The Exceptional Goal
Humanity, at least in the developed world has seen incredible progress in the standard of living over the past hundred years or so. Even within the lifetimes of some of the people who are still with us. Most of these people have shelter, and warmth, and food; in short, their survival is no longer in question.
So with the goals that kept us alive as a species now taken care of, what do we do with a brain hard-wired to strive for them? (see footnote 1) The answer is that we need to create our own goals. We need to define for ourselves the answer to the question, “What does ‘an exceptional life’ mean to me”.
For some, family is the goal. This to me is the easy answer, because our brains are already wired for it, it’s a survival instinct. But with so many people having children and population growth being what it is, this I one is no longer really a matter of survival of the species. If you grew up in a middle-class home in America, didn’t do anything stupid, went with the flow, and did what’s asked of you, you’re almost guaranteed the American dream to one extent or another. Go to college > buy a house > 2 cars > 2.2 kids > retire in Florida > etc. So I personally don’t see all that as a worthy goal, it’s too easy; to me, that’s the consolation prize, and certainly not a bad one at that. So if that satisfies you, then I’m honestly happy for you. But if we’ve really got only one shot at this living thing, I’d personally want something more.
Just to be clear; I don’t have a fear of growing old, or even growing up. But, I do have a problem with being what society calls a “grown up”. And not because I can’t handle the responsibility, but because I realize that all trappings of that life wear you down like rocks in a stream, until we’re homogenous and devoid of passion.
Case in point is a man I met at a party a few months ago. Having not met him before I quite predictably asked what he did for a living, and for the next 10 minutes or so he told me about his job at Viacom, who owes Mtv, Nickelodeon, VH1 and others. He explained that he’s a contract negotiator with cable companies, the in’s and out’s of the revenue structure of a large scale broadcaster, common misconceptions about cable compaies, etc. We talked about how Nick controls over 70% of all children’s programming in America and how they need to use this power for good instead of evil, and other heady stuff. It was all very interesting, but I had a sense that this guy didn’t really care about all that. So I moved on to his wife and two children, and again, he cracked a smile a couple times while discussing something silly his little son had done, but still I was perplexed.
So I said to him, “Is this what you always wanted to do?” and he replied, “Hell no! I wanted to be a drummer!” and the man’s face lit up like Times Square (where incidentally, Viacom has it’s headquarters). For the next hour we talked about drummers and music with another friend of mine who was there. This man was alive for the first time since I met him. He just radiated energy.
I spent a half hour spent talking to the guy and the first real emotion I get out of him is when I get him talking about the thing that he really wanted to do with his life. Coincidentally, the thing that he was NOT doing with his life. There is something wrong with this picture.
Maybe for some, money is what’s exceptional. That’s what’s special to them, that’s the goal. “Whoever dies with the most toys wins” is the common expression. Stuff is the answer.
With the rare exception, I get buyer’s remorse when I buy almost anything that’s not a living requirement or a tool. Oh sure, I get that fun buyer’s high for a little while, but it always corrects itself in due course. It’s a fix, that’s all it is. An addiction that our society as had for so long that it’s the norm. Take Christmas for example; will I think that my sister doesn’t love me if she doesn’t go out and buy something for me? Of course not. But the Gap ads I’m inundated with would make you think so.
My father spent years as a co-owner of a chain of record stores in southwestern CT. They did well for years, and I think that overall the situation could have been worse.. he was the boss, the stores opened at 10AM, etc. However he went in the record business to make more money, giving up his, as he used to say, ‘grammar school’ teaching position in the process. Now anyone could be a Monday morning quarterback and yes, my father made his choice and I’m sure I benefited by it. He had a big house with a pool, drove a Cadillac, traveled fairly extensively. But my father was by all accounts an exceptional teacher. So perhaps if my father had remained a teacher he would have felt more satisfied in his career and ultimately his life, and thus affected my world view more positively in the process. How do you equate dollars to happiness.
