Navigating Life with Non-Negotiables

Lily Styrmoe, CFP®, CSRIC™

May 6, 2024

Life is like a river. Forgive the analogy, I spent years as a Grand Canyon rafting guide. Sometimes, the current is leisurely, other times a rushing torrent. In some places, obstacles create hazardous rapids but around the bend, the water runs tranquil.

One of the most important pieces of gear while on the river, other than your life vest, of course, is a paddle. We all know the old saying, “up the creek without a paddle!” Without a paddle, you float down the river at the mercy of the current. You move downstream, but without direction, purpose or intention. Without a paddle, you’re unable to navigate around a dangerous obstacle or pull to shore to enjoy a picnic lunch in the shade.

We need paddles off the river, too. In life, I call these, “non-negotiables.” These are your “must-haves,” the things that are most important to you, that you’re not willing to compromise or sacrifice.

Non-negotiables help you find balance, set boundaries and say “no” when you need to. Like a paddle, they help you steer where you want to go, and avoid unnecessary obstacles. Knowing your non-negotiables allows you to make decisions about how to invest your time, effort and resources in ways that bring you the most joy and fulfilment.

Scouting Ahead: Discovering Your Non-Negotiables

If you asked me what my non-negotiables were a couple of years ago, I don’t think I would have had a good answer. I had been floating down my “river” without too much thoughtful intention. I was doing things that brought me joy and fulfilment, but I was also doing a lot of things out of habit. Life, in many ways, was just carrying me along in its current.

Then, some life changes reminded me that the one asset I can never replace is time. I realized I didn’t want to waste time on things that aren’t worth it. That got me thinking, “What is worth it? What are my non-negotiables?”

I found some answers rooted in my childhood experiences: I’ve had a passion for the outdoors my entire life. Growing up, my dad and I spent a lot of time fly fishing and hiking together. That evolved into my college job, leading backpacking and rafting trips in the Grand Canyon. As a guide, I got to do a lot of environmental education, which is something I love and continue to do in my current role as an Advisor at TCI.

Discovering my non-negotiables also involved taking stock of more recent events. At the end of each year, I reflect on what brought me the most happiness and consider how I can integrate more of that into the coming year.

Through this journey, I discovered three key non-negotiables that guide me:

  1. connecting with family and friends;
  2. connecting with nature;
  3. caring for others and being involved in my community.

Navigating with Non-Negotiables

After I identified my non-negotiables, the next question was: What do they look like in my life?

Connecting with family and friends is about prioritizing my time. For example, I have dinner with my parents and my grandmother every Sunday, and I regularly host small dinner parties for friends.

Finding connections in nature is another non-negotiable. Being active outdoors is essential for my physical and mental health; it relieves stress and keeps me centered. I can tell when I’ve been inside staring at a screen for too long. To be at my best, I need time outside where it’s quiet, sunshine on my face and to fill my lungs with fresh air. I spend a lot of my free time on the mountain bike trails–whether it’s training for an upcoming race or just riding for fun.

The importance of nature shows up in my work as well. Time outdoors is important to me, but equally important is safeguarding the environment for future generations to enjoy. In my role as an Advisor at TCI, my area of expertise is in sustainable, responsible and impactful investing. I love helping my clients align their long-term investment strategies and overarching financial plans with their core values.

My third non-negotiable is caring for people and being involved in my community. This reminds me of TCI’s founder, Bob Swift, who is known for saying how boring life is if you’re not helping people. In everything I do, I ask myself, “How can I support my family’s health and happiness? How do I make sure my friends are taken care of? What can I do to make my community a better place?” Naturally, that bleeds over into my day job. In fact, I think that’s the best part of my job, helping our clients and making sure they and their families are taken care of.

Rules of the River: Putting Non-Negotiables to Work in Your Life

As with any trip, it’s good to review the “rules of the river” before setting out. Here are some insights I’ve gathered since embracing a non-negotiable mindset.

1. Don’t get stuck.

Sometimes we’re so entrenched in our routines and to-do lists that it’s difficult to imagine what brings us joy, fulfillment and purpose. If you find yourself in this place, trying new things and pushing outside your comfort zone can open up your mind to what else is possible. It doesn’t have to be extreme. For me, I love Indian food and I love cooking. However, I have never tried preparing Indian cuisine. So, I bought a cookbook, stocked up on exotic spices and started trying a new recipe every week.

