Recently I came across my varsity basketball team photo hanging in the hallway of my old high school. Looking at my cocky, 18-year-old self with medals draped around his neck, I thought about how blind and sheltered I’d been.
Buying into the game of chasing “the good life” that society will relentlessly try to convince you to play is only a distraction…
Like most young men at that age about to graduate from high school, I thought I had it all figured out. I was destined to be successful and have all the “important” things in life. I was athletic, spent my time with the “popular” kids, and had all the attention I could want from girls. What I didn’t realize was that I was chasing the wrong things.
I spent countless hours ensuring that I projected the right image. Mentally checking the boxes that others tell us will make us cool, being outwardly masculine, wearing the right clothes, and surrounding myself with jocks and pretty girls. At the time I didn’t see that I was merely surviving under the tyranny of trends, subscribing to a superficial vision of success while playing social roles that other people had selected for me.
Reflecting on how my views have changed, I wish I could explain to my younger self that we are not here to conform. We are here to live an authentic life aligned to our beliefs and values, in pursuit of our dreams, making a difference in the lives of others.
But this is not the message we receive about what it means to “be a man” and live a successful life. The dominant and linear societal narrative is generally some version of the following:
Earn a degree from an elite college, start a high-powered career, marry a beautiful women, buy a home in a good neighborhood, have a family, surround yourself with material abundance, and eventually, after a long and successful career, retire (preferably on a beach somewhere with palm trees) so you can kick back and enjoy life. While you’re building your amazing life remember to look out for number one, win at all costs, and whatever you do, don’t be soft!
If I had a chance to sit down with my 18 year-old self, here’s what I would have told him:
Throughout your life, you’ll be exposed to thousands of invasive messages that lead you to believe that being fully alive and finding meaning can only be achieved by chasing women, a career, money, consumer goods, and the right image. These ideas condition us to accept that life is largely about recognition, status and endless personal promotion.
But in reality these aspirations have diminishing returns and are ultimately empty. By pursuing these things you’ll end up with a list of women that’s a mile long but relationships that are an inch deep. You’ll sacrifice years of your life for a job title that is not important. You’ll accumulate material riches that leave you emotionally impoverished.
But the real danger in accepting society’s ideas about success is that you’ll most likely fail to follow your passion in life. By setting aside the things you ache for you’ll begin to struggle with who you are, lose your sense of identity, and feel misplaced. I should know. It happened to me.
It was during my time in college that I began to feel disconnected with a number of our dominant societal ideals. I started thinking that there must me more to life beyond these superficial pursuits. As these uneasy feelings surfaced with increasing frequency and intensity, I went out and bought a map of the world to place above my desk. I would often stare at my map daydreaming about visiting foreign countries and exploring other cultures. Eventually my sense of restlessness and a strong suspicion prompted me to buy a backpack and leave everything and everyone I had ever known behind.
For over a decade now I have been on a personal journey in search of a more complete understanding of how to live a life of meaning. This adventure has led me through more than 50 countries, from Peru to Paris, from the streets of New York City to Mount Kilimanjaro, and from the Pyramids of Giza to the Great Wall of China. I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with individuals from a wide range of cultures, classes, and ethnicities. I’ve worked alongside people who are building homes for the homeless, giving orphans a childhood worth remembering, working in leper hospitals, AIDS clinics and refugee camps.
It’s through these experiences that I’ve developed a richer context of what it means to be successful and live a life of meaning. I now believe that in order to live an authentic life we must all live our lives from the inside out, regardless of whether we’re male or female. What we value, what we believe, and what makes us come alive should define how we act and ultimately who we become.
What I’d ultimately want to say to that guy in the photo is this: In the end, your happiness in life will come from living in harmony with your true self. Buying into the game of chasing “the good life” that society will relentlessly try to convince you to play is only a distraction that will take you away from yourself and make you miss some of life’s greatest moments.