Most mainstream advice can be taken in more than one way. “Don’t settle” is one of those ideas that needs some clarification. A strong argument can be made that “settling” is the path to true contentment. An equally strong argument can be made that no, indeed, we should never “settle” for anything. This includes career, romance, and other major life goals. How can we personalize this vague admonishment and decide when to settle and when not to?
Let’s start with career. The first thing I tell my young people is that the average number of career changes is five in a lifetime (and it may be closer to 10). You don’t have to decide on anything while you’re young. If you have even a mild curiosity about a certain field, a standing invitation to try an entry-level job, or an obvious option, go for it. Dive in. When you’re 40, nobody will care what you did for money when you were 23. You might not even remember every job you had at that age. You’re going to find out some things about the workplace that can only be learned by doing. What’s your biggest annoyance? Being micromanaged, or not getting enough direction? Working indoors or working outdoors? Dealing with the public or working in isolation? Lack of variety or lack of focus? Does having a dress code feel like a worthwhile tradeoff for more pay or greater opportunities? Be curious and attentive. Focus on shaping your personal work ethic. Whatever it means to settle for a job, you don’t have to do it right away and you don’t have to do it for long periods.
I know three people who still do what they chose in their teens or early 20s, and love it. One wanted to design video games and wound up working on some very high-profile titles. One started a landscaping business in high school and has kept doing it decades later, because it enabled his side gigs as a bass player. The third is my husband, who wanted to be either a high school history teacher or an aerospace engineer. He chose engineering. See what these jobs have in common? All three men started with a clear idea of what they wanted to do; they chose jobs that allowed for a lot of autonomy; it got more interesting as they went along. The first guy went on to be technical director for a gadget you’ve definitely heard of; the second added travel to his build-your-own-lifestyle job; the third was on BattleBots. If only all of us felt such clear callings and had such intrinsic interest in any one field…
You know how career touches on romance? Nobody wants to go out with someone who complains constantly about a lousy job. Love it, change it, or shut up about it. Another common complaint is that “women only want to go out with guys who make a lot of money.” What “women” want (what anyone wants) is for you to like what you do. Being interested in your job helps to make you an interesting person. Many people fall into a rut in which they spend almost every spare moment in the living room or bedroom, not doing much of anything, and years somehow vanish in a puff of smoke. Finding an interesting job is a blessing in its own right, but it also gets you out of the house where you can meet people. My husband and I met in the workplace, for what that’s worth.
I “settled” for an older divorced guy with a kid. Guess what else? He has… *gasp*… back hair. In the grand scheme of things, none of that matters. I had never dated a guy with back hair before, because guys under 30 haven’t grown into their full coat yet. They get hairier as they age. If you want to be happily married when you’re both in your 80s, back hair is going to be the least of your cosmetic worries; can we talk about ear hair? So he’s divorced; so am I; so what? The 10-year-old kid I first met is now 21 and in college. We only lived under the same roof for four years. Much of what we discern in potential dates is situational, external, superficial, or temporary. Quit worrying about someone’s height or hair color or vehicle. Worry about his value system, his sense of humor, whether he has a temper, and whether he knows how to apologize or take accountability for his life. Choose someone you think is interesting. If you like talking to each other, that is going to last a lot longer than a particular hairstyle or cool shirt. Once you realize that you would miss him, never let him go. Settle down when you realize that this is the person who feels like home to you.
Settling has to do with what we accept and what we don’t. I accept that I’ll never be tall, while knowing that as a 40-year-old, there are still things I can do to preserve my posture and bone density as I age. I accept that I’ll never win a medal in the Olympics – but, perhaps, the Senior Olympics? I refuse to accept that my hair is turning gray – instead, I am WHOOPING IT UP because I’m finally starting to get the white stripe I always wanted! Oh my gosh, it looks so awesome. If only I can get four or five more gray hairs in that same area, it’ll start to look like something.
We settle for things when we start to think that anything more would be a foolish fantasy. Personally, I’m in favor of foolish fantasies. They’re free and they don’t have to infringe on anyone else in any way. I have the foolish fantasy that I can learn to be multilingual. Why shouldn’t I? Learning a foreign language is the most commonly kept resolution. Half the people in the world speak two or more languages. I have the foolish fantasy that my husband and I, both on our second marriage, will still love each other and want to be together in 30 years. Statistics do not support this dumb idea, but for us, it’ll be either a 100% success rate or a 0% success rate. If we think it won’t work, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Don’t settle for someone if you have to talk yourself into it. Settling is not the same as commitment.
Don’t settle for gradually declining health. That is not the same thing as “aging gracefully.”
Don’t settle for disappointment. It’s not the same thing as realism.
Any time you hear someone (or yourself) beginning a statement with, “I know I’ll never…” pause and reconsider. Is this an opinion stated as fact? Is it setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy? I know I’ll never go to Mars, because if I ever had the opportunity, I’d turn it down. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a millionaire or visit all seven continents, but I wouldn’t want to rule it out! What we want to do is to focus on allowing opportunity while quashing unnecessary negativity. As far as predicting the future, negativity is precisely as much of an illusion as positivity. The only way to know what’s going to happen is to be the one who makes it happen.
The trouble with “settling” is that it has two semantically different meanings. In the sense of “settling down,” it can mean embracing comfort and contentment, maturing, and defining success for yourself. In the sense of stuckness, settling can mean abandoning ambition, turning to pessimism and fatalism, and falling into a fixed mindset. There is a middle path, that of celebrating simple pleasures while continuing to strive to make a greater contribution.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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