I saw a friend last week who recently returned from living in Sweden. When I asked her how it was, she looked at me straight in the face and said, “In Sweden it’s impossible to fall.”
Not fail, but fall - the thing you do when the safety net vanishes, and you tumble down and down and down, no one and nothing there to catch you.
She told me how the government subsidizes many things in Sweden - housing, college, living expenses - so that it’s virtually impossible to get yourself into a situation that you can’t get out of. Debt, poverty.
“Think of the anxiety Americans have over basic living,” she said. “Shelter, healthcare, education.” She paused and looked away. “It is hard to explain how fundamentally different it is to live in a place where most of your energy is spent doing what you’re meant to do, and less time is spent worrying.”
This blew me away. I never thought that anxiety over these things was any different elsewhere in the world. That’s what growing up was, sacrificing and working and swallowing back the things that you always wanted to do for the sake of survival.
I’ve been turning this around in my head for days, wondering how we can live a life of the Swedes - with a bubble of safety around us so our choices are driven by our passions, strengths and desires, not anxiety.
How do we create our own safety nets so we can catch ourselves, so that the anxiety of everyday living doesn’t get in the way of becoming that person we want to become?
Here is what I think.
Create a village.
This is the most important thing you can do to mend your own safety net. In Sweden, the government catches you if you fall. In America, people will.
I am not talking about people that will give you money if you go broke, though if you have them, that's nice. I am talking about people who believe in you so much that they will help you before you go broke, or find opportunities for you when you’re just starting out or have none.
I call it a village - the oh-so-trendy business term right now - for a reason: in villages, everyone knows everyone else’s business because they have to. You are collectively accountable to each other for survival.
While this concept may have gotten lost in our culture of cubicles and thought-based jobs, it still, very truly exists: we need each other to do business.
Here’s the thing about your village: anyone can be in it. It’s not just friends, family or coworkers; it is also people you meet on airplanes, it’s friends from high school and your neighbor next store. You never, ever know how people will help you, or when they will dip into your life and become relevant again.
You need to actively build a sea of people around you who feel connected to you and are impressed by you. Being nice is not enough to have a true safety net; people need to believe in your expertise, determination and acumen so they can support you when you need it.
I often get LinkedIn requests from people after they quit or lose a job. Do this before you need to, do this way before you anticipate a shift. You need time to build rapport with people and help them; you need time to build your village. This is the first thing that you need to do.
Have a side project, always.
There is no one-job that will satisfy every inch of your desire and aptitude. In fact, you often grow into your professional life, discovering skills and interests as you go.
Begin developing those skills now. Begin taking on projects while you have a job, while you have the money and resources to explore other passions.
This could be learning a new skill or growing your expertise in a niche. Writing a blog is mine.
A side-gig gives you something to fall back on. It doesn’t have to support you, but it sets the groundwork for something that you can ramp up or fall back on if something happens.
Money. Save it.
I am always, every single day of my life striving to cut back. This doesn't mean not buying things but buying fewer things. Cutting expenses when they’re extraneous and focusing on the important things.
I bring my lunch to work, but pay a little extra for parking close to my office so I can slip in and out quickly and have more time with my loved ones at home and writing projects.
When I was 23 and had nothing - the most expensive thing I owned was a surfboard - I went traveling for eight months. People always ask me how I did it, like it was some complicated and unfathomable feat that they, often with more money and net worth than I have even now, could ever do.
But it was simple. I worked my ass off, saved and then left.
If we make our lives complicated then simple things become complicated, too.
Stuff has a tendency to tether us to a specific life; fine until the day we realize we are someone different. Different desires, different goals, different in a way that requires us to reform ourselves, this will happen to you.
Then, suddenly, with our big house and big car tied to a big credit card bill, we have lost the ability to do a very important thing: change our lives as we change.
This doesn’t mean not committing to anything - a house, for example - but understanding how the purchase of a house will impact your ability to change your life, down the line.
This is about creating space in your life to be nimble and agile, to explore and create, year by year, the person you want to be.
We have so much here in America, so much that it takes my breath away, but we are chained to that wealth.
Begin unfettering yourself from the physicality of your wealth and instead, attach yourself to what living in the wealthiest nation can really afford you: freedom.
Every now and then, test your safety net.
You will work for at least forty years of your life. Think of this carefully, feel the weight of those decades in your mind, the wrinkles that will draw lines across your face and the gray that will creep into your hair. Life melts off of you in seconds and days and years until it’s gone.
Is it so much to ask to take one year amidst those forty to not work? To travel? To try out your business idea? To join a band or sculpt figurines out of clay?
One single year out of forty is nothing. A year will not hold you back. It will not destroy your life. Two years won’t, either. Will three? Will four? How about ten?
A safety net is useless unless you actually use it. So do it. Build your village, start you side gig, save your money, and then that one day when something inside you begins to rise and want more, perhaps you, too will be able to rise with it.