The man who wrote this is my new husband
It's an amazing essay about the insane work ethic in America and the value of chucking all notions of what you're "supposed" to do in life in order to do what is really meaningful to you.
This is one of my most cherished topics; the belief that everyone has the absolute right-- maybe even the responsibility!-- to seek their own, most meaningful and fulfilling path in life is the cornerstone of my personal philosophy of life.
It is also the thing that I feel is most radical about me-- more than being poly, more than being bi or kinky or pagan or an artist or generally progressive politically. I've met with a lot of resistance when I have expressed my beliefs in this regard; many people find it to be foolish, dangerous, irresponsible, or simply unrealistic to think this way.
Most of us go through life being taught that whatever strange wild thing we dream of having for ourselves is somehow "not for us", beyond our reach, out of our league. If we want to go to law school, it's that it's so expensive and so competitive and only available to those who've worked towards it since high school. If we want to start a business, the economy's too unstable, we're too disorganized, and it isn't secure enough. If we want to make art, well, we're just hopeless dreamers, lazy slackers, and leeches on the system. We are supposed to be "realistic", to "settle down".
Think about those words-- "settle down". In one sense they mean "stop being so wild and rambunctious", but in a more sinister sense they mean "give up and accept less". In a land whose most sacred myth is that of the determined, expansive, bold "American Dream", we are barely out of school long enough to catch a breath before someone starts telling us that it's time to stop exploring and risking and to just submissively accept whatever cold lump of shit is offered to us first.
Oh, there are the stories about people who made their own way, who were visionaries and entrepreneurs and risk-takers, who went out and did what was in their hearts and were wildly successful at it. But when we pull those out, we are assured that those people are the "lucky ones". Their success, we are told, had very little to do with skill, determination, or the willingness to make sacrifices and take chances in order to live life in accordance with their deepest longings. No, it was all luck, elusive and unrepeatable, and while "it would be nice" to live their life, we must never, ever follow their example lest we end up penniless, homeless, disinherited, rejected, alone, and dying of cirrhosis in a gutter somewhere.
I call bullshit.
One of the arguments I've heard a lot is that if this was true, if anyone could do anything they wanted with their lives, then "everyone" would do X. Usually X is defined very broadly and usually it has to do with making art. "Everyone would want to be an artist," goes the argument, "and there'd be nobody to pump gas or collect garbage or do anything else and society would fall apart."
(A key element of all the arguments against self-determination is one of guilt, that by doing what you love instead of what you are told to do, you are not assuming your rightful cowed place in society and are making it harder for society to sustain itself and aren't you just so ashamed of being so selfish.)
Well, there are a few problems with this argument.
One is that it ignores the incredibly vast differences amongst every human being on this planet. It would take far more effort to make people all want to perform the same functions in society than it would to make sure all the necessary jobs in the world were covered. The work that I would personally find grueling, boring, gross, or pointless is the same work that someone else would find utterly enthralling and fulfilling, and vice versa. I couldn't thrive as a surgeon, a plumber, a mathematician, or a stay at home mom, but others do.
It also ignores the fact that people are pretty multifaceted creatures, and in making a path in life we're integrating an awful lot of factors. It's not really just about a job, although that's a major factor. There are people in the world who are perfectly happy to put their skills to work in a serviceable if not exciting job that pays them what they need so that they can afford their higher priority of having children, or so that they have the freedom to pursue a hobby or art form or avocation in off-hours without having to worry about making money at it. There are people in the world for whom a job or having a family is secondary to the freedom to travel or time to spend with friends or dedication to a serious spiritual path, and they work around that. Some people will take a "drudge" job with good humor if it's an entry to a better position, or a short term thing to make money. Point being, the world has a way of seeking its level, and the freedom of self-determination is simply not going to drown all practicality and turn the world into an anarchist's hellhole. Additionally, most people are good at and love numerous things, and don't necessarily have just one thing that they could be really happy doing. There are options, or an ebb and flow of different talents throughout the course of their lives; someone might simply be driven to "tell stories" or to "help people" and find any number of fulfilling ways to go about that.
There is the fact that doesn't often get discussed, which is that there are a lot of jobs out there that aren't really all that necessary. doubleplus posted a few days ago about the startling statistics on how much time people waste during the workday, and we all know the "Scotty" rule about telling people it will take you twice or more as long to do something as it really will. We don't like to think about businesses being capable of running on a lot less personnel, but anyone who has ever been laid off knows the grim truth about how expendable employees can be when a business decides to tighten its belt.
