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How Do You Define Your Life?

in Do What You Love, Joan's Posts, Rants

Note: This is a post from Joan Otto, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.

My 12-year-old daughter sent me the image above this week. She’d been searching Google Images for positive quotes (have I mentioned I have a pretty cool kid?) and this was one of her favorites.

Meanwhile, I had started writing a post about the words that define my life – and yours.

Words like serendipity and opportunity. Connection. The very things the arrival of this simple image in my life embodies.

It all started at FinCon, the Financial Blogger Conference, which Baker and I attended last month…

I don’t take notes.

I was lucky enough to attend some amazing FinCon sessions by several great speakers – J.D. Roth, Ramit Sethi, some guy named Baker…

All of them imparted a lot of tips, not just about “financial blogging,” but about business-building, writing, passion and more.

But I’ve never been much of a note-taker in those kinds of settings.

More accurately, I try not to take notes much any more. One thing I know about myself is that I get lost in the minutia – I am the “write down everything” type – the kid whole highlighted the whole page instead of the main idea.

That level of detail is sometimes important – but at something like a conference, I want to see the big picture. And it’s not only true there.

What’s the “big picture” for your life?

When you meet someone new and ask a question like “Tell me about yourself,” you’ll quickly learn a lot about that person. Oh, not always from their answer – because such answers tend to be surface-level at best.

But we all tend to “tell people about ourselves” based on our personality. Someone who describes herself first as a mother of four has a very different personality than the person who describes his or her career choice first – “I’m a doctor.” “I’m an entrepreneur.” Someone who describes the town they’re from is different than the guy who describes himself as a hiker.

I’ve thought a lot about the ways I describe myself pretty often recently. Of all things, it’s been my short bio on sites like Pinterest and Twitter that has forced me to hone my description.

What I say is something like this: “Wife, mom, unschooler, writer, Pennsylvanian, friend, martial artist. Editor for Man Vs. Debt and blogger/columnist for the York Daily Record. Lover of God and life. In no particular order.”

That’s not a big picture – it’s a collection of smaller pictures. Those things all are part of who I am, and they’re a good way for people to get to see parts of me at a glance.

But we are all more than the sum of our parts.

Let me say that again.

You are more than the sum of your parts.

Let’s go back to my conference experience for a minute. I didn’t want to take notes on the minutia because my gut told me that the benefit for me would be more than than the sum of the parts.

But I’m a writer. I do words. So I couldn’t just sit there and not write… something.

Instead of notes on the topics the speakers presented, I started a list.

A list of words that resonated thematically through various talks. My own kind of word cloud, I guess.

At the time, I wasn’t sure what these words would mean. But I had an idea that they got closer to the essence of what I was hoping to capture than any notes about WordPress plugins or email optimization or personal voice in writing ever would.

I brought the list home almost a month ago, and I’ve been pondering the words on it almost meditatively ever since.

Responsibility.

Optimism.

Preparedness.

Clarity.

Communication.

Improvement.

Security.

Customization.

Purpose.

Progression.

Connection.

Personality.

Engagement.

Support.

Collaboration.

When I looked at the list earlier this week, I realized that, in some ways, these are the goals I have for Man Vs. Debt, for our mission of helping our community. These are the values I want to deliver.

But though the conference itself was about financial blogging, and though the applicability of these terms to our work here at MvD was my first thought, I’ve had a lot of reasons lately to examine what I really want out of life – what my VISION truly is as a human being.

Do I want to be simply the sum of my (oftentimes conflicted) parts? Or do I want to define myself as something more?

I shared the quote from the top of today’s post on the MvD Facebook page with a challenge to the community there: “If I asked you to define the meaning of or goal for your life in ONE WORD, what would it be?”

Service.

Prosperity.

Success.

Happiness.

Passion. 

Love.

Simplicity.

Contribution.

Motivation.

Peace.

Balance.

Pursuit.

Freedom.

Empowerment

Contentment…

Contentment.

The show-stopper of contributions from our Facebook community came from Jodi, who talked about contentment.

“To me, the word content is a whole mess of awesome words (love, happiness, freedom, success, etc.) wrapped into one! As I was thinking about my word, the obvious ones came to mind like happiness, love, etc., but one thing I never feel is settled.”

Jodi adds, “At home I’m always looking for something to do, trying to do more for my kids; at work I’m always trying to do more or be better; my education is never enough so I’m getting higher educated for the 5th time… LOL. You get where I’m going. I would just love to feel content with what I have, who I am and what I’ve accomplished.

Putting the Pieces Together

As I struggle lately to figure out “what I want to be when I grow up” – something I’ve never really quite figured out – Jodi’s words made me stop.

I don’t have the world’s biggest dreams.

I want to be the kind of person whose smile is contagious and whose writing makes someone occasionally think a different thought, or maybe laugh a little. I don’t mind living in the same town my whole life, and I could not possibly care any less about that master’s degree I used to be desperate to chase.

And if I ask myself the question I put out on Facebook, what one word describes my goal for my life, CONTENTMENT is the best answer I can imagine.

