Wayward Sheep

Much has been made recently of a book by William Deresiewicz entitled Excellent Sheep. By most accounts, it is a scathing review of the highest echelons of  the American university system.  His main point is simple, we’ve created a system where entry to the top levels of society is predicated upon high achieving hyper-conformity.

Mountains of eerily similar student profiles litter the desks of admissions agents. Perfect grades, high SAT scores, and a carefully cultivated list of extracurricular activities are stacked in homogenous piles, waiting for a harried admissions agent to pick out the proverbial “needle in the haystack.”

How do so many high achievers end up looking exactly the same on paper? In an age where “individualism” is disingenuously held up as a self-evident virtue (the 40 other people at the train stop staring at their (I)phones are unique little snowflakes, doing exactly the same thing), how are we producing so many uniformly similar students?

I’ve spoken in earlier posts about the danger of narrow thinking. To pull some of society’s highest achievers into a conformity trap at a young age is condemning them to a life with a golden ceiling.

It prevents many of our best and brightest from ever trying their top gears, and we wonder why we have such high levels of depression in our high achievers. Life is great for a natural test taker so long as there is a test put on the desk. When the scantron becomes a blue book though, well that changes things.

Deresiewicz’s moniker of sheep seems harsh, but his point is that our high achievers have become excellent at doing what they’re told.

What are the long term ramifications for a society that promises security and wealth to those who show the most unwavering adherence to the script? Is our current political structure symptomatic of this thinking, so far as we’ve made no haven for truly dynamic leaders, only those who stick rigidly to the party line?

What happens to a society when our leaders are merely managers instead of visionaries? Like the multitude of blinkered horses dragging carts here in Thies, so many people are blinded to the wider world by the next task at hand. It is impossible to build an integrated sense of self if you are constantly waiting for an external force to reveal your next task.

It isn’t those tasks that reveal character, it is the introspection that occurs during and after. 2500 years ago, Socrates revealed that existential truth that “an unexamined life is not worth living” and it rings no less true today.

Unfortunately, the linear obstacle course only requires eyes on the horizon. The hyperlogical approach would say that there is nothing to be gained by looking around.

As I near the end of my trip, I find myself thinking more and more about my “place” in the world upon returning. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my development as a person has accelerated beyond my wildest dreams. I can feel it instinctively, and I can see it, plain as day through my writing.

Taking the blinkers off will do that.

Yet, there is an element of fear creeping in as my return gets closer and closer. That nagging doubt that says, “All this was fine as long as you kept running, but the downside is coming.”

It takes a certain amount of confidence to take off and start an adventure, but that can be faked if you start at a bit of a run. Ending an adventure requires a confidence that can’t be faked.

In every cell of my body, I know that this was the right decision. But now, I’ve got to return to the “real world” where the sum of a person is distilled to a resume and a cover letter. Excellent sheep make for excellent resumes.

I guess I’ll just have to see what wayward sheep make.

Hopefully not dog food.

Suburban Nightmares

I always told myself that if I wanted a tattoo, I should write it down, put it in a drawer, and pull it out a year later to see if I still wanted it. That saved me a lot of unnecessary laser removal bills when I was younger.

Still tattoo free

Still tattoo free

The same is true in life. When I was younger, I really thought I had THE plan. Get a good job, move to a big city, marry a pretty girl (whose mom still looked good, this is chess not checkers) and raise some cool kids in a nice suburb. I’d seen it work for other people, or at least thought I had, and I wanted that American dream for myself. I was getting the hell out of the podunk town where I grew up and goddamnit I was going to drive a nice Lexus crossover SUV to get there, and I’d park it in a garage with real wood garage doors.

Someone else got that life, and I hope he’s happy with it.

Mostly for her sake.

I got this, and I’m thrilled.

Giving rice noodles a shot

Giving rice noodles a shot

Then life happened. I watched my model for this lifestyle completely blow up. I watched what a lifetime of “doing the right thing” and “playing it safe” had done to a couple who I considered an absolute example in this life.

