Pick the Right Pond

We want to be better. The human drive, and in particular the American drive, is one of self-improvement. It’s why our films tell stories of poor men becoming rich and the underdog winning the big game. Self-improvement produces 92,000,000 results in a Google search and eleven billion dollars a year in industry revenue of books, speeches, podcasts, and coaches all claiming to hold the key to unlock your potential. The vast majority of them encourage an egotistical obsession – the solution you’ve been looking for is within you. It’s your habits, your thought patterns, your job that need refining. Emphasis on the isolated self is misplaced – most of us aren’t living alone in a forest cabin, we’re living and working in a community of people constituting a distributed identity.

We exist within many cultures – the global culture connecting us as a species, the country defining our laws and practices, the family giving us traditions. They all play significant roles in our lives, but the culture with the biggest direct impact is the one we create with our friends and coworkers: peer culture. Peer culture dictates our standards, it selects how we spend our free time, it creates our work ethic. If all of your friends jumped off of a bridge – contrary to the hopes of every mother who’s ever asked the question – you probably would too. That’s why it’s essential to create a positive peer culture. If you and the other ducklings are going to swim in a line, make sure it’s the right pond.

I’m not suggesting that you handpick your crew like a fantasy football team, merely that you critically evaluate the people you’re bringing into your life and assess the impact they have on you. It’s only recently that I’ve realized I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by an extremely positive peer culture. My friends push me to be better every day, we engage in a positive competition where ‘good enough’ is never good enough. Our interests are diverse – we’re a team of entrepreneurs, writers, music producers, DJs, accountants, gamers, and comedians but we feed off of each other for creativity and collaboration. The artist draws up a logo for the entrepreneur’s new company, the writer creates a sample for the producer’s new song, and when one of us needs support there’s a set of talented, driven people ready to launch an idea to the next level. When I created this blog my friends went wild promoting it on social media, helping me establish an early readership. When the DJs play a show, we show up and dance harder than anyone there wearing the entrepreneur’s clothing line. Cooperation is absolutely essential to success. Self-improvement doesn’t start with the self, it starts by surrounding yourself with people who constantly challenge you to be your best.

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Make Your Life a Mission

My sophomore year of college was plagued by classes I didn’t care about taught by professors I couldn’t relate to; I felt the business world had nothing to offer me; and I was deeply considering a major switch to psychology. Management 200 won the worst of my contempt for poorly covering grossly outdated psychological theories and obscuring common sense by transforming every simple, common-sense concept into a multiple-step monstrosity. Its only value derives from a mandatory service-learning project, contingent upon the slim possibility that the benefit of your team’s work outweighs the burden of your attempt at charity.

I lucked out, however – my professor was an adjunct and recognized the flaws with the typical classroom management education and would sprinkle in nuggets of real-world wisdom when the monstrosities would allow. On the final day of class he strolled into the room, noticeably abandoning his typical professionalism in a final attempt at salience and delivered the assignment that would become his greatest success: “If there’s only one thing you take away from this class, it should be the value of a personal mission statement.” I rolled my eyes, silently commending him on another flimsy idea from the first chapter of a bad self-help book. He wrote his own statement on the board knowingly, clearly a result of great practice, and instructed us to do the same.

Humoring him, I put pen to paper and was struck with the difficulty of the task. Summarize your purpose on Earth in about 40 words. I had to start small, but specific. I want happiness – but how do I get there? What makes me happy now? A sense of progression, we’ll start there. I don’t want to be selfish, I want to help others and myself. I like learning and being curious, but I don’t want to be too gullible. I look for truth- no, understanding. What’s this all for anyway? To try and realize potential, to live the best life possible, to be the best human being I can.

The professor closed the class as I finished writing and I left staring at a note card, surprisingly proud of my little creation. I got home and taped it above my desk, humoring my professor one last time, and read it. “I am never complete. Every day I seek to improve my own life and the lives of others. I will always remain curious and skeptical, facing the world with an open mind and a desire for understanding in all forms. Following these ideas will allow me to actualize my full potential as a Human Being.” The following morning, the newest addition to my decor caught my eye and I read it again. I felt powerful, led by these few words like a soldier in battle and an unexpected desire to try and live them. I considered my statement in the context of my life, comparing my stated ideal to the path I was traveling, and realized the two were incongruent. The decision to switch majors became easy because switching would allow me not only to pursue my mission in college, but could lead to a career where I made a living by living my mission.

The power in a mission statement comes from its guidance. Wondering how to spend your time? Consult the words. Dealing with a difficult decision? Ask the words. Much like marriage vows, a personal mission statement is there for you to fall back on when doubts and questions arise. When you’re frustrated, or sad, or confused, the words remind you of the promise you made to your potential self. They’re a compass in an unexplored land. Try creating your own mission statement. Don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time around, just write something and change it as you grow. Add to it, erase it, trash it. It doesn’t have to be long, or profound. Be nice to everyone; try something new every day; learn as much as possible; whatever empowers you – cliche or not. Picture your ideal self – what would you need to do every day to become him or her? Identify the simple actions that will lead you there, write them, and read them. Read them when you wake up, read them before bed, read them at work, read them while you study, and bask in the power of your mission.

Production Minus Consumption = Happiness

Give more than you receive. We’ve all heard this bit of wisdom countless times in our life, and even perhaps acknowledged its value as an ideal, but how often do we truly put it in practice? Unfortunately, this phrase is often relegated to a long list of similar expressions whose primary purpose is to be mindlessly and often hypocritically repeated from person to person in a shadow of their true value. “Follow your dreams, anything is possible, laugh every day, love thy neighbor, love your enemies, treat others like you wish to be treated, think before you speak, if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all.” If this wisdom was lived at the same frequency it was said the world could be a more compassionate, empathetic, lighthearted place full of passion and possibilities. Yet we find ourselves not enriched by their value but beaten into indifference by empty platitudes. The problem is one of translation – these principles are so excessively broad that we have no idea how to actually apply them. Give more than you receive is the first translation project – and the result? Production Minus Consumption Equals Happiness.

‘Giving’ and ‘receiving’ are practically undefined terms – it’s difficult to analyze a day of your life and label every moment as one of either. Production and consumption, however, are clearly delineated, and it’s this clarity that allows us to make the philosophy a reality. Production is activity, taking something internal and expressing it, it’s creating, it’s moving, it’s innovating. Consumption is passive – it’s stagnancy, and it thrives on the creativity and work of others. Think back to yesterday and go through every hour and make a mental list of your activity and passivity. Watching TV, reading, surfing the web, and listening to music? Consumption. Writing, running, talking, building, cleaning, and cooking? Production! ‘Work’ is a bit more nuanced. Studying can mean mechanically absorbing information from a lecture or a textbook, yet responding to and discussing that information requires deep thought and active engagement. Attending a presentation at the office leaves you bored and unhappy, but developing your own leaves you proud and confident in the afterglow of shared knowledge.

Here lies the opportunity for change, in transforming your life from a scripted amusement park ride to a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Seek out opportunities for production and build the avenues to access a deeper existence. In the post-religious world we’re mired in the quicksand of existentialism, the desperate search for meaning; ‘productionism’ is handing you a rope, offering an escape from nihilism in exchange for effort. Every day, every hour, that rope is lowered in front of you and all you have to do is reach out, grab it, and climb above passivity to reach elusive satisfaction.