This leads me to an interesting comment that badmagic left in response to my recent post about economics and the nature of poverty:
There's a well-supported economic theory that says, if you do what you're best at, you can't *help* but contribute materially to society. Let's say you're a poet, the most stereotypically unmaterial profession. You could make "x" dollars picking fruit (working in food production.) If you can make "x + 1" dollars sending poems to literary journals, passing the hat at poetry jams, a paypal donations on your web page, etc., then society has said "we prefer that you write poems than produce food."
Now, maybe you'd prefer to be a poet than maintain computers, but society thinks you're better at keeping a network from testing positive, so it throws some cash at you to sweeten the deal.
The question that raises in my mind is, who gets to decide which of your contributions is more valuable overall-- you or society? Most of us are taught to take the less desirable but more financially lucrative path, because the value of our work to society is thought of as a dollar value. But what of the value of your work to your life? If you are good at maintaining computers but you hate it, does the monetary value of your work make up for the toll your job will take on your health, your relationships, and your outlook on the world (and the outward ripples that causes)? Assuming that you are able to figure out how to get by as a poet (and leaving aside the fact for the moment that many people make time in their lives for both the more lucrative job and the less lucrative calling), if that is what makes you feel most fulfilled, does society have a right to tell you that you are obligated to do the computer work anyway because it thinks you're better at that or because it values that work more on a financial basis?
I would argue no. I would argue that the value of any one person's work to society encompasses much more than a dollar figure; moreover, I think a crucial element of true liberty is the right to decide for oneself how one's life is most valuably lived. (Again assuming that the choice involves being responsible for one's life, which would include making an agreement with a loved one to be supported financially while one embarks on a new venture.) I also think that there can reach a point at which a job requires so much sweetening of the deal that it is no longer financially viable, and society is forced to adapt.
It's quite possible, after all, that if everyone suddenly started living balanced, healthful, self-determined lives, there's a chance that some jobs-- even industries-- might become obsolete. "Flipping burgers" is practically synonymous with "having a thankless shit job" and we all know how bad fast food is for us not just physically but spiritually-- for example in how we de-prioritize our mealtime traditions of good food shared with good company in favor of quick junk meals eaten in the car. If we reached some state of being where no one was willing to work in a fast food joint anymore and no one cared enough about eating fast food to pay what it would cost to lure workers back in, would we really be missing all that much if the industry changed or simply faded away? (OK, I for one would miss McNuggets. But I suspect I could get over that if I needed to.) There is no industry or institution that is so crucial just as it is, so necessary to exist for the sake of existing, that it should be enshrined against change as the world and its people change.
What is genuinely terrible is that there are so many people whose options are severely limited by actual obstacles (not the ones we put in our own paths and could also remove). People who are drowning in debt, people trapped in a cycle of poverty, people who are starving or sick or existing fearfully in the shadow of cruelly oppressive governments or abusive marriages.
In a way, though, I think that is actually in itself a strong argument for those of us who can to follow our heart's path in life. What good does it serve for those of us who have freedom and resources and options to choose to suffer in a stifling, deadening existence that leaves us drained and hopeless? Because it's some kind of sick solidarity with those who genuinely don't have the options we do? Because it makes us feel too guilty to be happy and fulfilled when others aren't? Because we think that somehow our happiness and success takes something away from those others?
On the contrary, I suggest that when we *refuse* to find our heart's path, when we "settle down" and stop seeking, we are not only hurting ourselves by living half-lives, but we are allowing the most oppressive, joyless, unhealthy, and unjust elements of our culture to thrive and grow and feed on everyone, especially the most powerless.
Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world."
Progress is not made by the timid and stagnant. Innovations and advances are not made by those who have given up. Societies don't progress because of those who lie back and think of England.
Of course, who do we think we are to imagine that we could be one of the spirited, the radical, the fulfilled, the successful, the forward-thinking?
Well, who do we think we are for telling ourselves we can't?
Which would you rather be?
Rob Breszny says, "You are the Chosen One. And so is everyone else."