It can also help to remember that your list of non-negotiables doesn’t have to be perfect. Don’t get stuck trying to create a list that includes everything you think you “should” be doing. “Exercise every day, never eat cupcakes and get a promotion every year” are not non-negotiables. There is a difference between the “to-do” list and the “brings you joy” list.

2. Go with the flow.

Non-negotiables are not set in stone. Revisit your list regularly, because they evolve over time. What’s most important to you as a single person is likely going to be different once you have a family or are caring for an aging parent. It’s going to change as you transition from working full-time to part-time or retire. Life is not static, and neither are your non-negotiables.

Sometimes non-negotiables turn out to be different than what you expect. Travel has been an important part of my life in the past, and I assumed it would still be near the top of my list. Yet, as I considered what brings me joy now, I discovered my favorite moments were dining with friends, browsing the farmers market on the weekends and weekly virtual art classes with a friend in Wisconsin. At this point in my life, it’s the little stuff that offers the greatest happiness. So, I’ve put an emphasis on creating more of those experiences and invested less time and resources in planning big trips.

Also, sometimes a non-negotiable may stay the same, but how it expresses itself in your life shifts. I used to think that pushing myself to my limit under the toughest conditions was the best way to be outside: extreme rock climbing, serious river rafting and super technical mountain biking. Over time, I realized those high-adrenaline, high-consequence sports were creating more anxiety than joy for me. Today, a long rambling bike ride makes me the happiest… so that’s what I do.

3. Stay balanced.

We all have things we have to do in order to be functioning adults and contributing members of society. But there is more to life. Having non-negotiables helps balance the “shoulds” with the “wants” in your life. When I’m being pulled in a million directions or facing a daunting to-do list, it helps me to focus on why I’m doing what I’m doing: I’m working so I can care for my family. Or, I’m helping people make decisions that will positively impact the environment. In the midst of a chaotic day, I can also look forward to the “reward after responsibilities,” the dinner with friends, the long bike ride or something else that brings me joy.

4. Know your boundaries.

Non-negotiables can help with setting boundaries. In our culture, it’s so easy to say “yes” to everything. Our perceived value is often closely tied to how “productive” we are, so we load up our plates as much as possible. But when we do this, we can spread ourselves too thin and wear ourselves down to the point where we’re merely getting through the day. That’s not living our best lives.

So it’s important to be mindful about how we dedicate our time: identify and focus on what really matters to us and take away some of the “filler.” Sometimes the most powerful part of a non-negotiable is the word “no.” For example, if giving back to your community is important, but you find that your volunteer time is starting to drain rather than recharge your energy, that’s a sign it’s time to let go or pull back a bit.

5. Take it slow.

Be careful that your non-negotiables don’t morph into “shoulds.” You can be doing something you really love, but if you’re rushing through it because you want to check it off the list, you’re not going to reap the benefits. There is a monumental difference between riding on the training bike, mindlessly scrolling on my phone or being outside in the sun and fresh air listening to the birds or my favorite music. Slow down and stay present in the moment when you’re doing something you enjoy.

6. Make smart decisions.

When you have a big decision to make, or overwhelmed with options, you can use your non-negotiables as a guide. We had some clients who were looking at buying a new car. We were walking through the various options: buying new, buying used, trading in, using cash or financing. We revisited their non-negotiables which included supporting their daughter. From there, it was an easy choice. They purchased a less expensive vehicle and gifted their old car to their daughter. The decision didn’t impact their lives and they still had a newer vehicle that better fit their current needs. However, it had a huge impact on their daughter’s life.

7. Protect the places you play.

Your non-negotiables can help you reach your goals, while staying true to what matters most to you. For me, it was important to have a successful career but my work had to be aligned with my passion, not just be a paycheck. I found deep satisfaction in educating clients about sustainable, responsible investments and guiding them in financial planning and investment strategies that aligned with their core values.

The Joy of Guiding

In my years as a backpacking and river rafting guide, I loved the careful planning and detailed preparation. I loved helping people overcome obstacles and achieve their goals. Although the scenery is different now, the joy I find in guiding clients remains the same.

We’re all on this journey together. While there are many things in this life that are outside of your control, knowing what is most important can help you steer toward the people, experiences and decisions that will help you live your best life.

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