The Focus Course

Margin is Counter Cultural

It’s not infrequent that I get a deer in headlights sort of look when talking about margin, as in a literal incomprehension of the words I’m saying. It’s as if I live in some alternate universe.

The topic of margin for a lot of people is a foreign concept.

Breathing room in your day? Not since summer break between college semesters. Time in your day for an unexpected errand? Unlikely. Creative bandwidth to pick up a last-minute project for work? Probably not. Financial cushion to pay for a new alternator in your car? You would be one of the few.

The only thing we can expect (with any great certainty) is the unexpected. Therefore, we can either wait for the moment and react to it, or we can prepare. We can create a buffer. A “buffer” can be defined literally as something that prevents two things from coming into contact and harming each other. From Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Marginless Living Normalized

The buffer Greg McKeown is talking about is margin. I realize it may not be possible to perpetually live with such a buffer in all areas of life, but constantly living without margin in every area of life is a recipe for disaster. Things will eventually go sideways — it’s part of the human experience.

Many carry on with their marginless lives and think it’s completely normal. Living with the throttle stuck wide open is widely accepted (and celebrated?) as the social norm and in some cases held up as the standard.

  • Financial debt is commonplace and seen as normal.
  • Evenings and weekends packed with activities is expected.
  • Road rage has folks ready to jump out of their cars and slug it out.
  • Sleep deprivation is normal and epidemic, and oddly worn as a badge of honor.

This is not sustainable, healthy, or normal, and yet we have accepted them as such.

The fact that we’ve normalized marginless living makes it all the more difficult to break free of its grasp. As soon as we make the conscious decision to embrace margin, everything inevitably breaks-down, which sends us right back into the never-ending-hamster-wheel of trying to fix it all. Choosing margin is always met with resistance.

What if society stopped telling us to buy more stuff and instead allowed us to create more space to breathe and think? What if society encouraged us to reject what has been accurately described as doing things we detest, to buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like? What if we stopped being oversold the value of having more and being undersold the value of having less? What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives? From Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Margin as an Act of Defiance

Choosing to live with margin is not just counter-cultural — it is an act of defiance.

Margin is treated as a luxury or one-off, not something that is part of our daily rhythm. Each waking moment is met by a bombardment of sophisticated marketing campaigns enticing you to the lie of more. Spend more money on things that will take more of your time to maintain and more working hours to pay off.

Margin requires a daily choice to guard and maintain. The path of least resistance does not result in margin. Our default decision-making framework is not equipped to resist highly engineered advertisements that pull on our core desires as humans. Society will not offer us less. It will only entice us to the lie of more.

Despite these obvious drawbacks to living without margin, our age consistently deprives us of it. We work hard to gain a foothold of freedom but are quickly pushed back into the quicksand. Overload just happens. Margin, in contrast, requires great effort. From Margin by Richard Swenson

Breaking free of this frivolous cycle not only requires a great deal of effort, but also a great deal of clarity. Simply trying harder is not enough to break the grip of marginless living.

Clarity about what is ultimately important will help us combat the lie of more.

Essentially, what are you not willing to compromise? Marginless living has no regard for your values or deepest desires. Our great weapon to resist marginless living is absolute clarity regarding what matters most.

What could you not bear having regret over in 20 years?

  • Not prioritizing my marriage.
  • Not spending enough time with my kids through their little years.
  • Letting my body break down due to a lack of care.

With the odds stacked against you and endless options presented to you daily, you have to be clear on what you’re not willing to compromise.

* * *

Embracing margin is counter-cultural and it will require a fighting spirit. There’s a good chance you’ll be misunderstood for choosing it. Just remember there are few whose opinion of your life matters. And more then likely, they will thank you for fighting for it.

Photo by James Pond via Unsplash

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