Test yourself before you commit. Find out what you want and what you can’t. You can thank me later
Do you want to know where you are in your life?
Let’s say you’re 30. That means you’ve spent approximately 12 years as a legal adult.
Before 18 doesn’t count because you weren’t going anywhere. Everything was set out for you (for better or for worse), there were no responsibilities, no choices, no life decisions to be made.
But these last twelve years weren’t fully grown-up either. Not just because of emerging adulthood (pdf), but because higher education still counts as preparation. And that was a conservative estimate. The reality of the job market is that you are not even considered a fully functional member of the workforce after years spent at work (to justify not paying you). So let us say you’re 30 and spent about 7 years as an adult – if all went according to plan.
7 years. How much is ahead of you? Let’s say 50.
That’s 87.72% of your adult life ahead of you.
Do you really want to spend it with the epilogue?
Do you really want to optimise everything and only do maintenance from now on? Will you never change? Do you really not have another life in mind? A life you’ve never lived?
Old life roles and their young victims
Life expectancy has grown unprecedentedly during the last century. So did the time spent healthy and in full possession of your physical and mental capacities.
Our clichés, however, are slow to catch up.
Whenever you use a stereotype, generalisation or cliché, you don’t try to learn what it is – you just want a label. Also, you project the past on the present. Grandmas will always be tiny and knit sweaters. Even though your own grandma works out four times a week and her best friend started on a second career as a stripper. It is not grandmas becoming youthful – it is reality that had changed.
The same happened with old life and gender roles. I use them here because they are convenient shortcuts, and you also either identify with them, or measure yourself to them. Movies use them too to speed-describe minor characters. But just as we don’t give original life stories to minor characters in movies, we don’t grant the assumption of originality to people we don’t know personally. We don’t even grant it to people we do. We assume each other into simplified life roles and communal functions that have been scripted in another era. We are all special, but people around us are all clichés.
Consider for a moment the literature we were brought up on. Stories of august novels and Disney blockbusters are all concentrated around the mating age of the main characters. Because that truly was the only point of significance in an individual’s life. A century ago. One’s (mostly uninformed) choice of partner was the single most relevant choice one made in life. It determined their social standing for the rest of their lives, and for many, it was the only option to improve it. (Not to mention having to live and have sex with said life choice for the rest of their existence.) No wonder they were so fixated on it. But we shouldn’t be.
We could shrug off this insane pressure, especially when it hits us at the beginning of our adult lives. But instead of reducing the burden on the one and only life partner, we started attaching more and more significance to it. We want love. We want a soul mate. We want a playful artist, too.
And we need it right now. Because 30…
When the average age was 13 and life expectancy 40 (pdf), people really had to move quickly. And what came after mating was just soul-crushing certainty. The epilogue to individual lives that no one writes about. And for good reason because it isn’t just boring, it is shockingly depressing. It feels bad to contemplate that the gray-haired lady on that old photograph had once been as ambitious as you are now. That she could have been you.
That’s impossible. They used to be uniform, unimaginative, black-and-white
I know, your parents had you when they were 23, but graciously allowed you to wait until 30 because 23 was too early even to them. But aren’t they living in the past too?
At 30 your age starts to show on your face. Your wrinkles make you look like your parents, the temporary fat has been on for three years and your hair took a turn for the thinner. Your self-image will linger on your prom-suited self for a few more years but you will hopefully stop dressing like 18 one day. Your knees can feel the least exertion and you can’t stop reading every single article ringing the alarm about your declining fertility. The weight keeps creeping up and that effortless good look takes longer and more difficult to maintain these days. It feels unfair that you have to keep making an effort. You want to stop working out, ironing your hair, and worrying about the last five pounds.
You want to exhale and deflate.
So you have to be quick. Your mother is ticking, your biological clock is pointedly silent, and the anxiety is nauseating. You are what you never wanted to become. You are 30.
You are at a crossroads.
The longest stretch of your life is still ahead of you. Do you really want to spend it with drifting and trying to catch up with the consequences of your non-decision? The longest part of your adult life? 87.72%?
And if not, how exactly do you plan to do it differently? How would you shape your relationship, marriage, and family, if you designed it from scratch and if you were more realistic? Say, you have to give a good 15-20 years to that child before going off to live some more with the secretary. Would you contract for 20 years? That’s 35.09%. Would you give that to this person or you don’t like them that much?
Would you promise 20 years as easily as you promise forever? It’s 1/3 of your adult time.