You can be more than the sum of your parts. Being all the things I am – wife, mother, unschooler, martial artist, Christian, friend, Pennsylvanian, whatever – has defined me for a long time.  But I’m ready to let those be part of a larger whole.

Contentment.

Where are you starting? What’s the ONE WORD that you hope defines your life?

Tell us in the comments… and start living that word today!

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager October 8, 2012 at 1:28 PM

Wow, Joan! This is a great blog post. Definitely one of my favorites of yours. I think my word would be “blessed”.

I want to fully enjoy the blessings I’ve received and am receiving. Then turn around and pass those blessing (and other new ones) on to other people.

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Joan October 8, 2012 at 9:30 PM

Now THAT is a good one. In fact, I think if anything bumps contentment down on my list, blessed might just be it. And, as you say, there’s the phrase “blessed to be a blessing,” and I think that while it’s overused, it certainly applies.

I’m going to have to ponder that one, especially because I almost can wrap contentment back inside it – because to realize how blessed I truly am, even WITH $60K in debt, that’s its own kind of contentment, you know?

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Jonathan Welford October 8, 2012 at 1:55 PM

The one word that defines my life…. hmmm that is a tough one. However I would say “adventurer”, to some I may life a mundane life, but I am always pushing myself to do something new, something different, something that will inspire, motivate and drive me.

I came up with a spur of the moment idea, following my wedding and honeymoon, why not take a year off. So we did, I sold my business, my husband gave his notice in on his job and off we went.

Being debt free allows us the freedom to do such things, we’re not satisfying our thirst for adventure with weekend breaks, however planning another big voyage in the near future.

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Joan October 8, 2012 at 9:31 PM

Jonathan, that’s a great one! And I think you’re right – it’s not the day-to-day necessarily that defines this, it’s the overall theme. So what you guys are moving towards as a couple, that’s definitely a way I see you – adventurous!

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Agatha October 8, 2012 at 2:08 PM

Wow – ONE word. Boiling it all down to just one. Hmmmmm…..probably for me it’s FREEDOM

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Joan October 8, 2012 at 9:28 PM

Ooh, good one, Agatha!

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Jessica Kihara October 8, 2012 at 3:03 PM

Love your choice – contentment.

Me? I could never choose just one word! I actually have no problem being a sum of my parts :)

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Joan October 8, 2012 at 9:28 PM

Jessica, that’s a good point – I think for a long time, I was really happy that way. But lately, the more divergent those “parts” get, I know that I personally need some theme, some way to weed out the things that aren’t working, or that aren’t jiving with my overall goals, you know?

That’s definitely true right now… but I have a feeling I will veer again back to “sum of parts” a little later in my life! It’s definitely not a bad thing! :)

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Kelly October 8, 2012 at 3:58 PM

Wow. That’s a hard question to sum up into one word. At first my instinct is to go with what you’ve chosen, but that’s not quite right for me. I’m going to have to think about it some more.

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Joan October 8, 2012 at 9:26 PM

Kelly, I’ll be very interested to see what you come up with! You are a neat person – so I’m sure it’ll be great!

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Jane October 8, 2012 at 11:48 PM

This is one of my favorite blog posts from you as well. I also love your choice of word – contentment. Mine would be freedom. That is my goal.

What you wrote earlier about wanting to be the kind of person whose smile is contagious and whose writing makes someone occasionally think a different thought, or maybe laugh a little. That is definitely who you are …to me. I still can remember your smile. TY

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Joan October 9, 2012 at 1:06 PM

Wow… thanks, Jane! You made my day, reading that. I hope you’ll smile at the next person you see – just because! :)

And FREEDOM – that’s a great goal too, in so, so many ways!

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Jenny October 9, 2012 at 6:18 AM

Joan I think Jodi really hit the nail on the head with Contentment.
We could work on a million different projects or give ourselves a million different identities – but it is the lack of contentment that drives so many mad, myself included.

When we define ourselves by the labels we choose – it’s jarring when suddenly a group of those labels is stripped away, whether by our choice or circumstances, and it shakes our identity. We have to be content with our identity, sometimes in the absence of those labels and accomplishments, and in a world where we’ve grown up being told to define ourselves, to make something of ourselves, to label ourselves – the absence of those labels disturbs us. It disturbs me. What am I then, without those labels I chose? I worked so carefully to craft and obtain?

Finding contentment with oneself despite that I think is a very important, and a very difficult goal. One I have yet to figure out myself. Though I realized pretty clearly I was not content in the US. Moving abroad alone does not bring the wanderer or wonderer contentment – but in my case it’s given me some space to ponder more than I had back home; and drawn new rifts in the ground to be dealt with that challenge happiness and contentment. themselves.

I think, despite it sometimes being used to the contrary, for me, growth is a big part of contentment. Sometimes I’m not growing the way I thought I would be, but I’m learning to accept that if I’m personally growing, even through hardship, or in ways I didn’t plan, as long as I’m letting myself be shaped and learn from my experiences, good and bad – some days I’m content with growth; and I’m trying to set aside the pace and personal targets that I allow to bring me down that discount the growth that perhaps I wasn’t bargaining for. Not all growth is positive, but sometimes that is the most important kind, going back, undoing the scar tissue and starting over properly. Or creating new wounds to heal and learn from. I don’t mean that to sound sadistic, but sometimes we learn more from picking ourselves back up yet again.

