Sometimes losing everything is an opportunity.
Forty years ago, in late December, I broke up with my wife. After years of unhappiness, it had become clear that the we didn’t belong together. She requested that I leave the apartment the next morning.
I had a small suitcase full of clothes and nothing else. I called my friend Dena, who agreed to give me a place to sleep for a few weeks. I was in a tiny room under a staircase, with just enough space for a single bed and my suitcase. And I was grateful just to have a place to lay my head. I resolved to find a place to live as quickly as possible.
Things quickly got complicated. My wife had quickly filed an interim order with the court that required me to pay support (lacking an address, I was listed as “Joshua Bernoff, of parts unknown”). At the time I was working a full-time job at a software company and had started moonlighting in my spare time at a startup that intrigued me. She had just added up what I made for 70 hours a week at two jobs and gotten the court to demand I pay her half of that. It was a massive cash grab and it terrified me.
She’d also claimed that I’d threatened her, which was false, and she was seeking a restraining order. I’d never struck another human in anger, and certainly not my wife. This seemed like a nightmare.
I focused on solving one problem at a time. I found an apartment within my self-imposed two-week deadline.
And Dena loaned me a skinny little spare mattress she had. Every morning I woke up from sleeping on the floor, looked around the bare apartment, and wondered what would become of me.
The freedom of nothing
I was upset and in shock and worried. But somehow, I was not depressed.
The first thing I did one weekday is drive back to my old apartment to retrieve my computer, the first one I’d ever owned. And on the drive, I found myself singing at the top of lungs. I didn’t really know why, but I guess I felt free.
My wife had changed the locks, but my name was still on the lease, so the management company let me in. My wife was at work. I took the computer, touched nothing else, and got right out of there.
Shortly thereafter there was an alimony hearing in the divorce court. I had never been in a courtroom before. Shady characters lined the halls. In the courtroom, the judge asked my wife if anything was preventing her from continuing to work. She said no. And he said, “Alimony is not indicated in this case. Work out a settlement and bring it to me.”
We and our attorneys worked out the settlement in the hallway of the courthouse. I basically had to give up everything left in our shared bank account (I’d already paid half of it to my attorney.) I officially had nothing.
Every morning when I woke up, I took stock. You are divorced already in your twenties, I thought. You have nothing. But you have a place to live, you have friends, and you have a job.
Of course I felt angry and hurt. But that was fading. More than that . . . I felt free.
No furniture? I can decorate any way I want.
No wife? I can date anyone I want.
Very soon after that, I quit the job I had and joined the startup I’d been moonlighting for. It just felt like a good fit. I was the third employee, after the two founders, and I was excited to start something new. It was a great job, the start of a lot of professional growth for me.
I invented new habits. I started going to new places on weekends. I made some new friends. Everything was new, which meant everything was possible.
In many ways, that was the start of who I am now. I reinvented myself, because the old me wasn’t there anymore. It was hard, but it was fun, too, because I could make any choices I wanted.
If you are starting over, I hope this helps you
We all live in our comfortable habitual ruts. We don’t have to expend much effort on deciding who to be, because we built all those habits up over time.
Sometimes things happen to us that rip that all away. You are left with nothing but yourself.
Do not waste those moments.
They are scary. You are at risk. But you probably have assets you don’t think about — your friends, your skills, your wits.
And your freedom.
Take that leap to decide who you are and who you will be.
Try the thing you were always afraid of, or didn’t have time for.
Try on new habits, meet new people, be somebody different for a change.
Those moment are rare. Don’t waste them looking down. Try looking around and looking up.
You won’t regret it.