A lot of us have been told for many years that we should “think outside of the box”. I was told this a lot growing up and into adulthood. I heard it at school, at work, from friends, from family and from society in general. I actually took great pride in trying to think outside of the box. “Trying” is the keyword because I most certainly did NOT always succeed. Despite all of the failures, I decided to continue trying to think outside of the box. That all changed last winter after I arrived back in Ontario after 4 months in British Colombia and almost 2 in South America.
I’d been on a few different adventures prior to this. I’m not going to call them “trips” or “vacations” because my goal was never to just relax or chill. I have nothing against vacations or trips, I just felt like both words didn’t really embody the meaning that I’d like to convey here.
I wanted to learn about other cultures, different peoples and myself. I’ve been to Jamaica, the U.S, and Europe, so travelling to a different continent on my own didn’t really scare me as much as it used to. What did, however, kind of worry me was going “backwards” in life or coming back home with no money and nothing tangible to show for anything. I’d come back broke from Europe both of the times that I’d gone and even my most recent stint to the US had hit my bank account pretty hard. I wanted my South American adventure to be an outlier!
Soooooo, you’re probably asking what changed this time around? Well…. sooooo… nothing changed this time around and that seemed to be the problem. I’d moved out west, saved enough money to FINALLY afford going to South America and I’d STILL ended up back home in Ontario and my bank account was more or less empty… AGAIN. Everything was the same. It felt like the six months may have been a waste. My thinking outside of the box had sneakily led me into a similar albeit different box and it wasn’t a good feeling. That’s when it dawned on me. Who put this box here in the first place? Was it me? My friends? My family? Society? Or none of the above? Where did this box come from and why do I have to think outside of it? I definitely haven’t ordered anything on Amazon recently, so why is there even a box in the first place? Convincing yourself that you’re stuck inside a box and that the only path forward in life is to think outside of it implies that most people must be doing things a certain way and that you have to be the weird one out who decides to do everything a completely different way. It implies that there is an objectively correct or normal way that everyone needs to live their lives. Then it dawned on me and it all suddenly started to make sense! I started to understand why I’d often feel weird for wanting to go my own way. I also understood why other people felt weird for wanting to go their own ways. We’re all told by the media and society that there is an objectively correct/normal way to live our lives and that we’re weird or going “backwards” in life if we even dare to go against the grain
But as I said, why does there have to be a box in the first place? And a path? To where? Where is this path leading? To some Nirvana like feeling of bliss, objective success and eternal, earthly happiness? Will there be ice cream? Why does there have to be a path to begin with?
I know I’m probably sounding either crazy or like a conspiracy theorist, so allow me to explain.
As usual, before I get into this, I want to say that this is only my opinion and you’re allowed to disagree with me. I don’t think that my belief is infallible and if you disagree or have a better way of tackling this, please leave a comment so that me and my readers can learn more too!
Anyway, without further ado, let’s get right into it!
Everybody feels lost!
Everyone either feels or has felt lost at least once in their lives. Nobody has everything figured out and none of us can predict the future or know exactly what tomorrow will bring. We can make estimations, but we still can’t know with 100% certainty what’s coming our way. The thing is that there is nothing objectively wrong with feeling lost. Life is an adventure and part of what makes it exciting is the whole aspect of “I don’t know what’s coming next”. That’s what makes life an adventure. Imagine if you could predict with 100% certainty exactly what would happen on every single day of your life. You’d know if or when you’d fall in love, if or when you’d have kids and even the exact second that you’d die. Does that sound like an exciting life? Of course not! It’s like watching Game of Thrones and knowing what happens to John Snow before you even start the first episode of season 1 because meme culture is so darn pervasive. It’s also like knowing that that lame Truth or Dare movie would suck before you wasted 15 dollars to see it at the theatre…. ok, well knowing that would have actually been a good thing, but you probably get my point by now.
Western society tells us to “Find ourselves” and to stay on the “Right” path as if our “identities” never change and as if there is a “right” path everyone should follow. The truth is that there is nothing objectively wrong with being lost because being lost means that you can still find your way or at least “A” way. None of it is preordained.
