When I left on the Conquest, there was a nagging voice in the back of my head.
“Be serious. Act your age. You’re just running away from your responsibilities. Everyone else is getting married and having babies, and you’re going to burn through your savings to chase what?”
Expectations and societal pressures have a way of doing that, creeping into one’s psyche so deeply that we can’t differentiate the desires of our own heart from our (insert years here) of intense training.
It doesn’t matter if you’re 5 or 15 or 50. Society has a set of expectations for you, and acting outside of that framework is considered risky behavior. Why not stick on the main road? It is safe there.
“It worked for Larry and Suzy and Paige. Hell it even worked for Bob, and we all know that he’s not playing with a full deck of cards.”
Societal norms end up being codified “best practices.” People wonder why pork isn’t eaten by in Kosher (Jewish) or Halal (Islam) traditions. Have a nice case of trichinosis and get back to me. The origins of both of those religions were in the desert nomad way of life. Pork goes bad…fast. It doesn’t take too many people keeling over from food poisoning or trichinosis before someone says, “hold on, maybe God doesn’t like this.”
After a few thousand years, that social more becomes ingrained well past it’s “consume by” date. Modern refrigeration makes the consumption of pork no more dangerous than any other meat, but the taboo continues.
Modern society is no different. “Get a job, find a nice girl, buy a house and pay down your mortgage. And STAY MARRIED.” This path was a road to success for generations. People lifted themselves from squalor and into situations that their parents only dreamed about.
Then in America we started bumping up against a dazzling diamond ceiling. The dream ceased to be “become a homeowner” and began to be about owning a BIGGER house or a MORE EXPENSIVE car. We substituted aspirations for a better life for a desire for the meaningless and ephemeral “MORE.”
As far as standard of living goes, there is no reason that a family of four in a 4000 sq ft house is better off than a family of four in a 2000 sq ft house. Unless playing hide and go seek from our family members is considered a material good (which in some families it might be) we’re accomplishing nothing besides paying to heat and cool unused space.
Driving a 10 year old Chevy Impala and driving a brand new Mercedes SLK has absolutely 0 difference on one’s quality of life. If both cars function properly, both cars will get you from here to there without walking.
That iPhone 5 in your pocket? There is only the barest of marginal difference between that and an iPhone from 4 years ago. If someone says, “but it is faster” I want them to ask themselves what they actually accomplished with that half second saved. Did you get a half second closer to learning Spanish? Or maybe you used those cumulative half seconds to cook a healthy dinner. If so, fantastic, the new iPhone has made your life better.
If you played Candy Crush for 45 minutes today, your life didn’t get better because your phone was faster.
Technology has gone from making our lives markedly better, to making us notably more distracted. We call ourselves busy, yet no one in America (or the rest of the First World for that matter) has ever been forced to carry their drinking water from a well, chop wood to heat a home, or butcher an animal to have dinner.
We’ve started to concentrate on the margins. Utility is ubiquitous, so instead we concern ourselves with unnecessary luxury. There will be people lined up around the block to pay $500 for the next iPhone. Between the time they spent waiting and the money they paid to replace the perfectly good phone in their pocket, what could be accomplished?
Get on kayak.com and check out the Explorer function then get back to me. $500 can almost assuredly get anyone in America a round trip plane ticket out of the country.
Our society doesn’t look at this as a sickness, but it really is. We’ve been so conditioned to believe that “new” must be “better” that we no longer look at whether there were any material benefits.
According to 2007 New York Times article, Americans see more than 5000 commercial advertisements today. That is just shy of 1 every 10 waking seconds. Can we really act like this has no effect on our internal thought processes?
If society can delude itself into mass hysteria about something as simple as a smartphone, why don’t we examine those other mores that society tells us? Do we look with an objective eye at the “why” of those “best practices”?
We blindly push more and more kids into college without any serious consideration of alternatives. Nothing screams “blind tradition” like sending a kid to learn about the internal rate of return in business school but never asking him to run that calculation on his own college debt and future earnings potential.
In the same vein, nothing screams crazy like America training our future “world leaders” while never sending them outside of the country.
For all my initial fears that I was “running away” or “keeping my Peter Pan tights on a little too long,” I finally came to the realization that the safe, conventional road wasn’t right for me.
I also realized that some of those moderating voices in my conscience aren’t actually “me.” They are an echo of everyone else.
People always tell kids to “chase their dreams.”
Almost no one says, “first, make sure your dreams are worth having.”
Is having a big house and an expensive car a dream worth having?
Well…maybe for someone? I think most people just do it because they listen to the voice in the back of their head saying, “Let’s be “better” than our parents. Let’s be “better” than our friends.”
That’s all well and good, but we’ve got to remember to look at what actually makes something “better.” To the kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Speedway, Indiana, the Chicago suburbs seem like heaven on earth. Everyone has a college degree, drives a nice car, vacations in expensive places, and there are more culinary choices than Gene’s Root Beer and Applebees.
You can wear argyle socks and sweater vests without being laughed at, and leather shoes are encouraged instead of scorned.
At the end of the day, he can look in a mirror and say “I’m better off than everyone back home.”
But did he ever look in that mirror and ask, “Is this really the life of my dreams? Or was I so concentrated on being better than someone else, that I forgot to figure out what I actually wanted?”
I thought that I wanted that life, I really did. Then I got a real taste of it and said, “Christ this is too sweet, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t leave a bitter aftertaste. And to top it all off I’m still hungry.”
So I shoved off. I said to the man in the mirror, “This didn’t work, not sure if the next thing will either but if we keep swinging we’ll find something that makes us whole.”
By ignoring that voice in the back of my head, I realized that there are an awful lot of ways to live a life.
You can be the Swede who leaves his home and trains to be a Muay Thai boxer. He has his jaw broken in his 4th fight and has to sip all his meals through a straw for 2 months, then gets right back in the ring to fight the BIGGEST Thai guy they could find.
You can be the vagabond oil rig worker from Ohio, who saved his money and leases/runs a guesthouse in Laos, complete with a pet monkey.
You can be the Swiss woman who comes to Laos on vacation, falls in love with the place and starts a school, with no intention to ever leave.
You can be the engineer from America’s frozen northland, Minnesota (I just shivered typing that) who gets sent to Vietnam for work, realizes that there is a satellite package for the NHL, decides to rent a boat, fill it with booze and attempt to start a business. 7 years later he owns 5 bars and 2 apartment buildings with his beloved Vietnamese wife.
Or you can do what everyone else does, trudge off down that old familiar road and hope that it works better for you than it did for the countless unhappy people who did it before you.
I’m not sure I’ve found the one that is right for me yet, but at least I’m looking for what I ACTUALLY want, not just what I’ve been conditioned by society and the media to desire.
Take a little time for introspection today. You might be amazed at what you find.
You’re in there, somewhere. There’s an awful lot of vestigial nonsense and carefully calculated advertising muddying up the water, but with enough effort, you’ll find some pure, unadulterated YOU.
I bet that person is pretty sweet.
Say hi for me.