Reposted from Medium
“I see a lot of people telling us the world is crashing and burning but very little advice for little people able to plan for the future. Help!!”
I get emails. And sometimes I even write essays about them. So. How is one to survive all this — these tumultuous, anxiety-inducing times?
I’m going to take you through a seven step self-help program, from tiny to big, shallow to deep, and then we’ll discuss the thinking behind it.
- Nourish your relationships. That friend you haven’t called in a decade? That cousin you never talk to? Call them, email them, message them. Build up your social networks — not cynically as we do now, things to preen before. But instead, in the traditional sense: networks of people who look out for each other, support each other, care for one another. Not only will it bring you strength, confidence, and happiness — but you will be less alone, anxious, and maybe new opportunities will come your way, too. In an age where social systems and contracts are collapsing, your first step every day should be building a tiny one of your own.
- Nourish your mind. You think you’re “educated” — mistake. Education might not be a guarantee of riches anymore — but its still the best bulwark by far against a declining life. No, not for everyone — there are plenty of starving adjunct professors. So even with education one must be strategic. That means making it a) lifelong b) of enduring service to others c) a path to independence for you. Every few years, you should be getting new certifications, diplomas, and so on. You should always — always — be reading deep into a subject, field, or domain. But not narrowly — as in today’s “STEM” fetish. Nerd? Study ancient literature. Literati? Study philosophy. The world doesn’t need narrow specialists now, armies of Zuckerbergs who’ve never read a book— it needs civilized human beings. Be one — nourish your whole mind, not just a tiny chink of it.
- Patchwork everything. Get comfortable with the idea of having what I call a patchwork career, life, approach. Let’s take me as an example. I’ve been an economist, a banker, a corporate exec, and now, what am I? I guess I’m a writer — advisor — coach: a career that I just kind of made up, instead of letting decline happen to me. I’m an author, I advise institutions, I coach people now and then, and I dabble in a few other things which shall remain nameless until next year. (That sounds awfully braggy, so let me say that all I ever wanted to be was a musician, but I sucked, I know, tiny violins, right?) You won’t have one career — you’ll have many. The economy is fragmenting, and so is the idea of a “job”. There are two ways out — the bad one, neofeudal gig work, or the good one, patching various strands of a career together for yourself. Just follow what moves you — take the strands one at a time, but develop them simultaneously: I write every day, speak once in a while, coach and advise a few times a week — and think about it it all constantly. What the world is blowing — knit it back together. The upside is you get to do it your way, instead of theirs.
- Strive for independence. Ah, the painful one. Broken, failing institutions — so why would you pin your hopes on them? Independence, not the enforced downward mobility that is the price of institutional dependence, should be your goal. Yet the dilemma is this: unless you luck out, you’re not going to have a life as secure and stable as your parents did — no matter how many Ivy League degrees you get, how hard you work, or much you do. It’s probably just not on the cards — that’s what “downward mobility” means. Breathe. Accept it. It’s OK. Not only is it not your fault, but you can can have something they often didn’t: independence. Here are some tiny steps. Buy a cheap place and fix it up. Take a few bucks every month — no matter how small — and sock them away. Did you know that most of the stock market’s growth (always) comes from maybe three companies? In the 80s, it was GE, Ford, IBM. In the 90s, Microsoft, the Gap, cable companies. Now? Just look at the three most famous companies. Put a little bit there every month. Don’t touch it. Don’t obsess over it, either. Just let it grow. Develop your assets, no matter how small — home, savings, investments. Patchwork career, income. Patchwork assets, savings, safety nets of your own. Independence comes that way.
