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LIFE BY DESIGN: Whose Life Is It Anyway?

On a scale of 0-100 what percentage of your life is yours?
Is this really YOUR life or is this the life your parents, your grandparents, your teachers, your minister encouraged you to live? Ask yourself what percentage of your life is determined by the media?

Whose life is it anyway?

In 2008, I was living maybe 25% of my own life. Honestly, I didn’t even know that 75% of my life wasn’t even mine nor that I had the ability to redefine it if I even wanted to. You know what I realized? No one had ever actually asked me what I wanted in life…not really and not even myself. I certainly don’t recall being asked before I started creating it and definitely not once I was in the midst of it! Who would dare second guess my intentions? This was the American Dream I was living!

I will never forget crying through my phone to my father, sobbing actually, in a state of life panic (as is often the case when one is stressed out trying to live a life of unnecessary self-imposed expectations) looking for answers for my own happiness. Through my tears I was asking him, maybe even begging him, to “please, just tell me, just tell me I’ve done it…that I don’t have to do any more,” I cried. “What are you talking about Nicoa? That you’ve done what??” he truly, curiously inquired. “That I’ve, um, done enough. That I’ve succeeded. That I don’t have to keep striving and trying…that this life, this lifestyle is enough, i just don’t think i can keep going…” I trailed off, exhausted, depleted, scared. I heard him sigh, and his voice changed as he assertively yet encouragingly said, “Listen carefully to me, Nicoa. I think you are the only one who needs to tell yourself that,” he gently offered.

I pretty much spent the first forty years of my life doing everything I could to master the good ‘ole American Dream checklist…even if it almost killed me! And it almost did. That was success, doing it all! That is what I was raised to believe was the entire point.

What is the American Dream really?

I Googled it but it didn’t really capture the truth, for me. It didn’t really capture how you knew if you’d succeeded. Maybe it never was supposed to…

James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “American Dream” in his 1931 book The Epic of America.

“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

And the concept is also commonly defined as “The ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.”

In my house growing up, the underlying addition to this “ideal” was that not only should you achieve success, you should achieve a higher level of success than those that came before you. THAT was a true statement of the American Dream as I understood it. “More, More, Better, Better” thinking as my friend Julio Ollalo, founder of the Newfield Network, often shared during my Coach training experience seemed to be the bane of my existence over time.

You see, my father was raised in the Green Swamp of Brunswick County, North Carolina. His upbringing included a family tobacco farm and meager beginnings for his parents. He didn’t have electricity until he was six and didn’t have indoor plumbing until, well, much later. He also likes to share how excited they were to get a TV when he was 12! His father was a blue collar worker who, as my Daddy would say, took us to “the next level” economically and socially by always working hard, saving enough money and finally moving them out of “the country” into the big city of Wilmington. They built a bigger home and their lives changed. The story continues with efforts to get my father to go to college at NC State, which he did, and on to his ability to always “work hard” and ultimately create an even better lifestyle for himself and HIS family along the coastline with a waterfront view. It was a good life, and a good American Dream “from rags to riches” type story. It made me proud to hear it and I know my father was proud to share it.

These stories stood out to me and were frequent reminders often referenced daily in our lives. “You can’t tell me there aren’t any jobs out there. My daddy always had a job and so have I. Anyone can get work and make a living and be successful in this country!” he’d exclaim enthusiastically and somewhat self-righteously at the breakfast table while reading some article about unemployment in the local Star News. Yes Siree Bob, I thought, there will always be a job and I will always be able to do it!

As a result of this can-do attitude and family legacy, I sincerely believed, whether anyone ever told me to do this or not, that it was my responsibility to create an even better lifestyle for myself and for my own family exceeding the economic status of my upbringing. That’s what my grandfather did for my father and his family and that’s what my father did for us! And, if anyone was capable of doing that, I was! Decision made. THIS must be the American Dream and I was all over it.

I had embodied this belief of taking the family to the next level wholeheartedly and set off on my quest… and woke up at the ripe old age of 40 very successful, yet, something was wrong!  Actually my intuition had been waking me up and yelling at me off and on at the ages of 30, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39….my intuition had been screaming at me to change my way of Being and yet I hadn’t sat still long enough to listen or to really hear it to know what it meant. I had been in denial. I was committed to this life story. It had been working. I was getting everything I said I wanted, right?  I had been very busy, and in many ways, blindly, checking off every damn item on that American Dream checklist you could ever imagine for past 17 years. Along the way, I must have figured if I was going to take us to “the next level” I better add on top as much as was humanly possible, just to make sure I got it right!

