10 Eye-Opening Lessons I Learned From Setting My Entire Life On Fire

Leaving comfort in pursuit of growth is harder than it looks.

Lessons Learned from setting life on fire... and walking away Tamar Willoughby, Africa images, Onfokus | Canva

I could only watch as my life went up in flames. My career of almost 13 years — gone. That doesn’t even count the two years it took me to get that job. Oh, and my marriage of the same amount of time — over. Who could be responsible for all this chaos? It was me.

The prior two decades had been smooth sailing, or at least it had appeared that way. I was the guy who appeared to have his life together. But the trouble was always there lurking, I just couldn’t see it.


When I was 22 years old, I made two decisions that changed the course of my life. Decisions I was too young to make as my parents had gently tried to remind me. Despite their best efforts, I decided who I would marry and what career I would pursue. Go big or go home, right?

The year prior I had applied to become a state trooper. Trooper is a fancy title for a police officer who could be assigned anywhere in the state. To my surprise, I was accepted and told to pack my bags.

I’d live and train at their academy for six months. With a six-month absence on the horizon, my girlfriend and I decided we’d get married before I left. My academy would start in July and the wedding would happen in June — just a month prior.


In hindsight, starting a marriage by moving out doesn’t put you on the road to success. My career as a police officer quickly took up the bulk of my time. I became a detective after some years and was promoted a few times. I worked 60 hours most weeks.

The work consumed me. The marriage suffered as you’d expect, and we became two completely different people. The years dragged on. I wasn’t happy, not at work and not in my marriage.

Something had to change. Leaving my career was nearly unthinkable. I’d done it for almost thirteen years and considered it my only skill. If I quit, what the heckwould I do? It wasn’t just my job; it had become my identity. The thought of leaving my marriage turned my stomach.

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading — Lao Tzu


The only thing more terrifying than leaving my career and marriage was staying in them. Years of soul-searching, counseling, and turmoil followed as I went through the motions. I stayed in both until one day — I just couldn’t.

After almost thirteen years, I walked away from it all. I moved out of my home and left my career. It was messy, painful, scary, and humbling. As I write this, seven years have passed. Walking away was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it taught me countless lessons. Here are ten of the most valuable.

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Here are the 10 eye-opening lessons I learned from setting my entire life on fire:

1. The conversations I avoided were the ones I needed to have the most

The most pressing factor in my unhappiness was unresolved conflict. My ex and I had wildly different spending habits. Instead of having an open conversation around it and working towards a compromise, we ignored it.


The spending issue was a constant source of tension. We also had a different view of our families. My ex had almost no contact with hers, while I enjoyed spending time with mine. The tension mounted with every family gathering. Now I address tension as it comes which keeps it from festering.

2. In a relationship, there are no little things

How I do the “little things” is a “big thing.” The big stuff makes up a fraction of a long relationship. The bulk of it will be the small stuff. I’d stopped giving my ex my attention when I was home.

I’d go right into reading a book or scrolling on my phone. I ignored the message it sent — I’d prefer this activity over engaging with you. Do the small stuff every day, and the rewards will be enormous.

3. I’m on time for everything

There’s no easier way to show people you’re reliable, dependable, and respectful than by being on time. Be late, and you’ll send the opposite message. I let work cases take priority in my life, which meant I regularly canceled and missed plans at home. I was unreliable. Now, I’ll be two hours early before I’m two minutes late.


RELATED: 10 Things Only Perpetually On-Time People Understand

4. My fears are overblown

When I left my job, I was terrified I’d be unhappy, broke, and void of meaning. My fear of leaving my marriage was even worse, but it shared a lot of the same roots. I’d be a failure with no options.

We suffer more in imagination than in reality — Seneca


Not a single one of those fears proved true. It wasn’t easy, but my world didn’t end like my mind had convinced me it would. I ended up happier, more fulfilled, and with a newfound sense of purpose. Life got better.

5. Change isn’t a possibility — it’s a guarantee

Are you the person you were five years ago? I doubt it. You’ve learned a lot, failed at some things, and probably had successes you never saw coming. Change is coming, and you can embrace it or fight against it. Change isn’t optional, but how you change is.

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. ― James Baldwin

I didn’t realize it then, but I’d fought hard against change. Working as a detective was grinding on me, but I failed to accept that. Instead of moving into a new role, I stayed until the only remedy was a split from that career.


6. Comfort and discomfort are two sides of the same coin.

It’s in my nature to seek comfort. But if I’m comfortable for too long, I start to pursue growth. Growth comes from doing things I find uncomfortable. It’s a cycle I didn’t recognize then.

I had stayed in my comfort zone too long. I was on autopilot. I did a job I knew well and then went home to my familiar life. My life now accommodates my cycles of growth and comfort.

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7. I'm the author of my story

My marriage was unhappy, but I chose to be in it. Just like solving cases and arresting bad guys wasn’t what I needed, even though I had pursued it and stayed with it. I counted on my spouse or my career to make me happy. That wasn’t their role. A career and a spouse can supplement happiness, but they can’t create it long-term. I write my story and only I can decide whether it’s a happy one. It’s not a group story.

8. The cost of inaction is higher than the cost of a poor decision

When you have two choices and choose the wrong one, you learn and move on. That’s how life works. When you have two choices but avoid making either one, you introduce a third option. It’s a decision by default. The mind forgives a poor choice much faster than it will forgive being too afraid to make any choice. By not choosing my path forward, my marriage became more complex. We bought a home that we had to sell. It wasted our time. Time that we could have used to get on with our lives.

9. Wasting time is far worse than wasting money

The divorce was expensive and demoralizing. It also spanned over a year. Knowing how costly it would be is one of the main reasons I’d avoided it. Within a few years, I’d made the money back. The time, however, is lost forever. I’d calculated the cost of divorce and gave it far too much say in what I would do. Not to mention the cost would only go up the longer I waited.


The 10 Eye-Opening Lessons I Learned From Setting My Life On Fire CandyRetriever / Shutterstock

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10. Never ignore the little voice in your head

Maybe you call it a “gut feeling”. Whatever the name, I had it long before I listened to what it was telling me. Instead, I rationalized ignoring it. That voice or feeling will tell you things you don’t want to hear. Listen to it. My voice told me that detective work was not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It also told me my marriage was over. Acknowledging that voice would have saved precious time and heartache.


The road that led to this article was full of unexpected twists, turns, and potholes. I’m thankful for it. The lessons I’ve learned have shaped me into who I am today. There are rare times in life where the best way forward, is to make sure the bridges behind you can’t be crossed again. I burned the bridges.

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Joshua Mason is a former police detective and public safety leader turned writer. His weekly stories on Medium are dedicated to change, leadership, and life lessons.