Today I wanted to talk about the concepts of arriving at a place in life and what happens when you reach that point of arrival and realize that you are sort of there, and then what to do from that point, cause we all have these goalposts that we set in life, some far point in the distance and when we get to those goalposts, we wonder what to do. So I just wanted to talk about those concepts more broadly, and how they're applied to my own life.
I grew up in the US in a typical upper-middle class, suburban environment, got a lot of messages about the Protestant Work Ethic ideal of tolerating an unpleasant present for the sake of a future reward, delayed gratification, doing well in school, taking classes that are really boring, miserable, for the sake of this goodie down the road, this prize of a well-paying job in the future.
In kindergarten they tell you you need to pay attention so you can make it to 1st grade, and then in college they tell you to get good grades so that an employer will give you a good job, and then when you ask why should I get a job, they say so that you can make money and get a nice lifestyle and have a family, and of course, to purchase consumer products for myself and my family, and give us the good life. Two cars, a garage, pool in the backyard, and this is what's going to make you happy.
So this is a very trite myth that we're told, and most people are at least, aware of it in the abstract. Even though we're sort of aware of the vacuousness of this hoax, it still is so ever-present that I think it still affects me and affects us in ways that are unconscious. It's all socially reinforced all the time by advertising and mass media. As well as more accepted forms of influence like the universities...and this is a distinctly American dream, I've found.
I've been in Western Europe, I've been in the Czech Republic and other countries in that area, as well as spent some time in Costa Rica and Central America. And this dream of the lucrative career, the house, two cars, bedrooms, smiling kids and that imagery, as the ultimate justification for your life, for your work--it's an American idea in particular. When I was in Prague, people there don't necessarily want so much the big house and the expensive car and the career. So these are not innate, human dreams. These are things that are products of certain societies.
And in a certain sense, this can be seen as sort of a tool of the corporation, or the capitalist, to extra unpleasant labor from people that would otherwise be unwilling or uninterested in doing it. People tolerate miserable jobs so they can get a check and they think that eventually they'll pile up enough money to sort of buy their way out of their misery. Maybe at first we do sort of buy into this ideal, there comes a certain point when we realize that purchasing consumer products is not going to make us happy, that the next series of Volkswagen is not what's going to make us happy.
We don't just need a larger television or any of these things, are really going to change our things in a meaningful way. But after this disillusionment with the initial dream, there comes sort of a replacement goal, of at least putting up the appearing of happiness, as if pretending that the dream works, or the dream is still compelling, makes it somehow compelling. In the book, "Empire of Illusion", by Chris Hedges, he says,
I think the ruling class understands when the masses realize that this dream is fraudulent--it's not going to be rewarding--that that is a dangerous place for the ruling elite, for the current systems of power. And that's why they work so tirelessly to assure us that the Garden of Eden is around the corner, if we would only just work a little bit harder. And I think that what's so damaging and so sad about this fantasy, distracts us from what can actually be enjoyed in life, which is simply enjoying life as it is, and enjoying the task currently at hand.
I think that especially in the West, we're really quick to discard the inherent value in doing something, in exchange for an external object or an abstraction. So throughout school, I was successfully sold on the belief that my reward for being an "A" student would be well worth the price, and the effort involved. And on some level, it definitely has been--the prestige carried from my career at Northwestern is going to help me meet my material goals--it does carry a lot of intellectual and social capital in the world, but what's really made me happy and fulfilled is my joy in learning and improving, and that's what makes me excited to live. Not just wondering how far up the totem pole I'm going to climb. And I've also found that all loving relationships that I've been in, that have been worthwhile, the person cares about who I am, not how far up the ladder I've made it.
This has been really relieving because I grew up in an environment that really praises achievement, that told you, you need to be on top of the ladder, you needed to win, you needed to be the best, and realizing that those things don't really matter that much, and what's more important is how I feel about what I'm doing, and how much self-worth I gain from that, not how others evaluate me. Having been a few years out of college and been successful in business for a few years, doing what I like, I've just realized that my enjoyment is going to come from within the work that I'm doing, not from whatever I get from the work. But this is exactly the opposite of the way we're taught to think about why we select careers. We're told being a doctor and a lawyer is a good idea because they make a lot of money and retire early, you can pick a lot of vacations. So it's all about ways that you can get out of doing the work, versus enjoying the work itself. And we're told at the time that doing a humanities or arts major is risky because those careers aren't as financially rewarded, of course, as being a doctor or a lawyer. And that's true--but what's often avoided in that conversation is, "What is it worth to be a wealthy doctor or lawyer if you're miserable doing it?"
And I don't mean to grandstand, go on a tirade here about the failures of consumerism but I really do believe that those things won't make me or anyone really happy in a meaningful way. I've earned money, I've bought nice things, and of course you get a little bit of a boost from that new toy or that new piece of clothing, but it's so, so fleeting. And of course there's something to be said for working hard, to earn something, getting it and feeling that sense of accomplishment, those are very meaningful things. But what we've actually evolved into is a culture of fetishization, where the item itself is what is seen as the route to happiness--not those larger concepts of accomplishment.
