For the longest time, I have enjoyed using that phrase – ‘living the dream’. Sometimes I would use it sarcastically when someone asked how my day was going. Other times I would announce it while on vacation and having a good time. For awhile, I said it enough that my four-year-old daughter would repeat it when we were doing something exciting, such as having a croissant in the airport while we waited to board a plane or enjoying a fruity drink while overlooking the sea when finally arriving at our destination. What I have since realized is that when I said it, unlike my daughter, there was always a level of cynicism – as if I didn’t really know what it was to ‘live the dream’. It was fun to say it when I was plodding through the daily grind of life, but even when I was on vacation and having a day that would certainly be a dream to most; the phrase was still delivered with a touch of mockery.
In fairness, I really don’t know what it is to ‘live the dream’. Even though we all have dreams, I would bet most would not be able to articulate them if pressed – and I am no different. For me, the irony in the phrase centered around what the majority of us consider to be the dream, whether that is staying in a luxury hotel, eating a decadent meal or relaxing on a beautiful beach. However, for a large part of my life, I never even dreamt about those things – I knew very little about those things.
As a middle child of three growing up in a lower-middle class household in the middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma, beach vacations and fancy hotels were no more a dream than becoming a sports hero or cowboy. I had no more understanding of luxury and indulgence than I had of sports or horses. Sure, I knew such things existed, but can you really dream of something you know such little about? Can you really dream about something that seems so improbable of a reality? I couldn’t. I dreamt about freedom – freedom from my overbearing father, freedom from a school I did not fit into and freedom to live my life the way I wanted.
It wouldn’t take long until I realized that dream. Upon graduation from high school, I simultaneously accomplished all three – I moved out of my parents’ house, decided not to go to college, and spent the next decade living life the way I wanted. Looking back, perhaps it was those ten years that I was truly ‘living the dream’. What I’ve since realized about dreams is that they change – maybe because we mature, maybe because we realize they are unattainable or maybe because, when we do attain them, they prove not as fulfilling as we imagined
I am now married with two children, have spent many years in college earning a number of degrees and teach students who, much like my former self, long for freedom.
I was fortunate to realize after that decade of ‘being free’ that education was important – not as a prerequisite to obtaining a good job, but rather to be an educated person. Those years of being in college were actually a time when I was also ‘living the dream’. When else in a man’s life does he feel as much hope, promise and optimism for the future than when he is at university? This is a time when you are not only learning for the sake of learning, but strategically picking a course of study that will catapult you into that ‘dream’ occupation of yours.
For some, just the idea of going to college is a dream, especially those like me who perceive they have neither the financial resources needed nor the intellectual ability to be a successful student. And for those that do make the leap and go to college graduating from university is ‘living a dream’. If that is case, it is at this point when our dreams must once again be redefined. Upon graduation, what does it look like to ‘live the dream’? It used to be that a good job, a nice home, a couple of kids and a new car would suffice, but in today’s consumerist culture that is not enough. We are bombarded with images, information and illusions of what it means to ‘live the dream’. The good job has been replaced with a career that brings us ultimate purpose and satisfaction. The nice home has been replaced with a meticulously-furnished, 3,500 square foot house with five bedrooms and three bathrooms. The couple of kids have been replaced with perfect children who are smarter, more talented and more beautiful than their peers. And the car–well, the car has been replaced with a $40,000 SUV supplemented with a second, just as ridiculous, overpriced and under-efficient mode of transportation. Where did this all come from? At what point did our expectations of what constituted success so dramatically change? And when did life become so materialistic?
As a business undergraduate, I spent a fair amount of time studying marketing. I appreciate the study of how businesses communicate the attributes of their products and services with consumers with increased sales being the ultimate goal. I do not blame companies for the increased marketing we see today, nor for the manner in which their message is communicated. Furthermore, I do not believe blame should be placed on social media, which undoubtedly adds to the prevalent nature of increased awareness of what celebrities are wearing and driving, as well as where they vacation. Quite frankly, I don’t think those wealthy individuals, be they celebrities, sports stars or hedge fund managers are any more ‘living the dream’ than the rest of us. Why? Because as much as I like to say that my family is ‘living the dream’ when we are at the beach or boarding an airplane, the reality is that these things are not really what dreams are made of.
I once heard that you can spend your money on either things or experiences and it is up to you to decide which is more important and which will bring you happiness. But, the truth is neither does. It is not the material good that makes us happy or the fancy trip to the exotic location, but rather the person or persons with us when we take the trip, or eat the meal or give the gift. In the end the actual trip, meal or item will have little impression on us as we will only remember the people that were there to share it with us. So why is it that we continue to trade our time for the money it takes to buy these nice things and experiences? If we allowed ourselves to live within our means, or better yet beneath our means, would we be able to trade our time for the money that it takes it have more time? Time with those loved ones that make life worth living?
Over the last number of years, I have explored what it means to ‘live the dream’. And what I have found is that it is much simpler than I could have ever imagined. I have learned that unlike what is sold to us in the media or in advertising or on Facebook, ‘living the dream’ is as simple today as it was generations ago. And while I sometimes thought that my way of thinking on this issue could be detrimental to my overall happiness and to those who I hold dear, I have since realized that my contrarian views were, at least in this case, appropriate.
This is our story of living abroad, teaching abroad, parenting abroad, saving abroad and the lessons that a life overseas has taught me about finances, happiness and how to ‘live the dream’.