Inspiring stories of those who achieved their dreams later in life
As we age, it can feel like a clock is ticking. A “scarcity mindset” with regard to time can take hold. And still, the message in our culture is that ‘youth is king’ and ‘forty is over the hill’. I’ve had this feeling. I’ve had the idea ‘what I’m doing is not an expression of who I am!?’ This is not the career for me! I wish I could...and a whole list of ideas and potential regrets comes to mind.
The need for novelty is human. Change is necessary to keep us invigorated. The average person changes careers at age 391. Being 40 and having these thoughts, it appears I’m in good company.
However, there are countless examples of household names who’ve turned their lives around later in life. They’ve set out to find the success they’ve dreamt of. They’ve changed their whole lives, to better suit their purpose. Proving that it’s not too late to achieve your dreams, to change your trajectory.
These are ten powerful ways to turn it all around.
Know What You Know and Bank On It
Regardless of how you feel about retail giant Wal-Mart, the story of Sam Walton is one to learn from. Walton started at J.C. Penney’s and was told by his boss that he was not cut out for retail and threatened to fire him. His books and clerical skills were a mess.
His saving grace?
Walton instinctively knew what he knew. The books weren’t as important as making sure the customer was happy! He instinctively knew this truth is what mattered to the success of a business.
Walton was drafted into the army during World War II. After the war, he invested his own money and secured a twenty thousand dollar loan for a retail store. Walton banked on knowing what he knows, even though his previous boss told him he wasn’t cut out for it. Before long, he had the best variety store of its kind in Newport, Arkansas.
Smooth sailing, right?
Not so much.
Seeing his success, his landlord refused the renewal of the lease and took over the store, giving it to his son!
Walton didn’t give up. He found a new location (this time insisting on a 99-year lease), in Benton, Arkansas. He called it Walton’s Five & Dime. In ten years, he had grown to 15 variety stores. He was putting in the hours, but still just wasn’t seeing the profits. That’s when Walton implemented a new business strategy. He’d cut prices so low as to undercut his competition12.
Knowing that he’d have to continue to open more locations, he approached the company that he franchised many of the stores from to ask for an investment. They firmly said, no. Consequently, Walton mortgaged his house and borrowed all the money he could to finance the first Wal-Mart. He was 42 years old! He put it all on the line because he knew, what he knew.
This is powerful stuff, here. There are things that you know, ideas you have that other folk do not. You could change the world with your idea.
Why did Walton do this?
In the most simple terms, his first Commandment: Commit to your Business.
We know the rest of the story about Wal-Mart. But it all starts by believing and knowing what you know to your core. And Walton did this even though he was 42.
Indulge Your Passions Without Fear
We all have passions, some not related to our careers. Some of us are lucky enough to live out at least some of our passions in our work. Vera Wang wished to attend Fashion Design school, but her father (a successful businessman) forbade it. He told her to get a job while she studied Art History. She did what she was told. By some stroke of luck, she ran into the fashion director for Vogue magazine at the boutique where she worked. She arranged an interview years later and was hired. She worked her way up, eventually leaving Vogue for Ralph Lauren. Here, she became the design director2.
Success, right!? End of Story!?
This is only the start. And often, when some level of stability is reached in our careers, we may be fearful about doing anything to threaten this.
Though Wang achieved a great deal of success in writing about fashion, what she really wanted was to create it. She decided to open her bridal boutique13. Largely, this came from the fact that she had to make her wedding dress! She was unhappy with the lack of fashion involved in wedding dresses. Now she is widely known for this impact on the fashion industry.
Wang admits to not knowing anything about wedding dresses in the beginning. But she approached her passion fearlessly.
Wang loves fashion, but writing about it didn’t allow her to fully express her passion. The fearless passion for creating the fashion eventually came to bring her, her most fulfilling success. And she did not make this evolution until she was 40!
Do what you love and it has the power to define your life.
Don’t Ever Stop Fighting For Your Passion
Harland “Colonel” Sanders was 62 when he first franchised Kentucky Fried Chicken. His success came as the result of a long life journey.
Sander’s father died young, leaving his mother to work and he to take care of his three younger siblings. He left school after sixth grade. His mother remarried and he did not get along with his new stepfather. At 13, he set out on his own.
For 28 years, he had an unsettling amount of jobs, ranging from a lawyer to a streetcar operator. Sanders was characterized as temperamental, short-tempered, exemplified by his getting into a fistfight with his client in the courtroom3.
Sander’s personal life was also…difficult. His troubles holding a position caused his wife and mother of three children to leave him. His oldest son passed away from complications due to a routine procedure, a tonsillectomy. These events led Sanders to suffer depression for much of his adult life.
He began running a gas station, cooking food for travelers passing through on the highway nearby. During this period, he developed his recipe for fried chicken, the now-famous KFC recipe. For the first time, the Colonel was experiencing some success. But alas, a new highway was built nearby that cut off visibility and traffic to this location. This would wipe out his business.
Sanders hit the road selling his recipe to various restaurants and franchises for royalties of 4 cents on every piece of chicken sold. The tides were turning for Sanders. By the age of 74, he had over 600 outlets serving his secret recipe chicken. He sold the Kentucky Fried Chicken, yet continued to work for them.
The Colonel was known for his constant fighting with KFC. They sued each other back and forth, several times. Sanders even started a new restaurant he called “Colonel Sander’s Dinner House”, in which Kentucky Fried Chicken sued him over the use of the word “colonel”. He publicly complained about the direction and quality of the food, referring to the gravy as wallpaper paste!
This would continue until the end.
Harland Sanders never stopped fighting for his vision. If something was wrong or out of place, he called it out. He never stopped fighting. He lived to be 90 years old, fighting the whole way. KFC is now one of the most recognizable brands in the world.
Colonel Sanders was buried in his iconic white suit.
Don’t ever stop fighting for what you want.
Be Crazy About What You Want
Ray Kroc is credited with the success of the mega-fast food chain, McDonalds. He bought his first McDonalds at age 52. He was known for his intense, focused and obsessive business style.
At an early age, Kroc had a desire to serve. He wanted to serve in World War I but was 15. And so, he lied about his age so that he could go overseas with the Red Cross. A born salesman, Kroc had many jobs all displaying his ability to connect with people. As a milkshake machine salesman, he sold a machine to the McDonald’s brothers. He became obsessed with the idea that their business could be uber-successful if placed all throughout the country. The brothers had already started this process. However, the process was conducted with far less fervor than would be by Kroc. When the McDonalds’ franchising agent stepped away due to health issues, Kroc was there to help4.
Kroc was a known workaholic. He worked obsessively to expand the McDonald’s restaurant to the rest of the country. His first and second wife left him due to his obsession. Inside the business, he indoctrinated discipline and codes of conduct, standardizing the way the work was done. This simplified the process of expansion. He mortgaged and nearly lost his home to keep the business afloat, early on.
Kroc was insatiable about building the business. His first wife once asked him when it would be enough. He responded: Honestly, probably never.
Kroc also had his issues personally, but his craze about the business he built could not be denied. Without Kroc’s devotion to the business, the Golden Arches would not be as recognizable as they are today.
Be crazy about what you’re building.
Ride the Wave Humbly, But Do Ride the Wave
Taikichiro Mori was an economics professor at what is now Yokohama University. He also served as the Dean for his last five years. He was 51 when he started a real estate company, using two apartment buildings inherited from his father. Mori used the inheritance and completely redeveloped the Toronoman area. This part of town was left devastated by a 1923 earthquake and US bombs during World War II. Due to his background in economics, he believed that land prices were to grow in price exponentially5.
Grow they certainly did. In the end, his company owned 83 buildings in Tokyo’s downtown. In 1992, Mori was named the richest man on earth. Mori understood that he was simply in a position to take advantage of the trajectory of the economy.
