I’m convinced the last six blog posts I’ve read are all trying to charge me with not living life to the fullest. Apparently, I need to cut the shit, like, right now.
I’m approaching my mid-20’s and I’m constantly being cautioned against living by default; leading a life I think will be successful and fulfilling, but, in the end, will leave me bored and empty.
The most recent treatise I’ve read on how to carpe the diem used exactly those words: “living by default.” The article outlined the life of a man in his early 30’s who thought he was happy, but actually wasn’t. He had a committed, loving relationship, a steady job doing something he liked and was surrounded by friends. But, this article pre-supposed, after ten or twenty years, this man would realize he didn’t challenge himself enough. He didn’t live dangerously. He was too comfortable all the time. He should have taken more risks.
So many articles of this ilk cite the growing apathy and chronic dissatisfaction that is apparently rampant among 20- and 30-somethings nowadays. The restlessness that categorizes an entire generation and a half. We graduate school, we get a shitty job, we work that for two years, we get the job we actually want, we marry the person we’re with and a life of mediocrity ensues. And that’s not good enough, we’re told. That’s just not how life should be.
Well, fuck that.
I can’t stand these sanctimonious ramblings about who’s happy and who’s not. It’s something I face from all angles…popular opinion dictates that I mustn’t slip in to a rut in one job, I mustn’t wait until I’m in my mid-40’s to travel, I mustn’t settle down in a relationship before I’m “ready.” Typically, there are three components to these thinly veiled chastisements. They approach your job and say something like, “Why don’t you switch jobs? That copy-writing job isn’t allowing you to explore your full creative potential.” They’ll tell you to travel, implore you to “drop whatever you’re doing and just go, right now. I did it, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Finally, they’ll sum up all your other mistakes by telling you not to “live by default.” They’ll inject some hope, saying it’s not too late to make a life change and spare yourself a life of boredom, mediocrity and worry about mundane things like salary caps and whether or not you should marry the person you’ve been with for five years.
I regret that so many people my age are disillusioned with what the world is really like, I do. But, I don’t believe this pedantic, frenzied clamour, bombarding us with unsolicited advice about how to become more interesting, more fulfilled people is helping anyone. I’m going to address each of the three stereotypical appeals to my impulsive side, and explain why they’re good advice, but not hard and fast rules for improving your life.
1/ “Just quit your job if you’re not happy.”
Two months ago, before I got the job I’m in now, I was working a crappy little retail gig to make ends meet. It was boring, the management were awful and controlling, I was on my feet for eight or nine hours each day…but such is the state of the economy that I had to work that job. I didn’t know when another one was coming. That’s not to say I wasn’t trying. I have a spreadsheet on my computer containing the details of 85 jobs I applied for in a 30-day period. I sent resumes, I cold-called, I followed up…
You know how many interviews I got? Four. That’s right. Four. I’m a huge proponent of working for what you have and earning your success. I had no illusions of how it would be when I finished school and entered the job market. I was prepared for an uphill battle and I never expected anything to fall into my lap. That’s not to say it wasn’t frustrating as hell.
Anyway, one day when the shop was empty and I had just finished unpacking and shelving a massive order of $300 shoes, I turned on a satellite radio station that usually plays jams I can get down to. The host is funny; he’s got this whole deadpan, my-life-is-worthless, I’m-a-freak-and-I-like-it schtick going on. On this particular occasion, he was offering some counsel. “You’re unhappy?” he drawls, “Quit your shitty job and find a new one.”
Well, dude…I would if I could, you know?
So many of my friends are capable, talented, driven…but they just aren’t having any luck getting hired right now. It’s not a reflection on them, their lack of ambition or their will to find something fulfilling. It’s the way the economic wind is blowing. Yes, we’re coming out of our slump, finally. But, it’s still a jungle out there. I love my job, as it stands. But, even if I didn’t, would it be worth it for me to just give up? To throw everything I worked for away and be unemployed? Is your next workplace really going to be that much better than where you are now?
How about this…carving out a niche for yourself? Working to affect positive change in your surroundings? Sticking with a commitment? I’d obviously never counsel anyone to stay in a job that’s making him or her feel miserable or undervalued. But, I think this “drop it and move on” attitude is the wrong one if we’re talking about a quest for fulfillment.
2/ Travel! Just travel. Just do it. It’s sooo fun. It’ll change your life. Really. Just do it.
About six months ago, I was catching up with an ex on Facebook chat. It was perfunctory. We ended things relatively amicably and still keep in touch from time to time. We were discussing future plans. It went something like this:
His sloppy typing aside, I swear to God, I’ve received this same piece of (unsolicited) advice from more sources than I can count. I’m not saying it’s not valid. I would love to travel. I think it would be amazing to see the world. But, it’s not in my plan right now. I will travel when the time is right. Until then, I can explore the cities I live in…get to know them inside and out. I’ve traveled within my country—something I consider to be highly underrated. It’s not the suggestion itself to travel that’s so grating, it’s the presupposition that if you haven’t done it by the time you’re 30, you won’t do it. And then you won’t be worldly, you won’t have “lived the dream,” and you won’t have made the most of your 20’s. It’s just not true.
3/ Don’t live by default.
You know what hurts? Being told, “You think you’re happy. But you’re not. You really aren’t. So many of your peers are suffering from depression and an overwhelming sense of underachievement. They’re hooked on prescription pills and they drink too much. They don’t really like their significant others but they’re too scared to be alone. You’re like that; you just don’t know it yet. You think you’re happy. But you’re not. Your boss? He doesn’t respect you. You don’t like any of your coworkers. You’re not reaching your full potential. You should just quit and move on. You’d be much happier. You’d feel so much better about yourself. You could respect yourself again. You think you respect yourself now, but just wait until you make the big switch…then you can really look yourself at yourself in the mirror…Oh, you can look at yourself now? Well, you shouldn’t. You shouldn’t feel as happy as you do. You haven’t lived to the fullest yet.”
Not to get all World Vision or anything, but how goddamn lucky are we to be able to sit around and just muse on this shit? You have a job, a home, a partner that loves you…and you waste time agonizing about whether or not you’re living by default. Maybe I’m still really close to the brink; you know…the time when you had to sell a necklace your first boyfriend gave you to pay your phone bill? The time you lived off popcorn and eggs for six weeks? The time you had to put a pack of cigarettes on your credit card and it got denied? The time you had to decide between rent and heat? I was there. Not that long ago. And thousands of people in our country live like that for their entire lives. The absolute last thing on your mind during those times is whether or not you’re living by default.
To clew things up…you’re bored. OK. Change can be great. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a huge thing, though. Maybe you don’t need to quit your job in a blaze of glory, dump your girlfriend or drop everything and make for Malaysia. Maybe you could just be a little more honest than you usually are; maybe you could start telling people what you really mean instead of hinting at it; you could stand up for what you think is right at work more often, or you could take a few more risks with your existing life.
I’m tired of being told I’m living by default, even if I don’t know it yet. In fact, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “default” setting for life. I mean, even if it’s the most banal, the most mundane, mediocre life…it’s yours. You don’t have to justify that to anyone. I certainly won’t. And that’s how I derive fulfillment.