That, plus the fact that he worked hard so that he could retire early, but then died a few days after his 60th birthday. You need to live your life NOW, you never know if it’s going to be there tomorrow.
The ‘retire early’ plan is one I’ve seen and heard a lot over the past couple of years and it sounds pretty, well, for lack of a better work, ‘sound’. But you can’t buy happiness, the best you can do is buy comfort. Then again, I don’t think that anyone reading this essay is very uncomfortable. Stuff is just stuff, that’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way over the past few years as I’ve watched two family members die of cancer. When they were gone, all their ‘stuff’ was just sitting there.
A friend of mine has been dating her boyfriend for a number of years. He’s in law school right now, and plans to get a job as in-house counsel at one of the big financial firms when he gets out, where I’m sure he’s make a lot of money. I asked why he wanted that kind of job which I know requires an insane work schedule and stress, and the answer was that he wanted to made a lot of money and then retire early. ‘To do what?’ I ask. “I don’t know” was the answer.
Maybe it’s not good to be too content, maybe happiness sits on the razor’s edge of uncomfortable.
There will be some will say that I’m lucky I can have this conversation because I can afford to. And they’re right, but that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make. We have a choice now, we can do anything, we don’t have to limit ourselves to survival anymore. We are entering the post-modern age of living where life is not cookie cutter and not everyone’s life follows the same script. Where there is not a right and a wrong way of living it. Same sex marriage, and children out of wedlock, and staying single your whole life, changing careers every 10 years, or whatever. Why are these things wrong? If everyone involved loves each other and has good intentions, why should they be deemed less-than? How can anyone judge them?
Lately, my answer to the exceptional life question is about creativity. This could change of course, but for now making art makes me happy, as I have learned over the year of 365 and the past few weeks of these 52 projects.
Now, I could easily move to the suburbs and on my current income live a quite comfortable life full of lawn mowers and swing sets for the rest of my days, but that world has no draw for me, I know what I’d be getting and it’s not exciting, it’s not enough. If anything I’m scared of becoming complacent, of it becoming too easy or of getting too comfortable, of sliding into a well of fat and happy mediocrity when I could hold out, take the road less traveled, and have a chance at something bigger, something special; a truly exceptional life.
Perhaps this is a fools bargain, and on my deathbed I’ll regret what I’m writing right now and the choices that it describes. But that won’t be real regret, real regret would be not trying something different in the first place.
1. Curiously enough, this is pretty much the point that Ted Kaczynski was trying to make in his Unibomber Manifesto, which if you haven’t read it, is actually quite interesting. Don’t get me wrong, the guy is a looney, but he makes some good points.
I received a fair amount of thumbs up and thumbs down on this essay and I wanted to share an email I got from my cousin Dave McDonnell who wrote:
I read your latest 52 Project (Week 5) and I felt the need to write to you. I am sure that you would expect some type of feedback from what you wrote...and since we are cousins...we should be able to communicate with each other, without offending each other.
Just a couple of comments:
Billy, if I could live my dream, I would be up on a stage singing, rocking, feeling the energy of the crowd in a concert. But you know what, when my vocal chords, lungs, trachea, and sinus passages formed...they just did not make a good sound when singing. So I sing to myself in the car, at the house, etc. and that is that.
I honestly can say that becoming a Police Officer was not a lifelong dream of mine. But I can also say this...I see and experience things every day that most people can only imagine...A couple of weeks ago I held a guys throat together who was bleeding to death after being attacked with a box cutter...had I not been there, he would have died.
You seem to be so turned off by what society calls the American Dream i.e. house, dog, white pickett fence, spouse and two kids. In my mind, I am not looking for THE "American Dream", I am looking for MY " American Dream". And your version is YOUR "American Dream". Whatever the dream is, it is what we make it. It is as individual to each of us as can possibly be.
Life is not easy for anyone. There is no easy way out....whether you live in a city or a suburb....life's challenges will be a part of ALL of our lives. We just all live differently...that is what makes this world interesting...not complacent.