___Go to College (and get a master’s degree and an international business certificate)
___Get Married (by the time you are 25 I believe was the advice received…)
___Find a Good Job (and climb the corporate ladder to the top!)
___Save for Retirement (oh and save enough so you could retire at 55)
___Buy a House (oh and then build a house and have a beach house and go on vacations)
___Have Kids(not just one, but 2.4 – just to be sure I went ahead and had 3)
___Get a Dog (dogs are too messy for me, I had a cat, or two… or three…)
___Buy Your Kids Their First Car (check! oh and lots of other stuff along the way…)
___Send Your Kids to College (and don’t do it on college loans, right?!)
___Be in shape and look perfect (I threw this one on the list cause you know it’s there!)
___Be Happy! (I must have been happy, I did everything listed above, right?!)

Sound familiar? What does your list look like?

The article If You Follow The American Dream, You Will Be Happy by Shawndra Russell sums it up perfectly,

“While the concept of America as the land of opportunity is positive and encouraging, the stark reality is that James Truslow Adams’ words have morphed into the idea that if you do the prescribed right things—get good grades, go to college, get married, buy a house, have babies, buy lots of stuff—then you will have money and stability and ultimately achieve happiness. You’ll find a good job with a company that cares about you as an individual. You will get raises each year not only for increases in the cost of living but also to reflect your hard work and productivity. You will retire young enough to enjoy your free time with plenty of money saved up for a comfortable lifestyle, and the company that you have been with for 20, 30, maybe even 40 years will continue your benefits, maybe chip in with a pension. You will be able to pay for your children’s first cars, college, weddings, and maybe even contribute to helping them buy their first house. You will have it all because you were a good citizen and worker that pursued the American Dream.”

Yep. I did it. I had it all! The American Dream Checklist… CHECK!

But wait, what was my intuition saying?

That my decision to strive for more in all areas of my life, that my perfectionism and the constant pressures I was placing on myself to live this life I had chosen, along with everything that came with that decision, no longer served me. Well, what the heck did that mean?  My life was everything I had wanted it to be but I was so tired, so reactionary, often distracted and becoming more and more burdened with the commitments I had made. I craved sleep, alone time and connection that I didn’t have the time or energy to create or welcome it from myself or those I loved. I honestly believed that to live a life this full, making this type of money, with this type of resulting abundance and lifestyle must require significant compromise. And ultimately I was the one being compromised the most.

But the deed had been done, this was my American Dream life and I just kept going.

So what the hell was my problem? How dare I complain or be unfulfilled…I chose this!

I was a master at creating this American Dream life and I am sure you are, too. I had the quintessential house with the giant front porch and a Volvo station wagon to match! Many of you watched in amazement as each year, along with the perfect holiday card, it just seemed to be getting better and better, right? My family WAS at the next level of success as defined by so many others and as defined by us… and we weren’t miserable by any means. It actually felt like a party most of the time. And still, I knew deep down inside that I wasn’t really as happy as I could have been. Something was missing. Something wasn’t aligning.

Turns out…

wait for it

We were focused on many of the wrong things!

Yep, life and all of its trappings even the relationships within our lives weren’t enough when we were looking externally! Wait, whaaat? Yep, you heard me. This whole experience is supposed to be about the journey, the process, uh huh, you’ve heard this before. Why do I see you rolling your eyes and sighing with annoyance in my un-climactic “aha moment” here?!? LOL. Why? Because no one really taught us that this was the point therefore when hear it all the time WE DON’T ACTUALLY BELIEVE IT! So we go to Target and drop $100 because we think that a new outfit and that cooler with wheels on it will make our lives perfect …and happier. We have been brainwashed to believe more is better and we are not enough. This is Capitalism at it’s best. Understand it. Get to know it and how it feeds off of your insecurities and insufficiencies and makes you work harder and spend more money. I mean for goodness sake, you aren’t enough unless your cooler has wheels and the Yeti logo on it, right?! Focus people!!

I am here to tell you the American Dream checklist is FLAWED!

I beg you to question everything and step back and sit still and recognize that your fulfillment is not based on getting it right or getting more stuff or accomplishments according to a collective checklist. I promise you that whatever choices you make , you can’t get this thing called life wrong. There is no right way. Figure out what matters most to you, feels good to you, is easy for you and aligns with your values …then simply live accordingly even if it goes against the norm! Life doesn’t have to be a compromise.

REPEAT: Life Doesn’t Have To Be A Compromise!

