“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.” ~ E.E. Cummings
For half my life, I’ve lived exactly according to society’s plan for me.
My dad didn’t force me onto any path. He built his own life and was successful at it. Implicitly, however—and without quite meaning to—he laid a path for me as well.
However, I made my own decision at the young age of 21. I turned my back on an exciting opportunity to do a law apprenticeship in London, and I succumbed to the charms of an easier, more comfortable life doing business in Ghana—exactly what my dad was doing at the time.
As I slowly realized what I truly wanted to do and started making changes in my life, I faced some barriers. Not directly, not from my parents, but from society at large, which looked at me in amazement and scoffed when I threw away my Rolex-watch lifestyle.
Why is he preaching this self-reliance philosophy? society asked. What is this shift to authenticity really about?
I was also fighting the demons in my head, facing fears about daring to be different after so many years of following the status quo. It wasn’t easy to discard those placid years, as my mind was set in its ways; if I didn’t make a concerted effort, I would be swept up by the tide of guarding my social status and trying not to upset the balance.
I needed to believe in myself and have faith in my new ways.
I started writing poetry and found joy in it. I even wrote a small poetry book. But one day, I overheard two of my friends making fun of it. I was upset—and until today, I still haven’t confronted them about this incident. They saw my poetry writing as silly; they viewed me as someone flaky and lost in life.
I stopped writing poetry for a while. I questioned not only my friendships, but my writing too. But finally, I came to the conclusion that they were putting me down out of fear. They didn’t want me to change and become someone new, and they didn’t want their belief system to come into question either. I wasn’t only challenging my life, but theirs too.
Today, I ask these three questions to gauge if my actions are right for me, regardless of what society thinks:
1. Does it make me feel alive or not? I define aliveness as waking up giddy with excitement, looking forward to a project or task we can’t wait to tackle. The feeling has to come from within—not be forced or borrowed. I’m talking about the feeling we had when we were kids off on some wild adventure full of magic, spontaneity, and vitality. When our hearts pounded, and we smiled almost as broadly as the sun on a clear day. When we were full of energy and ready to press down hard on the pedal.
When I was training for my half-marathon, I was happy to get up at 4:30 a.m. and run for a full two hours under incredible heat. Marathon running makes me come alive. Most of my friends and family laughed at how I altered my life for running, but I knew my choice was right for me.
2. Does it contribute to my growth and purpose? I’ve used Steven Covey’s principle of “beginning with the end in mind” in many situations. The goal I’m moving toward is authenticity and fulfillment. So I ask myself simple questions like, “Why do I need to go to a dinner where all we discuss what has already been discussed?” “Do I really need the latest iPhone when the one I have serves my purposes?” And, “Why do I have to follow certain traditions like attending endless weddings or funerals?”
When an opportunity arose to see Tony Robbins live in London in “Unleash the Power from Within,” I didn’t hesitate to pay a lot of money, rearrange my work schedule, and fly off to participate in that seminar. I can’t forget what an acquaintance said to me before going, “I don’t understand how you can leave your work and pay so much money for such an event.” I smiled at him and said, “There is nothing I won’t do for my personal growth.”
3. Is it detrimental to anyone? I’m not talking about some drastic harm caused to others; rather, if I feel like something will take away from someone else or inadvertently hurt them, then I won’t do it.
For example, in January of this year, I postponed my MFA course for six months, even though I was so excited to go to Vermont for the program. My elderly father had fallen ill, and I felt I couldn’t go and leave him alone. He needed me, and in the hierarchy of my feelings, it was better for me to be with him than anywhere else.
Most of us live like sheep, not because we are happy, but because we wish to avoid disrupting our status quo. We fight day and night to stay in our comfort zones. We crave the sense of belonging that society gives us. Sometimes, I feel we are living in George Orwell’s 1984 dystopia—that Big Brother is not only watching us, but has already lived our lives for us too.
If all the answers to the above three questions point to doing it—whatever “it” is—then we should not hesitate. We should go ahead and take that action, regardless of what people think of us. People are so fickle; when they see that we believe in ourselves and have become successful in doing what we wanted to do, then the same ones who doubted us will be the first to applaud. But we should treat their good wishes the same way we handled their criticism: with a touch of skepticism.
Society loves to put us up on a pedestal, and then quickly bring us back down. So, let’s remain focused on our own fulfillment and follow our own rules.
Author: Mo Issa
Image: Flickr/Leon Riskin
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina