"I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."
~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Humans are curious beings. We spend the majority of our time building foundations but leave little or no time for living in the actual structure, and this assumes the structure is ever completed.
Foundation-building in life is essentially an act of sacrificing now for the prospect of having something better later. But the key word is "prospect," which implies only a potential for reward in a future that is not certain to come.
Consider some examples of foundation-building:
- Studying the subject in college you believe leads to a high-paying job.
- Climbing the corporate ladder / building a resume.
- Saving for retirement.
Building a foundation is the "responsible" thing to do. But building your castle in the air, to borrow Thoreau's metaphor, is the philosophy of living now as yourself, as opposed to waiting indefinitely to be yourself later, after having built a foundation.
"We have to recognize accident, i.e., the fact that there is no formula, no 'principle', which covers all things; that there is no totality or system of things. And this recognition at once supports a life of 'responsibility and adventure' and leads to scientific discovery." ~ John Anderson
Almost every reflection on life I have ever seen or heard from those who have lived a self-actualized existence says that the risk of (or indifference to) financial failure is essential for achieving the ability to spend more of your time doing what comes naturally, to be your Self, to be self-actualized.
As Thoreau suggests in his famous 'castles in the air' quote, success comes when one "advances confidently in the direction of his dreams." Therefore an act of failure in conventional terms is seen only as a temporary setback for those who live authentically in the present.
But to be self-actualized and enjoy life now does not require financial irresponsibility. All that is required, like all things in life, is a healthy balance of responsibility and adventure.
Now consider other examples of building castles in the air:
- Do what you love now and find a way to make the finances work later.
- Live where you want to live first and find the job second.
- Listen to your inner voice and doubt any other voice you hear.
"What do you think I am doing now?"
For a specific example, what if you could find meaningful work now that you enjoy but it only paid a minimal amount to cover only the bare necessities? You may not be able to "save for retirement" anymore but you would already be in retirement, if you think of it with a healthy perspective: You would build the castle and live in it now, as opposed to spending most of your life building a foundation first. Why save money for "the good life" when you already live the good life?
The idea of 'castles in the air' brings to mind a similar lesson, the fisherman's parable, which is where I will leave you today:
One day a fisherman was sitting by his boat while playing with his child on a beautiful beach; his fishing pole resting against the boat.
A wealthy businessman came walking down the beach, trying to relieve some of the stress of his workday. Curious and horrified at the sight of the fisherman wasting the day, the businessman asked, "Why aren't you out fishing?"
The fisherman looked up at the businessman, smiled and replied, "Because I already caught enough fish for one day." The businessman followed, "Why don't you catch some more?"
"What would I do with them?" replied the fisherman. "You could earn extra money," said the businessman, "then with the extra money, you could buy a bigger boat, go into deeper waters, and catch more fish. Then you would make enough money to buy nylon nets. With the nets, you could catch even more fish and make more money. With that money you could own two boats, maybe three boats. Eventually you could have a whole fleet of boats and be rich like me."
"Then what would I do?" asked the fisherman. "Then," said the businessman, "you could really enjoy life."
The fisherman looked at the businessman quizzically and asked, "What do you think I am doing now?"
Castles In the Air Image by Kwatsu