America is a pretty great place, and I am lucky to have been born here. This country has been good to me and my family. In fact, I will go so far as to say that the smartest thing any member of my family did was leave Greece and come to one of the few countries that welcomed them. I have no regrets about living here. We are a nice people, by and large. Sure, where a little bit dumb sometimes, and got our problems, but we mean well. And I’l take our problems over the rest of the worlds’ any day.
Alright. Flag-waving over. We are great country and the great people, but we are not perfect. Nobody is. And while I think our culture and civilization is one of the greatest to ever appear on the face of the Earth, there are some things about it that bother me.
I call these cultural traps, these idioms, maxims, ethics, and ways of living that we accept as normal, “the conventional wisdom.”
Seriously examining if they work and if we should keep adhering to them has opened my eyes the older I get. Here are a few of these traps that I’ve encountered in my life.
Never quit. Or “Winners never quit,” or some variant thereof. The thing is, knowing when to quit is a vital skill; a vital skill that none of us seem to learn. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams has an entire chapter devoted to this particular shibboleth.
For Adams, obsession and a tolerance for risk are pretty good predictors for talent. But they’re still only “pretty good.” Adams’s approach for figuring out what you should do is very practical, as is most of his advice:
Things that will someday work out well start out well. Things that will never work start out bad and stay that way. (p. 88)
However, this again is a rough guide. Let me use some absurdity to illustrate a point.
Pretend that for whatever reason you were trying to dig a hole to China. There are a bunch of other people that are trying to do the same too. Things are going great. You dig and dig and dig. You get nowhere. Everybody else quits, having either learn somewhere or otherwise figuring out that that one cannot, in fact to dig through the earth to China despite what cartoons have told us. “But I’m no quitter,” you say. “I’m no failure. And so you keep digging, eventually reaching the earths molten core. You burn to a crisp. Clearly, you didn’t know when to quit.
Case in point. I went to law school. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do after college, and didn’t have the courage or temperament to strike out on my own in an entrepreneurial fashion. And so I ended up where many people who don’t know what they want to do end up.
I remember distinctly. I was sitting in my first semester civil procedure class, about three weeks into the first semester, and wondering as my professor went on and on about the Erie doctrine and how federal and state laws interacted (I know, you are getting sleepy just reading this. Now you know how I felt.) That was when the thought stuck me as if my mind had been touched by the finger of God himself: “Get out of here. This is not for you.”
The thought made me feel guilty. I’m no quitter! I spoke to my dad, and he recommended I stick it out for the semester and see how I feel. And so I did. Because, you know, winners never quit. It’s only time, after all.
The thing is, this “never quit” attitude has been so ingrained in me that I internalized it to such a degree that the thought of quitting something, even when I hate it and see no future in it, would be synonymous with failure. When in reality, it was just knowing went to cash out. After all, you’re only a failure if you don’t learn from it.
You will never like your job. Nobody does. Ever. So stop trying to find some fulfillment in your work.
But think about who says this: People who hate their job. And why do you have to hate it? If your job is something that you were going to spend most of your waking adult hours doing, why should you not enjoy it at least a little bit. Some people find enjoyment in installing pools, after all. There’s something for everyone.
Maybe all the people who hate their job have been doing it wrong, or have had bad guidance. If so, why should you listen to them?
Everything that makes you miserable is good. And everything that you enjoy, is bad. Now this can be true when it comes to things like junk food versus vegetables. However this might not be the best analogy because vegetables are delicious. But you get my point.
Pornography is a better example (Porn: It is an appropriate boogeyman for nearly any situation). Sure, the use of porn might feel good, but it can have a lot of side-effects and negative consequences. (Neil M. White does a great job of breaking this down over at This Dad Does, so check him out).
I’m calling shenanigans on this one. If something makes you miserable, chances are it is not the best use of your time. Some things that make you feel miserable, like apologizing when you really screwed something up , are actually net positives. But continuing to do things that make you miserable is pure masochism, beating your head against the wall just to say that you did it, and makes no sense whatsoever. It can lead to sadness and heartbreak.
The misery you feel doing a given task is not proportional to the benefits of said task.
Believing this to be so, absent any other metric of benefit, just silly.
So you have to watch out for these cultural traps, and others. Now, America has many great cultural features, such as that you can make your own destiny, hard work and perseverance will have a reward, and that at the end of the day, while we have to help each other, you are ultimately the author of your own fate.
And, compared most places in the world, the government leaves you the hell alone. But some of these other cultural traps can do real harm if you accept them as gospel. When I speak to the young man and women in my life, I try to make them aware of these. After all, what good is a mistake or a failure if you can’t use it to teach somebody?