The walk along the wrought-iron bridge seemed endless. Spanning a canyon over a rapidly flowing river far below. Every minute or so a bloodcurdling scream of abject terror would echo off the canyon walls. The type of noise that causes the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up. Triggering the fight or flight instinct finely honed over countless generations of survivors.
With more than a little trepidation she joined the short queue of tourists in the middle of the bridge.
An annoyingly enthusiastic guy with bleach blonde hair asked each participant their weight, and whether their preference was above the water, touching the water, or in the water?
Barely pausing to listen to the responses, he would attach a bungee cord to their ankles and give them the gentlest of nudges over the edge. Down they would topple. Hurtling head first towards the icy cold water far below.
One lost control of their bladder. Not something they mentioned in the tourist brochure!
To the jumper, time seemed to slow down as they plummeted towards their ultimate doom. Focus reducing to this single moment. Impossible to think about anything else when you are about to perish.
Eventually, seemingly long past the point of survivability, the bungee cord stretches to its full length and catapults them skywards once more. Leaving them bouncing upside-down, until a bored-looking minimum wage earner in a boat reels them in and rescues them.
To observers, the whole thing was over in the blink of an eye. A production line of manufactured experience. A purpose-built merchandising machine designed to sell photos, videos, and mementoes of that fleeting moment when the jumper felt truly alive.
Before long it was her turn.
Unlike the preceding jumpers, attention seekers all, she was doing this for herself. No Instagram ready make-up. No novelty costume. She wasn’t dressed for the red carpet. Nor making the leap in her birthday suit.
Yet despite lining up for her own reasons, even when the consequence was potentially life or death, she still couldn’t bring herself to admit her true weight. Habitually lying, this time to the disinterested blonde stranger whom she would never meet again. Rounding it down by more than ten kilograms.
The guy raised a disbelieving eyebrow, but didn’t say anything. His expression evolving into a wicked grin when she responded she wanted to touch the water only.
She found herself on the edge of the abyss. Months of thinking, worrying, and summoning courage came down to this one moment. This single decision. Take the leap of faith, or walk away?
She hesitated. Took a deep breath. Then jumped.
Flying. A sense of weightless freedom and exhilaration. This is amazing!
Falling. With a rising sense of trepidation. What have I done? Where is the undo button?
Plummeting. An instinctive sense of panic. Eyes squeezed tightly shut as the choppy water rushed to meet her. It is all too hard, I will never survive!
An experience that felt like it had taken lifetimes to endure.
Overwhelming the senses. Convinced she was about to die. Her inner saboteur was surprised that none of the storybook clichés presented themselves.
No light at the end of a tunnel.
No discovering a higher power.
No feelings of past regrets.
No sudden clarity about what was really important.
Instead, her mind distracted itself from imminent doom by focussing on trivial things. The fish she could see swimming below the surface of the river. Wondering if her hotel room card key would fall out of her pocket.
Her head plunged into the icy cold water. Saturated down to her waist. A shocked scream of indignation escaping her lips, turning into a coughing fit underwater. Getting wet was the natural outcome of lying about her weight, the heavier the object the further the bungee cord stretches. She had “touched” the water indeed. Wanting to be mad at the blonde guy on the bridge, but recognising this was a consequence of her own choices.
As she climbed off the boat after being rescued, a crowd of guys on the shore clapped and cheered. Adrenalin and endorphins brought an irrepressible grin to her face, thinking they applauded her bravery in taking the leap. Only realising as she made her way back to her rental car, that they had actually been cheering the fact her t-shirt had become form-fitting and transparent when wet. Discovering that she didn’t care, a surprising change given just moments ago she had been so self-conscious as to lie about her weight.
Driving back towards town with the windows down and music turned up, she felt on top of the world.
A huge weight had lifted from her shoulders. All the fear and uncertainty that indecision brings had been banished. For now.
The important things in life can often be traced back to a single moment. A single decision.
Action or inaction.
Do or die.
Fight or flight.
Panic or patience.
Sink or swim.
That single moment may follow months of dithering. Plotting. Procrastinating, Scheming. Worrying.
That single decision can, in turn, be followed by years worth of celebration. Recrimination. Regret. Remorse. Vindication.
A victory dance or a walk of shame?
Certainty assured or uncertainty initiated?
Love or loneliness?