Though he became very rich, he remained humble. Mori is quoted as saying “I guess I am called the world’s richest man, but that doesn’t necessarily do anything for me. I just got to be that because land prices in Tokyo shot up.“15
Mori was modest when recognized on the world stage. He was able to take what his father had built, infuse it with the tools that he already had in his knowledge of economics, and ride the wave of rising land prices in Japan. Though Mori passed away soon after, his family remains among the richest in the world.
It’s important to understand that success in our ventures is sometimes dependent on us riding the wave, the momentum of the moment. When this happens, ride the wave! But stay humble in doing so as Mori did with the Mori Building Company.
(And this wave may not come until you’re in your fifties, as it did for Mori.)
Be a Passionate Problem Solver
Donald Fisher was forty when he purchased a Sacramento Hotel. Spending his life renovating hotels, he was ready to own and run his own.
Also in the hotel space, Fisher rented retail space to the Levi jean company. He went shopping for some jeans. He wore a size 31 waist (an uncommon size) and couldn’t get the jeans to fit. They would not allow him to return the jeans! He suggested to the manager that they stock and display all different sizes of jeans for customers to look at and try on. Unlike today, this was simply not done at the time. This spawned the idea for a “Wall of Levi’s” where the jeans would be displayed in the Levi retail space6.
The manager began to see that the idea of the display was working. Fisher asked him to be a partner in a new clothing/retail venture but was turned down. Fisher also noted that other retailers did not display or offer their jeans to be tried on. And so partnering with his wife, he raised $63,000 in 1969 to open their first retail store “The Generation Gap”. They displayed and sold Levi’s jeans, records and tapes. Eventually, they were known simply as “The Gap”.
In 1972, they began making their own brand of jeans. They were the first retailer to have the store name the same as the label on their jeans. This is another common practice in retail today.
By 1973 The Gap went public, changing the face of the retail clothing store for generations to come. Fisher and his wife went on to acquire The Banana Republic and begin Old Navy, two other significant retail stores that maintain popularity today.
If Fisher wouldn’t have set out to end his frustration with buying jeans, he may have never started The Gap. Lesson learned, be a passionate problem solver.
Persevere Over Your Person
Samuel L. Jackson was in the acting business long before he ever “made it big”. His father left his mother when he was very young and died of alcoholism shortly thereafter. Jackson became interested in acting while in college in his 20’s. After graduation, he moved to Harlem to pursue stage acting. He performed in several plays and in the ’80s had several small parts in movies7.
Behind the scenes, Jackson was dealing with his own demons. In 1991, he was admitted to rehab for alcoholism and cocaine addiction. Upon his release, Jackson secured a role in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, as Gator Purify. The serendipitous opportunity was presented to him to play the role of a cocaine addict. His performance earned him a “Best Supporting Actor” award from the Cannes Film Festival as well as the New York Film Critic Award. At 41, Jackson was finally on the map16.
After becoming sober in 91, Jackson’s career took off. He was 41 years old.
Jackson did not believe that he had a problem with addiction. But after going to a bachelor party, he passed out in the kitchen while heating crack cocaine on the stove. His wife and daughter discovered him and begged him to go to rehab.
At the end of the day, whatever causes us to need to break out from where we are is really inside of us. In Jackson’s case, it was his addiction to substance abuse. In this triumph, he was able to persevere over his person.
Be Your Weird, Authentic Self
Theodore Seuss Geisel had found success throughout his life. He was a visual artist, known for drawing advertisements for various retailers. He also wrote using an eccentric sense of humor9.
Several incidents in Geisel’s life had large impacts on how he would conduct himself. When he was young, his family was often shamed due to their German heritage and the events of World War II. One incident causing him to fear public speaking for the rest of his life occurred when he was to be given a medal in boy scouts. This medal was to be given by Theodore Roosevelt. Instead of receiving the medal, he was quickly ushered off stage due to his being German.
During prohibition, his father, a brewer, was forced to shut down the family’s brewery. In college, Geisel worked his way up to the position of editor in chief of the college paper, the Jack-O-Lantern. He was caught drinking and the position was taken from him (it was still prohibition). He then began submitting his writings and drawings under the name “Seuss”.
After college, Geisel went to Oxford to study. He did not fit in nor do well. And so, he returned.
While working as an advertiser, Geisel would occasionally get free-lance work in the Saturday Evening Post. He signed his work as “Dr. Theophrastus Seuss”, eventually shortening it to Dr. Seuss. After 27 rejections, he published his first children’s book, “To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street”, in 1937. Interestingly enough, Seuss’s wife wrote several children’s books during this time, published by Disney and Golden Books.
Seuss’s (Geisel) seminol book, “The Cat in the Hat” was published in 1957 permanently casting him as the eccentric children’s author. Later in his career, Seuss would publish the “Lorax”, receiving some backlash for his voicing his concerns for environmentalism. Also, in the 80’s he published “The Butter Battle Book”, open opposition to the nuclear buildup happening due to the Cold War.
Even though not accepted by the president publicly, failure to fit in at Oxford, the success of his wife in the industry, and the constant rejection, Seuss remained his eccentric, weird and quirky self. This is how he will be remembered in the halls of history.
Be your weird, authentic self…Even if you’re over the hill.
When “The” Opportunity Comes, Take It
Alan Rickman was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at age 26! Before this (and after) he was a graphic designer. The acting was something he did on the side, for fun. He was successful in his career. Though, his dream was to be a full time actor10.
For years Rickman was a stage actor, making money but really just doing it as a side-hustle. And then, at 42 he had the opportunity to play the villain Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Rickman’s initial reaction was to decline. He read the script and didn’t find anything immediately redeeming.
Later Rickman commented that the film was revolutionary in the way that it represented some of the minority characters. Also, his agent and friends told him that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
And so, he took it. The result changed his life.
In Rickman’s performance, he outlined the quintessential villain for future action movies. He became widely known for this role as well as his role as Snape in the Harry Potter films.
If Rickman would have gone with his initial gut instinct and declined the Hand Gruber role, staying in his comfort zone, he would have never had the opportunity to change his life as he did. But, when ‘the’ opportunity came, he took it…
Blaze Your Path
Bea Arthur began her adulthood by joining the Marines. She was one of the first members of the Women’s Reserve in 1943. After World War II, she was honorably discharged and went on to intern as a lab technician.
But she opted out of this career, and instead took a seemingly out of left field turn towards acting. But to her, it was her lifelong dream and she pursued it. She studied and went on to have a good career acting on the stage. Yet, it wasn’t until age 49 she began in television17.
In the 70’s she was known for her lead role in Maude. The role featured her personal politics and named her as a voice for the women’s liberation movement at the time. The television show brought to light societal issues from menopause to mental health. Arthur was known for her passionate voice for these and other issues.
In 1985, at the age of 63, Arthur was cast as Dorothy in the Golden Girls. The Emmy winning show was nominated six out of the seven years it aired and was Arthur’s biggest hit of her career.
The issue that was most important to Arthur was that of LGBTQ rights. She left $300,000 to the Ali Forney Center which opened the Bea Arthur Residence, a homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth.
In her work and life, Arthur always spoke up and engaged her audience with her beliefs. Later, she was a voice for the issues and concerns she was most passionate about. From the decision to act, believing her family wouldn’t support her, to the opening of the shelter of her namesake, Arthur blazed her path with the change that she wanted to see in the world.
It’s never too late to start after your dreams, to change your life. The thoughts that drive us to believe this, that’s the real culprit. That’s the thing that holds us back,
The Best Recent Titles for Inspiration, Motivation and Personal Revolution
More information is published on just about any subject than ever before. As Tesla founder Elon Musk says, “You don’t need college to learn stuff… you can learn anything you want for free.”1 I adore this piece of advice.
There are two challenges when attempting to learn on your own. First, determining what’s important. Second, clearing the static created by the barrage of available information. So we’ll limit what’s important to psychology, self-improvement and insight. And let’s just say the purpose of this article is to clear the static!
In the last five years, print book sales have reached 650 million. Printed books maintain popularity over digital and audio version of the same. Sixty-five percent of adults in the US have read a printed book in the last twelve months2. Educational material has never been more in reach for human kind than in this moment, right now.
