Life Debt

Published on May 9th, 2019

Burnout is a powerful teacher. It’s from its ruinous ashes (fueled by exhausting one’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual resources) that it becomes abundantly clear that money isn’t everything. Restating this cliché another way—your net worth is one number. And this one number may have zero correlation to the poorness or richness of every other dimension of your life. Examples[1]:

  • Financial
  • Career
  • Relationships
  • Health/Appearance
  • Fun and Recreation
  • Personal
  • Community

To create a life of success and fulfillment, one cannot focus on just one dimension of life to the exclusion of all the others. Let’s use some extreme but not uncommon examples.

If all you have is money, but you’re in a dead end career with poor health and no one to spend time with, how is that successful or fulfilling? For many people that is a recipe for loneliness and depression.

If you have a fantastic career, but you are paid so little that you have to work multiple jobs and you live with constant sleep deprivation, how is that any better? You may be so career driven that you may never find the time to find a partner or raise a family.

Ok ok. Sure, we’ve all been warned in life to be too focused on money or career. But it can’t be a bad thing to be hyper-focused on relationships or community, right? Well not necessarily. Focus solely on your relationships, and you may not afford the time to explore new hobbies or invest in new skills. If you’re too worried about losing those relationships, you may never travel or move, which may be beneficial for your health, career, or in finding new communities.

This is where the concept of life debt comes into play. Financial debt is easy to quantify. Add up your assets, subtract your liabilities, and presto! Your net worth can be boiled down to a single (hopefully greater than zero) number.

Unfortunately, things get a bit trickier when it comes to the other dimensions. For most of the world, money is almost always a top of mind decision every single day. We eat multiple times a day, and each time we have to choose whether to eat at home or eat out. We can then look into our wallet or log in to our bank account to score how we are doing at any given moment.

Relationships can be much harder to gauge on a day by day basis. One day you meet a stranger, and there is no connection. Through investments of time and experiences, a bond may be formed, and the relationships strengthened. Maybe the person will become a good friend or a colleague. Perhaps a best friend. Maybe a marriage partner. The reverse can also happen. A healthy marriage can slowly decline into a relationship that feels more like good friends or even roommates. Like muscles, relationships can atrophy due to lack of use. They can also tear or rupture if we strain them well beyond what they are capable of carrying. And while, yes, time heals all wounds there may forever be scar tissue that will be a reminder of what once was.

This is where the term life debt comes into play. With financial debt, we know that a little bit isn’t the end of the world. It's a short cut to get something right now. However, we do pay a cost called interest. If left unpaid, that interest starts to compound. One month we owe $50 of interest on a credit card, and if things build up, there might be hundreds if not thousands of dollars owed per month on top of the principal. In the worst cases, the interest is so enormous that it can’t be paid. This is where bankruptcy comes into play. The debt has become so large that it’s unsustainable without drastic action that might have irreversible consequences.

"Life Debt" is my term for the accumulated penalties that we face as a result of all the shortcuts we take in all dimensions in life. These are the debts that, if not paid down, snowball and can lead to long term and irreversible consequences.

Here are some smell tests that debt is accumulating:

  • Relationships: Lost friendships, loneliness, and fewer opportunities to get referrals for new business or career changing opportunities.
  • Health: weight gain, lack of sleep, decreased cognitive functioning, constantly sick, etc.
  • Fun and Recreation: All work and no play, inability to metabolize stress, consistently impatient, and higher blood pressure.

And so on. Basically, every one of the 7 dimensions of life can turn into an area of debt. Perhaps they should be called the 7 deadly debts? I prefer the term “life debt.” To me, it’s the all-encompassing feeling you get when one or more dimensions have been neglected or overdrawn for far too long, and the consequences are too significant to ignore.

This awareness is a good thing! If you can identify and start paying down the debts while they are still manageable, you can get life back on track. Ignore the warnings, and the consequences will be more significant and long-lasting.

Inspired by this Tweet thread.

[1] The Success Principles by Jack Canfield.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CTO of Contact Mapping. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.