We are conditioned as children to follow the pack. We are rewarded for being obedient, for not rocking the boat, for falling in line - for conforming. Doing what we are told is learned to be good behavior. As children, I recognize that has value. Following instruction is often how we learn. But at what age should independent thought be encouraged? When do we start learning that being different is okay, and in many cases a good thing? In my experience, some children learn that it's okay to be different only as a result of conflict. A child is teased, and the parent tells the child, "it's okay to be different. You'll appreciate that when you are older." But often being "different" isn't rewarded on its own. Why can't you be like Johnny? Look at Johnny.
As teenagers and adults, we are conditioned by society about what success means. In the United States, it's well advertised the owning a piece of America is "the American dream." The house with the white picket fence. The 2.5 children. The two cars in the garage. For me, (and I think for many) that ideal was held out as having "made it." But is it really? Is that why everyone is soooo happy? That ideal isn't as drummed in as it used to be, but I think it's still the default definition of success.
I've had three conversations in the last 24 hours that have touched on the topic of societal conditioning, change, and fear. I didn't set out to have the conversations, they just sort of happened as we talked about our different life paths.
One person has change happening to them and they are not necessarily participating, but they are learning to cope with it.
One is actively seeking change - from a place of comfort.
Another is always changing, always evolving - it's her way of life. She looks for it daily.
And there's me - I've been actively pursuing big change for over a year now. (I'm always surprised when I quantify the time that it's been that long.) I often laugh and say that I love change - so long as it is my idea! (And maybe that isn't funny... hmmm)
I believe that the change that we do not ask for - that change that is the hardest change - often turns out to be the best change for us. I've witnessed it several times with (my life and) friends. We undergo the change - a job transition, a relationship reframe, a lifestyle adjustment - because we are forced. Often it's a change we wanted to make, but we didn't, because we were afraid. We're afraid to change jobs. We're afraid to take a relationship to the next level or to end it all together. We are afraid to radically change our lifestyle. I believe that if we don't pay attention to the signs gently urging us to change, then change sometimes slaps us upside the head and our hand is forced. Then the change is no longer voluntary - it's become mandatory, thrust upon us. That type of change brings fear. Change is hard.
This last year I've noticed that the change I am choosing makes some people uncomfortable. I'm choosing to live with less. I'm voluntarily leaving the lifestyle that is in part the very definition of success in this country in favor of a less conventional lifestyle. Some people that I talk with about my choices are clearly threatened: If we are making the same choices, then we are validating each other. "We are successful."
When one person starts to make different choices, we are are no longer, by our decisions, validating the other person's choices. A dichotomy is revealed, and fear may creep in. Are we still both successful? Is one person more successful than the other? Are we both still okay? And sometimes, then, judgment follows. "How will that work?" "How can you be happy?" "I could never do that." "Are you sure?" "I'm not sure you should do that."
I am voluntarily making big changes. I am comfortable telling you that even though the changes are voluntary, they are not entirely without fear. I'm doing things I've never done before. I'm planning to live in a way that I have never lived before. Of course there is fear; it's very unconventional. But there is also challenge. And anticipation. And excitement. And so yes, I am very sure of what I am doing -- but admittedly some days it is outside my comfort zone. I'm okay with that. All of those cliches - "go out on the limb - that's where the fruit is." "The magic happens outside your comfort zone." "Push the envelope," I'm finding them to be true. And satisfying.
I have a vivid memory of being in college, living in a dorm on campus, and my life being routine. I could tell you where I would be, and what I would be doing, at any given time of any day of the week for the next nine months. I couldn't STAND it. It drove me mad. But I accepted it as what my life was then: I was a student. With a job. Without a car. With homework. My purpose at college was to learn, and to go to work and earn a paycheck to pay for that college. It was boring. But: it's what was expected of me. It's what had to be done. Put my head down, keep my nose to the grindstone, and in four years I would be rewarded with a piece of paper that would surely entitle me to all the adult successes that I wanted. Whaaaaat? I saw the pattern repeated when I was married and living in Fort Worth. House with a mortgage. 9-5 job. Rinse, repeat. It made me antsy. I was bored. It was so ... mundane. I wasn't savvy enough to identify what about it was dissatisfying to me.
When I traveled to London for work, I was in the car with a Brit and he said, "You Americans. You're doing it all wrong. You work and work and work and then your reward is two weeks off once a year. And then you go work the next 50 weeks and do it again." At the time it made me defensive. That's just what we do. It's the American way. We're Americans. This is how our lives are structured. It's fine. Right? I mean, that's how nearly everyone I know lives. It's just how it is. Right?
No. Actually no, it isn't. Once you start paying attention there are people everywhere who are doing unconventional things. Friends of friends are traveling the world, teaching in countries totally new to them. They are living on house boats. They are teaching aids prevention in Africa. They are buying one way cruise tickets across the pond and following their dream of attending Oxford. I know all those people. They are living. They are taking risks. This week, someone very dear to me said, "BA, you are kind of eccentric, but I like you. I don't have anyone else like you in my life." These days, THAT is my version of success.
The past few days as I've been criss-crossing the metroplex in my car, I've looked at the cardboard box on my passenger seat. Inside is a measuring tape. A book on carpentry. A sample tube of Penofin. My construction plans. A notebook of lists and telephone notes. A pair of gloves. The keys to my new house. My water bottle. A ziploc of walnuts. On the floor board are two one-gallon cans of Penofin, sloshing about as I turn corners. On my feet? My work boots. And I realize: I'm in the thick of it. This is it - I am making this happen. Right now. Today. I'm one of those people.
Do you know how when you wake up in the morning, sometimes there are remnants of your dreams in your mind? You can just barely grasp them and the emotions that go along with them? This morning as I stumbled to the kitchen to get the dog's leash, I had that. I had wisps of happy - wisps of an amazing feeling of happiness, of an exhilarating experience. And then I realized: That wasn't a dream. I had spent part of yesterday in my new house. It is real. I smiled. Wow. First time I've ever had THAT happen.
I don't know what I'll be doing in six months. I don't know where I'll be doing it. I'll be living in my tiny house, and ....? I don't know. I have a lot of unanswered questions. I have a LOT of wild cards in my hand right now. I'm actually really excited about that - about the unknown. I guess it turns out that part of me likes the unknown.
This is not the blog post I sat down to write today, by the way. But when I sat down to type, this is what happened. I feel like I'm changing today... it's weird. It's all good, but it's weird.