How to Live a Life That Doesn't Suck
Waging war against the unquestioned life
“A round of Patrón shots,” I told the waiter confidently with my shoulders back, feeling in control. This was a statement; I had arrived.
HOW I ENVISIONED IT GOING:
Older alumnus, with a grin: “Wow, big spender huh? They must be taking care of you well down there!”
Current student, admirably and in awe: “Thanks man.”
Pledge brother, with a tinge of jealousy but ultimately supportive: “That’s awesome. You must be killing it, dude. Tell me more about the new job!”
HOW IT WENT:
Me: (looks around)
Everyone else: …
In truth, maybe one person heard me order the drinks. They arrived at the table on a dirty tray, sat for a minute or so before everyone noticed them, then were consumed and promptly forgotten about. Damn. Swing and a miss.
I was 23 at the time and had returned to my alma mater for Homecoming, eager to show everyone how successful I had become. I'd moved back to Houston and landed a big time job (it wasn’t) in oil and gas, settled into a really cool (average) apartment in the city, and was making tons of money (an entry-level salary). I had made it and everyone needed to know.
A group of us including some of my fraternity’s alumni and some guys who were still in school were at a local bar. After we scouted a table in the corner of the busy upper level, a waiter came up. I saw an opportunity. Buying shots for this group of peers and mentors would surely earn the admiration and validation that I so craved.
The real highlight was when the check came: $150. In reality, of course, an entry-level salary isn’t all that much after rent, food, gas, student loans and taxes. Spending $150 on half a second’s worth of tequila wasn't exactly the prudent financial decision of a confident young professional who had ‘made it’. Unfortunately, the obvious lesson here was lost on me and failing to learn it led to some painful consequences.
Don’t be shrink-wrapped
This story, a microcosm of how I lived most of my twenties, is the product of three common identity-level challenges we face in early adulthood that can cause us to go down the wrong path:
Unconsciously adopting the values imposed upon us, of those around us, or of our community or society
Constructing our identity around these unquestioned values
Seeking motivation and fulfillment externally due to our values and identity not being our own
Whether we’re aware of it or not, our values are shaped by our environment - our families, our friends, our communities. We will consciously or unconsciously construct our identity and lifestyle around these values and all of our choices will be in accordance with them. If these values aren’t true to who we really are, the resulting cognitive dissonance will make us increasingly miserable. We’ll look for external validation to fill the hole created by living a life that isn’t our own. Eventually, this will lead to a breaking point.1
This is exactly what happened to me. I made all of my choices in early adulthood in service of wealth, status, and stability - values I had inherited and integrated from the influences around me but never questioned or evaluated. Upon a long overdue introspection into what I actually cared about and how I wanted to spend my time, it (inconveniently) turned out that my core values were freedom, meaning, and spontaneity. So I had spent years building a life around a value system and identity that didn’t even remotely resemble the one I cared about or wanted. Rather than living on my own terms and finding fulfillment intrinsically, I spent money on things I didn’t need to impress people I didn’t like in a futile attempt to feel whole. This incongruence unsurprisingly led to a serious mental and emotional breakdown as my underlying values ran head first into the hollow life I was living.
It reached a point where it took a Herculean effort just to get out of bed every morning. While I had amassed a relatively impressive collection of material things, living a life that wasn’t my own made every moment a chore darkened by the ever-present shadows of emptiness and aimlessness. This became unsustainable and forced me to start asking myself some difficult and important questions.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of identifying and examining the value systems we’ve adopted and then actively and intentionally distilling them down to what’s uniquely true for each of us. I learned this the hard way. Avoiding this work is a surefire way to live what Cheryl Strayed calls a “shrink-wrapped” life - one that obscures who we really are and restricts us from having the relationships and achieving the things we want in our short time on this planet.
I got it from my mama (not you Mom, it’s a song)
The unconscious inheritance of value systems is a natural consequence of human development, and it isn’t anyone’s fault. It starts in childhood as a function of our dependence on our caretakers for survival. As Lawrence Yeo from More to That puts it:
“The feeling of inferiority...originates from the helplessness we all experience as infants, and the complete reliance we must have on others to sustain our lives. Our behaviors are driven by fear, this fear lends itself to inferiority, and this inferiority causes us to outsource our identities to whoever we think has the answers.”
