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The Things We Are Prepared to Walk Away From

What are you prepared to walk away from? This oft-unasked question shapes one of the most important principles in my life.

We are all familiar with the age-old theoretical situation in which our home is burning and we must grab only the things that’re most important to us. Of course, most of us would not dash into the inferno and reach for material things first—we’d ensure the safety of our loved ones and pets. Then, once they were safe, we’d grab only the irreplaceable things—photo albums, computer hard drives, family heirlooms. Everything else would be lost in the conflagration.

I tend to look at this situation a tad differently, though, taking the hypothetical a bit further:

There is a scene in Heat in which Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) says, “Allow nothing in your life that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat.” Although my life isn’t anything like McCauley’s (he’s the movie’s bad guy), I share his sentiment. Almost everything I bring into my life—material possessions, ideas, habits, and even relationships—I must be able to walk away from at a moment’s notice.

Many of you will disagree with me because this ideology might sound crass or insensitive, but I’d like to posit that it is actually the opposite: our preparedness to walk away is the ultimate form of caring.

If I purchase new possessions, I need to make certain I don’t assign them too much meaning. Being able to walk away means I won’t ever get too attached to my belongings, and being unattached to stuff makes our lives tremendously flexible—filled with opportunity.

If I take on a new idea or habit, I do so because it has the potential to add value to my life. New ideas shape the future Me. Same goes for new habits. Over time my ideas change, improve, and expand, and my current habits get replaced by new habits that continue to help me grow. Our readiness to walk away from ideas or habits means we’re willing to grow—we’re willing to constantly pursue a better version of ourselves.

If I bring a new relationship into my world, I know I must earn their love, respect, and kindness. I also expect they, too, are willing to walk away should I not provide the support and understanding they require. This means we must both work hard to contribute to the relationship. We must communicate and remain cognizant of each other’s needs. And, above all, we must care. These fundaments—love, understanding, caring, communication—build trust, which builds stronger relationships in the long run. It sounds paradoxical, but our willingness to walk away actually strengthens our bond with others. And the opposite stance—being chained by obligation to a relationship—is disingenuous, a false loyalty birthed from pious placation.

There are obvious exceptions to this rule. There are certain things we cannot easily walk away from: a marriage, a business partnership, a job that pays the rent, a passion. The key is to have as few exceptions as possible.

Naturally, even these exceptions aren’t exceptions for everyone. Marriages often end, as do businesses. People get laid off, and passions change over time. Even though we might not be able to walk away from these things in “30 seconds flat,” we can ultimately walk away when these situations no longer add value to our lives (or worse, when they drain value from our lives).

Everything I allow into my life enters it deliberately. If my home was aflame, there’s nothing I own that can’t be replaced: All my photos are scanned. All my important files are backed up. And all my stuff has no real meaning. Similarly, I’m prepared to walk away from nearly anything—even our website, teaching, or writing—if need be. Doing so safeguards my continued growth and improves my relationships with others, both of which contribute to a fulfilling life, a life of meaning.

It was C.S. Lewis who, 50 years ago, eloquently said, “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” In today’s material world, a world of fear-fueled clinging, his words seem more apropos than ever.

Read this essay and 150 others in our new book, Essential.