Writer Cait Flanders shares her experience of opting out of expectations, changing course and living a more intentional life.
By Robert J. Wiersema | Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet
Many of us can relate to that niggling awareness that maybe we’re not living the life we should be living. Few of us have the tools — or courage — to actually make sweeping changes in our lives.
Cait Flanders is one of those few. Flanders, who grew up in Victoria, first came to public attention with a year-long, self-imposed shopping ban, which she chronicled online and in her first book, The Year of Less. As she reveals in her new book, Adventures in Opting Out: A Field Guide to Leading an Intentional Life, making big changes in her life didn’t stop there.
“In order to experience the benefits that could come from going down a new path, you need to understand why you want to step off the one you’re currently on to begin with.”
From Adventures in Opting Out by Cait Flanders
I met Flanders at a James Bay coffee shop to talk about Adventures in Opting Out, which follows her attempt to adopt a fully nomadic lifestyle. That she ended up back in Victoria (and, owing to COVID, has been here for somewhat longer than expected), is part of the process — the ongoing experimentation of living a deliberate life.
How do you define opting out?
The shortest answer is just changing paths in some way … Often that’s a path you think you’re supposed to be on, or your family told you to be on, or your friends seem to be doing and so you go along with it. Opting out is finally deciding it’s actually not right for you. Opt outs don’t have to be huge or dramatic but to be the first of your friends or family that does something different … I wanted to look at that. What challenges — or even just internal challenges — come up for you when you’re first, and how do you make that decision when no one else you know has done it?
I’m a former bookseller. How would you categorize the book? Where would you put it in the store?
I used to think that all self-help books were just trying to sell you something; to sell you that you’re wrong or broken, and “here’s something that will make you better.” When I was writing this book, I wanted it to feel like [the reader] was having a conversation with someone. Like you’re talking to a friend. That’s probably in the self-help space, and that’s okay with me.
When did opting out start for you?
Probably when I started paying off my debt [in 2011], but I wouldn’t have known that back then.
I was completely maxed out, so I had no choice. I learned in those two years how to live very frugally. I did not have a model in my life for that. And if my friends did it, no one talked about it. The first more obvious opt-out was when I stopped drinking, at the end of 2012.
At 27, to decide to not drink, you are very much alone in that decision. I did not have sober friends. I did not have anyone else who was doing it or thinking about doing it. Everything I’ve learned from being sober has taught me how to be okay with being the odd one out in the room … That was probably the most challenging, at least in the first few years.
What is the value in opting out?
You learn how to trust yourself, to trust that you know what is right for you and to also trust that if you decide to make those decisions, you can figure out how to deal with whatever comes next. I also think I’m much more
content — really content — in my choices.
I think something I learned from reading about personal finance for years is that every decision we make has a trade-off. Unless you have all the money in the world, you can’t have everything and you can’t do everything. So every decision you make means you will not be doing other things. I think with opting out, or just being intentional, it means, you know, deep down, you are making the right choices for you.
How can one recognize that there’s something they need to change?
If you’re thinking about it, that’s step one. If you’re even looking at other options, that’s probably a sign. A lot of the decisions I’ve made have come from realizing that I’m living out of alignment in some way. Something I’m doing, I don’t feel good about anymore, and that’s often the sign that I need to make a change.
Drinking was a very obvious one. I hated waking up in the morning and not remembering, which was pretty much every time I drank. I hated not knowing what I said to people, if I hurt myself, hurt any relationships. I do think it’s that niggling feeling; it’s just this awareness.
What are some potential pitfalls of opting out?
Not only is it hard for us to change for ourselves, but other things are going to change as a result. You could lose family or lose friends in the process. There are people — depending on what your opt out is — who decide they don’t like the way you’re doing things now and they don’t support you. Or they don’t know how to relate to you anymore.
Are there other consequences?
You will change one thing, and you will learn something, and it’ll probably make you want to try something else. Not that that’s a stumbling block, but if you feel good about the choices you’re making — you’re going to make some hard choices — you’re going to go through the process many times. It’s more of a practice, I guess.
What one piece of advice would you have for people around the new year, at this time of change?
I would say, “Don’t set goals because everyone else is setting them.” I think a lot of times with goal setting, it doesn’t work because it’s not actually your goal. It’s the goal you see everyone else doing. The start of the year doesn’t have to be when you change anything. It can be a time to start processing: What might I want to do differently, if anything? What’s important to me this year? And what is that answer for you, not for anyone else? All of the things I’ve done, not a single one was started in January.