The following are seven must read books! These books will shift your paradigm, motivate and inspire you.
Scott Barry Kaufman delves into the personal journey and research of famed Psychologist, Abraham Maslow. Perhaps the most interesting gem this book provides is that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was never intended to be a pyramid. The idea was not that you could not be actualized without food or shelter. Or, that when you were hungry and without food that you couldn’t experience love.
This idea was hijacked by management schools as a gross oversimplification of Maslow’s Ideas. This book attempts to give Maslow’s theory the nuance and depth it deserves.
In a tireless effort both into Maslow’s research (finished and unfinished) and personal journals, Kaufman explores each of the ideas associated with Maslow’s self-actualization, including safety, connection, self-esteem, exploration, love, purpose, peak experiences and what Maslow referred to as Theory Z. The concept of self-actualization defined as “…the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”3
During Maslow’s later years, he began to understand that self-awareness could lead to transcendence. Those self-actualized individuals that he used to exemplify his idea described experiences beyond the recognition of their ‘selves’. Experiences transcended their own sense of self and ego.
In what seemed a contradiction, these folks also had a strong sense of who they were at their core, exuding strong values and beliefs. This simultaneously perplexed and inspired Maslow. There appeared to be a phase beyond self-actualization. Maslow didn’t get the chance to fully flesh this out in his lifetime.
The book discusses the D-Realm and B-Realm. The D-Realm (D for Deficiency) refers to ‘needs’ that come from a deficiency in shelter, safety, love or esteem. These are called safety goals. In contrast, B-Realm referred to growth related needs. For example, gaining wisdom, insight or integrating life experiences. These are growth goals. Maslow used the B-Realm to describe what we refer to now as “being present” or “in the moment.” Ultimately, the choice between safety goals and growth goals may differentiate between the paths to self-actualization and transcendence.
In sum, the book illustrates the possibility of a culture that takes care of the most basic human needs. Thus, humanity can actualize, growing to our full potential.
Perhaps Manson is best known for his 2015 inaugural bestseller, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. In this follow up, Everything is Fucked, he has come into his own. The book simultaneously recognizes the insanity as well as the importance of hope in our lives. Anecdotes illustrating how hope drives us through tumultuous and uncertain times, provides meaning and will very likely be the cause of human extinction.
The concept of hope is examined from many angles, revealing its impact on humanity. From its function in cults and religion to how it moves us to join political parties to how we are inspired daily, individually. The full-force of hope is undeniable.
We find Nietzsche’s concepts of master morality and slave morality. Master morality describes how those who have success and own the spoils of society feel they have earned it. Slave morality, on the other hand, recognizes that the average person is much like a ‘slave’ to those who feel they have earned the success. (IE business owners, corporate presidents etc.) The tension between these two moralities exist in our society. Nietzsche warned that this tension would only grow. (Sound familiar?) These moralities are often used to inspire people to join one side or the other. Hope used to divide.
In Manson’s estimation, hope is both the cause and the effect of what is wrong with the societies of today and the future.
On its face, it seems a bleak statement: Everything is fucked and it has a lot to do with hope. Fucked is past tense, referring to that in the past. And hope calls to the future. And so implied, is the importance of the present. There is a strange comfort in the eastern-style idea of being present or content with your life in the now. A mind in the past is depressed and a mind in the future is filled with anxiety. Enjoy the now. Regardless of what we do, the future will inevitably bring our demise. There is a positive message to be taken away here.
The book goes on to report that anyone offering hope, is not doing so for free. There is a cost that is not always immediately obvious. We are sold hope to soothe our emotions. Pain is a constant throughout humanity. And so, there will always be a market for hope in all of its constructive and destructive glory.
Interesting ideas in this book. Old ideas, presented in a fresh way with a modern framework. A must read.
Want to change your life? Change your habits! After all, your life is the sum of every little habit that you have. This is a wonderful nuts and bolts book on improving your life, by James Clear.
We’ve all been in a rut before where we knew we had to make changes, but we couldn’t fathom where to start. Additionally, when faced with this challenge the journey to the goal seems insurmountable.
As Clear writes in several examples, throughout history real lasting change has come come from very small changes over a longer period of time. In the framework of self-improvement, this is very small changes in our personal habits designed to enhance our lives.
Clear teaches that there are four steps in creating habits: cue, craving, response and reward. These four steps were originally identified by Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit. Clear builds on the four steps with four laws.
Make it Obvious
Make it Attractive
Make it Easy
Make it Satisfying
The nature of the talent needed to put these types of books together is in the supporting analogies. This is where Clear shines. Interestingly enough, motivation can’t be counted on to fuel a habit. It is far more dependent on the environment. Several great examples of how this is the case are shared in the book. Habits that need changing begin by expanding awareness.
The idea that bad habits are solutions to fulfill primal cravings makes sense. The reason we crave high calorie food has to do with our desire or craving to sustain our life. However, we now live in an environment where this is not always healthy. Consequently, our access to high calorie food is much greater than it was. And so the trick becomes associating healthier, low-calorie foods (to stick with the current example) with a positive experience.
Ultimately, Clear’s support for the ideas he puts forth is intriguing, commonsensical yet not always obvious to most before the read.
(I know, I know, I know. This one’s not recent. But that is okay. It’s relevant and I’ve re-read it recently!)
Leave it Gladwell to point out why innumerable successful people are in position due to the system they came up in. At first glance this may not be a very shiny idea.
The book paints an image of the systems of humanity at large, shining a light deep into our cultural unconscious. We are challenged to think more critically about how to see power and influence in relation to humanity.
Gladwell masterfully and surgically approaches each success story willing to disregard what we may naturally attribute as likely causes and instead posits that credit is due to something far less obvious.
For example, Gladwell proposes The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes. In this theory, Gladwell hypothesizes that cultural circumstances made communication between air traffic control and a flight crew impossible causing a deadly crash. This power distance index (PDI) indicates the culture’s disinclination to challenge authority was the circumstance at play. Because of a cultural difference in the perception of power and communication, a deadly and completely avoidable plane crash occurred.
In the infamous 1990 Avianca flight from Columbia to New York, the failure of the pilot or co-pilot to challenge the air traffic controller’s direction caused the disaster. Though both knew the that fuel was running out, they would not bring it up. Even in this life or death situation, cultural norms and beliefs may have a large role in disasters life this.
This and other less than obvious ideas regarding success are also shared. Including 10,000 hour rule, the Matthew Effect and others. This book is known for turning common cause and effect assumptions on there heads.
I heard Heath on the a podcast and was stunned at the beautiful simplicity of this idea. For Heath, it began when he heard this parable: You and a friend are having lunch by a river. Suddenly, you hear a child calling out as s/he is carried by the river. You jump in and save the child. As you bring the child to shore, you hear another child coming down the river. Your friend takes off running up the river, leaving the new child for you to rescue. Where is your friend going, you ask? Your friend tells you “I’m going to go upstream and stop the bastard who’s throwing these kids in the water!”
As leaders we are problem solvers. Yet we often become caught up in a cycle of reactivity. With our current knowledge and technology, we should be in a position where we can solve problems before they happen.
Heath discusses the three barriers to upstream thinking, problem blindness, lack of ownership and tunneling. The book would be interesting enough identifying these ideas. However, the book leaps ahead to dig into how what we are doing now to solve problems (or at least creating the appearance we are solving problems in our organizations public and private) just isn’t working and in some cases is making things worse. Thinking upstream is necessary.
Upstream is a book requiring a bit of study and time. It is important the idea stay top of mind as we race into the future. There’ll be no excuse to not see some of the most trying problems humanity has ever had to deal with.
Shetty brings the secrets of the monastery to light in his book, Think Like a Monk. All of the simplicity of the monastic lifestyle applied to our hectic lives. The books shines in its simplicity and the everyday activities he provides to grow the concepts in our own lives.
