Does freedom comes from living simply like a monk or opulently like a Trump? It’s the eternal question we all ask ourselves.
A TV sitcom I was watching some time ago had a scene with a bunch of stereotypical millennials throwing an unemployment party (yup, you read that right) for a friend who lost his job and got to kick back collecting unemployment insurance for six months.
The partygoers were portrayed as free-spirited, self-absorbed freegans who mostly sat around immersed in their smartphones and eating food they dug out of restaurant dumpsters. At least they drank unused beer. Whew.
One of the show’s characters, a somewhat more mature sports agent named Phil, got into an illuminating chat with a couple of the younger guys:
Phil: So, what do you do?
Millennial 1: What I do is not define myself by what I do.
Phil: OK. Well then how do you pay for things?
Millennial 1: What, is money your only benchmark for judging a person’s value in society?
Millennial 2: You think you’re better than us because you have “a job?” [Gestures with air quotes]
The thing is, that could have been a scene right out of my own college days way back in the dark ages. Except for the smartphones and freegan thing, that is. I couldn’t even afford a calculator. And sure, I ate two-day old pizza lying around my dorm room but I drew the line at dumpster food.
As a young man I did everything I could to scrape by without working and, since I didn’t have much growing up, I wasn’t really interested in material things. Besides, all us hippie-kids cared about back then was sex, drugs and rock & roll.
What changed? I grew up. I wanted to make something of my life. I wanted to have a family and provide for them. I wanted to be successful. I wanted my parents to be proud of me. I wanted my wife to be proud of me. And I wanted to be proud of myself.
Having accomplished much of that – by working my tail off for many years in “a job”, mind you – I have the means to own a lot of things people covet, but I don’t. I live a relatively simple and uncluttered life. And I’m happy that way.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a nice home but, unlike most of my contemporaries, just one. I’ve lived in the same place for 20+ years and do most of the work around the house and property myself, work that wealthy people hire others to do. It’s hard work but I get a great sense of fulfillment out of it.
I have a lot more time to enjoy life because I’m not going back and forth, moving in and out of, or buying and selling all the homes I don’t have. The same goes for cars, gadgets, toys, apps, everything that consumes time, money and mindshare.
Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching teaches, “If you want to be free, learn to live simply.” Smart guy, that Lao Tzu.
So why work so hard? Because having “a job,” working hard, loving what you do, accomplishing great things, meeting your goals and being successful are all their own rewards. So is providing for your family and keeping them safe, healthy and comfortable.
Being a slave to material things is not my idea of freedom, but neither is being so free-spirited that you don’t want to work and eat food out of a dumpster.
Image credit Sam Horine (Trump penthouse) and Greg Nissen (dumpster diving) via Flickr
A version of this originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com.