Towards the end of every year, I try to practise an exercise in gratitude by writing an annual highlights post for the 12 months I’ve just lived through. It works like this: I try to list out the top 10 best things that happened in that year. Some years, like 2017, I’m spoilt for choice and needing to cut entries because the rules of the exercise dictate that I’m only allowed ten.
But this year has not been one of those years. This year, I have to say, has on many levels, been a struggle. With the exception of my Edinburgh Festival run, which was a total blast and a runaway success, I find myself with very little to record.
A few things went wrong early on and since then, progress has been slow. A couple of tour dates got cancelled in April & May, and then I gambled on a deal I probably shouldn’t have and deliberately incurred hardship in favour of longer term success. And recovering from that has been tough. If I had to describe 2018 in one word, as Maaya often asks me to do, that word would be ‘a drag’.
Being as I am in my early thirties, there’s a sort of expectation from society now that I am more or less where I want to be in life. During our teens and early twenties, everybody is talking about what they want to do and who they want to be. Our whole lives ahead of us, the world is painted as a playground overflowing with opportunity. We are not yet jaded by rejection and the frequent failings we will inevitably encounter once we get into the ‘big wide world’ and we live under the delusion that the world is a dream-granting factory.
But by our late twenties and early thirties, most of us have learned quite unequivocally that it is not. We’ve either tried things and failed; got the day job we thought we wanted but now are bored to death with; or we’re still on the same path we were on ten years ago, still striving for the dream but hopefully incrementally closer than we were. The optimistic outlook has faded.
And by now, it’s not just our own failures we have to deal with, it’s also the mounting pressure of settling down, how the hell we’re going to pay for ourselves and our families in a world that is rapidly becoming more expensive and if our plans and childhood dreams may not work out, what, in actual fact is to become of us?
And to make matters worse, those who have done ‘better’ than us are now being paraded in our faces every time we turn on a screen. The title of my blog is Inside My Mind, a sort of play on words trying to tie the magical nature of my profession with my day-to-day musings. It’s always been a cross between a media platform and a personal journal. But today, I couldn’t be more on the nose. Because what I’ve just described is exactly how my mind works sometimes.
And until a conversation with some twenty-odds a few weeks ago, I thought I was the only person who thought like this. I thought it was just me. And I was open to the possibility that I might just be a bit mad. My mother might be right. Maybe my expectations in life are simply too high. Maybe I live with my head in the clouds. Maybe I’m just another doomed dreamer with ideas above his station.
But it’s not just me. It’s them too. Which probably means it’s loads of people.
It seems that many millennials have the same question enter their heads on a regular basis.
It’s the question Neo, the question that drives us. You know the question: What is the Matrix?
Never mind The Matrix. Why am I not Mark Zuckerberg?
Well, maybe not Mark Zuckerberg specifically. You could insert the name of anybody who the media seems to use as a symbol of success. There are a few hundred such people who have achieved outrageous financial success before the age of thirty. But of course, in the world of the twenty-four hour news cycle, we have these icons of accomplishment thrust in our faces on a daily basis. Which, if we’re not thinking about it consciously, over time leads us to accept the notion that such success is normal – It’s the norm. And we are substandard.
But if you stop and think about it, that’s simply not true. The reason why they’re so newsworthy is because they’re so unusual.
Let’s face it. Most of us will never be as financially successful as Mark Zuckerberg. And to be completely honest, Mark Zuckerberg WAS just extremely lucky. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve his success or anything like that. But I am saying that not even he knew how successful Facebook was going to be. The Social Network is one of my favourite movies. But it was based on a book called The Accidental Billionaires. As such, it isn’t useful or fair for anybody to compare themselves to him. Mark Zuckerberg is what Nassim Taleb terms a black swan.
The world of the 21st century is simultaneously very big and very small at the same time. There are 7 billion of us on this planet. But the Internet has, in a way, made us all one big family. We can read the local news from a small town in Indonesia as easily as we can read what’s going on in our immediate vicinity. I keep up with the local news in Dewsbury & Huddersfield even though I spend most of my time in London.
So whereas in years gone by many of us could be kings of our small kingdoms, nowadays we all compete on the same world stage. It’s hard to be anywhere near the best at anything when you have 7 billion competitors. It’s tough to even make the top 1 or 2 percent. So whatever we achieve, there’s always somebody who’s done better. And that is the person against whom we measure ourselves. We never get to feel happy or satisfied about anything because whatever we do… Mark bloody Zuckerberg.
I call it The Millennial Pride Vacuum. And I’d say it’s definitely a contributing factor to the apparently deteriorating mental health of my generation.