The book is divided in the three parts; part one, let go; part two, grow; and part three give. The first part focuses on the sense of self, negative emotions and your intentions. One of the activities supplied are in this section involves identifying personal values. The activity asks you to make note of the three whom you spend the most time. Of the three, what values do you share with these folks? How important is that value to you?
The second part, grow, gets into our day to day, discussing routine. Very good, focused information here.
If you’re reading this, chances are you are on the periphery of some of these practices and this middle section of the book will help you solidify some things you’re circling.
And finally, give. The way of a monk is to give. There are some simple but profound ideas in this final part. For instance, you don’t have to have a lot to give. Many of us are waiting until we get to that point where we have excess to…give. This is unnecessary and often we never arrive. Give now.
There is a large benefit to be had by giving to your community. If you don’t have a community in mind, Shetty does some work to help you identify this as well.
This book is truly great if you are looking for a modern book focused on improving your life and increasing satisfaction. The author achieves this by keeping it light, yet focused on age old wisdom that much of western culture has left behind. Awesome book. I’ll be picking through this one for weeks to come.
My first feelings about this well-told, adventurous, introspective and inspiring book were that it was the everyman’s story. One of “us” makes it big. He carried ‘our’ story with him.
But something was off with that original view. There was something … else. I got the audiobook, I listened to it on one day off. I was digging.
What was it?
I realized that the real beauty and perhaps the secret to McConaughey’s success, was the story he was telling himself.
In one story from his childhood, McConaughey describes a scene where his mother and father get in a brutal argument. Dinner tables were flipped, knives were drawn and blood was shed. Here’s the decision point, the differentiator and the theme I was working for. McConaughey could have told this story as a victim. From the point of view of a scared child. But that’s not what’s on the page. Instead, the story is told lightly and is used to illustrate the beauty and passion on how his family interacts. In the end, his mother and father (drenched in blood and ketchup) make love on the floor in the heat of their argument.
The real idea that I was seeing working out in the authors life, was the way that he was telling himself the story was the key. McConaughey states in a stark phrasing at the beginning fo the book “I was never a victim.”
Many of us get the opportunity to decided how to tell our stories to ourselves. Many of us choose to tell the story with us as the victim or the martyr. No matter what happened in McConaughey’s life, he was never the victim and he only ascribed the most positive meaning. Really this is the metaphoric green-light. And perhaps, the idea that we choose our perspective on our lives.
We may not all get the opportunity to write a memoir. But why shouldn’t we? What story are you telling yourself? Hopefully one with a lot of green-lights.
In early July, I posted an article called “My 40’s Manifesto”. I have made it a point to keep the tenets of my manifesto top of mind. Also, I decided I’d provide updates intermittently. Perhaps some of you will get some enjoyment on my trials and tribulations during my search for enlightenment post forty.
There are five tenets to my manifesto:
I will work on connection
I will be authentic
I will accept love
I will think deeply
I will engage in relationships
Here’s where I’m at five months in.
I Will Work On Connection
I have done several things to follow through on this piece. I have regularly continued to write letters, made calls, visits and reached out even when I normally would not. I have made an effort in this realm. I have regained a relationship with a friend that I believed was done several decades ago.
In addition, I read Matthew McConaughey’s new memoir, Greenlights.
I did not see this one coming.
I remember McConaughey as the “romance movie guy”. Kind of a jock that I didn’t really connect with. The guy who I was trying to beat, who had it easy! My antennae did perk up when I saw True Detective and Interstellar. Nonetheless, I haven’t poured over his catalog as I’ve done with other favorites.
What I found in the book was incredibly relatable and a welcomed shot of positivity. The book’s trip through Mr. McConaughey’s life illustrates a fierce passion, a sense of adventure, a sense of self-discovery and knowledge, and a determination to go deep that borders on foolishness (the best kind, I think).
The book has reconnected me with parts of myself I hadn’t reckoned with in a long time. I’ve been acquainted with things that I love about myself that I haven’t watered in quite a while. It’s revealed some harsh judgements on myself the cause of some standard without a purpose. I now have some tools to balance a severe internal inquiry with a healthy sense of self-love. This self-love has made it much easier for me to connect with everyone from family, friends to coworkers.
It’s important to note that just when you think you’re in a state of complacency in the cycle of life, there are are works of art out there that will awaken things within you that you’ve forgotten were there or haven’t quite found yet. It’s a great book, check it out.
I believe my friends and family now have a much greater sense of the esteem that I hold them in. Much healing has happened this year in those relationships with much more to come. I am now becoming interested in just connecting with the people on the periphery, the small conversations that I always avoided. Small talk. I don’t do it for fear of getting stuck there, listening.
All in all, I’m connecting more to myself and more to those in my life without fear of being rejected or misunderstood.
Current Challenge: Remaining connected consistently. I love my solitude. Sometimes, I get stuck here. Staying connected to yourself broadly is a good thing. While good on staying connected to me, it is an area of balance that needs some management.
I Will Be Authentic
This has been a series of events. Oh how we can trick ourselves into believing such crazy things! I won’t take the opportunity to make fun of myself. Instead, I’ll just discuss my process. In being mindful and aware of my feelings, through a combination of meditation, journaling and other self-discovery tools, I have discovered that I often disregard my needs. There is a thought that says, “Hey, Watts, if you were tough enough, you’d just grin and bare it.” At this point, I don’t request or communicate how I feel to anyone. No, not at all. Instead I become mentally foggy and irritable. I become mean, petty – even arrogant as a result of this.
I have come to the very quick realization that there is no reason to feel weak in sharing my feelings. In fact, the act of sharing is what is defined as a relationship. When you share something and become vulnerable, you feel something happen. The feeling is changed at its core by its sharing. It really is magical.
At the advice of my significant other, I shared an impactful story with my father. When I was young, I recall a time when he referred to be as a “freckled-face strawberry”. Then, he said something along the lines of “…he wont be winning over any girls any time soon…”
In a very uncomfortable situation, I explained these memories to my dad. He didn’t have any memory of this instance. I didn’t want him to feel bad, I prefaced the story as the simple sharing of information. He assured me that he had no idea what he was saying and was most likely just joking with his friends. (Honestly, I did have quite an awkward phase where I was quite covered with freckles.) Nonetheless, this was a thought that played in the background for my entire life. I was obsessed with the fact that I might be ugly. However, once I shared this with him, it’s power in my mind, lessened.
Lesson learned: Don’t hide your feelings from those closest to you. Sharing could prevent a lifetime of pain.
Presenting your authentic feelings to those you’re closest with can be a magical thing. This is true even when they are difficult feelings that perhaps are not easy to share.
Current Challenge: Remembering that not fully sharing yourself is not good for anyone involved.
I Will Accept Love
There is something lurking beneath my awareness that keeps whispering (just out of earshot), saying “you’re not enough…” I’ve taken some time to look around me and truly understand that most of us have this issue to some degree. We may blame this on family, friends or other things externally, but the truth is – we do this to ourselves. It’s just a cognitive, mental habit.
I’m going to work hard to show them I’m worth it.
If I keep on giving in this relationship, sooner or later they’ll ask me what I need.
If I take enough pain, at some point I’ll feel worthy.
The sad thing is that this self-denial often gives us purpose. Purpose is generally a good thing, but not when it is based in this. Not too long ago, I felt that the quality of my relationships was simply the promise of future quality, potential. Ideas of personal boundaries and discussing needs with significant and other close relationships, just seemed an idea that was impossible to manifest.
It is not. It is necessary to think about these things otherwise you end up a slave to your own ideas about relationships that may not be fully dependent on reality.
There have several ways that this has appeared in my thoughts. I wouldn’t call people because “what if they didn’t want to talk?” I wouldn’t express my needs in any relationship because “what if they say ‘no’ and leave?” I wouldn’t ask for help because “what if they think I’m weak?” If I had a question for my boss, I wouldn’t ask because “what if he thinks I’m dumb?”
