Life is like a ladder. For the purposes of our illustration, this ladder represents money and possessions. If you are born into the middle class of a first-world nation, you usually begin around the middle-to-upper rungs of the ladder. As life progresses, we move either up or down the ladder. Moving up involves accruing more stuff and making more money. Moving down the ladder usually involves fewer possessions and a smaller income.
Generally, we’re taught from birth that moving upward is the “right” way to go. This principle becomes so ingrained in our minds that we struggle to see how less money and fewer belongings could be a good thing. But the higher we climb, the more we notice two things:
1. Living very high on the ladder is scary, because a fall from the top is way more devastating than a fall from the bottom.
2. Living high on the ladder means we hold the rungs more tightly out of fear of losing our grip. This can become exhausting.
Now imagine (or perhaps you won’t need to) that you have gotten tired of the constant focus and fear of being near the top of the ladder. Maybe the effort required to maintain the height is wearing you out (the amount of time an work required to keep the house clean.) Maybe you’re getting vertigo, and the very act of looking down freaks you out (the tight budget that threatens to overturn every month.) Perhaps the lower rungs – where the stress is lighter and the demands are smaller – are starting to look really attractive.
So you start to make your way down. At the beginning, it’s just one rung. Cutting out cable TV gives you a bit of financial wiggle room. Cleaning out the catch-all drawer in the kitchen kills some of the clutter. Two rungs, three. Then comes the resistance.
At first it’s just in your mind. Each step down feels dangerous. You find yourself having to psych up before each one. In your mind, you begin to question what was so wrong with staying near the top in the first place. Your brain tries to trick you into thinking you’d be happier if you stayed put, but your memory reminds you of how tough it was up there. So you continue to back down.
Then, people on nearby ladders notice your progress. Some are encouraged and inspired to do the same, but a few think you’re crazy. Words like “insane,” “irresponsible,” and “just a phase” begin to drift your way. Undeterred, you keep putting one foot under another. But now the rungs are getting further apart. The choice to work fewer hours includes a fairly steep price tag. Every sweater, pot, and decorative pillow you downsize hurts more than the one before it. By the end of your journey, you look up to see that what felt like a dozen rungs was really only four.
Now imagine that instead of making your way slowly and painfully down each rung, you gathered your courage, took a deep breath, and jumped. As you land on the ground beside your ladder, you are surprised to find you’re still alive. What’s more, you’re free. It’s a little scary, and a bit uncertain, but the weight of money and clutter has lifted in one glorious moment, leaving you a little giddy.
Now, the realization that you need clothing causes you to put one foot on the bottom rung. However, as you build your wardrobe from the ground up, you discover that one rung is plenty. A part-time job is more than enough to support how few expenses you now have. The time freed by fewer dishes to wash, fewer clothes to launder, and fewer commitments to maintain, springboards you into a life of doing what you love. You can afford to chase dreams and develop hobbies. You have more time for community and family. And after climbing a few base rungs to get your life to a comfortable state, you look up at where you began – dozens, if not scores of rungs above you – and find that you don’t miss it at all.