Dan sat in the front window of a coffee house, sipping an herbal tea. It was 8pm, and the shop was preparing to close; the last barista sweeping the day’s traffic into small piles of dirt and leaves. Snow gathered on the window pane. I was joining him, as we occasionally did, to talk about life’s heavier topics: love, business, loss. He was 47 years old, although few people would believe you if you told them so. His youthful thick brown hair was barely speckled with gray. He had young skin and fit muscles crafted by years of physical activity. But despite his youthful appearance, Dan was wise, and had lived a rich life. He was born in Alaska to parents who had driven to America’s 49th state before it was declared a part of the union. Growing up in subzero temperature toughened him up, and in his life, he would need it. When arriving at college Dan happened to sign a lease on an apartment where he was incidentally grandfathered into running a part time drug dealing job, selling acid to a demanding list of clientele. Despite not being big in drugs in his teens, he stayed in the apartment and kept the job. The side income was nice, and the occasionally trip that ushered cosmic realizations under the aurora borealis was an additional perk. After college Dan ditched the acid dealing business and moved south, into the lower 48, to attend graduate school and study molecular biology. There, he excelled in his studies, and met a dark haired girl, Alexis. The two fell deeply in love, and toured the country, having passionate sex and adventures in the back of their pick-up truck. But, like many fast-love stories, it didn’t last. His heart was forever crushed. Even at 47, he confessed, he still dreamt of her and her thick brown hair which fell across her shoulders and bounced down her back. Instead, at 30-years-old Dan reinvested his energy into the real estate market.
In the beginning of the 2000s, he became a quick millionaire, and acquired ownership of dozens of homes scattered across the American west and Mexico. His posse changed. Instead of hanging out with druggies, he hung out with the upper echelon of society and traveled extensively throughout Europe. Not only that, but the income generated by the real estate market meant he didn’t have to work a single day. But that, too, didn’t last. In 2008, the American economy tanked, pulled to the bottom of the sea by an anchor of bad real estate mortgages. His fortune sunk with the rest of many American’s investments, as the country braced for the largest recession since the Great Depression. Verging on bankruptcy, he moved from a 10-bedroom mansion into a meager two-bedroom apartment a few blocks from downtown. It was all he could do before moving back in with his then-widowed mother, who still lived in Alaska. In fact, he would tell you, at the time he wasn’t even sure he’d be able to pay for the plane ticket to Alaska. His financial glory days were over. He owed the government over a million dollars, and was forced to either foreclose or short sale several of his properties. Depression sank deep. He avoided tax collectors, debt collectors, and conversations with friends. He moved. He slept with women. He made oatmeal. He managed. In 2012, he was able to finagle a sale of his last American property for a slight gain, and righted himself onto his feet. His spirits enlivened as his economics patched. However, it was never the same. In total, with the sale of the Wyoming mansion, Dan’s net value was roughly $100,000, down from the $4,ooo,ooo he’d once known just a few years before. Nevertheless, the world seemed brighter. He bought a good bike and a good set of skis. He biked everyday in summer in the local Colorado mountains. To cut his expenses, he’d take the bus up the mountain and ride home. In the winters, he’d pack his skis and head to the snowiest parts of the Rockies, sleeping on couches or floors of old friends to catch the glory or riding through powder snow. His wealth was starting to be more etched in experiences than dollars. In 2013, he told me over brunch that once his bank account reached $10,000 he’d have to get a real job. He was 46 at that time. Now, one year later, his bank account finally depleted to $10,000. “Everyday I think I might need to get a job,” he told me, as I took up the stool next to him in the frosty window. He didn’t look right at me. Instead he gazed was focused on the blurry passerby on the street outside. “But the right opportunity hasn’t arrived, yet. ”
In all reality, he hadn’t had any job in over a decade. Graduate school paid him through his late twenties, and his thirties were explosive in real estate investments. However, where his resume wouldn’t tout his career success, his memories transcended. Despite the marring repercussions of depression and financial ruin, he’d been determined to live life as fully as possible. In the $90,000 spent between the sale of his final property, and the $10,000 he had that day, the man had experienced a wealth of the world. He’d skied in Switzerland’s most iconic mountain ranges, hitchhiked to Canada’s most impressive mountain biking locations, flown to Mexico and lived off pennies per day while surfing the Pacific coast, and read a pile of Eastern and Western philosophy books; he helped co-found a national film-festival, served on the board of a non-profit organization; volunteered to rally his local community to vote in both local and national elections; taught his nephew how to rock climb, and forged friendships with some of the most respected people in the community. Many who knew him, said is was this dedication to physical health and adventure kept him young. Indeed, nobody could argue that he was the youngest 47-year-old you’ve ever seen: white teeth, unwrinkled skin, unending energy. “I just can’t say yes to something that doesn’t feel right. ”
In the end, it was his chosen way of life. Dan did not care if the rest of society judged his rapidly declining bank account figure and refusal to get a job. He would always obstinately say “no” to things that weren’t right, because by virtue of saying yes to something that wasn’t right, he was automatically stuck with something wrong. Humans, he would say, have the right to say no. They also have the right to say yes. It’s this individual liberty that puts us all at the same crux of irony at once: We are simultaneously free of choice and also thrust into the line of human scrutiny. This is because anyone who understands the value of freedom, also realizes the responsibility. Those with the privilege of liberty hold other libertarians accountable for their situations. It’s the simple case of the chicken and the goat. Imagine standing on a corner. If someone walks by with a chicken, you could chose to take the chicken, or you could chose to refuse the chicken. If you say no, you remain on the corner empty handed. Others could walk by and disgracefully shake their heads in disappointment that you failed to seize an opportunity. But let’s say you’d said yes to taking the chicken. You’d have instantly found yourself in a predictable situation: namely, you’d be standing on a corner holding a chicken. When a goat finally walks by—the thing you were really waiting for—you wouldn’t be able to grab it, because your hands were full of chicken. If you’d been standing empty handed, you could have nabbed the goat with ease. In life, we find it much easier to identify and describe our goats. Our goats are the things that we want. Dreams, passions, the greener grass on the other side of the fence. But it’s often harder to identify our chickens. Undoubtedly we’ve each got a few of them. Our chickens are the things in life that make it harder to grab the goat. In Dan’s life a chicken was a meaningless job, or a boss that didn’t allow him to take as much vacation as he wanted. A chicken could be a boyfriend or girlfriend, an untreated addiction, a job you love but aren’t passionate about, a fear, a rent. A chicken is anytime during the day that you chose to do something that doesn’t directly relate to goat-things. If you want to be a painter time outside the studio visiting neighbors could be a chicken. If you want to climb mountains, time inside the office is a chicken. If you want to be well read, perhaps your wife is a chicken.