I was eavesdropping yesterday. (Don’t judge me, it happens)…
I was on the train and standing near a couple of people. They were both total strangers to me, but it was apparent that they knew each other.
During the obligatory exchanging of pleasantries he asked her, “What’s up? What’s new?”
“Oh, ya know…Same shit, different year.”
Why do we do this to ourselves?!?
We act as if it’s standard. Just par for the course.
“Just waiting for the weekend.”
“Another day living the dream.” (said dripping with sarcasm)
This private conversation I was secretly a part of continued. They discussed weekend plans. Upcoming vacations. How much faster life was moving than it used to.
The older we get the faster life seems to go. Life — our most precious resource — flies by like the city outside the train windows.
Even though we know this is true, we still spend five days of every week looking forward to the two day weekend.
We spend fifty weeks of every year dreaming of our two weeks of vacation.
We spend forty years of our lives working hard at jobs we don’t like.
We spend the great majority of our lives wishing our lives were dramatically different.
We do this, call it normal, and slowly settle in to a state of bitter cynicism about life.
The Golden Age of Opportunity
We live in an unprecedented age of opportunity.
Want an example? Check out the Side Hustle School podcast by Chris Guillebeau. It’s a short (<10 minutes) daily podcast highlighting individuals who have started creative side hustles outside of their day jobs.
In the last few months I’ve heard stories of:
- Someone who generated $300,000 in sales this year by selling bounce houses
- A graphic designer who makes $25,000 a year selling funny magnets to shame bad drivers
- This guy who makes $500 a month selling beard grooming supplies (men have had beards literally forever. And now, with a little hustle and a little ingenuity, this guy changed his life).
The opportunities that lie in front of us aren’t solely tied to business and making money.
You can learn web development for $25/month at Treehouse and have a new career within months.
Or you could literally buy a tiny house online and have it delivered within 12 weeks.
With all of these opportunities — and millions more — what’s holding you back? Why are so many of us jaded and distressed.
I think maybe it’s Black Friday.
The Paradox of Choice
In his 2005 TED talk (remember when people would present at TED in shorts and a t-shirt?) Barry Schwartz lays out one of the central paradoxes in the Western world. In summary:
- We believe key to maximizing our welfare is maximizing individual freedom. The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice.
- Because of this cultural belief the number of choices we are presented with has multiplied dramatically throughout the year
- While this increase in choices has brought some good, it has also brought two chief problems: analysis paralysis and decreased satisfaction after making a choice.
We have so many choices that we are both afraid to make them and far more likely to regret having made them.
Nothing epitomizes this overload of choices more than Black Friday. Last year 137 million people went shopping on Black Friday weekend. Over the past few years Black Friday has encroached more and more into Thanksgiving Day (oh, the irony).
We’re presented with millions of sales on billions of products. They tell us that they will make us (or our loved ones) happy. And we’re expected to buy them and love them.
Should we lower the bar?
Schwartz goes on to say that:
The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that when everything was worse it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays…with perfection the expectation, the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised….the secret to happiness is low expectations.”
Scwartz speaks truth, but he doesn’t offer us hope (at least not in this TED talk).
He’s a doctor who give the diagnosis, but offers you no treatment plan.
Our abundance of choice biases us toward paralysis and dissatisfaction. You’ve felt it every time you’ve set foot in a store or opened the Amazon app. Your anxiety about making the right choice. Your obsession with checking product reviews to make sure absolutely sure you’re purchasing the right product. It’s exhausting.
Do we have to live this way? Have we gone too far to turn back?
The lady on the train
She was a prime example of the effects of constant low expectations. Jaded. Cynical. Hopeless.
I don’t know her story. I’m not sure what type of struggles and challenges life has forced. I hope and pray that she’s more fulfilled in life than this one conversation made it seem.
But let me tell you: if this is all you want out of life, stop reading now. No need to continue. No need to change things.
But if you want something different — something better—let’s talk about how you can get there.
If you’re like me, just reading the line above may make you cringe a little. We have this inherent belief that, without exception, having more choices is always better. Why would we ever talk about limiting choice?
Because we’ve been lied to.
Too few choices is oppressive. Too many choices is torturous.
This isn’t new. We’ve known this for millenia:
Confucious (551 BCE): “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
Socrates (469 BCE): “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”
How can we integrate this ancient wisdom into our modern lives, busting at the seams with opportunity as they are?
First and foremost, we must determine what’s important. When you’re in a relatively healthy place in your head and heart (not stressed or feeling desperate), consider these questions:
- What do you value most?
- What brings you real, lasting joy?
- What is worth spending your life for?
- What is worth your life?
Second, we must undergo a process of eliminating things which do not add value to our lives.
Does opening up your closet overwhelm you?
Are you afraid of entering your garage due to the mountains of clutter? How many boxes have you kept “just in case”?
More importantly: What joy do these all bring? How much satisfaction do you get from the things you own?
Third, as Socrates says, we have to develop the capacity to enjoy less.
We need to immunize ourselves to the lie that more is better. (Tweet this!)
l would suggest that you establish practices in your life to help with this. We are so quick to forget. We are all too easily influenced. What habits can you develop to practice contentment?
Call to Action
It’s Thanksgiving today.
On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national holiday with these words:
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”
Today, let’s start with gratitude.
Let’s give thanks for our current situations. Those of us with breath in our lungs, food on our tables and people who love us are richly blessed. Let’s commit to not taking those things for granted and to expressing our gratitude to the people in our lives.
Let’s remember those who are not so fortunate. We’ve been so richly blessed; let us also find ways to be a blessing to those in need. Let’s be generous and open-handed. Let’s build bridges, not walls.
And let’s give thanks that we live in an age ripe with opportunity, where we have personal freedom to choose both what our lives look like and how we view view and interact with the world.