Occasionally those defining moments occur at random. Quirks of fate. Opportunity unexpectedly knocking.
More often, we can see them approaching from a long way off. Recognising them for what they are. Major milestones or turning points.
Those decisions we make alone. Affecting not only our lives, but the lives of those around us. Lifting some people up. Dragging others down, a blast radius with collateral damage.
Changing jobs or careers.
Getting into a marriage, or out of one.
Moving interstate or migrating abroad.
At some point, each of these life choices involved a decision point. That moment of standing alone on the edge of the precipice. Deciding whether to make the leap into the unknown or step back into the comforting embrace of the status quo. Inaction often mistaken for cowardice, when sometimes it is the correct answer, or the safest path.
Personal Finance writers often obsess over noise and trivialities. The latest cashback current account. Finding the lowest ongoing management charges for tracker funds. Budgeting and coupon clipping. Sweating the small stuff, minor details within their control, yet unlikely to shift the needle materially.
By contrast, a small handful of big decisions will play a major part in determining whether our dreams become realities, or remain mere fantasies that are tantalisingly out of reach.
Our choice of education. The discipline we study. The brand of the institution we study at, and the status by association that it confers. The point at which we decide we have invested enough in book learning, before striving to apply those lessons in the real world.
Our choice of profession. Maximising the marketable value of our time. Keeping a watchful eye on the horizon, and course-correcting to ensure our skills and experience remain saleable and in demand. Getting strong brands on our resume early on, once again conferring status and opening doors.
Our choice of living location. For some, buying as much house as they can afford in a great location will be the best financial decision they will ever make. For others, going too big too early constructs a gilded cage, rendering them perpetually cash strapped and “house poor”.
Our choice of partner. Coupling off achieves economies of scale, potentially making it possible to realise more dreams concurrently and providing a significant other to share the journey with. But getting that choice wrong can be financially ruinous, the single largest financial mistake a person can make.
Big decisions all.
Ones that, if we get them right, put us on the path towards success and dream realisation. Never a guaranteed outcome, the only guarantee is getting any of them wrong makes our financial journey infinitely harder.
But here is the thing. Messing things up initially was a choice. Perhaps not a conscious one, and undoubtedly one that involved some combination of being ill-informed, impatient, misguided, unconfident, uneducated, or just plain unlucky.
Leaving things in a mess is also a choice. Alas, circumstance and fate will rarely unfuck themselves. Guardian angels and knights in shining armour only ride to the rescue in fairy tales. The rest of us need to rescue ourselves. Starting with a single decision. A single moment.
Wisdom of crazy people
I remember years ago, sitting in a pub in a tourist town, chatting to a dishevelled looking stranger with damp hair and a wild look in her eyes. She spoke at a million miles an hour, in the manner usually only seen in coked-up investment bankers, over-caffeinated students, and sleep-deprived parents of young children.
She shared an epiphany with me. One that once seen, could never be unseen: people don’t change, but they can make changes. Waiting and hoping for a boss or business partner or spouse to be more like one thing or less like another was a fools’ errand. Endlessly repeating the same behaviours while seeking a different outcome was a recipe for a lifetime of disappointment. The stuff of insanity, not sound decision making. The past is a sunk cost. Informing the future, but not determining it.
After recognising that fact, the observer is faced with a decision. How much are they willing to compromise in the days, weeks, or months that lay ahead? What are they willing to tolerate? Can they live like an ostrich, with their head buried in the sand, wilfully trying not to see the reality they are now aware of?
Or do they call time on the game? Cash in their chips? Make a change by leaping into the unknown?
She proposed two simple questions to frame the evaluation of the current state.
If you were making the original decision again today, would you still have made the same choice? Study in the same discipline. Work in the same profession. Enter the same relationship. Undertake the same financial commitment.
If it wasn’t for those current obligations based upon that original decision, would you choose to remain? Continue in your existing career. Remain in your relationship. Keep running your business.
If your answer to either question was negative, then your behaviours conflict with your stated goals. A situation bound to yield tension, stress, cognitive dissonance, and an unsatisfying outcome. Wise words, raising an inconvenient truth.
Her message would have carried more weight with me had she not just left her unsatisfying life behind, driving halfway across the country alone, to jump off a perfectly good bridge.
Yet over the years, I have often found myself reflecting back upon them. She might have seemed a little crazy, but she wasn’t wrong.