Our dependence on our caretakers in early life to meet our basic needs causes us to be heavily influenced by their way of thinking (there’s also an emerging body of research indicating that we genetically inherit things like beliefs and emotions from our parents). As we progress through adolescence and increasingly become exposed to a diversity of thought and belief, we start to form a more complex identity. However, it’s still mostly outsourced given how impressionable we are.2
Given that this dynamic of development is pretty much inevitable, finding out ‘who you are’ is as much a process of whittling down your identity as it is one of building it up.
Put another way, identifying your core values could be boiled down to a two step process:
Figuring out where your current value system comes from
Eliminating or updating the parts that don’t align with how you feel when you remove familial, social, or societal pressures
A great deal has already been written about how to determine what you truly value and ensure that you’re choosing good values, but I believe that this idea of distillation is a helpful and intuitive framework for the process. 3And as you’ll see, this requires action.
Don’t Just Sit There
I had a conversation with a friend recently who had left her hometown because she felt stuck. She was repeatedly beating herself up. She carried around a lot of guilt because she hadn’t been able to thrive and develop like she wanted to despite living in a city where she had roots: deep social ties, a professional network and family close by.
After talking about it for a while, we realized that a large part of why she wasn’t able to flourish was likely because she was living in her hometown, not in spite of it. The environment in which she had spent most of her formative years was serving as the constant cloud cover of an identity and set of values that she had inherited and was unknowingly trying to outgrow. Making the choice to break free from that environment gave her the physical and emotional space to begin building a life that was her own. And while there was certainly an adjustment period, she’s thriving in her new surroundings.
This underscores the idea that developing your own identity and value system is an active process, not a passive one. Paul Rudd’s character, Kunu, from Forgetting Sarah Marshall did not have the right idea when he said “The less you do, the more you do.”4 While it is crucial to first reflect on how your influences have shaped you and what elements of those influences you might want to discard or update, you must then take action toward forcing yourself to ‘try on’ new identities.
This accomplishes two important things. First, it is the only way to truly identify whether something aligns with who you are, as simply thinking or theorizing about it can’t answer that question. Second, and arguably more importantly, it allows you to subconsciously break free from your current influences. It sends a message to yourself that you have independence and agency in your life. While moving to a new city scared my friend, it forced her to form new interests and relationships without relying on her familiar network or routine as a crutch. It also gave her a sense of autonomy and control. In her words, “the temporary vacuum I found myself in moving to another city was exactly what I needed to come up for air.” (There's a pun in there somewhere.) This was a crucial part of forming her own identity, and it would’ve been considerably more difficult had she not made the move.
The nature and magnitude of the action you take will obviously vary based on your unique background and circumstances. It might be something as big as a move or career change, or it could be as simple as signing up for a dance class. Maybe it’s mental rather than physical, such as deciding to be honest with yourself and others no matter what. Any of these actions can be equally significant; the point is that you’re proactively and intentionally expanding your environment, influences, and way of living in order to develop your own unique identity.
-> I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that you run away from your problems. If the difficulty you’re experiencing in your life isn’t related to a lack of self-awareness, then making a drastic change without intentionality isn’t going to fix anything (and will likely make things worse). This is why the introspection step is so important - it ensures that you’re solving the right problem.
To summarize so far:
Our identity and values in early life are formed by learning from our caretakers and others around us.
If you don’t take steps to first understand these characteristics and then act intentionally to form your own identity, the cognitive dissonance from not living truly to yourself and the ensuing reliance on others to determine your self-worth will lead to a hollow, unfulfilling life.
Do some self-reflection and ask yourself intentional, pointed questions to understand what your identity and values are, where they came from, and what parts of them should be discarded or revised. Tools like journaling and therapy are really helpful here.
Use what you learned from this reflection to take informed action with the intention of creating a sense of agency and expanding or updating your identity.
But what if I want people to like me?