Here is some bad news for you: You won’t change the day after your wedding. That signature may have huge impact on your finances – but it doesn’t turn you from curious into monogamous, it doesn’t make your nagging, un-lived ambitions disappear, and it doesn’t make it easier to lie to yourself. You’ll be the same person, with the same doubts and desires the day after your wedding.
And while good relationships can be improved by a child, bad ones can not (pdf). Never. If you are bored with someone, you can try with all your might to fool yourself – but you will fail. You can hallucinate a two-against-the-whole-world, an alliance, a team, but you will still remain just you.
You won’t lose your sexual appetite the day you don’t want to touch your spouse anymore. You won’t forget that scholarship to Rome that you didn’t take. You won’t appreciate your job more – just because you need it so much more with a family to feed.
You can convince yourself that you no longer have an erection anyway, and you are only in love with your child. That Rome is too hot, and it wouldn’t have happened anyway. That a stable job leaves time for The Real Important Things In Life.
But you have no idea what the Real Important Things even are. And if they are what you were told, they suck. You not only dislike the Real Important Things but you’d go out of your way to avoid them. Or at least go on a vacation alone, without them. But you mustn’t even think that.
And do you know why you don’t want sex anymore? Because you see your partner through your mother’s eyes. Because you chose him/her through your mother’s perspective in the first place. To please her. To make her calm down. To stop nagging you. She wanted a traditional, acceptable spouse for you with stable account balance. Your inner child checked all the boxes, your inner parent approved, and your anxious inner adult is trying to orgasm. It’s all a matter of cognitive dissonance reduction – better known as virtue.
But your mother didn’t require your spouse to be sexy, fun, and a real partner. That didn’t matter to her. Your mother wanted “appropriate”, and appropriate she’s got. Or sorry, you’ve got.
And it worked for a while. The magic of novelty and the relief from social pressure had lubricated your relationship for a while – and once you settled down, you started blaming it on tiredness. And quickly contracted so that you can finally get relief. Exhale.
So you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing, but there is that nagging feeling:
What could have happened if you explored other options? If you have tried and failed a few times to see what waited for you on other paths? How would you have chosen if it were left to you? Without time pressure and without financial pressure?
Your ambitions will stay with you as long as you live. That one day you will live and not just survive. That you can be happy – not just wait for something to be over. You will want to change because you are not yet dead. You are trying to sweep it under the mental rug, you try to not see it in your peripheral vision. You can try to focus on what you are supposed to look at and think about.
And sometimes you actually manage. When you get a tap on the back. When you feel someone’s envy. You deny it but you live for approval. When your in-laws approve of you. When a friend loses his job and you are comparatively better off.
But most of the time there is just doubt. And you will come to hate your doubts instead of the thankless pressure of breaking into life roles. You will hate that tiny light of life inside you for not letting you settle in the long slumber of a life role.
So what can you do?
Step 1: Stop it!
You can’t write a haiku with a jackhammer.
You cannot gain enlightenment while running in the thoughtless hamster wheel of everyday life. Just this bill to pay, just that speeding ticket, just picking up the kids, just taking them wherever, just avoid that truck, who do they think they are, etc.)
You thought you can get enlightenment during constant performance, during running, keeping up, and high-frequency buzz. You thought you can perform at home, at work, in your friends’ eyes – and still have some life left. But you were wrong. Life roles are designed to leave nothing left for you. To take up exactly 110% of your time and still guilt you for not doing more.
The best part of a movie, a game, or a book is not that story but the time spent away from your life. Not being you, not performing any of your own life roles for a few hours is invigorating. That you take a vacation from your own life. Alone. You are not taking your “loved ones” with you but still don’t have to feel guilty. You leave your own life for a few hours and live someone else’s.
You are focusing on something, one thing only, and get in the flow. You are not, for instance, calculating the best route to the parking lot where you can pick up some change because your battery is flat and you forgot the charger – while engaging in an absurd debate with a 3-year-old about why it is wrong to chew off the ears of an 18-months-old, and trying to reset the GPS. All that on the way to your disapproving parent who makes you anxious but you don’t dare to say no, just get on with it.
Don’t throw excuses at me at this point that you cannot just drop everything and let people down. Firstly, I am not the one to convince. It is you. But more importantly, excuses are cheap and plenty.
Let me guess. Your very special and everyone-must-understand excuse will be some combination of:
- No money
- No time
- But others want things from me.
No one ever had to face these obstacles before. Never.
You can always come up with any number of excuses, true and convincing ones, even. Too bad that excuses have never solved a problem. And your problem is that you haven’t given life some thought before you committed.