You know what, in reflection, I truly thought I wasn’t a victim to the world of the masses who blindly followed. I simply wasn’t aware enough that I hadn’t chosen a life on my own terms based on what felt good to me. I didn’t look outside the list or my box or whatever world I was in, at least not very often…I naturally continued to grow the typical life I thought I wanted and I did this with my husband and three kids intentionally. Don’t get me wrong, I have zero regrets. If I had known better I would have done better as the beautiful poet and activist Maija Angelou liked to say.  I am pretty sure she would remind me to give myself a little more credit for creating a #lifebydesign as I intended. This ability of mine is actually a key point of this discussion and what I am here to celebrate and share it with you to remind you that you, too, can create your very own #LifeByDesign! I did what I knew, what I was told to do, what my society and, as a result, my family innocently told me was required and I did it well, by choice.

But it took a toll. 

After a near miss heart attack (turned out to be a panic attack I was convinced was a misdiagnosis). Afterward I cried to my mother and said, “Why am I so disappointed it isn’t a heart attack?” I knew why. Because if it had been a real heart attack it would have given me the excuse to get off the hamster wheel of this thing we call life and breath.  Then there was a close call with Malignant Melanoma (no I didn’t have chemo, so ironically I didn’t think I deserved any sympathy at the time and didn’t take any time off to reflect). It took these life threatening “near misses”, as we like to say in the Corporate world, to continue to shake me awake! I finally asked myself, in a moment of frustration and annoyance with my career, what was going on and “Why?” “Why am I doing what I am doing?” “Am I happy?” “Who am I in all of this?” and most importantly,“Whose life is this anyway?” 

At what point was I going to realize I was the only one responsible for my own happiness?

Not my job, my husband, my kids or my external identity. I had to answer to what mattered most to ME in this lifetime, not what I was supposed to be doing according to the rules and, yep, that damn checklist!  I was seeking external success as it was defined by others. I was doing this big job because that was what you were supposed to do at this point in your career. I was stretching myself thin and spending tons of money on my life and on my kids so they would have…enough.

But now I knew more. The discomfort my body forced upon me and my intuitive self questioning forced me to widen my view. With time, I could see outside my box! I could see there had to be a better way. I didn’t have to life this type of life, did I?  What if we changed everything? This was clearly no longer serving me, and it was time to define my own success!

REPEAT: This Was No Longer Serving Me!

I know I wouldn’t be here without the beliefs and efforts of my father and grandfather. I am truly proud of both of them for what they accomplished in their lifetimes in their attempts at taking our family to “the next level“. They are both proud of me. But they aren’t proud of me because my family can afford to buy more things, make more money, travel the world, have a big title or live in a bigger house above and beyond what they were able to provide for their families. They are proud of me for finally choosing a life on my own terms and recognizing I am the only one I have to answer to, not to them. They never even asked me to do that. My interpretations and assumptions led me to my way of Being, not theirs. I own that. Recognizing this and taking accountability for where I was in life, well, that was always the point!

And you know what’s cool? By watching me grow through all of this, my Father began asking himself “why” more often, too. No one ever asked him either when he started out in life, so naturally he, too, fell into the belief that more was always better and that striving was the answer. I remember once him saying to me, “Just keep working as hard as you can, no matter what!” He reminds me now that he wished he didn’t have to wait until he was in his 70’s to truly understand he was in more control of his outcomes in life than he realized and he sees now that hard work alone or getting a promotion or making more sales isn’t always the answer, nor worth the cost. He sees now that aligning to what truly matters most in what you do day in and day out enables all of those things with ease and, maybe, just maybe enough is always enough. But, mostly he reminds me that he is glad I won’t have to wait as long as he did to figure all of that out. I won’t have to wait because I am living it now. I am living my life now on my own terms. My life.

LIFE BY DESIGN: Who’s life is this anyway?

Only you can answer this question. Go ahead, ask! The ability to observe yourself and your life increases your self-awareness which gives you the freedom of choice. It is by creating conscious choice, my friends, that defines taking your family to “the next level“. This should be the foundation of our American Dream!

Eight and a half year’s later, stress and cancer free, I sure am glad I asked myself those “why” questions. My guru coach and intuitive friend Dr. Tatiana Irvin gently reminded me once during a moment of uncertainty about continuing down a non-traditional path “Remember my Dear, you probably wouldn’t be here today if you hadn’t asked yourself those questions.

Today I live a life that is, finally, about ~75% mine. My life, my design. This life includes all of what matters most to me, my values of people, purpose, play, & peace. Sure I’m still working on the other 25+% where I observe myself attached sometimes to what others think and our societal expectations of “getting it right” and overcoming old stories of fear and doubt, but hey, I created an American Dream for myself and my family these past 48 years so I’m pretty confident I can continue to choose to live Nicoa’s American Dream over the next 48, too!

#LifeByDesign #ILoveMine …you can, too.

your friend,

nicoa is a lifestyle coach helping you help yourself live a life by design.

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