You’ve Worked So Hard to Get Where You Are… How is it Possible to be This Successful But Still Feel Unfulfilled?

Approximate read time: 5 minutes

Let’s meet Ilena. For the most part, Ilena has done the right things. She graduated from university with flying colors, pretty much immediately got a great job, and has been building a lovely life for herself and her children. She works hard, and her paycheck shows it. She’s not only making more money now than she ever has, but she’s making vastly more than she ever thought possible. There are times when she just stares at the numbers on her paystub in shock that she is at the place in her life where she makes THIS MUCH money. This time in her life should feel great… it just doesn’t.

How can she be earning this much and still have no savings? How can she be earning this much and her credit card balances keep sneaking up?  She’s working so hard but has nothing to show for it!

“I’m always worried… I can’t rest.”

When she goes on vacation or takes time to rest, she finds herself spending the time thinking about how she’s going to pay for the trip AND make up for time away from work. And then there are the emergencies that somehow always happen. Kids’ braces, bathroom remodels, family needing support.

She can’t rest, not even for a minute, or it will all fall apart. God forbid she gets sick and can’t work.

“All I need to do is get this raise, then everything will be fine,” she thinks. “After I get the credit cards paid off things will settle down.”

To her friends, family, children, and colleagues she’s the picture of success. She’s educated, high-income, self-sufficient, and loves her work.

They don’t know the truth though… only she does.

Only she knows that even though she’s done everything she thought she was supposed to do, she’s a failure.

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You’ve Been Set up to be Successful But Unfulfilled

While there are many reasons someone can find themselves successful but unfulfilled, let’s talk about just three.

Reason 1: The scarcity mindset says there is a right choice to be made, you just have to figure it out.

It may seem odd that even while earning more than we ever have, a scarcity mindset (“I’m never going to have enough” still holds sway over us.

The scarcity mindset deeply affects how we make decisions. It is no less than functioning in a state of stress or crisis over a long period of time. Our brains don’t make good decisions when we are stressed.

At some level, most people can see that they are not making “good” decisions, although they may not attribute this to their scarcity mindset. The lesson that they will take away from this is that they are failing, doing everything wrong, etc. This compounding shame and judgment may be an attempt for them to correct their own behavior and “teach themselves a lesson.”

The scarcity mindset has the aura of motivation, and making the “right decisions”. Counterintuitively, relying on the scarcity mindset to make good decisions only reinforces that we can’t be trusted.

Being successful but unfulfilled reinforces that we can’t trust ourselves.

Scarcity mindset presents in one of two ways:
I don’t know when I’m going to have this money again, so I need to save it, lock it down, and restrict myself.
I don’t know when I’m going to have this money again, so I need to use it, spend it, and make use of it now.

In both conditions, we think we are making the “right” decision because we are only solving for one thing, either restriction or present-focused spending. And very often decisions motivated by scarcity give us inconsistent feedback… Sometimes these are great choices, sometimes they are not. That inconsistency means we are likely to shame ourselves for our choices.

A scarcity mindset + shame will erode your ability to trust yourself.

Reason 2: Goal setting that isn’t really goal-setting

How many times have you caught your brain setting goals like this:

“I just have to buy this house.”
“We just have to get out of debt, and then we’ll be ok.”
“If we could only get a new car, then we’ll be set.”

This is our brains using a shortcut called Affective Forecasting (also called hedonic forecasting).

Simply, Affective Forecasting is our brain trying to predict our future mental state based on an event, most always our future happiness or safety. And it is a tool we use to motivate ourselves.

What’s hiding behind these wishes is a second phrase that we never speak or even think about. It goes like this:

“I just need to get a raise, and then I’ll be happy.” this could lead to an internal conversation about the last time I got a raise and I don’t remember being any happier.

The lie of Affective Forecasting is that once we make it to a couple of those events and we aren’t happy, safe, or ok, we wonder just what the heck is wrong with us.

“I got the raise, we got married, I bought the car and I’m not happy… what’s wrong with me???”

There is nothing wrong with you. Our brains just picked a dumb way of trying to generate and predict happiness in the future.

Affective Forecasting reinforces that you can’t be trusted.

One great way to combat Affective Forecasting (AF) is to just complete the sentence.

“I just need a cigarette….and then I’ll be happy.”
“I just need to make it through this week… and then I’ll be ok.”

After doing this for a while it starts to sound absurd because it is. Likely someone has made it through rough weeks before and isn’t any more or less “ok”.

Listen for AF in your everyday life. I can almost guarantee within a week you will hear someone say “I just need to…” or “If I could just…”. We do AF so much and so well that we don’t even know we’re doing it.

A second way to counteract AF is to think about the things that make us feel happy and safe.

Go back in time. Go back to your memories and think about a time you were truly happy. Think about a time when you could have happily lived the rest of your life in that one moment.

Now was that moment that you had in your mind a big, momentous thing like buying a car, getting a raise, or signing or mortgage? Or was it something little like going on a hike alone in the rain or pushing your child on a tire swing?

To a person, everyone I’ve asked to try this practice has reported that the thing they remembered making them happy was small and beautiful.

If the small, beautiful things are what make us happy, why in the world do we keep trying to set big, clumsy goals like “I just need to make more money” and expect them to make us happy or safe?  This disconnect means a lot of us end up right where we are… feeling successful but unfulfilled.

