in Life Optimization

Have you realized you control your life?

from Wackystuff on flickr

When did you realize you control your life?

I’m serious – have you realized it yet? I hope you have. Many people go through their entire lives without realizing it.

In youth we are shepherded through the years by school, and in adulthood we are shepherded to work by the need to pay the bills. There are vacations and weekends where you have a moment to breathe, during which you may ask yourself ‘What would I do with my free time once I got tired of diversions like drink and entertainment?’ But then Monday comes around, and you push aside these errant thoughts in favor of more pressing matters. There’s too many Hows and Whens in your life to think about Why.

Thus it is a sad reality that many people don’t realize they control their  lives until retirement, when they suddenly have all the time in the world without many obligations. Free from the tyranny of being told what to do, they realize that they are capable of whatever they want, and moreover, they always had been. They realize that money, skill level, location, and network were all self-imposed restrictions that dissolve once you attack them in earnest. Even bad health from being elderly is a false barrier.

The worst part is the opportunity cost, the knowledge that you spent your whole life needlessly catering to the demands of your parents, your professors, your boss, and your spouse when you could have catered to yourself all along. You could have filled your life with ‘mini-retirements’ (as Tim Ferriss calls them), satisfying your bucket list throughout life in spurts rather than all at once near the end. The sooner you realize you control your life, the more life you have to control.

If you don’t take control of your life, somebody else will. And their plans for you will never compare to the ones you dream up. However, breaking out of one’s powerless default reality is not easy. It’s cozy, comfortable, familiar. Taking the red pill isn’t easy, and ignorance is bliss. An active lifestyle takes some work, but it is so much more rewarding than a passive one. The first step is to step off the rails, either by not doing something you are expected to, or by doing something nobody expects you to.

Eschewing college is one way to start

During a recent Thiel Foundation Summit, I met many smart young people who had all realized that they were in control of their own lives far sooner than most. Indeed, the very act of deciding not to go to college is evidence of life control, since college has become the default action.

Anything other than the default action (when taken intentionally rather than contrarily) is probably better for you. My blogger colleague Tynan once wrote about how he looks down on people who live ‘normal lives’, because it is evidence of a passive life. What are the chances that the default choice of the rest of the world is right for your unique needs as an individual? The chances are microscopic – what likely happened was that you didn’t actually think it through, and instead took the easy option that everyone else does. 

Once I realized how all these active people had in common, I took delight in figuring out exactly when their life took a turn for the intentional.  I’m curious about such events, because if we can help more people gain control of their own lives, the rest is easy. Once a person is empowered with a sense of agency and curiosity, the rest is up to them. As the saying goes, ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ I say “Show a man the reins of your life and you inspire him for a day; but give a man the reins of his own and you inspire for a lifetime.”

Their answers varied. One guy hated authority from the start, and so he categorically disregarded anything people told him to do. Another read a book about Ben Franklin and was inspired by his eccentric lifestyle. Another wanted to make more money and impact than he felt could be achieved normally, so stepped onto his own path.

Others found gap year scholarships that allowed them to escape the rat race for a while and really think about where they were going. One guy just noticed that he was more productive in the morning, even though he knew he wasn’t a morning person, and the desire to find out why was enough of an impetus to start.

For me it was my year abroad in Barcelona. I realized that I could travel anywhere; that nothing was holding me to one place. If I could go anywhere, I could be anyone, and if so, why not be the best person I could be? Everything since then has been a quest to find out what that looks like.

“I never wanted what I thought I did”

One answer was repeated again and again. “I finally got what I thought I had always wanted, and I realized that I had never truly wanted it in the first place.” This, to me, is the shortest and most elegant way to put it, and an analogue for life in general. It is the same sentiment that every unfulfilled retiree feels. They got what they wanted and realized it wasn’t truly wanted; instead it was something they were told to want.

It’s not money you want, it’s freedom. It’s not a conventionally beautiful spouse you want, it’s someone you find attractive who loves you for who you are. It’s not the degree, job, qualifications, or any other bullshit credential that you need, but rather the ability to deliver what you promise.

Society presents distorted views of what is truly wanted, as we create proxies and abstractions of the real things in question. It’s up to us to realize that they’re presenting the reality they want you to see, and all you need to do to get the life you prefer is to see the reality that you want to see.

How can we help people take control?

So what’s the real life version of the red pill? What would a bootcamp designed to make you take control of your like look like?

There’s the scholarship option –  pay for a young person to spend time on their own figuring out what they want to do free of the need to pay bills. Perhaps right after high school or college – all they need is some breathing space to figure out what they want, exempt from the stated desires of the rest of the world. You could do this in college, but theres drinking and girls and grades and all sorts of frivolous distractions that would prevent people from really looking at themselves (or at least this was my case).

There could be a scholarship that does not give money, but rather experiences. Someone has wanted to vacation in the Bahamas all their life? Own a motorcycle? Go skydiving? Make it happen. This service could act as a sort of Make A Wish foundation for those who are not about to die. Allow them to fulfill what they always wanted, and make them realize it was never a real end goal. And since it was not, start them questioning: what is?

These are expensive solutions, though they are likely to have higher success rates. The cheaper routes could entail motivational speakers inspiring people in person, or publishing an inspiring book (like The 4 Hour Workweek or Black Hole Focus) that shows others how live the way they’d like to. Yet these solutions are not individualized to each person’s experience – they are one size fits all. There’s a big difference between giving a person the power to control their own life and exposing a person to someone who already controls their life. The former can only be done internally, but perhaps the latter can ignite the former.

The ability to recognize yourself as the sole purveyor of your personal destiny, and the next step of figuring out what you want that destiny to be, are the most powerful tools that you can give a person. Why don’t we give it to more?