When you say these things out loud, they sound ridiculous. But we are all in a negative thought spiral most of the time. Eighty percent of the thoughts we think are both negative and exactly the ones thought yesterday. Our psychology pays attention to the negative. We evolved this way in order to survive. To that end, we aren’t designed to be happy. We are designed to survive, and thusly scan the environment for negativity.
It is a human need, connection. We are wired to be connected and love is the mechanism in which we connect. However, this also contradicts our other evolved characteristics meant for survival. For example, the need to be aware of threats. This is what happens in the case of our obsession with what we perceive as negativity.
In the end, you have to practice. Ask for what you need. Don’t be hurt if another’s boundaries make it impossible for you to receive your need. It is more about them than you. However, don’t deny yourself what you need!
Current Challenge: This all goes back to self-acceptance. Believe people love you just the way you are.
I Will Think Deeply
I am deeply enjoying this one. Taking the time and creating the space for deep thinking is paramount to a healthy mind. I have learned so much from just connecting the dots, just a little deeper, just a little deeper. Sometimes you just keep diving, but this is a way to connect with yourself.
Much of what I’ve learned about relationships has been due to following feelings to their corresponding thoughts. I have this need to be publicly adored. I always just reported that it was due to being the oldest of six and naturally a show off. These are external things that may have had an impact on me, but weren’t really the root cause. I’ve spent many nights awake to understand where this came from.
However, one of my earliest experiments sharing this with others, backfired in a severe way. I had created a rap song for one of my science classes using a karaoke machine that recorded overdubs. I created what I thought was a great song to share with my class. When I began playing the tape in front of the class, it sounded completely different. It sounded…bad.
At this point, I turned and hid behind the podium as the song played. In my mind, it sounded so much better! So I locked myself in my bedroom and practiced and practiced and practiced. I had to redeem myself. Each time I perform even so much as a speech or a presentation at work, I see this as a chance for redemption. So of course I want to take the chance! I want to compare how it sounds/looks/feels in my mind with how the audience perceives it.
This hope of redemption burrowed deep into my character. It has caused me to seek out this experience.
Thinking deeply has brought me to this thought.
But there’s more, thinking about psychology, the origins of human nature, purpose and consciousness has become a passion.
Current Challenge: Becoming overwhelmed with the information that I have left unexamined for so long.
I Will Engage in Relationships
This one (more than any of the others) requires an extreme presence. Often referred to as being “in the moment”. I often close myself off for fear of being judged and misunderstood. This is a terrible, terrible, terrible way to deal with these situations. It still is probably my biggest challenge.
I have an interesting baggage with relationships. By relationships, I mean friendships or intimate relationships. Friendships and relationships require (in my mind) me to be the hero. I have to be saving someone or fighting for some cause. I need to be offering something that is extraordinary. Perhaps, the person who is receiving these gifts doesn’t necessarily feel that way. But here’s the catch. In the process of trying to live up to my ideal, the hero, I have a moment of doubt. And so, I often (in the case of intimate relationships) need the point of view of the other person. Guess what? Often, this greatness is not recognized the same way in my partners or friends. So I grow cold, mean and resentful.
The pattern is still here.
Strangely enough, I believe that I’ve dealt with the emotional core of this behavior. Yet what remains is a vestigial cognitive process, a habit. It’s not even fueled by any emotional baggage. I’ve had this play out in countless ways with family, friends and ex’s. I work to change my behavior by being mindful of it and making sure that I keep my sense of self-love in check when with others. Often, I can be overly concerned with them and bend myself in an inauthentic way to prove that I’m worthy. Codependent anyone?
Current Challenge: Again, self-love. If you don’t fully accept yourself, you aren’t going to get it from anyone else.
Later in life, I am finding that I am attached to some ideas that don’t add up. These ideas have and are having a serious impact on my life. One of them I am trying to move beyond is materialism. Many studies show that those who are materialistic have a lower social and personal well being18.
I didn’t have a whole lot of money for most of my life. I couldn’t get all the “stuff” that I desired. This was extremely troubling. I felt a “less-than” feeling around all of my peers. Notably, when I was only ten or so, I refused to leave a shoe store until my father bought be a pair of Jordan’s for me, for the upcoming basketball season. (We eventually decided on Reebok Pumps).
This materialism compounded in my twenties when I dated a young woman whose ex-husband was an air force captain. Holy beta male did this set off an explosion of self acceptance issues. I had to puff out my chest! Up until this point, I was going to be a rockstar. As a result, I wasn’t familiar with this competitive, all encasing feeling. (That’s a story for another time.) I did everything I could do to try to make myself look wealthier and to get more stuff. I bought a house, worked my way up in my company (same company I work for now) and completely changed everything in my life. Mountains were moved, in retrospect. This turned out to be a lot of really misguided effort.
In the next phase my life, I got married. This was during a positive time when my income grew. I was at the height of my materialistic journey. We took two to three vacations a year. I drove a luxury car and was going out to eat four to five times a week.
After the marriage ended, I had a bunch of … stuff. A huge television set was mounted on my wall. I was amassing a large vinyl record collection and had bluetooth speakers and/or a high end Sonos speakers in every room. I was spending more than I was making. I rationalized that I was investing in my future.
Uh…yeah, I’m not exactly sure how that works out, but I typed it, so there it stays! The only thing I was really investing in, was American Express.
I’ve made a lot of changes and still have some way to go. But I still get caught up in impulse buying. My mind has found a new way to express this desire.This is done through buying items I’ll “need”, moving away from entertainment items. I love organization, so office supplies are one of my favorites. Also, I love vinyl records. I do truly love them for a variety of reasons. But if I’m being honest with myself, the most exciting part of the whole process is clicking the “buy” button and awaiting its arrival. (Oh look, there’s a notification for one right now!)
Okay, still I have a long way to go.
But, I’m going either way…
The power of desire is incredible. It causes us to mislead, straight up lie to ourselves. We resent one another, fight, go to war, steal and bully for what we want, what we desire. The desire for material goods is just one example. There are sixteen desires including power, independence, curiosity, acceptance, order, saving, honor, idealism, social contact, family, status, vengeance, romance, eating, physical exercise, and tranquility2. So, which desire is being expressed by impulse buying?
Power mostly15, with a hint of status.
I feel powerful when I buy something. It also provides a feeling of status by using that power. But I’m not fooling the marketers, they know I feel this way. They’ve set it up this way. They have the human psyche mapped out when it comes to making purchases. There are all kinds of psychological principles at work pushing us in this direction. The Gruen effect will have you lost in a store in hopes that you are more likely to buy8. Ikea has been named in this scheme9. The Diderot effect keeps us buying things subsequently, after an initial purchase3. For example, you buy a computer. Then, you buy a new mouse, a new case, a new desk etc. Before you know it, you’re broke. And here we are, experiencing the Diderot Effect.
It’s likely that we all suffer from impulse buying to some degree. If only there was another me that would appear when I was making these rash decision that screamed: “Buying that will not make you feel better!”
Since that is not an option, let’s look at some others. This is how I’m beating impulse buying and so should you!
Delete Shopping Apps
The average consumer spends over $5,000 per year on useless items21. It is projected that online sales are to reach $4.2 trillion in sales this year and $6.4 trillion by 2024. A lot of people shop online and 62% make a purchase at least monthly22. Shopping on mobile phone apps is expected to rise by 56% by 2022. While most shopping starts on mobile phones, most online transactions are completed on a computer. This is expected to change as the trend moves us towards mobile.
Delete the Amazon app.Delete the Etsy App.Delete the ebay app.
I did it. It helps more than you’d think. The logic follows, if you can’t look it up easy on your phone, you’re less likely to make an impulse buy. Of course you could go to your phone browser and shop. Nevertheless, there is a reason for shopping apps for your phone. It creates a greater level of engagement from the user (you). Also, it is more likely that you’ll develop a habit for using the app23.
The rate of online shopping addiction is going up. Much of this has to do with the stress caused by the pandemic. However, it’s good to know the tell tale signs.