Reason 3: Your value as a person is wrapped up in your income

We are almost perfectly set up by our cultural expectations to equate our productivity or income with our self-worth. Many of the messages and expectations we’ve internalized over the course of our lives contradict each other, yet we expect ourselves to be able to meet each of those expectations.

One example of these impossible expectations is the Just World Fallacy.

The Just World Fallacy says good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people

It tells us the lie that the world is a just place, therefore to get yourself out of whatever pickle you are in, you just need to work harder, be more productive, prioritize better, burn yourself out a little more, and sacrifice a little more. So therefore if you are going through a tough time, if that pile of bills on the table is mocking you, or you don’t have enough in savings, or you and your spouse can’t communicate with each other about money, that in some way you must have earned this hardship. And you just need to obligate or restrict yourself to get out of it.

The Just World Fallacy blocks empathy, both for yourself and for others. And it tells you that YOU are the problem.

You are not the problem when feeling successful but unfulfilled.

Another cultural expectation is our honor culture’s obsession with how things reflect on us. Being concerned about reputation and how others see us is a deeply human thing. It’s part of how we stay connected to the safety of the larger community.

Unfortunately, this reliance on others for our own self-worth means that we overvalue a positive social image, and keeping up appearances. The outgrowth of this in the personal finance world is that talking about money is taboo. Any part of our financial lives that we think might not conform to what we’ve internalized as the “correct” or “normal” way to use money will be something we hide. That withdrawal and avoidance in turn makes it harder for us to seek out resources and options, and nearly impossible to communicate with others about what we need.

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Two Quick Wins to Begin to Feel Successful AND Fulfilled From a Financial Coach

Quick Win #1: Find the purpose in your spending

I realize that conventional wisdom says you should just somehow magically make and stick to a budget and that will fix everything. (eye roll) Instead, let’s slow things down a bit and really understand the purpose behind the money you spend.

One of the practices I ask my clients to do is to reflect on the purpose of their spending AS they spend. Let’s say Ilena is buying groceries, as she swipes her card she reminds herself of the purpose of the groceries “Dinner for the family tonight, lunch for tomorrow”.

Not only does this practice make that spending real to us, but it also helps us understand the purpose behind our behavior.

Quick Win #2: Find the purpose in how you spend your time and effort

Every single choice you make you’ll pay at least two costs. You’ll pay in time, and you’ll pay in effort. Only some of our choices also have a third cost… financial.

So let’s use the practice above but this time on the most valuable resources you have, your time, and your effort.

Just like Ilena above sliding her card and reinforcing the purpose of the spending, you can do the same for anything you spend your time and effort on,

What is the purpose of working that over time?
What will working an hour later provide to you?
Sitting down to scroll on social media? What is the purpose of this time?

The idea here is that without restriction or correction, just by being aware of why we choose to do a thing, our behavior becomes more intentional. No, I’m not asking anyone to write down what they’re doing in 15-minute increments, although that kind of inventory can be helpful.

The purpose of this practice is simply to practice intentionality and awareness of our behavior without judgment.

What do you think you might notice as you practice being aware of the purpose of how you spend your time, effort, or money?

A Longer-Term Strategy For Fulfillment From a Financial Coach

I mentioned budgeting above, and while planning for expected spending is important, it’s not the only thing we can budget. You can also budget your time and effort. Budgeting well isn’t restrictive, it’s expected.

Imagine the head of HR for a large corporation that’s been given 10 million dollars to do the job of HR for two years. Now imagine that the department head elects to spend only 5 million dollars. Would they keep their job? Probably not. The reason is that they were EXPECTED to spend that money. Restriction has no part in an adaptive healthy budget, whether we’re planning how we spend our money or our time and effort.

One way to combat feeling successful but unfulfilled: Budget your time and effort

So what does a time/effort budget look like?

Step 1: Gather some data

Practice finding the purpose of your time and effort spent as above for about a week. What kinds of patterns did you notice?  Which things were you spending your time/effort on that you’d like to see more of? What would you like to focus on less?

Step 2: Customize

Well like anything it will need to be customized to you and your life, and it must be easy to use, so I suggest starting with only budgeting a few hours of your life per week. From the data that you gathered in Step 1, choose two or three of your hours next week that you’d like to pivot to hours spent on something you’d like to have more of in your life.

Example: You found that you were spending time playing video games and that the purpose of this was to bond with your kids. You’d like to do more of that bonding! How could you pivot two hours next week to bonding?

Step 3: Experiment

Treat this like an experiment. So you pivoted two hours this week from work to bonding with your kids… how did it go? What went well? What did NOT go well?

Very often when we’re implementing any kind of system in our lives we tend to evaluate ourselves against the system as we laid it out. This rarely works. The idea here is that we are evaluating if the system or plan (pivoting two hours) worked FOR YOU. If it didn’t, it’s easy to try another experiment, rather than fail yourself.

So What Do You Think You’ll Notice as You…

…are aware of the purpose of how you spend your time, effort, and money?
…pivot a few hours of your time and effort in new ways?
…experiment and evaluate your experiments (not yourself)

Next recommended article:  The Future of Financial Literacy

Last updated: October 2023

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