August 2, 2019

Pick and Choose

Choose Your Own Adventure was a favourite book series of mine as a child – written with alternative storylines for you to choose – that jump and skip through the book in every direction – it was one of my first experiences of autonomy as a child and I liked the taste. 

A recent high school subject selection night, which I attended as a parent of a teenager trying to decide what to be when she grows up, has me thinking a lot about how we choose. The advice I thought I was supposed to give her was all of the advice I had been given. “Do what makes YOU happy.” But I stopped myself and wondered if this might be terrible advice after all. 

When it comes to designing our lives (of which subject selection is a entry-level design choice) we all contemplate that we MUST do ‘work of some kind’. Work, after all, is one of the things that most of us feel that we MUST do, whether we are compelled by law or the norms and expectations that we subscribe to. It is a clear scab on the character of any person who does not do what they MUST and scoundrels for millennia have been the ones who transgress the norms (these MUSTS) for hedonism; their own pleasure. 

Yet, to a large degree, hedonism is back in fashion – the advice to do what makes YOU happy is pretty unqualified – without knowledge about what happiness is and how we get it, feel it or achieve it. The cult of the individual recruits and manifests itself through sermon-like podcasts and social media posts from happiness gurus, driving the ‘ME’ revolution. The everyone-is-an-entrepreneur movement and the self-improvement industry seems to have created a new norm – to spend our discretionary efforts, income, and cares on our own circumstances. Because that will make us happy?

The question mark begs an upward inflexion if you are reading this aloud – it’s time to really examine whether our choices, the discretionary application of ourselves to ourselves, is the most fulfilling use of our hours, energetic drive, and resources. How IS that going?

As loneliness and mental illness take over as the bubonic plague of our time – it’s worth examining whether giving no cares, taking me-time, and taking care of number-one IS making us truly happy, or whether those choices are the very source and the perpetual motion of the disease they are seeking to remedy. Are we feeding the beast of a ‘happiness’ industry that has us constantly striving for MORE? More for ourselves because we are never enough and never have enough – the very definition of unhappiness.

In a world with very clear views about how we should think, look, and prioritise, there isn’t a lot of time to assume an authentic character. Perhaps living our personal brands instead of building character in our discretionary time is also playing a role. And yet, the character of a person seems to me to emerge in the white space. What we choose, when we have the discretion to do so, speaks more about us than whether or not we choose to walk a line that has been laid down for us.

What makes a hard worker isn’t necessarily how well they conform to their job description. No, it is how they apply their discretionary effort to the task, the culture, the customer. 

What makes a good friend is never the convenience of a friendship – it’s about choosing to show up amidst the hierarchy of demands that plague us all in a busy 21st-century existence. 

Discretion is the element for all of us that determines our character. Whether we spend our leisure in pursuit of ourselves or our image or whether we spend in pursuit of others and our community. 

So what advice did I land on with the subject selection, if not to do what makes YOU happy? Find the talents you have been given and let them guide YOU to a community of people that you can passionately engage with to contribute to something you believe is important. And here is the thing….if that is a law degree that takes you to The Hague, that’s good; if it is a hairdressing qualification and giving your art to people through hair and colour, that’s good; if it is a film and tv career that tells stories to help people make meaning; or if it is psychology to walk with people through their hardest times, that is also good. Your unique gifts aren’t for you to have…they are for you to give away. Your happiness will be a by-product of your giving. That would be my advice.

She rolled her eyes.