not what money is for.
Money is meant to give you a roof over your head, enough food to eat, a warm bed, internet, and a shower. Then, you start playing the video game, and you play it to win! Winning is buying back all your time. With the exception of life-shortening health issues even money can’t reverse (an untreatable type of cancer, for example), money can buy back every slot of time on that invisible, finite band that is your life span. Use it until the whole band is yours. That’s how you win the money game, and then…you stop playing.
The hard part is realizing you can and then actually hitting ‘Quit.’ Hitting ‘Quit’ took me three years — that’s how much I overshot.
From 2012 to 2020, I was running. For the first two years, I spun my wheels and got nothing done. I dabbled. I dipped my toe into the water.
In 2014, I registered a business with zero prior experience in conducting business of any kind (yes, you can do that!). I was a slow learner. For two more years, not much happened. I barely got by. I made enough for the roof and the food but not much more than that.
By the end of 2017, I was finally getting somewhere. I made a good bit more than I needed ($40,000, for reference, and I live in one of Germany’s most expensive cities — stop lying to yourself about how much you need). Right then, I could have stopped. I could have doubled down on all the work I enjoyed and said “Sayonara!” to the rest — but I didn’t.
I did have a lot of fun in the three years since then, but I also did a lot of things that paid well but didn’t add up to my bigger picture. I forgot to hit ‘Quit,’ and I did it over some combination of money and the world’s most artificial currency: status.
Status is Coca-Cola for your ego: It feels great when you send it down, but ultimately, it’ll only make you more thirsty.
Status is useless. Its only meaning is derived from your relative position to other humans in the many fake hierarchies we ourselves have created. If you start from a position of “All humans are equal,” status becomes nil and stays there.
Status is a zero-sum game, and using money to buy status is an outright waste. You could have used that money to buy back time. Status is worrying about how others think you look. Status is grinning when you get the VIP treatment. Status is treating your CV like a Lego set, choosing each brick based on how you think the result will appear rather than what really matters to you.
In most decisions, status is the first thing we worry about when it shouldn’t be on our list of concerns at all. It’s the last false incentive we get rid of when it could have been the first.
The silver lining? If you give up on status at some point at all, you’re already a success — funny how that works, isn’t it?
Everything I did since 2017, I believed was a good idea at the time. I made a writing course because I felt I had something to teach. I ran a magazine because I felt I could inspire.
I learned a lot from these projects and wouldn’t consider them a waste, but in hindsight, some of them were status- and money-driven rather than the result of me asking: “Is this how I want to spend my time?” Now, it’s the main question that guides my actions.
I know it’s a lifelong battle and you won’t always get it right, but once you have the financial freedom to do so — and that freedom is closer than you think — it is your duty to make time (and a lack of regret on how you spent it) your primary cause of concern.
When we think of status first, then money, then time, time will be the last — and least — we have left. We must flip the order. We must not be scared to let status and money go. Money and status lack meaning. One day, life hits most of us over the head with this. Why can’t one day be today?
Time is finite. Time can’t be printed. Time is universal. It’s not some Chutes and Ladders game between humans.
At the end of your life, time will be the only measure of how true to yourself you have lived. If you’re to realize this eventually, you might as well do it now.
Or, in the words of a guy I vaguely remember but think was on to something: Sooner or later, you’re going to be yourself — so what’s the point of waiting?