Chuck Palahniuk had it pegged twenty years ago in what I consider to be one of the greatest novels about modern society ever written. In the now timeless words of Fight Club:
We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
The novel also makes other observations about our appetite for designer goods which I see, unabashedly, in some of my Gen Y colleagues, whom, I think, will be worse off than my generation.
They’ve been lead to believe that they can have anything they want purely because they want it.
And the media have willingly perpetuated this perversion of the American Dream, mainly, I think, because the more inadequate we feel about ourselves, the more problems we think we have and as a result, the easier we are to sell to, and the more profit their advertisers make. Self serving.
Which is, of course, not what the American Constitution says. It instead uses the words “the pursuit of happiness” and suggests a society where anybody can be anything IF they do the work.
So what’s the fix? How do you be happy in a world that seemingly has a vested interest in trying very hard to keep you unhappy?
A couple of google searches in this area, perhaps predictably pointed me in the direction of religion. And before long I’m reading a website about Zen with a cartoon Buddha in the header.
Buddha will tell you that the only way to be happy is to accept yourself completely. But to me, that sounds like jumping from one extreme to the other. Total and complete complacency wasn’t what I had in mind.
Because then, where do you draw the line?
As I’ve come to know myself, I’ve come to realise that I thrive on new and creative challenges. I need to be creating. And I need something to win at.
“Buddha, Should I go for that job I really want? Should I embark upon this new project?” I would ask.
“No son, you should just accept your current situation and be happy with your lot,” Buddha would say – if he had come from Yorkshire.
I’ve always considered my ‘lot’ to be a constantly changing, highly dynamic concept. The word ‘lot’ actually makes me cringe. It sounds finished, complete, no longer changing. Final.
As Alexander looked out across the breadth of his domain he wept, for there were no worlds left to conquer. Alexander was definitely not Buddhist.
While the twenty-odds seem to smirk and disagree, at thirty-three, I still consider myself young and my story to be far from over. I’m just getting into act two. And I guess I think of my ‘lot’ less as a lot and more of a legacy. Something whose final definition I shall never know because it will only be complete and final when I depart this Earth.
Stop striving, like so many things religion tries to pass off as gospel fact and profound wisdom, strikes me as a bit of a cop out.
So what is the answer?
In the words of The Sunscreen Song, in the end, the race is only with yourself. It’s almost built into our DNA to compare ourselves to others; to be constantly evaluating our place in the proverbial pecking order. And that’s why news articles about 27 year old billionaires can make us feel bad about ourselves. “Why has he achieved so much and I’ve done nothing?” you think bitterly as you rip into your fourth chocolate cookie.
Well, to start with, I haven’t done nothing. I’m just being irrationally negative because I’m experiencing a bit of a rough patch. And that guy has his own story, with his own problems and his own anxieties. In the news, we’re reading a polished up version of the story. Not what actually happened. The media likes to create stars, just so that it can rip them down later. Drama sells newspapers.
Rather than letting outside influences define happiness for you, write your own definition. What does it look like to you? Aim for that. Relative goals don’t help anybody. This is not a competition. The only useful comparison to make is with yourself a year ago. Have you moved forward? Are you closer to where you want to be than you were last year?
If you are, great. You’re on the right track. And importantly, you’re moving forward. And that achievement is something to be happy about and you should take a little time to celebrate it and appreciate how far you’ve come, before you once again look to the road ahead and the next milestone.
And that’s the reason I began writing these 12 month review posts. To stop negativity bias.
I think role models are more of a guide than anything else. I still have people I look up to and people I use as inspiration. But I think that’s as far as you can take it. Because if you start to compare your life with theirs, benchmark by benchmark, you’re going to come out looking like the loser. This is inevitable.
To start with, you’re not competing with the person. Unless you know them personally, you’re competing with their brand. Which is a story that has been written and rewritten to suit their cause and may not be entirely true. It also draws attention to their successes and away from their failures. Meanwhile, with yourself, you’ll probably do the opposite. So it’s not a fair contest.
And secondly, if you DO beat your role model, they will stop being your role model. In Freudian terms, you’ve essentially killed that father. You’d have to find somebody else’s greatness to aspire to.
Life has its ups and downs. Some years are great. And some aren’t so great. It’s all part of the story.
So if 2018 hasn’t been brilliant, never mind! As long as you got out with your health, you have nothing to complain about.
As 2018 wraps up and you begin making your plans for 2019, I leave you with these words:
We are the authors of our own destiny. We write our stories every day by the decisions we make and the actions we take. If you want to start something in 2019, be that a business, a relationship or a new job, make a plan and make it happen. That is, after all, the only way that it will.
To your success.
Oh… And screw Mark Zuckerberg.
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