My friend Tim is like a brother to me. The other day, we were talking on the phone about typical things: our love of music, our excitement for Game of Thrones season five, our daily lives, the fact that his teenage daughters are now old enough to drive around with each other and that he and his wife were going to take a walk on the beach later.
Statements like these exemplify the creeping, general malaise that has increased over the decades of Tim's life. Here's a guy who is funny, financially secure, quirky enough to be interesting but normal enough to be comforting, and people love to be around him... and he's pretty much miserable, most of the time.
Since he first left home, Tim was trying to find his place in the world. He tried living in other countries, then he wandered through a few careers, then he tried different cities, and eventually he even changed his name. His place in the world is still at large.
I don't think he's alone. For the record, I also don't think his mid-life age range or his Catholic-nun-trauma stories or his family history of depression is to blame - exacerbating factors of his melancholy wanderlust, maybe, but not the root cause. I think you, and Tim and I are exactly alike.
We've all been steeping in the same societal tea for so long, that this crisis of identity and unhappiness that is plaguing Tim is now lurking right around the corner for all of us if we're not cautious... and it's rooted in our cultural conversation around "success."
(Nope. that's too easy.) Let's dig down.
When did you define success for yourself (if you ever did)? For most of us, it's the same age we defined "what you want to be when you grow up"... probably between 7 and 17. Still at home -- except maybe in our own skin -- and looming large in front of us are huge concerns about how we're going to succeed at satisfying our basic human needs.
Food -- Shelter -- Primary Relationship -- Foundational Self-Esteem
These are the "deficiency needs," as Abraham Maslow called them. He believed that if we're not satisfying one of these basic needs we'll feel an anxious tension about life. It's the tension of the poor, the oppressed, the third world, and the 7-to-17 year old who hasn't figured out her place in the world.
But let's say you're reading this, and you've had the good fortune to get those basics satisfied... what next? That is the question Tim and most people never ask.
You see, the assumption written into our cultural definition of success says that what's next is "more." By the time we reach mid-life, this striving for "more" of the basics is chronic. "More" suddenly looks like this:
- "More shelter" -- bigger house, bigger car, bigger paycheck, probably workaholism
- "More food" -- emotional eating, lots of lattes, poor health choices
- "More relationship" -- all kinds of approval-seeking, and probably an affair
- "More self-esteem" -- beyond healthy esteem, into ego-driven lifestyle
It turns out that, once our primary needs are satisfied, more is not more.
It seems that bigger houses, espresso machines, affairs and ego haven't helped us find our place in the world. Instead, they created Tim and his fellow melancholics. According to Maslow and others, once the basic needs are satisfied, the only way we up-level our satisfaction and fulfillment in life is through transformation.
What's curious about the journey of transformation is that it requires us to "leave home." In the hero's journey, for example, satisfying the basic needs leads to the stage where the hero is called to adventure. Maslow first used the term self-actualization for this transformative experience of leaving home from the basic comforts.
So what's next? Questioning the assumptions that came from our culture, our parents, and our history, and instead becoming self-authoring. The driving force behind this questioning can be found within our sense of purpose -- our calling. This undeniable calling (the denial of which creates the malaise) is a lantern that lights our journey to "more" in the deepest possible sense. We discover a success that is beyond comforts and egoic desires and needs. We create new possibilities. We uncover new paradigms. We lead, for the good of all. And we love it.
For Tim and most of us, the process of leaving home is only two steps away: 1. Listen, so you recognize the quiet calling that never goes away, and 2. Scare the hell out of yourself by taking an action that moves you beyond the melancholy of the familiar.
By doing these two things, you define which journey are you committed to: the familiar or the fulfilling. Once you're out there, send a postcard from the road... it will inspire the pants off of Tim, once he realizes that you and he are exactly alike.