Spending more than you can afford
Feeling guilty for the purchases made
Feelings of upset due to not being able to shop
Hiding your items from your loved ones
Any of these feelings or actions should certify a red flag. You should consider the possibility of a problem.
If you’re already going to buy five grand worth of useless stuff this year, this is a no brainer. Limit your access to buying useless items.
Choose the Fruit Salad, Not the Cake…
Often when we make an impulse buy, we do it during an emotional time. Impulse buyers are often more status oriented, experience more anxiety and inability to control emotions and experience less happiness than most24. It has a mood boosting effect. If this is the driving factor influencing the purchase, this is problematic. Understand that when most of us consider making a purchase our limbic system (the part of the brain responsible for pleasure) becomes active25. Those marketing to us know this. There are several tricks they use to lure us in to make the purchase.
In an experiment conducted in 1999, a group of participants were given a two digit or a seven digit number to memorize before an interview. They were also notified they could pick a snack off of a snack cart. The snack cart offered either chocolate cake or fruit salad. Those with the seven digit number overwhelmingly chose the chocolate cake.
The chocolate cake represented the “feel good”, impulsive choice while the fruit cake represented the more thoughtful, less impulsive choice. Those with “more on their mind” overwhelmingly chose the “feel good” choice. Often when we enter online or brick and mortar stores, there is some attempt overwhelm us. In providing more information and choices than we need, our perceptions are easily overwhelmed and confused. Consequently, we are more likely to make more “feel good” purchases.
This is also true if there are other things unrelated to shopping that are on the mind. If we’ve got a lot on the mind, we’re far more likely to make that emotional purchase26. When we’re stressed and our frontal lobe is overloaded or exhausted we’re on autopilot. We’re not even fully conscious of what we’re doing. This is right where companies want us.
A recommended best practice is that you make a list before you shop. Stick to the list. Don’t stray.
For larger purchases (set your own limit here ______). Then, wait it out. No need to jump on it.
The moral of the story is that if you can convert shopping to a thoughtful process instead of an emotional one, you’re far less likely to impulse buy.
Know Your Brain
We are happier wanting or desiring something, than we are when we actually have it4. This is profound.
Let’s state that one more time. We are happier wanting or desiring something, than we are when we actually have it. It’s counterintuitive at first, sure. But think about it. You’ve experienced this before. It makes sense if you understand it’s the reason why we survive. This desire had to be strong enough to move us to do crazy things like kill animals so that we could eat, at one point in time. Now, we still have the same instincts. However, they now don’t serve us quite so well in the case of driving impulse buying behavior. Understand that we are dealing with an instinct that is at the very core of who we are.
Here are some basic strategies that marketers employee to exploit these instincts.
The cheap stuff is at the register. Marketers know that we like to buy stuff. Putting these items where we check out is a way of squeezing a few more bucks out of us and us getting a little more of a “rush” from buying something else.
Put the prices on the left. We read left to right, so we automatically assume that number lines proceed from left to right as well. Subconsciously, we know that one starts on the left and as we move right the number increases. So this makes us feel like it’s a lower price27.
Foods that are often bought together are separated in stores. This causes you to have to walk past a lot of other items tempting your impulse20.
Misting produce is often to make it look more appealing20.
The expensive big ticket items may be put in displays up front. The consumer may then see a cheaper version of what they saw when they walked in and consider the cheaper a steal. For example, a $5,000 television is put up in front of the store. You’re in the market for one. When you are looking through them in the rear of the store, you find one for $2,500 and think “Wow, what a deal!”10
It is thought that 62% of in store purchases are impulse buys. This percentage is thought to be much higher online8. Know your brain is set up for failure in this way. Be aware of their tricks.
Mindfulness can lead to cure for multitudes of mental conditions including the desire to shop. Just being aware that you are making purchases to make yourself feel better is a fantastic start. But when you sit with it, you start realizing some scary things. For those not familiar with this idea, it is not synonymous with meditation. Meditation may be used as a tool to reach a greater degree of mindfulness. However, mindfulness is this case is simply being aware or conscious of a predilection for impulsivity.
Am I buying this because I have low self-worth?
Am I making purchases, spending thousands just to make myself feel better for a few minutes?
What is the true drive behind my action?
I recommend meditation, personally. Mindful meditation is simply the act of training your mind to pay attention to your thoughts. Eventually, to have a greater control over them. In this way, you can identify when am I making these purchases? How am I feeling when I make the purchase? What are the activities that occurred prior to me making these purchases?
I will caution that a surface ask of these questions will not do. You’ll have to go a little bit deeper. Studies show that mindful meditation can improve impulsive thoughts27. Essentially, if you want to curb your impulse spending, get ahold of your thoughts. Be mindful. Acquire a tool that will help you achieve a greater awareness of your thoughts and where they stem from. There are many available to you including the raisin exercise, body scanning, mindful seeing and listening, self compassion pause and more.
Change Your Philosophy
If you are having trouble with impulse buying, there may be a misalignment between your values and your actions. Or, perhaps worse, your values and actions are aligned. Your actions are simply reflecting your values. When this is the case, it may be time to make a change. If we believe that having more material items will bring greater happiness, this may be something that you want to reconsider.
A 2014 meta analysis of materialism’s impact on well-being has found that there is a negative correlation between life satisfaction and prioritization of materialism28. This means that most research finds that the attitude that things equal satisfaction is simply untrue.
For example, I love the Green Day record American, Idiot. I haven’t listened to it for quite a long time. I heard one of the songs from the record one day, randomly. I, then, purchased the record on vinyl. I made an impulse buy. I have yet to listen to said record and I recieved it months ago.
Is my philosophy that I like to collect record just in case I ever want to listen to them? Is it that I believe buying this record, the process of ordering and awaiting its arrival the main reason I ordered it? Do I believe that I will achieve greater life satisfaction by having this record?
Yes. Yes, I do.
And so I make the buy, the impulse buy. It’s time to rethink my philosophy. My life is good knowing that this music is out there, yes. But I will change my philosophy to only purchasing records that I’ll listen to on a regular basis. Otherwise, the purchase simply doesn’t align with my values.
Examples of values around purchasing could be “I value purchases that impact my life regularly.” Or, “I value purchases that are sustainable for the environment.” Or even, “I value purchases that provide memorable experiences.” The values that I was exercising sound more like “I value the feeling experienced by making a purchase that gives me a good feeling in the moment.”
And so my philosophy needs to change to one that more closely aligns with healthier, more character and thoughtful motivations of purchasing. Evolving from “I do what feels good in the moment” to “I will do what regularly enhances my life in a positive way.”
Document Your Reasons for Purchases
Another thing I like to do is write down my reason for the purchase. This puts in place a little accountability for where I’m spending my money. For example, If I decide I need some new work clothes, I write in my notes app on my phone all the thoughts that surround this idea for the purchase.
Can I afford it?
Why do I feel I need new clothes?
Is this an impulse buy?
What would happen if I didn’t buy it?
Is this a need or a want?
How does this play in to the overarching theme of my personal values?
Often times this can simply help you learn from your purchasing snafus.
I was notorious for buying workout equipment. At one point, I had a really nice workout bench, weights and a pull up bar mounted in my basement. These were all impulse buys. I think I used them one time. If I would have had this practice at the time, my notes would have looked something like this:
Can I afford it? – How can I afford not too? I’m going to look great and nothing should be prioritized ahead of health!
Why do I feel I need this? – I feel like it would improve my overall well-being, physical fitness and life in general.
Is this an impulse buy? – No, no, no. I’ve wanted to work out for forever.
What would happen if I didn’t buy it? – I would continue to be out of shape and weak.
Is this a need or a want? – This is definitely a need.
How does this play in to the overarching theme of my personal values? – I believe you have to exercise to be healthy and thriving person in life.
At this point in your similar situation, you’ll realize what a salesman you are too yourself. These all seem like reasonable answers, so what happened?