An apparent paradox: we are social by nature and need connection, but relying on others’ approval for self-worth and fulfillment is a terrible way to go through life. At face value these ideas might seem contradictory; given the fact that we’re extremely social creatures, one might conclude that outsourcing our self-worth is okay (and we often do, unconsciously). But, as evidenced by my experience, depending exclusively on external validation will by definition lead to a lack of fulfillment because it avoids the question of what you yourself actually find valuable.
So how do we resolve this paradox? Let’s start by examining why the paradox is true in the first place. While we have a deep and ancient need for connection, it’s important to note that not all connection is equally meaningful or helpful. When our interactions and relationships with others are based on an all-consuming need for their approval, the relationship is by definition manipulative, conditional, and transactional. It isn’t actually a connection at all. True connection only comes when we present ourselves to others authentically and unconditionally. Being okay with the outcome of this presentation, whether it leads to acceptance or rejection, is entirely dependent on having a strong sense of comfort and confidence in your identity and value system.
Given all of this, I believe that we can only resolve the paradox by consciously and intentionally breaking free from our inherited identity and values and proactively building our own. As Khe Hy from RadReads puts it, “freedom from others’ approval begins with the intentionality in crafting your own unique story.” We’ll never be able to stop caring what others think of us - that would be the definition of sociopathy - but we can care less about what others think of us than what we think of ourselves, which enables us to authentically connect with others and drastically improve our relationships as a result. I’d argue that this is impossible without doing the work above.
This underscores the importance of doing this foundational work. If we go through life without actively and intentionally breaking free from our inherited identity to discover our own, our short time on this Earth will be a monumentally shitty experience. We’ll always feel a deep, unshakable dissatisfaction. We’ll never reach anything close to our full potential. And we’ll never form the kinds of meaningful relationships that are essential to our well-being. I believe that there are few endeavors more worthwhile than this one.
Dude, Nobody Cares about Your New Car
As I alluded to earlier, I learned all of this by doing the exact opposite. In spite of a fantastic college experience that should have taught me some of these lessons much earlier, I defaulted to a life and identity that wasn’t my own. I worked meaningless jobs that I hated. I bought nice cars and lived in fancy places so that people would think I was smart and successful and cool. Even though I made a lot of money, I ended up with a metric shit ton of credit card debt because I spent money to (unsuccessfully) try to make myself feel better about the fact that I wasn’t working on things I cared about or living in a manner that was true to myself. My existing relationships suffered, and I had trouble building new ones that had any substance.
Luckily our minds and bodies have a way of forcing us to listen when we’d rather not. Reaching a breaking point is usually the product of a suppressed truth building up energy until it refuses to be suppressed any longer and manifests as a physical and emotional breakdown. For me this breakdown was a deep depression - barely being able to get out of bed in the morning, slogging through each day, not looking forward to anything or feeling joy or fulfillment - in spite of having what seemed on the surface like a great life. Luckily this woke me up to the suppressed truth and prompted me to finally question the course of my life and whether it aligned with what I actually wanted.
Instead of continuing to talk about how I knew that I’d be an entrepreneur one day without doing anything about it, I bought a business. Rather than getting that question about what I’d do if money wasn’t an object, answering with ‘write’, and then thinking nothing else of it, I started this blog. Instead of using the opinions of others as a primary decision criterion, I began using my own values and perspective as the only factor. I’ve removed my shrink-wrapping.
I’m not immune to the fear of judgment. Questions about whether people will think I’m stupid or if what I’m saying has any value or if anyone will even read it have intermittently popped into my head while writing this. But getting to work on something I care about and have enjoyed even more than I thought I would far outweighs any self-consciousness I might have about it.
It’s often said that life begins at the end of your comfort zone. I would add that underlying this quote is the idea that life begins at the end of your inherited and unquestioned identity. Act accordingly.
If you've watched the show Yellowstone, Jamie's character arc is a perfect example of this
The Buddha would probably agree here, since he said that discovering our 'Buddha nature' is a similar process.
But he was right about one thing: the weather outside is, in fact, weather.