But you can still shrug off a few things – if you really want. You can stop meeting people, who only make you feel badly about yourself. You can stop taking up extra duties, and optimising things according to price – and focus instead of time wasted on them. Only the absolute minimum can remain, concentrated work, going straight home, not picking up the phone. Live off pizza if you have to and save time and effort. You need those for yourself.
And when at home, be alone.
I know, many of you are already past that. You’ve moved in with someone because that’s what people do (to save on the rent). You are on the treadmill, jackhammer in hand, ready to take orders and react to demands.
You may be the reclusive type and steal some time for yourself, but if you live with someone, that is always noted. Just noted, nothing more. There is another person, even if s/he is nice and cute and honestly doesn’t want to bother you. You are constantly exposed to their silent (or voiced) opinions, their demands dictated by their roles, and the social obligations. You always have to relate to company. It dictates a lot of decisions, and doesn’t leave you to think. That’s exactly why some people keep constant company.
But that’s exactly what you should figure out. You even have to decide whether you would want to live with anyone. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of decisions that you have to make if you don’t want to drift through life hypocritically cursing your life roles. If you don’t just act out what’s scripted for you and try to wriggle out where it’s too tight.
People will think you are depressed. They will also be resentful. Denial to play your part in their play will unleash resentment you never thought was there.
Other people’s life roles are functions in our own lives and we want them to keep performing. So they won’t tolerate if someone they count on to furnish their lives extracts himself from his obligations and wants some time to think. What if he comes back and doesn’t want to be our dentist, partner, parent, confidante anymore? Better don’t let them believe that they have a choice.
How much time can you endure alone?
In your own company?
What are we “doing” when we do nothing but think? Where are we when we, normally always surrounded by our fellow-men, are together with no one but ourselves?
— Hannah Arendt
Get off Facebook and stop scrutinizing other people’s lives. Stop comparing yourself and polishing your image in other people’s heads.
Stop communicating. You can’t share your opinions because – right now – you don’t have an opinion. You are recalculating. When someone wants to re-evaluate their roles and identity, they have to question a lot if things – and that doesn’t mix well with spouting wisdom at others.
Being open means exactly that you stop parroting the half-digested Big Truths distilled from superficial observations and misunderstandings you have picked up while multitasking on the treadmill.
It means that you shut up and think about the unthinkable. Especially the unthinkable.
Divergence from your pre-scripted life path is a taboo. And depending on how far you dare to peek from the high horse of self-delusion, contemplating taboos might actually hurt.
Andrew Feldmar writes about an anxiety release method when the participants are made to contemplate that their worst worries are true. They are asked to sit down and imagine that their mothers have never loved them. Not because they are all children of cold mothers – but as a preparation for a serious contemplative session. To open up to every possibility, one must first imagine that the worst has happened.
Imagine the unimaginable. The scary. Not just losing your job, that’s petty. What if you didn’t like your mother? (Big taboo.) What if you were a bad boy? What if you don’t want, what others want you to want? What if you don’t even know what you want? What if you need to confront taboos to get what you want? How do these things mix with your need to feel beyond reproach?
Now everything can be undone. I leave it up to you to decide what your taboos are, and whether you need to confront them to get what you want.
Of course, you can save yourself all that thinking. Non-thinking has been scripted for you. Too bad it is not written to serve you – but them.
And your thoughts don’t fight back. Not immediately. Society does. And you’re more afraid of them than you are of losing your one chance to live.
Apart from the particulars, I know what you’re most afraid of.
That you’re average.
You are average.
And so am I.
You know how I know this?
I went out drinking the other day with seven other urban professionals. One cheerful, bright lawyer wanted to make a point and went through the people telling everyone that “You are not average.” Now how is it even possible that eight professionals from the same city (and most of the same profession) would all be non-average? What is “average” anyway?
How do you pull an average from people? Is it all people in the country? Or shall we just take downtown professionals between 25-35? The smaller and the more homogeneous the sample the less we diverge after all.
So how do you pull an average from something that is not quantifiable? With generalisation. How typical our behaviour is, and how predictable our reactions are. And from that angle we are all super-average.
We are the product of the same education system and our core beliefs have been implanted there. We all follow the same thinking models. Our reactions, coping mechanisms, and ways we confront challenges are born out of the same premises. Our mental models and reactions diverge only in a very narrow range and we even have the same justifications for our compromises and gradual corruption:
- The Nuremberg defence: “This is what a mother/lawyer/journalist is supposed to do.”
- The utilitarian fudge: “But this is supposed to be good for society.”
- The underdog Stockholm syndrome: “I actually agree with that role. I would choose that myself. People need to be told what to do.” (Read: I would never challenge the stronger, because I’m a coward, so I don’t even do it in words – and that sounds like I still have integrity.)