For the first question: yes, I could afford it. But what I could not afford, is if I bought it and did not use it? I cannot afford to buy things I wont use. My initial answer to this question bypasses this whole idea. Secondly, I am right on with this answer, it would improve my overall-wellbeing and physical fitness. However, I have to commit to using it. This is the idea that I failed to consider.
Note to self: “add impulse buying question ‘Can I commit to using this item/service/purchase so that it justifies my investment?’”
This is also a good question to ask for any purchase of a service (gym membership, subscription service, streaming service etc.) I used to say things like “I better watch a movie soon, so that I can get the value out of the HBO subscription.”
What the hell?!
The third question, if I didn’t buy it what would happen? My answer circumvents the real issue here. I was attempting to find a solution for becoming for fit. But this is not the only solution. Pushups, running and yoga are examples of other things that I could do without making the purchase. Maybe I could add to this questions ‘is there another potential for the solution for the problem I am trying to solve?’
Need or want? Don’t confuse this question with the problem that you are trying to solve with the purchase. It is a NEED for me to be physically fit. However, because this is only one solution to that problem, it is a WANT.
The last question presents a similar issue. It is an overarching value that creates my need for physical fitness, but we circle around to commitment. I did not want to commit to using the weight bench. I, again, considered the purchase as the sole solution. It was certainly A solution. However, it was not the only solution.
This list is a good place to start. You can make your own notes as you go.
Give it Away
You may be thinking, “Okay, great. I have a problem. That makes me feel like crap.”
If that’s the case, that is truly not the intention. However, there are things you can do that really make you feel good in healthy way. The research is mixed on altruistic behavior in general, however the act of giving is a positive experience. Psychologist Adam Grant , refers to it as “one of the best anti-anxiety medications available”16. Even the thought of giving can release the same feel-good chemicals as thinking about food or sex.
Donating to charities is a great way to put your money towards something that is more closely aligned with your values. A 2008 study found that spending money on others makes you happier than spending the money on yourself28. So if we’re just trying to improve our feelings, buy something for someone else! Give! This will make you feel better. Another study found that elderly folks who volunteered for two or more organizations are 44% less-likely to die than others in the next five-years. This is true even when taking into consideration other highly impactful habits like exercise and smoking28.
Giving your time and money is a great way to increase positive social interactions and personal connection. We’re built for connection and truly, this is always evident in one way or another in our drives behind our actions. This includes impulse buying.
If you experience some struggles with impulse shopping and it is having an overall negative impact on you long term, you may need to spend some time considering the contents of this article.
The good news is that you can change. It is possible for you to get a hold of your spending and not buy so much on impulse. The key is to realize that the wanting is so much more powerful than the having. Be grateful for what you have. There are so many others in the world now and throughout human history that have had so much less. Express gratitude.
Two hundred years ago it was 1820. The population was less than one billion. The most common mode of transportation was your own two feet. Or, if you were in business, it was a boat navigating a canal system. The feared kings of Rome and England, with all of their cruelty and wielded power did not have the kind of silent, immediate and fierce power that we now have.
One bomb can end life on the entire planet. At the intersection of an invention and a system, the result is a change in the climate of an entire world. One man elected can immediately change the most influential culture in the world. A person unknown today, can become known the world over tomorrow with how quickly information spreads and the viral phenomenon can take hold.
Throughout humanity, we’ve sought to improve our lives. These vast and many improvements are now at our fingertips. They are integral to and often un-thought of elements of our existence. For example, each morning during the winter we wake up in a heated home. This warmth is because someone figured out an efficient way to route gas to our homes. Someone else found that we could run our furnaces on this gas and vent the heat from our basements to our bedrooms. Then, we get out of bed and prepare for our days using products and services that have much the same story as the gas, the furnace and the duct work.
We don’t think about what it took to make these things happen. In fact, many times we are unappreciative of these things until their absence. This happens in the case of a power outage or our car breaking down on the side of an obscure farm road.
No cell signal? How can that be?
It is time we reckoned with the scope and reach of humanity’s power.
Let’s create an Individual/Improvement Power Ranking.
This scale goes from 1 (the power of the individual + improvement= not very powerful) to 10 (the power of the individual + improvement= very powerful). This is a rating of how the improvement makes the individual more powerful. The rating would measure potential impact on their environment both negative and positive. (Note: this is not scientific, it is only for the purpose of discussion).
A long time ago, we developed eye glasses. With this improvement, the individual can see images they couldn’t before, near or far away. Extremely powerful for the individual, there is virtually no impact on the environment. This would have an IIPR of 1. Again, what we are measuring is the impact on the environment.
In another example, we’ll give the IIPR of a gas furnace a 3. The individual would have somewhat limited power over the environment with this improvement. They could heat their living space. Of course, one could blow out the pilot on the furnace and allow the house to fill with gas. They could then use a match to blow up the house. The consideration in the ranking takes into account the potential to exert power over the environment and condition. This blowing up of the house would impact the folks who live there, the neighbors, the neighborhood and the first responders in the initial impact.
The power over the environment in this case is undeniable, they are able to heat their living space. This would seem very powerful indeed to those born 200 years ago.
Now let’s get more powerful.
A car is rated with a 6 IIPR. Cars can cause damage to the environment in several ways and is mobile. A car could cause car accidents if the driver so chose. The individual could drive through small towns hitting pedestrians and causing accidents. It is rated higher because it has the potential to exert more power over the environment than in previous examples. This is due to it being mobile and the individual having more direct control. All the driver need do is press the gas pedal and turn the wheel. Much more control and power is available compared to the furnace. A bus and an airplane might have a similar IIPR. Still powerful enough to carry one from one side of the country to the other.
How will future generations appraise today’s average IIPR rated tools?
To further flesch out our rudimentary scale, a 1 IIPR would be an individual with a highly individualized improvement. Our example was the eyeglasses. A 10 IPR would be nuclear launch buttons available as is the case for the US President to push at any time, ending life on the planet.
One simple action, all the power.
There was no chance of destroying the planet one-hundred years ago especially at the individual level. We have more power per individual than ever in history. More knowledge is at our fingertips than at any point in the past. This is to the point where the human. mind is overwhelmed. We are not equipped to adapt or evolve this quickly. But that discussion remains for a later time.
The average human being has far more power (or can have a much larger impact) than in previous generations. This power continues to grow at a greater rate. If you were to fast forward at the exponential rate we are now growing our individual power, it’s easy to assume that each of us will end up with the equivalent of a button before us that could potentially end the world.
Is humanity doomed to die a flash in the pan in the course of the universe?
Is our existence just a failed experiment by an arrogant god?
The adage about ‘absolute power corrupting absolutely’ has to hold some insight into our future, right?
At the rate we’re going, we may individually have the power to destroy the world. As our IIPR continues to increase for every improvement, this scenario becomes more and more likely. It is probable that someone will make the “wrong choice”, right? Someone will push the world-ending button. A course correcting event would have to intervene in order to alter our current course from this inescapable future, it seems.
What an utterly terrifying thought.
The Power Quality: Good or Bad?
We arrive at the idea of power quality. In short, we continue to leverage the impact of our individual power and the button factor increases. [The button factor = extreme individual power. IE the button to end the world nuclear-ly.] Most of what we’ve discussed to this point is the negative potential. However, there is the chance that someone could use this power for good.
One of our financial giants (those with a net worth a fraction of the wealth of the entire world) could decide to liquidate their wealth investing in solving a key human problems. Perhaps it’s starvation, war, climate or humanitarian issues. The point is, the quality of the power should have the potential to be good as well. Yet, it’s harder to perceive.
The question is, if a negative power quality is the nuclear button, what is its positive equivalent?
Destruction and peril on that large of a scale are easy to imagine. But what would cause humanity to thrive in an analogous manner? If there were an easy answer to this, we’d name it. Perhaps the reason we don’t, is that our survival instinct is scanning the horizon for threats. Therefore, creating our this negative bias. Nevertheless, it is hard to conceive of an IIPR that would have a creative (the opposite of destructive) impact comparable to the button factor.
