“Did you live under the kitchen table?”
This is what people ask when I tell them I lived in a dining room for a year.
Such a scenario is, well, obviously uncommon.
Likely more uncommon is that I consciously chose the dining room out of 3 other damn good, or at least normal, living choices.
In other words, I had options.
“But why on earth would someone purposefully live in a dining room?” you say.
I had a big dream—to travel the world for months on end. As such, I needed to save money. And the dining room in the house I shared with my roommates was one of the cheapest options (though not the cheapest…more on that later).
Moving there immediately dropped my rent by nearly $300 a month, which would eventually add up to over $3,000 in travel funds.
Reflecting on this choice a decade later, I now understand how my dining room days taught 7 lessons that have helped me achieve what some may call impossible dreams.
From writing internationally broadcast TV and authoring a half dozen books that together have touched millions of lives, to living and traveling outside the US for 7 years and counting, these life lessons have served me well as I’ve persevered through often muddy waters to realize my goals.
I hope they can do the same for you.
1. Tough times are signposts that point to a better version of yourself
No one likes rough patches.
Most of us would rather be on a beach than have to fight to survive, work hard and face self doubt. But these struggles are what point us in the direction of becoming improved versions of ourselves.
When I moved into the dining room, life was tough. I had lost my job a few months prior because of the 2008 recession. And overall, I felt I was drifting aimlessly.
These difficulties led me to something that sparked joy in my life—extended travel.
Little did I know, my journey to get abroad would dramatically improve me: transforming me into a person who sets goals, can sacrifice the short-term for the long-term, and can come out on top.
2. Handouts smother your growth
Before I chose to live in the dining room, handouts were the norm. I admit I was spoiled. I was sent to private school, my parents paid for college and even footed the bill for an expensive summer internship in LA’s film industry.
When I was considering the dining room, my big sister graciously offered to let me stay in her spare bedroom rent free.
The option was tempting.
But how would this affect me later?
My family had always been generous to me, which I appreciate both then and now. But I knew saying “yes” to my sister’s offer could handicap me in the long run.
If I never had to work for anything, how would I ever succeed in my career, relationships and life? Would I give up easily when faced with a minor obstacle? I was afraid of becoming helpless.
So I said “no.”
I chose the hard road. And this helped me not only grow as a person, but learn…
3. Vague dreams are unrealized dreams
If you live in the states, you’ve probably heard a 20-something say, “I want to travel the world.”
Maybe you’ve said the phrase yourself.
It’s a cliche to say, but extended world travel will change your life. That said, while backpacking 11 months, I saw very few young Americans.
Though there are many reasons few get abroad, the phrase “I want to travel the world” doesn’t help. That statement is a vague wish. Not a clear specific goal that you can envision and take steps toward.
Looking back at my time in the dining room, I had an incredibly clear goal: Save up $5,000 to travel Asia and Australia for at least 6 months, by September 2010.
Notice the specific details of this statement:
Process: Save up $5,000
Goal: Travel Asia and Australia for at least 6 months
Deadline: September 2010
No matter what you want to accomplish, when you have a clearly defined target—naming the specific process, goal and deadline—you’re much more likely to realize your dream.
4. Real priorities are a way of life
While most people know what “prioritization” means, how many of us truly understand it?
I used to think priorities were about just checking off items on a to-do-list. But when I moved into the dining room and nearly all my energy focused on my goal, priorities took on a new meaning. They became a way of life.
When I made decisions, I would reference my priority. Is blowing $50 at the bar in line with my travel goal? Is going back home for Thanksgiving or Christmas?
Yes, I did miss the family get-together that year.
It wasn’t aligned with my goal. But nor was living a normal life. People thought I was crazy for moving into the dining room, but it had to be done. My everyday life needed to mirror my priorities.
5. Not all affirmations are positive (or even spoken)
Living in the dining room constantly reminded me I had one goal—save up money to travel.
Every day as I walked into my room with no door, put in earplugs at night to block out living room noise, and felt the cold linoleum tiles under my feet, I was reminded of my goal.
These reminders were like daily affirmations.
None were pleasant, nor did I speak them. But I saw and felt them. Not only did they fuel my desire to escape the dining room, but they reminded me of my purpose: do everything in my power to accomplish my goal of traveling abroad.
6. Discomfort is a normal part of the growth process
Let’s face it, we all want an easy life.
But without discomfort, growth doesn’t happen.
We all forget how uncomfortable growing up was. As a baby grows into an adult, there are not only discomforts in the body (teething, puberty, etc.) but also in learning how to take care of yourself, get along with others and gain confidence.
Learning a new skill typically requires ample failure. But without experiencing the discomfort of change, you just stay the same.
Living in the dining room was uncomfortable (and I expected that before I moved in) but it helped me achieve my goal and ultimately made me a better person along the way.
7. Confidence is a snowball, rolled one victory at a time
While traveling abroad for 6 months may seem like a small goal, the year long struggle I went through to realize it gave me confidence to chase bigger dreams later down the line.
After I returned from abroad, I had the confidence to ask myself, “What else can I do? Maybe I can be a television writer.”
And I did.
After achieving that, I again asked myself, “If I can become a television writer, why can’t I follow my dream girl over to Thailand and live abroad for a few years?”
Each previous goal gave me the confidence to try something bigger. And it happened through the momentum of one win at a time.
Embrace your dining room
No, not your literal dining room—not the place families gather to eat.
But instead, what challenge will you take head on in life? When will you consciously say “no” to the easy road?
Yes, I know it’s difficult.
No one wants to consciously suffer. But suffering, after all, is not really what you’re doing.
The idea of living in the dining room was much scarier than the actual year I spent there. Besides the initial adjustment to living with only three walls and no door, and the early and then occasional self doubts about my decision, life pretty much carried on as usual.
I had a couple different girlfriends over the course of that year, spent more time hanging with my buddies outside of the bar scene, and had a lot of time for self reflection.
The biggest demons I faced were in my mind.
The point is, when you say “okay” to a challenge, you say “okay” to becoming someone greater than you are today. Life will change. But that’s how you transform into someone better.
I promise, you will thank yourself ten years later.