We conform and comply and even use the same excuses. Comfy and cozy if you manage to kill of the last shred of doubt in your mind.
So you are average. Your behaviour doesn’t differ from everyone else’s more than your height does. Now describe yourself like they would on a crime program on TV. Your initials, followed by your age and your simplified identity, such as your job title. QL, 33, lion tamer. Say it out loud.
When you stopped crying, shrug and commit to make the best out of it.
The real difference between a success and a failure is not your job title but whether you are doing what you want. Others simply cannot tell whether you are successful or not. And they don’t care whether it is good for you as long as you fulfill your function in their lives. If you could perform it as a stuffed animal in the corner of their living room, they would be fine with it. People don’t want living people around them. They just want functions.
Maybe you are a 31-year-old programmer, who still lives with her mother, but at least you spend time with people you choose, doing things that make sense to you, not to other people.
And if you realise that everyone else is anxious about the same things, maybe you also realise that your fears and worries don’t make you special. You might as well let them go. Your anxiety doesn’t mean that you’re still alive inside. And your anxiety is not an emblem of your uniqueness either.
You can express your uniqueness in some other way. Like starting to live on the outside too.
Step 2: Just do it!
Do you want to know why you haven’t sent that application? Why you’ve never shown that short story to anyone? Why you stopped singing or base jumping? Why you’ve moved back from the land of your dreams? Why you haven’t applied to art school?
No, it wasn’t because of the return envelope or the visa protocol.
It was because you were afraid of failure.
You were afraid to find out that you were a mediocre singer, that your short story sucked, and that you would drop the discus under pressure. You were afraid to invest more into it, because you were afraid to fail even bigger.
You didn’t want to find it out. This way, you can always pose as a big Could Have Been.
You were a coward. Deep down you understood that all you have to do to avoid failure is taking all the responsibilities of a life role on your shoulder – and no one can blame you anymore. No one will hold you responsible for not pursuing your dreams. But everyone would blame you if you didn’t pursue a standard life role.
You did the math:
- 1% chance of becoming a superstar and defying them.
- 99% chance to prove to be mediocre or fail – and having to listen to told-you-so.
People, who don’t have this hidden agenda of cowardice and excusable compromises, can still remain individuals. Even with a family. They don’t get buried in diapers and guilt, they don’t lose sight of who they were – because they knew it in the first place. They couldn’t be fed to the most consuming life roles of all, because they still had a goal in mind. And that goal wasn’t just acting out their life roles impeccably and better than anyone else.
So come out and show us, who you are and what you can be. Show us, how you are unique and not just one of us. Everyone wants to see it. Everyone but you.
Go take guitar lessons, play at a squash championship, build a prototype to the anti-gravity DIY competition, organise an amateur theater group, or apply for an extra in the opera. Write at least one article and show your hidden greatness and narrative glory to at least one reader.
I swear you are the only one who doesn’t want to know how fast you can get from 0 to 60 if you flex all your muscles and give it your best.
Close the gap between you and the life you think you’re worthy of.
You can do it in one of two ways:
- Reaching your aim, or
- Your aim sauntering back to you
Because chances are you haven’t set a realistic target at first.
I am always amused when people tell me that they were good at drawing and could have pursued a singing career. They would have ended up as art school teachers or music producers. They just don’t know because they never tried.
Maybe you would learn that you don’t even enjoy singing and finally settle. And get a hobby instead.
You could go on living your life contentedly, knowing that you have honestly tried. Honest to yourself, that is. Not just for show.
Maybe you become a strong, balanced and cheerful man who met his own limitations and was brave enough to accept it. Now that is rare.
Or maybe you’re unique, after all. But that’s for a different post.
Risks and side effects
Two things might occur.
If you turn out to be average and your untested ambitions too vague or unrealistic, you might lose much of your untested self-confidence and your tolerance for martyrs. If your results are negative, your bloated self-valuation will deflate. You are no longer faultless and infallible. The illusion of perfection is over. If you turn out not to be special the high ground is no longer available to you. You will have to see others as your equals.
Unless, of course, they haven’t even tried. You will be the first to point that out, by the way. You will see what those martyrs really are: cowards, trying to gain social standing on the strength of their cowardice. Of not even trying.
So step back and take a stand before you mindlessly repeat the tediously predictable life games that martyred entire generations. There is nothing to discover there. And you don’t gain credits with suffering in it.
Life begins the day you realise that you can do anything you want. When you don’t realise, you don’t live.
So do it.
In memory of my best friend, the Dancing Goat God, who left us on the last weekend of summer