As I sat on the edge of Horseshoe Canyon, overlooking the majestic landscape of Page, Arizona, it hit me: "I don't have to do this."
"This" was my life in New York City, which was an endless grind of work to make money, look good doing it, go to a social event every night, and work some more. For years, I felt like I was fighting an emotional uphill battle working for a company I didn't believe in, in a role I didn't terribly care for, for money I didn't need to spend. I worked hard for that life, but my heart was not in it.
Why, then, did I waste so much time fighting for what I didn't want?
Because, until recently, I subscribed to the American Dream.
It's strange to think how much the trajectory of our lives can be dictated by society's definition of success. In the U.S. (and much of the Western world), success can be summed up in predictable life stages: go to a respectable college, get a well-paying job, earn enough to take out a mortgage and buy lots of stuff, have 2.5 kids, work some more to get them through an equally respectable college, retire, and spend the rest of your days finally relaxing and traveling. Those who follow this prescribed lifestyle assumedly live the dream, while those who stray are outcasts.
I started really thinking about this during my recent road trip through the American Southwest. I was shocked to see that people still subscribe to the same ole American Dream despite living in a drastically different part of the country. How is it possible that one road to success can house the aspirations of people all over the country, even though their lives and circumstances are completely different? Since when are dreams one-size-fits-all?
There is something fundamentally amiss with the American Dream: it is a formula, and formulas don't leave much wiggle room for flexibility or change. When we decide to let a formula dictate what it takes to deserve happiness and nice things in life, we spend a lot of time ticking off checkboxes - even those that may not matter to us.
I recognize that for some, this formula works. It's genuinely what's wanted. But too often, that's not necessarily the case. What society says we should want may drastically misalign with what we want for ourselves, and we might not even realize it.
Which leads me to wonder, why walk a path that alienates us from what we really want?
Fighting For What We Don't Want Is Safer Than Going After What We Do Want
It's counterintuitive, yet astonishing how hard we can work for what we don't want.
Throughout high school and college I was consistently told to graduate, commit to a respectable career, and thrive in it. And so, I tried to do just that by moving to New York City, getting a corporate job, and spending hours and hours grinding away for the sake of raises, promotions, or pats on the back. It was a great life by society's standards, but I felt a void. I lacked purpose and passion.
What really excited me was travel, and not the type where I go to a beach resort and mentally check out for a week. Rather, the travel that has me eating and laughing at a random hole-in-the-wall in Italy until I have to unbutton my pants; drinking rum and discussing politics with Cuban locals on top of Havana's overlook; breaking into tears after visiting a Khmer Rouge death camp in Phnom Penh and learning from my new Cambodian friend that his relatives were victims.
I've wanted to travel the world since I could remember. But, vagabonding is largely frowned upon (thankfully this has been changing in the past few years with the rise of the digital nomad): to many, it's perceived as delaying my career, not having ambitions, or running away. For fear of being judged for wanting another life, I allocated an incredible amount of time and effort fighting to follow standards that were deemed acceptable by those around me, even though it was not at all what I personally wanted to do.
Breaking away from a process that is tried and true to carve our own path is a difficult decision. It takes a lot of work to ask ourselves - and honestly answer - what we really want. Dare I say that fighting for what we don't want is easier than pursuing what we do want?
Strangely, going through life fighting for what we don't want feels safer than undertaking the arduous task of facing yourself, your wants, and the higher risk of failure that accompanies choosing the unknown. There is comfort in following society's prescription of what a good life should be, and those who follow the rules, and follow them well, can expect to be rewarded for it. The renegades, on the other hand, have no system to predict whether their efforts will pay off.
When we choose to pursue what we really want, we run risks. We risk being judged, looked down on, and perhaps even labeled a failure. As I sat in my cubicle, daydreaming of an alternate way to spend my days, I asked myself: what am I fighting for? Myself, or an ideal version of myself created by someone else?
Being Who We Want Shouldn't Be A Fight
Fighting every day through tasks that don't propel us to where we genuinely want to be ends up being a lot more effort in the long run. It is exhausting to shape our lives around an abstract notion of success that we may not fully believe in.
Enough fighting. Once we decide to pursue the life we want and stop dedicating energy towards creating the one that society expects us to live, overcoming obstacles and achieving our goals requires a lot less fight. Effort and resilience will still be asked of us, of course, but the feeling of fight is replaced with passion.
Life is a process of rediscovering ourselves. To do that, we must peel back the many layers of identity and beliefs that society has conditioned us to subscribe to. Family, where we are born, our gender, and religion determines so much of who we are and what roles we need to fulfill throughout our life. It also determines the collective dream that as a society we are expected to feed into - in the U.S.'s case, the American Dream. But, in the pursuit of a life that's purposeful and right for us, none of that has to matter. We become who we want to be once we stop fighting to uphold societal expectations for what a successful life constitutes and instead create our own.
Perform For Yourself, And Success Will Come
I, for one, do not want to perform my life for anyone other than myself. I refuse to let a faceless entity hold it hostage any longer. I cringe at the thought of how often I've acted against my gut instincts to please a perceived "everyone else," who in actuality couldn't care less about what I was doing because they were too wrapped up figuring out their own lives.
We each define success our own way. To me, success is no longer how quickly and efficiently I can tick off American Dream checkboxes. Success is the ability to unapologetically be. Life is too short and too precious to live by someone else's rules. If society's definition of an ideal life does not suit us, then we have to choose our own path or spend the rest of our days performing for a phantom audience.
When every step we take is purposeful, the outcome will naturally be purposeful as well. Be who you want to be, and do it well. Everything else will fall into place.