So I really am thrilled that I've come to this realization now, I enjoy my life a lot more than I used to, I feel a lot more calm, a lot more secure. But at the same time, I do kind of wish that I had figured this out sooner or somebody had told me more about this way of thinking, earlier in life, because of how much anxiety and pressure comes from this mythology and from believing that your income and your achievement is what's going to make you happy in life, and make you feel like your life is worth living.
We're taught that school and life is a race, it's a race to the top, where we're all running and working to reach a certain finish line--but what it really is, is a dance--where you're supposed to enjoy each and every moment of the dance, instead of worrying about how fast or how far you're going to make it in the race. Also, going to Northwestern, I thought at the time that that would put me in a place where there was a lot of respect and interest in learning, in and of itself. But that's not actually what I found. Most people were interested in learning merely for the sake of doing well, the practical of value of doing well in the class, and therefore gaining the intellectual capital and social capital to get a high-paying job. Very few people I found were genuinely intellectually curious, genuinely wanted to learn things for the joy of learning them, and using the knowledge in a positive way. It was mostly about achieving.
I was on some level aware of the fact that I was getting enjoyment from learning, for purely the pleasure of just learning something at the time. I think it would've made school a little bit more fun and a lot less stressful, if I realized that what I was really going to care about in a few years was whether I found something I was interested in, and something I was passionate about, not what my salary was going to be, or how others we're going to view my level of successful.
Here’s a great blog post on college as a thinly-veiled charade to perpetuate existing class structures, particularly the Ivy League, primarily for this rather than as a place of actual education.
I think it's easier to arrive at this place after you've allegedly reached the end of the race, which I guess for me, was the end of undergraduate. So I graduated summa cum laude, and I had two years of professional success and I'm doing what I like, I really don't have this obvious master, or figure that I need to please, or some institution that I need to please. Currently I've been living in a Costa Rican jungle, and I can just pickup a book now, not to show-off or use as some kind of intellectual or social capital, but to really be interested in what the book actually says--the ideas within it. A lot of people, they own books, to have on their shelf and impress people at dinner parties about how much they've read. Of course, they probably haven't read half the books, or they don't really even care what's in the books, they just want to get the social and intellectual capital from having the book.
It really is such a relief to not have to live your life to impress other people, and to chase these abstractions in the future and chase these goalposts that set for each other. Once we become self-aware about the goalposts being illusions, it's much easier to just enjoy whatever you're currently doing and just completely engage with it. And on my own terms, I've arrived at success. I really like my career, I like the work that I'm doing, I think I'm good at it, I think that it's useful to people, but I've also realized at the same time that the initial goals that I had, or the initial promise that was given--was a sham. But it's ok because that's not what life really needs to be about. And this promise of this blissful future down the road, when we've arrived in life, is a fraud, and we don't have to stress out about it anymore. We're going to be so much happier if we just cherish what we have, and what we're currently doing. Rather than get out the scorecard and realize that we're three points short of this impossible, illusory ideal that we set for ourselves.
I really had the good fortune of finding a profession that I enjoy and can make money off of, and just enjoy the fact that I have a career in something I find interesting and worth doing--rather than wondering if I'm going to get the next promotion, if I'm going to be able to get a job at another firm, another company that I perceive to be the marker of success.
If you read Pascal's Pensées, he says that life without God, as an atheist, is little but a series of increasingly elaborate distractions and pleasures to ward off thoughts of our inevitable annihilation. And of course this is in some sense true. The secularists would often answer that we won't really experience death, because we won't exist to experience it, and we're just better off concentrating on the lives that we do have, and living in the present. And Pascal finds this answer unsatisfying, for in some sense it deflects the undeniable truth that we will eventually be annihilated. And Pascal insists that man cannot enjoy the present with the thought of his definite future in his mind. Alan Watts, coming a couple hundred years later, has an answer for Pascal. Watts would say that Pascal has fundamentally misplaced his expectation of what makes life worthwhile. It's definitely true that our bodies, egos, and accomplishments will eventually turn to ash--and we will likely all be forgotten. But in what sense does this really rob us of our enjoyment? Or the warmth of close friendship, or the excitement of a new romance, or the appreciation of the community you live in?
Death only eliminates those things if we demand that they be eternal. We aren't eternal. We are not eternal. But what we do in our lives will echo into eternity, regardless of whether we are written about in history books or quickly swept away. It matters to our children and grandchildren whether we do something about climate change, global poverty, and other enormous problems facing the world. And no, none of our children will live forever either, but of course we should still be concerned with whether they're going to live fulfilling lives or not, or ones of deprivation and squalor. And what I've found for myself, as somebody that used to really fear death and think about my own mortality and how grim and sad it made everything seem. The solution is in surrender. It's in unequivocal acceptance of our powerlessness to achieve it. Our lives are definitely finite, and we will eventually be forgotten--that's no reason to try and fight for the time we have, and fight for a better world.