There is a conversation, on which I have reflected before, which seems to be doing the rounds with noticeable frequency. It is summed up pretty well by Joe and it is not surprising that it is a dialogue shared mostly by those on the cusp of graduation, about to enter the world of real life, as well as amongst those newly into it. Joe refers to it as suburbia, though I would argue that it is perhaps more a sense of being ordinary, of being like everyone else, of living like everyone else, having the worries and habits of everyone else. And most feared of all, looking inside yourself one day at who you are and the things that define and drive you and finding out that you are nothing special – that you are like everyone else in your community. That you are ordinary.
I don’t want to be ordinary. Those with whom I have had this conversation do not want to be ordinary either. I suspect that anyone who has thought about it wants to be special. And yet so many of us will not be. So many of us end up in suburbia, with a bond and two kids and a nine to five job. We don’t end up saving the world, we don’t end up making a difference, we don’t end up in the good fight, or taking risks, or experiencing anything close to the full extent of the personal growth, learning and adventure that we know the world holds.
My question then, is how does that come to pass? What process overcomes our youthful dreams of being leaders, of being people of depth and substance and turns us into the versions of ourselves that we rail against in our youth. If we can understand it, can we fight it? Is it possible to devise a strategy, a way of living that will keep us clear of such an end, keep us interesting, keep us materially different from everyone else?
As best as I can understand it (and I don’t think I fully do), the metamorphosis to mediocrity has to do with the accumulation of security and comfort, and the best defense I can come up with is to find ways to value these things less. This probably requires explanation.
I don’t think that it is a coincidence that our most adventurous, principled, exploring-of-life selves are the selves we are when we are young. Among other things, we are sheltered. Many stay with their parents, most have a reliable income and, in the case of many of those at university, you find yourself free to live in an intellectual and philosophical wonderland, where (relative to later life) there are precious few consequences to your actions, and therefore little disincentive to be interesting, to explore, to discover and in many ways to be very different in how you exist relative to your peers.
The world doesn’t change fundamentally as you get older. But you do take on more responsibilities. You get a job, whose money pays the obligations you enter into for yourself (kids, a bond, car payments, and so on). What has now changed is that your actions carry a very meaningful (financial and, more importantly, psychological) consequence, where before they didn’t (or didn’t so much). You can’t go backpack in asia, because you can’t get leave and you are not willing to give up the security of your job. You can’t give over time for the NGO, because they don’t pay as well and you need the money to keep up with the Joneses, or to meet the debt obligations you entered into to support your lifestyle. And so ultimately, on the balance of things, your set of available choices (the ones you are prepared to make) gets smaller as you accrue more social and financial dependencies.
It’s basically socialisation by fear. And as long as you create those dependencies and are reluctant to risk them through radically new behaviour, it will beat you. Eventually. No matter how smart you are.
How do you fight this? I don’t know, to be honest. I think perhaps part of it is keeping a tast for trying out new things, for finding the places you never saw and investigating them. I think a part of it is having the courage to see security for what it can be – shackles on your freedom to act, learn and grow. And I think a part of it is trying ot have a life with as few dependencies as possible.
The last point, especially, is a tough one. You may want kids. You may want the awesome house or car or whatever else. And those are decisions that you must make, things that you must negotiate your relationship with in life. But what you cannot escape is that dependencies limit your options, and that limiting your options gradually shapes your life to resemble, ever more closely, the lives of everyone else similarly constrained.
Escaping that outcome, whatever the method, will be hard. If it wasn’t, then I imagine less people would be ordinary. Can we stay sharp, courageous and free enough to slip thorugh the net where others are caught? I really, truly hope so.