Life can be more than a Journey

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Formal schooling was invented in the 17th century with the objective to train children to become better workers for the employers of the industry besides training them to become puritans and patriots. The ability to minimally read and write and endure long hours of dull work were virtues that employers most supported.

Henry Ford’s assembly lines revolutionized the automobile industry, but soon this phenomenon spilled onto other avenues like housing and education. By the mid 20th century, everyone lived in similar houses, owned the same kind of cars, went to similar universities and studied the same curriculum. It was important that children got trained in consistent content, with skills specific to their potential employers. The desire to get an education to be accepted by industry and, therefore, to be able to afford houses and cars was normalized quickly.

Putting ourselves in Boxes

Little Boxes, a widely popular song written by singer, song-writer and political activist Malvina Reynolds in 1962, attests to the conforming attitudes of middle-class America. It perfectly highlights how everyone chose a lifestyle propagated by the capitalist economy and how eventually it churned out a cult of personalities, much like an assembly line. ‘Little boxes’ in this song refers to houses built with “ticky tacky” (cheap material), and satirically, is analogous to predefined roles in the society which everyone is ‘boxed’ into when they graduate from schools and universities. Everyone had similar ambitions, dreams and lifestyles.

Consequently for children now, the path forward is often projected as being linear, each step dependent on their previous achievement, starting from kindergarten. We have been conditioned to consider our life successful only when certain criteria laid out by society are met.

For instance, asking children: ‘What do you want to become when you grow up?’ inherently assumes they have to single out one from a predefined set, and tragically, it also feeds the idea that it is imperative to think of life in this trajectory; the trajectory where the ultimate goal is to assume one role in society. The future we ask them to speculate and the ambition we try to ignite do not go beyond that. There is no talk of passion, contribution, discovery, ideas, exploration, superpowers etc. If we had to choose a metaphor for life, more often than not we will say it’s like a journey, a linear path forward to some destination which is hopefully our calling or our purpose. Many of us feel stuck because we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to find that purpose and calling. And the fear of not being able to see a linear path to achieve it paralyzes us.

The Framework

Both the problem and solution lie in the ‘Framework’. Framework, as I define it, is the loose structure we can view our lives (or part of it) within. It is the philosophy(ies) articulated often into a metaphor to make sense of our lives proactively and retrospectively. Since our default framework is this ‘linear path’ or ‘journey’ to get to that lifestyle, we consciously and subconsciously perform actions, form habits and live towards this framework. But if we let ourselves create, choose and change our frameworks of life, we are empowering ourselves to take charge of what we abide by and what we work for. We are able to make sense of our urges, instincts and interests which are often renounced to make way for a consistent resume.

More and more people are breaking the mold and societal ‘boxes’. The boom of startup culture is a very evident example of people willing to take risks and work for what they believe to have potential. The general rule for growth and learning now is to change jobs periodically, every 2 years or so. Young professionals are trying to get more in touch with what they believe in and are trying to align it with practical means to make a livelihood. Yet, there are lots of instances where we all feel stuck and reevaluating our frameworks might help:

“I am not sure about the next step" - A book of short stories

The pressure of not making a potentially wrong decision weighs on us. Treating each big change as an adventurous chapter in a book is helpful. Nothing is permanent.

“I don’t like to do what I am trained in” - Play the game ‘Telephone’

Start with something. Spare some time and resources for online courses, books, training, volunteering and so on. Change course when you are ready and network to get that starting chance. Ken Jeong went from being a doctor to a comedic actor by feeding his dormant passion.

“I just know I like to….” - Plant a seed

“I know I just love drinking beer” or “I just love working with my hands”. Some passions or habits could be seeds to more sustainable work. Don’t undervalue them. Plant them into the world, make them grow with all the skills and power you have. Kahleif Adams writes a candid account on how he made something out of his love for videogames.

“I like to do too many things!” - Split Personality

This is a great problem to have. Being jack of all (***or Multipotentialite) is not a bad thing. It only means you dare to try the many fruits life has put your way. Split your day, week, month or year into doing specific things you have chosen. Kabir Sehgal is a corporate strategist at a Fortune 500 company, US Navy Reserve officer, author of several books, and record producer.

“I am extremely driven by a cause" - Be an Architect!

Be the architect of your vision. Dreaming to save the world is great but the trick is to not get overwhelmed by it. Build smaller buildings instead of starting with a sky scraper. Sonal Kapoor is making big impact by simply teaching photography to teenage girls from slums.

“I haven’t found the right thing.” - Make a new pie.

If you think the world doesn’t have what you might be looking for, make your own role. Create your own pie. Assemble the right ingredients and decide how you want to put them together. See how artist and designer Emilie Baltz combines her love for art, design, food and senses.

By no means am I an expert on life or career. But just for fun, try and create a framework for your life till the present and how you want it to be going forward.

***Update: Just as I posted this article, I came across this Ted Talk. A must watch for anyone who could relate to the article.

Vidhi Goel