I saw the suburbs be a defective competition of people who had tried to eliminate all risk from this life, and in doing so had manufactured a game of “keeping up with the Joneses” to stay engaged at all. The delusion that fulfillment can be achieved through the high regard of others is dangerously fragile.

One day they woke up and neither one felt fulfilled. The only way to get out of the trap was to blow it up completely.

The collateral damage of that is staggering. Kids, spouses and extended family all feel the repercussions of a life that just couldn’t bottle up the pressure anymore. It is no one’s fault, just the consequences of taking the safe road one time too many.

We’re meant to throw off the bowlines, test the high seas, and fail occasionally. America’s suburban class has made failure an outcome that must be avoided at all costs, with the victim being greatness. We tell 14 year olds to do 3 hours of homework a night so that they can get into a “good school” and do the same for another 4 years. Then we immediately go to work and work as hard as humanly possible to “get ahead.” Eventually there will be a payoff, some magical Kathmandu which will make it all worth it.

Making woven sleeping mats

Making woven sleeping mats

Then we see the All-American Dad die one Thursday night on the treadmill. We stand around a casket and wonder how life is so unfair that he never got to reach that magical “retirement” so that he could see the world and finally enjoy himself.

That really throws some people for a loop. Now we want fairness, we want to know why, and we want to protect ourselves from a premature end like that.

Life isn’t meant to be lived at the end. It isn’t supposed to be safe and riskless either.

Life’s goal should not be a destination, it is the journey that should be enjoyed.

That isn’t found in a Lexus SUV behind a wooden garage door beside a perfectly manicured lawn. It isn’t an Instagram picture with 112 likes of a $15 cocktail from an urban rooftop. It isn’t having your kid go to an Ivy League school, or having the prettiest wife at your 25 year class reunion.

It is appreciating a laugh with your best friends.

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Laying under the stars and pondering your own insignificance.

Put down the iPhone

Put down the iPhone

It is sitting across from an Argentinian girl and temporarily forgetting the names of every girl you ever thought you loved in this life.

Eating a meal on a 12 inch tall plastic stool in a dark alley where no one speaks English, and not pulling out your phone to check your text messages.

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It is sweating your ass off in 95 degree heat in a concrete shell of a house making rice noodles with a mother and son who don’t speak English, and understanding why they smile so much.

83 and happy, in a house with dirt floors

83 and happy, in a house with dirt floors

It is going to a beach without a single tourist, and watching four generations of a dirt poor family play in the waves and sand while eating dinner, smiling like a staged picture at Disneyland.

4 generations eating together nightly

4 generations eating together nightly

Life is meant to be enjoyed everyday. Not at some point in the mythical “future.” If your life isn’t fulfilling, don’t wait for the next pay raise or girl in the bar to make you happy. Go find a way to do it.

A wise man with an uncanny resemblance to a former American Vice President once told me that he’d promised himself two things when he was younger. That he wouldn’t sell things for a living, and he wouldn’t live in a suburb of Chicago. At the time he told me that, he was doing both.

I always wondered if he ever thought about the road not taken.

We rush and we rush, and we tell ourselves it’s worth it. We consume heaps of nonsense that we don’t really need, in order to save face with our neighbors.

Not beating the Joneses

Not beating the Joneses

We sacrifice our dreams on the altar of safety and get nightmares for our trouble. We work ourselves ragged 50 weeks a year, so that we can go “enjoy” ourselves the other 2.

Boat builders in Com Kim

Boat builders in Com Kim

The finished product

The finished product

As scared as I was to start the Conquest, the factor that pushed me to buy that first plane ticket was the fear of ending up like that All-American Dad in the casket, who had done everything right, but always put the rewards off until tomorrow. He was one of the best men I ever knew, and he deserved better than that.

I hope when they put me in the ground someone doesn’t cry for the things I didn’t get to do, but quietly appreciates the things I did.

I’m trying to live life in a way which makes each day a reward unto itself. Just because it doesn’t work everyday doesn’t mean that it is wrong.

Naperville please don’t be expecting me anytime soon.

“Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness. If they are happy by surprise, they find themselves disabled, unhappy to be deprived of their unhappiness.” Albert Camus