Even when we take a polar opposite such as death (death, a state opposite of life) and cure it. There would still be incalculable destructive potential. Where would everyone live? Would we limit reproduction? How would it affect culture, religion?
It seems that curing death would both devalue life and make unnecessary deaths so much more a tragedy. Would only the rich have the option to live forever? What are the economic implications? This is a completely different thought paradigm.
Perhaps it’s suffice to say that we’re describing symptoms of a universe themed in entropy. End of story(?).
Is Power Inherently Bad?
Is it just as simple as Orwell puts it?
If the object of power is more power, is it just a western addiction?
For those who gain power, it is not particularly good for the individual. When you have power, research finds that people just don’t like you as much. You are seen as intimidating. Others want to take your power. The US President has historically been considered the most dangerous job on the planet. The science is in, having power is not good for human health. But still, there is a drive (some greater than others) for us to acquire it. For the individual, power does not equal health or longevity.
As Earth’s population increases, the power of systems becomes more relevant. Systems are great at increasing productivity and standardization. Yet, most of us that belong to the capitalist system in the US find ourselves serfs in some unavoidable way. The purpose of our lives, (if we are willing to take a hard look in the mirror) is, at least in part, to consume. This plays on the fact that human desire is a stronger motivator than actually having. We’re prompted to buy a phone every year or two, a car after a couple of years and our attitude is that more is better! Amazon is the king of shipping unneeded, impulse items to you instantly. It is also one of the biggest companies to EVER EXIST!
We were born into this system of excess and materialism. Because of this, we attract citizens from outside the country who were born into a state of lack. Lack is not experienced the same way here in the US/western world.
Donald Trump is right to point out that every company in the US goes to every extent to avoid paying taxes. It may be legal, but often when exposed it certainly isn’t ethical. Why should Trump be any different? Other CEOs and C-levels are not paying income tax. The accountant’s job is to make sure these folks pay the least amount of tax possible. Our systems are now centralizing power. This is a function of that purpose. It’s how we designed them to work. Again, power (in this case power=money) seeks only more power.
It is interestingly enough, happening parallel to the individuals power growth. But it comes at a cost.
The Cost of Opting Out
This capitalistic system drives our culture. It is who we are, to a degree. Most of us are noble enough. We don’t want to pollute the world’s oceans, be responsible for sweatshops to produce our goods or consume food that is hazardous to our health. However, these and countless other harmful side effects are those of a capitalistic system. A system we either have to participate in, leave or work to change from within. This is an enormous challenge, given that it flies in the face of the very principle of the system, growth at all (more recently “most”) costs.
In capitalism, if you (or the company) doesn’t grow, you (it) die(s). If we don’t produce ‘more’, survival is limited ofr businesses and organizations.
We were taught to strive to do well in school. Why? Because, we had to get a job someday! Many of us went on to get higher educations. The purpose? More income!
I was under the impression until my mid-thirties, that the purpose of life was to get stuff! That’s what I was socialized to believe. (I obviously could have done some more research and changed my mind, educated myself etc.)
The theme is, our system is one of the key driving forces in the world. One individual could not easily change this system. This is much different from our IIPR. The system is the improvement, but the individual is less important in this calculation. For this concept, it is the population plus the improvement (the system). The PIPR, if you will.
If we chose to opt out, the cost would be detrimental to our own survival. One would have to either join a non-capitalist society (none come to mind) or completely move off of the grid. For most of us, this cost is too great to give any serious consideration to this idea. Leaving our family, friends, jobs, hopes and dreams… not a big selling concept, there.
The most thoughtful of us choose to stay put. One person fleeing a society doesn’t threaten it. So while our individual power is increasing exponentially, it does so only in relation to the society we belong. The cost of our individual power is our membership in the society.
The System is Perfect
Our brand of capitalism is designed to give human beings purpose. We choose a job, career or some other task to label ourselves with. Then, we go. We do it. It’s who we are, who we’re to become. Without this distinction, many may simply wander or worse. There is some merit to this. However, this idea references the purest form of our brand of capitalism.
As mentioned earlier, we are able to have heat in our homes due to the labor of another (others). We never have to go through the process of tediously meeting and thanking them. This is only possible because we live in a society that promotes individuals to specialize in tasks and benefit from each others labor and production. (Obvious positives and negatives inherent, here.)
The system produces what it is designed to produce. As we improve systems, their impact is further felt. Its tip is sharpened, its effectiveness enhanced. For example, our economic philosophy (in essence) is to sell a lot. Often, we produce a lot which drives the prices down and so the matre becomes sell a lot for a little. Growth has to happen, so it always leads to more, more, more. Is it any surprise that companies like Amazon, Target and Walmart rule the retail markets? (The companies that you’re thinking of right now that don’t follow this pattern, will eventually.)
If we changed the principle of the system, we would change everything interacting therein. If we changed the philosophy fromsell a little for a lot, we would end up seeing that trend in the leading and largest companies in the world. (I understand we wouldn’t do this.)
We continue to get better and better at programming our systems. We have created algorithms that predict outcomes we can’t understand.
In the US, we have some fail-safes in place to protect the power from becoming too centralized. These antitrust laws attempt to protect us from systems that overreach. What this seems to illustrate, is that somewhere in our collective unconscious we understand there is a need for balance.
Humanity’s issues all stem from a lack of balance. The industrial revolution has birthed a modern system that is immediately sustaining. But in the long term, it is environmentally punishing. And this is for many reasons. What started as an improved alternative to using a horse or a camel as a means of transport, became an industry polluting and tainting the world directly and indirectly. We’ve learned fossil fuels contribute to destroy the environment at an alarming rate. We begin to act (albeit late) in the game. This is in an attempt to regain balance. Companies are asked to create technologies more environmentally friendly. New technologies are created. Really, this is all for the sake of balancing environmental and other balance concerns.
Relatedly, we have social media. A means to connect socially through the medium of technology. New technologies have manipulated these formats to make you and I the product (our attention, opinions and money). The recent Netflix Doc called The Social Dilemma, outlines these ideas in detail. The best use of this, like other human systems is balance.
Previously, it was mentioned the government steps in with antitrust laws to protect the over-centralization of power. The idea of government intervention is often not a popular idea. Often, the government is called in to bring balance. There is a lot of controversy around this. If not the government, then who should enforce balance? Who should decide what the balance should be? And these concerns about the responsibility of defining and enforcing balance bring about other problems as well.
Distribution of wealth is also at an extreme point. The richest in our country own an increasingly large percentage of the wealth available. The gap between the riches and poorest grows. Who can step in to rebalance this? Will they do it fairly?
Coming to Terms
I’ve always enjoyed this phrase, “coming to terms”. It seems to mean “to put meaning to a concept”. This is precisely what I seek to do. There are four concepts used to illustrate the ideas herein. The IIPR, PIPR, the quality and nature of power and balance are all ideas brought forth to illustrate a shadow of a concern in the back of my mind. This concern is that the state and impact of humanity is changing rapidly. This is in large part due to our power, our systems and our drive for power. The thought that one person could destroy a world is not easily comprehended. It’s easy for many to believe that it couldn’t be true. However, it is.
The paradigm has changed right before our eyes. Humanity’s power has grown for the individual as well as the systems we’ve created. The systems may now be impossible to stop, though we have the best of intentions. Our world has picked up the pace, moving at an astonishing pace. Human minds are not equipped to deal with all that we have at our fingertips. Some of what we create, such as algorithms, produce results we don’t have the ability to fathom. It is no wonder why we see a rise in mindful activities (IE as meditation and yoga) offering us a tool to gain control over our precious little attention.
Historical references to make future decision become less and less relevant everyday. One hundred years ago, the Earth’s population was 1.7 billion. Today, we are nearly 7.9 billion, by 2030 we will be at 8.5 billion. And by 2050, 9.7 billion human beings. While from here it seems that balance is the obvious answer, what that looks like and how it’ll be implemented will be much the decider of whether we prevail or perish.