- You don’t need the world to be happy. So why are you after it? Now. What’s the upside of never having a standard of living as high as your parents? The good news is that you don’t need one to be happy — in fact, a humbler one is probably better for your happiness, sanity, meaning, purpose, compassion, empathy, courage, because riches bring tremendous burdens, too. The richer one gets, the more those things disappear, as money and power brings with it envy, greed, hard-heartedness, anxiety, spite. Take a second to really digest that. You don’t need the world to really come alive in this life. You don’t need much at all. How much? Above 70k or so of income, happiness doesn’t really increase, in fact, it decreases. I usually frown on applying statistics naively, but this one I’ve found to be true in every single person I have ever met. So don’t spend day after day agonizing over something that’s fruitless: yes, you can have less than your parents — but be happier because of it. Does that make sense? In this way, decline, too has a curious upside. Humility and grace come to us in a pragmatic way when we understand that because we are tiny, little things, in a desperate, uncertain world, how strange and wonderful that we do not need much to be happy, loving, true, kind, and beautiful.
- Nourish your sanity, aka take immaculate care of your mental health. Have you ever noticed that these days people obsessively go to the gym — but could mostly care less about what kind of people they really are, aka their mental health? How funny. How strange. It’s difficult, challenging work, finding such happiness. How is one to do it? Where is it hidden? It’s hidden in your sanity. But sanity is something that comes to us slowly. A decade ago I was volcanic, incandescent, ruinous — I destroyed everything good I touched (and called it conquest). Now I’m much calmer, stiller, gentler. And so I’m happier. What changed? Well, I went through a major trauma — I spent a year thinking I was going to die every month. In that year, all I had left to do was think about life. But you can do that too — in a, let us say, nicer way: that philosophy book club you’ve been meaning to join? That memoir by a sick person? That therapist you’ve been meaning to see? Do it, all of it. Take care of your mental health. No — I emphatically don’t mean this weird American thing called self-care. I mean genuine care for your mental health, not the capitalist counterfeit of it. You will need to understand yourself, deeply, profoundly — “what has wounded me?” “How have I lived with it?” “What have I learned from it?” — to really understand what happiness is. But just understanding yourself too is a great gift, perhaps the greatest gift of all, because in our parents’ materialist, capitalist, competitive culture, there was no need, room, or even reason to. They made things a substitute for selves.
- Embrace your freedom (aka, stop trying to compete with your parents, friends, colleagues, the old world). You are freer, in a way, precisely because of decline and collapse. Freer of what? Of materialism, of rationalism, of disconnection, of selfishness, of cruelty, of their burdens. Or at least you can be. You see, our parents were told they needed to be these things to have all the wonderful things that gave them that standard of living — the cars, McMansions, and so on. So there was forged a link between who you were, and what you had. Or more of a chain, really. Now, you do not have to be bound by these chains anymore — although maybe you still are. It is up to you to let them go. If you are always thinking that more stuff will lead to more happiness, that more power will lead to more meaning, more things to more admiration, more, more, more — then you yourself must see that it is not true, and you are thinking about life backwards. More chains don’t make anyone freer. Now, if you’ve been brought up in an overachieving household, especially, the harder it is to understand that these beliefs are imprisoning you — you can’t do as well as your parents, but you can be happier, kinder, more graceful, more learned, wise, and courageous than them — if only you let the competition go. But if you’re still trying to compete with them, then you’ll always be miserable.
The world is changing dramatically, isn’t? Why aren’t you? Your real challenge now is change, too — but in the opposite way. To step forward while the world is going backwards. Not a la superficial self-help books. To become a genuinely different kind of person. A radiant one. The kind that world needs, hopes for, remembers one day, sings to. That person is right there in you. All these names of love that we call courage, wisdom, beauty, grace truth — where has it ever gone? Where has it ever been? — but hidden in you? And exactly so, the more fiercely that you cling on to yesterday — like all those pitiable extremists, those angry and bitter young men — all you are really saying is: “I cannot change! It is too scary!! I am afraid!!”
I am here to tell you that you can. And, perhaps, that is our shared challenge in this tumultuous, and yes, frightening time: not just building better institutions and societies — that is beyond most of us, isn’t it? — but becoming, first, different, more aware, wise, mature kinds of people. Maybe that is what all the fear and danger and peril is meant to teach us about, and to remind us of — precisely all the things that we have not given one another, and ourselves, enough of. The kinds of people, eyes alight with the wonder and grace of every last day, whose kids, perhaps, one day can.
Take my hand. Take a deep breath. Ready? Here we go.