Note: This is an opinion piece, written without reference to other sources. Please treat it as such.
“You needn't settle for a mediocre life just because the people around you did.” ― Joshua Fields Millburn, Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life
I was told in school how my life would turn out. It was a method our teachers used to control us and make us conform by impressing how important it was to pay attention in class. You’ll go to school, then university, get a job, a car, a house, settle down, and have children. After a while, I heard this sequence so much that it became the anticipated outcome. Just as long as I stuck to the rules, my life would be blissfully dull.
So I created a list of things I needed to live a happy life:
- A good school record
- A university degree
- A job
- A car
- A house
It seems (through my personal observation) there are many people out there with all those things who are still searching for something more. Perhaps those things don’t make us as happy as we think they do, and we don’t realise it until we have everything and still feel empty. People are obviously the part of the list that is most important, because we’re a social species, but we need more than just other people to find fulfilment in our own lives. After all, we need to feel useful, as though our life has a purpose, and that we’re contributing to the whole somehow.
Unfortunately my life didn’t fit into the above list. Reality shattered my expectations, and it affected my mental and physical health as a result. I was bullied in school, so I switched to another one and my grades suffered because it had limited resources. Finally I ended up at university at the age of 29. I completed my degree at age 34, and I’ve been looking for work ever since….
I’m sure the list works out for some people. They have managed to live their lives without questioning the plan society has for them. Perhaps it aligns with their wishes, or perhaps they were made to think that through repetition, as I was. Perhaps they simply haven’t had their expectations shattered just yet….
One example of my breaking from the mold was when I told my mother I didn’t want children, which goes against the natural and socially acceptable convention in most societies. She looked wounded because she wouldn’t get any grand-children. My feelings regarding children are based upon the state of our planet and the degradation of our society in the United Kingdom, but even though it makes sense from a logical perspective, to go against the wishes of our families can be jarring for them, and difficult to rationalise away with facts. I also considered the pressure this might make my sister feel, since if my mother was to have any grand-kids it now rested with her.
The point I am making is that my life has been 'unsuccessful' when considering the meaning most of us place on the word. I haven’t a full-time job, I don’t drive a car, I don’t have my name on the deed to a house, and I don’t want any kids of my own. My life as it has been, however, is anything but mediocre. It has been exciting, terrifying and crazy, and all at the same time. My life is a twisted dissonance of different events all somehow squished into my 35 years. I’ve managed to live that way without having been on a holiday in 15 years, or any other of those coveted possessions on the list until fairly recently when I graduated with my BA in Photography.
“Reject the basic assumptions of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions,”
― Joshua Fields Millburn, Everything That Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists
Somewhere along the way we drink the Kool-aid of material wealth as a sign of success. However, success is entirely based on the assumption we’re all playing with the same goal in mind. When you change the meaning of success, you change the rules of the game. Minimalism is one such way of changing the rules and taking back control of our definition of what it means to be alive.
So how do you measure success? Chances are that most people will look at my traditional list above and say “If I achieve that, I’ll have had a pretty good life.”
I’m not saying education isn’t important. I believe in lifelong learning of skills: learning skills makes me feel useful, capable, and ultimately, happy. But there are quite a lot of material possessions linked with each one of these items, from buying a laptop for school to furniture for a house. Is that linked to your measurement of your own success too? Are these possessions an outward sign of how you show others how successful you are?
Minimalism is partially about ridding oneself of the outward signs of success. It requires us to be content with our own individual definition of what constitutes a meaningful existence without advertising it to the world through what we own. Ultimately any purchase made as a statement of wealth is devoid of meaning to it’s owner because it serves no practical purpose. It’s just an extra item on the mantel to dust each week and wastes time. It was bought for the benefit of others.
Example: Did the last smart phone you bought offer functionality beyond the previous one that you actually used? Perhaps you bought it because you felt you needed to be seen to have the latest gadget. After all, you don’t want to be seen to be out-of-touch in this fast-paced world. Unfortunately it means you bought it for the benefit of others rather than for yourself. If you bought a new phone after a year, it would not have offered a substantial upgrade over the previous model, and you paid a hefty sum of money at the same time. Our drive to conform to the collective is exploited again here at the expense of our financial well-being.
One thing I have noticed in moving from the poorer area where I lived for over twenty years to a much more affluent one within the last 5 is that the truly monetarily rich people are so comfortable with the balances in their bank account that they don’t need to flaunt their wealth. They often drive the oldest and most beaten-up cars instead of constantly recycling nearly-new ones or leasing them for a hefty premium. There is something we can all learn here, and that is we don’t need possessions to tell us who we are. We need to consider that possessions are a sign of our insecurity. If you can feel secure without them, then you’re free from society’s cycle of forced mediocrity.
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