Living a life of purpose has always been a challenge.
In your circle of influence, passing on a legacy requires persistence and forethought. We will not haphazardly become the kind of person we long to be, nor will our legacy be one of notoriety without having clearly defined and refined what it is we hope to achieve in our lifetime. This is an age old challenge that individuals have wrestled with for centuries.
But what is altogether historic is the exponential levels of overwhelm we face in our day and age.
Until now, there has never been such a need for margin. It has been consumed by western living.
My favorite definition comes from Dr. Richard Swenson in his book Margin.
Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating. Margin is the opposite of overload.
The steady increase of technology and globalization was incremental up until a certain point. In recent decades, the curve has changed from incremental to exponential.
Along with these developments has come the overwhelming wave of choices, connectedness, and stimulation that the world has never faced.
If we were to look at history from a birds-eye-view, the unique time in which we find ourselves is vastly different than any timeframe that has preceded us.
As Peter Drucker said, “In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time—literally—substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.” — Essentialism
We have limitless options for literally every area of life.
- The number of options of toothpaste
- The food we eat
- Career opportunities
- Education opportunities
- Credit cards that enable living beyond our means
- Speed of international and domestic travel
In comparison to the thousands of years of history, none of these things were even plausible until recently.
While the advancement of technology and progress has brought with it many benefits, it has not faired well for margin.
Our modern day is not only qualitatively different from any other but also quantitatively different. Future history books will need to use a different vocabulary to describe contemporary phenomena, and prominent among these words will be “exponential,” “limits,” “thresholds,” and “overload.” — Margin
More of Everything
As we’ve advanced as a society, we have continuously eroded the in-between moments of life. It’s now possible to be perpetually entertained or distracted. If the challenge of leading a life of significance was not already hard enough, we now must slug our way through mental and emotional overwhelm like never before.
Sleep deprived and in debt, we must find a way to pass on a legacy while working two jobs and running our own business. The mantras of our time have led us to believe that we can have anything we want so long as we are willing to work for it — and trade away our soul in the process.
When we observe the landscape of research and resources available, a trend begins to emerge.
- The rate at which we are consuming information and inputs is unsustainable.
We must learn to manage ourselves and turn off the fire hydrate of stimulation.
Continuous connection and deprivation of solitude has troubling, if not disturbing, consequences.
The smartest people on our planet are trying to tell us something. Constant connection, endless options, and unending inputs of information is not good for the human condition. Authors, leaders, professors, researchers, business owners, bloggers, community members — everyone is saying the same thing.
We’re overwhelmed, overstimulated, busier than we’ve ever been, and there is no end in sight. We go on vacation to get away from it all and come back needing a vacation from our vacation.
If progress is so wonderful, why do we drink and drug to forget our problems? — Margin
As we continue to champion progress as a species, this does not equate to a better life by default.
At our Limits
We must grapple with our finite limitations as people. Margin is ”the space between our load and our limits”. What happens when we perpetually hit or exceed those limits?
What happens if you run a car engine at its highest possible RPMs every time you drive it?
What about averaging four to five hours of sleep for days and weeks on end?
What about maxing out credit cards and only paying the minimums each month?
Eventually, things begin to catch up with us. If we continuously ignore our limits, we will eventually begin to experience the repercussions.
All things have limits—people, governments, buildings, bridges, brains, and organizations. Even more subjective things such as friendships, creativity, or adaptability have limits. If we are well within boundaries, we can be expansive and growth-oriented. When approaching a limit, however, the rules change. — Margin
Peer Pressure and Social Norms
As technology advancements have evolved, so have our social and cultural expectations.
The cell phone evolved from a tool we carry when leaving the house as an emergency contact method to an essential technology that must be within arms’ reach at all times.
We have instant messaging apps, social media inboxes, personal email accounts, work-related email accounts, and the ability for people to always text or call us. Yet, we are expected to be available or at least reachable twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Our schedules are bursting at the seams with activities and commitments. Many work at least 40 hours a week and hold some sort of side hustle or part time job in addition.
The average American household carries astronomical financial debt from college loans and frivolous spending. We’re caught in a never-ending cycle of working to pay off our debt and are running ourselves ragged in the process. It’s normal, commonplace, and even celebrated.
In a culture that celebrates hustle and working to get ahead, margin evaporates. And if we choose contentment, we’ll be sold something else the next breath. Something else to take up our time, money, and emotional reservoirs.
If we succeed in resisting the latest sales pitch, we will be labeled as simplistic, plain, or old fashioned.
If we manage to carve out a few days for rest and do nothing ”productive”, we are labeled lazy. Time off has become a luxury that can’t be afforded — one to be envied. It feels like we can’t win.
If we throw ourselves into the current of society, we drown in overwhelm. If we resist the cultural norms and try to carve out some margin, we’re labeled extreme and often misunderstood.
Marginless living is celebrated and expected.
But how can we possibly leave a legacy if we’re emotionally overwhelmed, have no time for empathy, physically exhausted, stressed beyond measure by financial pressures, and find ourselves perpetually distracted?
Symptoms of Marginless Living
You may or may not be able to relate to any of these, but here are some signs of a lack of margin.
- Easily annoyed by other drivers, always in a hurry when on the road.
- One unexpected bill away from financial crisis.
- There are very few if any blank spaces on the calendar.
- Unable to engage in challenging conversations because of how emotionally overwhelmed we are.
- Dreams and values are perpetually out of reach and disregarded by the urgent demands of daily life.
- Hard pressed to consistently get more than six hours of sleep.
- Easily irritable in general.
- Feel stuck creatively.
- Lack of energy, constantly tired and groggy.
You may not be able to relate to all these examples, but even if only one or two struck a chord, you could stand to use a dose of margin.
Marginless living has been standardized and can begin to feel normal.
It’s time to get some breathing room back.