No one exercises their full potential and becomes the person they were meant to be, at the expense of others doing the same. You can be brilliant and loved and successful without taking brilliance and love and success away from someone else. There is joy enough in the world for all of us. But we have to decide that we deserve it, and we have to go find it. It will meet us halfway, but it won't do all the work for us.
To return to my earlier point, those who contribute their gifts to the world enrich it-- even if they have offered those gifts in defiance of the "common wisdom" of that world. People who do what they love in life are people who ultimately have more to offer, whether that's energy, inspiration, time, or money. People who are truly happy and fulfilled can't bear to see others be unhappy, and they reach out to pull others up. Those who remain mired in despair or tedium already give more than they have and can't boost others up very high even if they want to.
Some of the most materialistic, selfish, self-centered people in the world are the ones who have bought most deeply into the lies and false expectations, because they cannot see past their own quiet misery and they use their (admittedly abundant) slave wages to buy themselves more and more *things*, in an attempt to medicate their dissatisfaction with stuff. It doesn't work. It draws them deeper and deeper into money pits, gives them health problems and emotional problems, makes them cold and embittered.
The happy person wants to solve problems and see others become happy as well. The unhappy, limited person can't bear to see others be happy and tries to suppress others' attempts to find a better life because they need others to also be limited and unhappy in order to justify their choices in life.
Unhappy people, people who feel they have no choices in life and no control and no hope, are people who lash out at others. People who try to take power over others-- legitimately or criminally-- and who abuse the power they take are people who feel powerless themselves and only understand power as a finite resource to be wrested forcefully away from others. People who are miserable and resent the world for their lot are people who try to punish the world and other people for it. How much of the world's suffering could we alleviate simply by trying to help people connect to their inner strength, their inherent gifts, and their deepest desires?
Admittedly it is frightening to take steps towards your true path in life. It involves courage and risk and the willingness to develop self-knowledge. It feels easier to stay in the cage, especially if that cage is golden. It is particularly hard if you are surrounded by unhappy people who will be threatened by it if you try to break out of those old unhealthy patterns. It can be as overwhelming as the world is for former prisoners who have been jailed so long they no longer know how to function as free men.
But when it comes down to it, whose life is it? Do we want tombstones that say "did was what expected of us"?
In the end, we are answerable to ourselves before anyone else. We have the absolute right to honor our own needs, our dreams, and our potential, because no one is going to do it for us.
It is not always a drastic process. Few of us can afford to quit our jobs tomorrow and stroll off into the sunset to undertake some great new venture (although I bet more people *can* afford it than ever do it). In Barbara Sher's book Wishcraft, she continually stresses the importance of baby steps, of constant if slow progress. She instructs her readers, once they have determined what goals they wish to pursue, to break down the process to get to those goals so finely that they end up with a list of tiny things they can do that very day to get started. It is dangerous, she says, to get so overwhelmed by the magnitude of a dream that you simply give up on it. The most important thing is to get your dreams actively into your life as quickly as possible, and to keep that thread running constantly through your days.
So, for example, you probably can't go out and start your own business tomorrow. But you can call your local business associations to see what programs they offer to support new small businesses. Or you can write a mission statement. Or you can make a sample of what you will sell. You can read business magazines, take an accounting class, design your logo. Eventually, you'll have to take bigger chances and put in more work. But right at the start, it's enough to do very small things that put you in touch with your dream.
Maybe you don't know what your dream is. That's ok; not all of us know what we want to be when we grow up. What is important is making room in your life to find out-- allowing yourself to think in those terms, allowing yourself to think it's *important* to find out and not just frivolous, giving yourself time to journal or daydream or make lists, letting yourself explore different subjects and try new things. No side path we ever take is wasted; it all brings something we need to our lives, shapes us in the way we need to be shaped.
It's ok for it to take time. This is, after all, a life's work we're talking about-- the work of creating a life worth living. I know I am still finding my way; but I'm closer to being on the right path than I ever have been, and I am on the whole happier and more fulfilled than I have ever been. I expect it to just get better and better-- not constantly, not that there will never be setbacks, but the winds are favorable and the coordinates are just about right.
For every person I know who feels mired or trapped or scared to find their own path, I know at least one person who has taken their chances on the life they want and is invariably better for it. The key was that they took control over the direction of their lives, made choices that were important to them, and were empowered and energized just by that-- before they even made progress on their new road.
What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? --Robert Schuller