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Joan October 9, 2012 at 1:05 PM

Jenny, not sadistic at all! Contentment is a paradox – both being willing to stay where you are (at times) and being willing to change (at other times – sometimes voluntarily, and sometimes, as you mention, when it’s forced upon you by outside circumstances!)

Definitely great thoughts :)

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Jennifer L. October 9, 2012 at 8:36 AM

KINDNESS

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Joan October 9, 2012 at 1:04 PM

Good one!

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Ginny October 9, 2012 at 10:18 AM

I was fortunate a couple of years ago to receive an amazing Christmas present from a friend. She had hand painted ornaments for all of her friends, and on each ornament she wrote the Chinese character for the word that she thinks of when she thinks of that friend. Her word for me was “courage”. It made me smile because I have always been afraid … but it helped me see that I take many opportunities to face my fears, and that is what courage is. So I have claimed that as my defining word. Got any challenges for me? LOL

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Joan October 9, 2012 at 1:04 PM

Ginny, that’s AWESOME!! Now, see, I already thought of you as someone courageous – isn’t it funny sometimes how relative “strangers” look at things??

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Rebecca Price October 9, 2012 at 4:14 PM

My word doesn’t describe my life but it’s a word I strive to live for…CALM :)

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Joan October 9, 2012 at 6:28 PM

I like it!!

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Jennifer October 9, 2012 at 11:21 PM

Grateful

That is what I am striving for these days – to be grateful for everything in my life. The good, and the less so – and the lessons I learn along the way.

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Joan October 10, 2012 at 10:30 AM

Jennifer, gratitude is a WONDERFUL aspiration – way to go!

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Kris October 10, 2012 at 11:14 AM

The older I get the more my definition of life changes. I used to only think of accomplishments, jobs, money, typical stuff like that. Now I define it more by the legacy I will leave, with my kids, friends, even strangers. That is still hard for me to comprehend, and even harder to define, but for some reason it just keeps getting more meaningful, so I guess (and hope) it will continue to develop over time.

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Joan October 11, 2012 at 2:33 PM

Legacy is an amazing thing, Kris – and DEFINITELY the phase of my life I’m looking at right now! Super-cool point.

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Emily October 11, 2012 at 4:54 AM

Fantastic post, Joan. The one word that I hope defines my life is WONDERMENT.

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Joan October 11, 2012 at 2:33 PM

Emily, that’s an awesome one!!

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Dana Leavy-Detrick October 11, 2012 at 11:22 AM

I really loved Jodi’s point about contentment, and I think that’s where I stand as far as my goals. I work with a lot of small business owners who are starting out and all about thinking big. I think the biggest accomplishment for me this year was getting away from that, from the numbers, and looking at being self-employed as my opportunity to take advantage of the flexibility and get back into being an artist. I realized that no matter how great my work or business is doing, it will never be at a satisfying level if I’m doing it at the expense of my creative endeavors. So in addition to contentment, I would say “balanced” is my word as well. :) Creative/Financial/Career/Social balance is at the root of that contentment. Great article!

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Joan October 11, 2012 at 2:49 PM

BALANCED is a great word! And I’m so glad you liked this, Dana!

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Red Siren Julie October 11, 2012 at 1:11 PM

Freedom

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Joan October 11, 2012 at 2:49 PM

I like it!

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Erin October 11, 2012 at 2:19 PM

I was thinking contentment before I even got to the end of the piece!

I too, have dreams that aren’t the world’s biggest. I’m trying to find the balance between being content and doing big things.

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Joan October 11, 2012 at 2:51 PM

Erin, first of all, your blog title just makes me smile, because that’s exactly what my aspirations are – to make a home!! :)

And I think you’re right – the balance between striving to do what you’re able to do, and being content, is exactly the part to aim for!

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Bash Bosh Money October 23, 2012 at 11:18 AM

An amazing and inspirational post indeed. My word would definitely be: Prosperity

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Joan December 10, 2012 at 1:59 PM

I’m late replying, but that’s a great word – and one that can have so many meanings!

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jared October 27, 2012 at 4:50 PM

I just finished a great book that a friend told me to read, “Work Life Balance” by Matthew Kelly. You should all read it. He basically says it is a myth that we will never reach because we don’t really want “life balanced with work” we want “satisfaction in life and work”.
So I would say that the word that describes what I want for my life is a true… Satisfaction… in all aspects!
I keep reading your blog because it is helping me to think things through in the realm of money and I realized it has truly been helping me become Satisfied with where I stand on the control of my personal finance.

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Joan December 10, 2012 at 2:00 PM

I’m late answering you too, Jared, but that is a great word. And you’re right – feeling that you’re doing “enough” about your finances and satisfied with your progress is huge!!

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