[Cross-posted from The Ecology of Happiness]
Many of the people who are hailed as great examples of personal development and have cult followings online, showing how life could be much better, how you could come to be great – like them – present their elevated status all through grand adventures, world travel and world records, knowledge of languages.
The world could use more people who don’t just give in to whatever is currently normal, but is quite the fluke if you take a long-term historical perspective. We could well use more ideas for how to take the best of modern living, and live it so that all the world could share that standard of living without the slightly problematic resource requirement it would have if it were based on current European, let alone American, consumption.
Unfortunately, the adventure-consuming, world-traveling, lifestyle business-supported way of life itself – even if it is lived out of a single bag of just a few possessions – is a high-consumption lifestyle in large part enabled only by an all-too-affluent (or wishing it were) part of the world. Thus, not the way forward. That’s not to say that it’s all bad.
Paying more attention to possessions and finding, for example in the experience of travel, how few of them are really necessary for a good life is a lesson most of us would profit from.
Asking what a good life even means, if it isn’t more about the experience of living than about doing a desk-jockey job and going shopping, about continuing to learn new things rather than thinking that you know all you need to know and have nowhere better to go, are inspirational and inspired approaches.
The questioning doesn’t nearly go far enough, though. Travel that just ticks off places you’ve been in order to be able to say that you’ve been there doesn’t make you nonconformist, no matter how many countries you skim.
Learning that is all just to claim how quickly you can have a passable conversation in a language, content to quickly study the 20% of the language that will let you appear to know the 80% of it needed for that misses the point. Do learn, but also learn what you care about enough to stick to it (and don’t be afraid to make that range wide, not just – but also – deep). And, most importantly, use it for good ends.
An educated and still-learning, experimenting and experiencing human being shouldn’t just live and learn to become better, but seek to have a positive influence. Yes, there is being inspirational – but there are many more problems in this world, and if you are only inspirational (and maybe even make your money from that), you probably need an education in the ecology of living in this world.
At least, that’s an experience I keep making. Often, it is the people claiming to be the most knowledgeable who have never much spoken to people outside their immediate social and economic circles – and thus have no idea what life can be like for others. They know a lot, maybe even see themselves as a good influence on the world, but never stop to think about the impact their lifestyles and consumption have, both directly and as a vision others aspire to.
Admittedly, this is one of the ways in which a look at the ecology of our ways of life can be quite the spoilsport. However, the majority of people will probably want to lead a more normal and steady life. In fact, that’s the very definition of what is normal – what the majority does.
So, the more adventurous some of our most inspiring figures get, the more they get removed from most people’s idea of normality… and the lower their true impact. Being extreme may be better for rallying hard-core fans around you, but what the world needs is a new, better, normal.
Funny enough, a normal life of looking to make a living, have some fun, maybe move around a bit but only to find a place to put down roots, marry and have kids is, in fact, the big challenge. Everyone can run away.
All too often, it works out not so well. All too often, it works out well only when it becomes a drag, and thus doesn’t really work out all that well: too much stuff, too little fun; too many petty quarrels, too few adventures; one adventurous misstep, a future of reproach…
Finding adventure, learning, growth, and all of those things that make for a good life, reducing consumption and improving health and the world, keeping on learning and experimenting with better habits, all while holding down a job or hustling to get by, maintaining a relationship and keeping in touch with friends – that’s where all the “personal development”-ideas would really find their greatest challenge and purpose: Not in grand adventures in far-off places, but in adventurous living right in your backyard, not in the “bumming evasion, allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people’s privacy” * of world travel, but in squarely taking on life right here and now to try and create a life that is extra ordinary, and a new, better, normal.
* The quote about travel as “bumming evasion” is from Paul Theroux, “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” – and it is only too pertinent to my point:
You think of travelers as bold, but our guilty secret is that travel is one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time. Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also an elaborate bumming evasion, allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people’s privacy — being actively offensive as fugitive freeloaders. The traveler is the greediest kind of romantic voyeur, and in some well-hidden part of the traveler’s personality is an unpickable knot of vanity, presumption, and mythomania bordering on the pathological. This is why a traveler’s worst nightmare is not the secret police or the witch doctors or malaria, but rather the prospect of meeting another traveler. Most writing about travel takes the form of jumping to conclusions, and so most travel books are superfluous, the thinnest, most transparent monologuing. Little better than a license to bore, travel writing is the lowest form of literary self-indulgence: dishonest complaining, creative mendacity, pointless heroics, and chronic posturing, much of it distorted with Munchausen syndrome. Of course, it’s much harder to stay at home and be polite to people and face things, but where’s the book in that? Better the boastful charade of pretending to be an adventurer…