(5-minute version) living life in a tunnel

This week, I’m trying something different.

If you want a short, 5-minute version of this post, read on.

Instead, if you prefer a richer, 10-minute version of this post, click here.

I’m an entrepreneur, which means my biggest projects are companies.

This can make life difficult, because unlike writing a book or signing up for a marathon, companies don’t have finish lines. In fact, if you’re doing things right, companies just keep growing, demanding more of your time and energy.

Currently, I’m growing a business that helps nonprofits, and my role requires I travel a lot. Like, sixty flights a year, a lot. When I’m on the road and away from home, it’s difficult to disengage from work. I’m kind of like that law in physics, “an object in motion tends to stay in motion.” The more I work, the more I want to work. The more I travel, the more I want to travel.

So, I usually leave my trips with a serious case of tunnel vision.

In the past, I never felt that was much of an issue. Tunnels are usually the fastest route from one place to another. They’re direct. They’re efficient. Similarly, narrowly focusing on my goals is the fastest path to achieving them.

However, the trouble is that living in a tunnel is a very bland existence. There’s not much to see or do in tunnels. Typically, there’s just a lot of cement and fluorescent light.

My wife, Erin, knows this. While I’ll forget to eat lunch, check in with friends, or call family once I get working on a project and come down with tunnel vision, Erin’s very good about keeping in touch with people. She’s much more thoughtful than me, so we’re opposites in this way.

Usually, that makes us a great match. Except, recently, those opposites collided in grand fashion as I came down from a nonstop travel bender.

From Minneapolis to Milwaukee, Seattle to San Francisco, and D.C. to Philly, I compressed a whole lot of travel into a few short weeks. I loved it, too. I was traveling as much as I was because the business was growing. It’s intoxicating to watch your hard work turn into something valuable.

As I walked through the front door of our home on this particular night, I was not only an object-in-motion, I was picking up steam. I didn’t realize, however, that I’d set myself on a collision-course with Erin.

While I flew home from a week away, a few friends asked Erin if we wanted to meet them at a local brewery. Naturally, I wanted to go. I was riding a high and I wanted to keep moving after a full week.

Erin, on the other hand, declined for us. She said we were going to spend time together, just the two of us.

“We’ll have plenty of ‘us time’ this weekend,” I reasoned as I dropped my bags at the front door. “Tonight works for everyone’s schedule, so let’s go out.”

“Everyone’s schedule but ours,” she reminded me. “I’ve only seen you on two days in the last two weeks.”

“True, but we’ll still be together. It’s not like we’re driving separate cars to the brewery.”

“That’s not the point. I was hoping you’d want to spend time with me.”

I should have seen the caution signs at this point. Instead, I just kept driving down my own little tunnel.

“Well, yeah. I do. But this way, I’ll get to spend time with you and I’ll get to see our friends.”

I was thrilled by the efficiency of it all. I’d get everything I wanted, with none of the sacrifice. I’d had a full day of meetings on the East Coast, I’d spend time with my wife, and I’d see our friends, all in one day. What wasn’t to love?

“I don’t think you’re hearing me. I’ve been in our house, alone, for the better part of two weeks. Now, you’re here, but you don’t want to be with me. How do you think that feels?”

“I do want to be with you. And, I also want to see the friends I can’t see when I’m traveling.”

“But you’re always traveling, Nate. And you can’t expect that I’ll need the same thing as you after a long road trip. I was hoping for some time together, just the two of us. You have to make a choice at some point.”

 “This doesn’t seem fair,” I said, driving deeper into the tunnel.

“Fair? No, this isn’t about what’s fair. It’s about choosing to put someone else’s wants above your own.”

I was out of road. I’d reached the end of the tunnel. “Fine, let’s just stay home,” I yielded.

I sat down on our couch and tried to look uninterested, insinuating that the only interesting things existed inside the brewery our friends were headed to. Staying home together was now empty of my heart. I wanted to have it all – travel, my wife, my friends – and I was mad that I couldn’t.

By wanting to have it all, I wound up with nothing. Not only me, but Erin, too. My words twisted meeting our friends into either dragging Erin out, or locking me away in a cage. I created a losing scenario, regardless of the choice we made.

I never stopped to consider Erin’s perspective. She loves spending nights with friends as much as I do, but she also knows it’s good for us to reconnect after spending weeks apart. Even if it means sacrificing another opportunity, Erin knows there’s value in prioritizing our marriage.

It’s obvious, even to those who aren’t married, that healthy relationships don’t blossom when we prioritize our interests over our significant other’s. If I wanted a meaningful and thriving marriage, something had to give. In this case, I had to choose between my travel schedule, nights with friends, and quality time with my wife.

I know this deep down. Nevertheless, there are moments when it takes too long for my words to walk the path from my heart to my head. They get distracted along the way, like when I’m walking to the fridge. So what’s in front of me, and therefore front-of-mind, simply leaps out. My love for Erin doesn’t make it from my soul to my brain, so there’s a disconnect between what I believe and what I communicate.

It’s why I write her letters. My words have enough time to travel from my heart to the page.

That next afternoon, I decided to write Erin another letter. This was a different type of letter, however. It was an undated resignation letter addressed to my company. It explained that because I wanted a full life with my family more than I wanted to build a company, I was giving up a very good role in a quickly growing venture.

I didn’t mail it, though. Walking away isn’t always the answer. Sometimes, we simply throw the good things in our lives out of balance, which makes them unhealthy. I’m good at my job, and Erin wants me to succeed. So instead, I addressed the letter, stamped it, and handed it to Erin.

By giving her my resignation letter, I was communicating my choice. I was saying I was serious about putting our marriage before my goals. And do you know what happened next?

I discovered that I’d had it all, all along. When I gave Erin the ticket that would end my travel, I started to relish my work while I still had it, and I began to cherish time with her all the more.

It’s easy to miss what we have when we’re focused on getting more. I think this is the great lie of our age. We kill ourselves to make a life. We feel we’ll only truly start living after accumulating a little more. More status, more wealth, more experience. Just, more.

However, I believe the truth of life is that the more we give, the more we gain.

By giving, you build a world of friends and kindness. By taking, you fill the world with foes and contention. Think about it. Which world would you prefer to live in?

You can think about it this way, too. If it’s true that we get by giving, then conversely, in the negative sense, we lose by taking. By hanging onto our priorities, our time, our money, we miss opportunities to gain something even better. Just ask any money manager. We diminish the long-term value of whatever we hold onto. We find ourselves with quicksand eroding beneath our feet, instead of the contentment and safety we thought our selfishness would produce.

Now, consider this. What are the good and valuable things in your life? What are you thankful for? Did you gain those things by keeping and hoarding resources for yourself? Or did you give up something along the way? Consider your relationships – how did you build them?

The reality is that when we give away love and we spend ourselves for the benefit of others, we ultimately find there are more people out there who love us. It’s simple – loving people find themselves loved, and selfish people find themselves living in dull, lifeless tunnels.

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