A lot of this feeling of being “lost” comes from us comparing ourselves to other people who seem to have already figured everything out. We’re all human and we all do it. You may compare yourself to somebody on instagram, Twitter, the grocery store, the mall or even at your weekly art class. We all do it, but it’s just part of being human. It’s just how we are.
I don’t know if it’s possible to completely stop comparing yourself to other people, but we CAN, however, lessen the pain it causes us. People tend to only post good times and huge accomplishments online. Open any form of social media and you’ll see this right away. You’ll see party pictures, travel photos, people graduating and how “happy” everyone else seems to be. It’s hard not to compare yourself when everyone else seems to have it all figured out, but I’ll tell you a secret: The people you’re seeing online are probably feeling just as lost as you are. They’re probably lurking other people’s social media and trying to one-up them. Who knows, they may even be lurking YOUR social media and wondering why their lives aren’t as good as yours seems to be. It’s a strange thought, right? You could be in your room feeling sorry for yourself and comparing yourself to people who are actually comparing themselves to YOU!
To make matters worse, none of us can even decide upon an objective definition of the term “success”. It not only varies from culture to culture, but also from person to person in the SAME culture.
Success is subjective!
Ok, I know that this is a bold statement that may have triggered a few people, but please bare with me and allow me to explain what I mean by this. Please allow me to start with a question: What is YOUR definition of success? Is it opening a restaurant? Is it becoming a millionaire? Is it buying an expensive car? Is it getting a boat? Moving to Berlin? Catching enough fish to feed your family?
Now let’s dive even deeper!
How many restaurants do you have to open before you’re successful? Just one or do you want to start a chain? Is 2 million dollars enough money or would 4 make you feel better? What happens if you buy an expensive car and then a newer model gets released a month later? Are you still successful? What happens if you lose the boat in an aggressive storm? Does that mean that you’re magically no longer successful until you buy a new one? What if you visit Paris and decide to live there instead?
Now lets dive even deeper still!
Would the people you care the most about also view these things as successes or would they be indifferent? When we compare ourselves to other people, we also crave their approval and validation. I’ve seen tons of people put effort and thought into many different endeavours only to feel discouraged and defeated when they don’t get the validation and feedback from others that they craved so much.
What if I told you that what other’s think about your success doesn’t matter as much as you think it does? Allow me to give you an example. There are still many tribes and groups that live more or less free of the grips of “Modern” Society. Some people still live as hunter gatherers. Do you think a hunter gatherer scrolls through instagram and wishes he could get the perfect beach photo in Cuba on his new iPhone 12? It’s possible, but it’s much more likely that being able to put food on the table and keeping his family safe and housed would be how he would personally define success. Losing ten pounds may be considered success to somebody who’s overweight and wanting to slim down while gaining ten pounds may be considered success to somebody who has always felt a little too skinny and wants to bulk up.
Eating 30 hot dogs may be viewed as success to a competitive eater, but NOT eating any hot dogs for a week may be viewed as success to somebody who’s trying to follow a healthier, more balanced diet.
If we can’t even collectively decide on the definition of success, why do we bother comparing ourselves to other people? All we’re really doing is hurting ourselves in vain. If Rick down the street’s definition of success is to finally buy a house, so that he can finally stop renting and spend his money on things that fulfil him while also giving his son a bigger backyard to play soccer in, but my definition is to live a healthy vegan life, what good does comparing ourselves to each other do? It’s like comparing apples to oranges. If I’m satisfied with my apartment because it’s cheap enough that I can afford my vegan diet and hobbies, then that’s great. If Rick is satisfied with his new house, that’s also great. What good does staring at my plate do for Rick unless he’s also trying to go vegan and what good does staring at the size of Rick’s yard do for me unless I’d also like to buy a bigger house? We’re both comparing ourselves and hurting ourselves in the process for absolutely no reason!
It actually blew my mind when I first became aware of all of this. I used to compare myself to other people a lot and still do (although less frequently) because I’m human. I actually had an epiphany a few days ago thanks to a guy I met at the place I’m currently staying at in Vancouver. He told me that he gave up his high paying job to travel the world and work and earn money as he needs. He said that that was what makes him happy. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do at the moment too. The only difference is that I wasn’t leaving behind a high paying job.
A lot of society views what he and I are doing as “Weird”. I’ve had countless people ask me when I plan on settling down and even when I plan on starting a family and so on because that’s what a lot of people my age seem to be doing and that’s fine because that’s THEIR version of success. Although I’ve been trying to go my own way and make my dream a reality, I still feel immense amounts of pressure to “fit in”. I honestly sometimes think that everyone else is right. Maybe I shouldn’t travel. Maybe I should look into a long term high paying career and think about starting a family. These are all thoughts that cross my mind on a daily basis, but I know that I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t at least try to chase my dreams first. Sure, having a big house, a wife and kids that love me would be great, but that can always happen after I’m finished going after my current dream. Hearing the guy confidently talk about his dream while owning it made me finally see how much I was comparing myself to other people’s versions of success. I was creating a box for myself without even knowing it. I always found that I’d beat around the bush when people would ask what I’m currently up to. I could never just say the words “I don’t want to settle down yet, I want to travel the world and work odd jobs to fund it”. I worked up the courage to say that a few times and although some of the reactions were positive, a few were also negative and we humans love to focus on the negative… even if the situation is predominantly positive. It’s in our biological wiring.
So as you’ve probably guessed, I focused on the negative reactions and those are the ones that mainly stuck with me and influenced how I explained the dream to other people. Hearing the guy just own it and take pride in it helped me break free from the chains that I’d put on myself. I was finally able to step outside of the box and then burn the same box I was trapping myself in. It felt great. I hope to continue doing this in other areas of my life and I hope that reading this inspires others to do the same the same way the dude I met inspired me. I may have gotten out of ONE box, but with Amazon’s black Friday deals upon us… there will be more boxes to climb out of and burn. Avoiding boxes is a life long endeavour, but it’s an exciting part of the adventure that we call life!
Yes, this is all easier said than done, because we’re biologically wired to compare ourselves to others because we still do need to fit in to a certain extent. On the African savanna, If you didn’t fit in with the other people in your tribe, you may have gotten abandoned which may have resulted in you either starving or getting eaten by some giant prehistoric cat.
There’s a small catch….
Although we shouldn’t unnecessarily compare ourselves to others and we should also try to minimize how much we care about what other people think about us, we do have to care to a certain extent. If you didn’t care at all about what anybody thought and decide to completely detach yourself from society, you’d be an anarchist and would probably end up getting shunned by most people and most of society. That wouldn’t be fun, now would it? The trick is to find the middle ground. You have to care enough to assimilate into society, but not to the point that you feel like you’re living a lie because you’re not pursuing your actual hopes and dreams. Finding the middle ground is pretty difficult. I feel like I’m finally starting to get my footing and it feels tremendously liberating!
So where do we go from here?
Realizing and acknowledging that there is no box to think outside of and also that there isn’t an objective path that everyone needs to follow is a win in itself. Putting all of this into practice is the hard part, but I promise, It’s very fulfilling. I’ve been experimenting with it and its been very sobering and enlightening. I still compare myself to others, but I feel like I’m starting to feel much more free and secure now that I’m doing it less.
There is no objective form of success. It varies from culture to culture, from society to society, from city to city and even from person to person on the same street! Why should we bother comparing ourselves to each other when none of us can even agree on one objective definition of the word “success”. My version of success will be very different from your version and that’s fine. Why would you beat yourself up for not having something that I have if you don’t even want it? Why would I beat myself up for not having something that you have if I don’t actually want it? All we’re doing is hurting ourselves in vain. Don’t think outside the box because there is NO box. The existence of a box implies that there’s a correct way to do things and that you’re weird for going against the grain. There’s no objectively correct path that everyone’s life needs to follow. Once again, that would imply that there was an objectively correct way to live life that applies to everyone and there isn’t. Don’t allow yourself to be limited by others. You are an individual with your own hopes and dreams and you should chase your dreams (Within reason). If your dream is to do something illegal or to hurt people… well… DON’T pursue THOSE dreams, but always remember that you’re free to pursue what you want (Within reason)
I hope this article makes sense as it’s been a while since the last time I posted. I had really bad writers block. I also hope that it was able to help! Thank you for reading and I hope to see you all again, soon!