You probably know this David Foster Wallace joke:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
When you're in the depths of your context, whatever that happens to be, it can be hard to even see the rules you’re unconsciously abiding by. I think it’s worth stopping, every so often, and particularly after a year like the one we’ve collectively had, to ask: what matters?
I think there are two traps in life. (There are certainly more, but let’s go with two for the purposes of this piece. Two traps is already a lot of traps.) The first is that you find yourself on a metaphorical treadmill, working really hard but not for any really good reason that gets you to anywhere in particular. The second is that you have a fixed goal in mind and are so fixated on getting there that you miss out on all the beauty and possibilities inherent to the journey. In other words: blinkered-ness and inflexibility.
Naming the decisions we make and understanding why we make them allows us to make better ones. For example, taking care of my parents is a choice - I could up and move to Singapore, say - but it’s only one on a technicality. I may have autonomy, but not in a way that I’d feel good about. Leaving the Bay Area and not being there for my family feels like the wrong thing to do. As much as I’d love to travel more and live somewhere else (which, in a vacuum, I really would), if I consciously weigh the two things against each other, staying here wins.
If I’m naming things and making conscious choices, understanding how much of myself I give to other people - and how much of my life is truly proactively under my control, vs. a reaction to external demands or desires - is an important exercise. I want to have a job, and I want to both spend time with and take care of people I love. But I also want to be my own, autonomous person, and give myself enough breathing space to live and grow.
Those conscious choices just scratch the surface. We all unconsciously give a lot of ourselves in response to external pressures. Consumer culture - the advertising, media, and word-of-mouth values we’re all exposed to hundreds of times a day - also has designs on us. It wants us to fit into a pigeonhole, follow a fashion, modify our bodies, get rich, become something we’re not. The message is that fitting ourselves into these templates will improve us somehow. For advertising, it’s a reflection of someone’s desire to convince you to buy their product; for media, it’s their desire to capture your attention; for everyone else, it’s their desire to feel better about themselves. People who are brave enough to truly be themselves are a threat to people who are not.
In the tech industry, a lot of people feel like they’ve constantly got to be in hustle mode: a particular kind of working all the time that is imposed through a mix of entrepreneurship porn and peer pressure. I’ve long since washed my hands of this side of tech culture, but it’s something I definitely was part of for a little while, and I continue to see it in others. I made choices that were detrimental to me in the name of the work I was doing (without realizing that, by harming me, these choices were also detrimental to that work). I meet and talk to a lot of people who still want to hustle hard because they’re under the impression they will somehow going to get rich quick. For a lot of people, there really isn’t a tangible goal: they hustle to the point of exhaustion and contort their personas into accepted forms simply because they think they’re expected to.
That same impulse is why immigrants are pressured to assimilate, or why people self-asserting their own gender identity is a threat to so many people. Assimilation takes the fear out of accepting someone from a culture a person doesn’t understand. Traditional gender identity and roles are well-understood; not just culturally accepted but culturally indoctrinated, prescribed, and sold to. It’s in a lot of peoples’ interests for us to conform to them, so there’s pressure to do that. But assimilation requires letting go of a key piece of who we are; adopting a traditional gender rather than expressing our true selves requires denying who we are. In some cases, the unfair expectations placed on us differ wildly: Black women are held to a different, more stringent standard to white women, who are held to a different standard again to white men.
Let’s ask again: what matters?
Everyone deserves to be accepted for the completeness of who they are. Acceptance matters; trust matters; respect matters; equity matters. A professional relationship is in peril if the parties involved don’t accept each other as people, or if they don’t accept the relationship itself. A romantic relationship is in peril if the same things are true. If we’re constantly judging each other, or holding each other to unfair or inconsistent standards, our respect for and acceptance of each other is drastically undermined.
It’s a universal but largely unspoken need: I want to be my full, weird, unbridled self, and I want to be accepted and loved for it. I want the people around me to be accepted and loved for who they are. I want the injustices of the past - the intentional and unconscious choices communities have made for centuries - to be named and redressed, so that everyone can be themselves.
The inclusive, nonconformist future is here, but isn’t evenly distributed yet. I don’t want to live in a place with a homogenous culture; I don’t want my community to be assimilated and sanitized to some out-of-date standard. I want everyone to be themselves. Life is so much richer when you can build community with people from a galaxy of contexts, ethnicities, and cultures; a spectrum of sexualities and genders; a rainbow of people who can all create and share and love and collaborate and grow with each other without losing their sense of self or the pressure to give up pieces of their identities. A culture that, above all, gives people the metaphorical and literal space to live.
To me, that’s what matters. Being accepted and loved for who I am, warts and all; accepting and loving the people I’m connected to for who they are, warts and all. Allowing people to really be themselves and rejecting conformity. And it leads to conscious choices: where to live, where to work, who to be connected to, and what to do next. Rejecting the cultural pressure to conform to traditional values and embracing the new and radical means finding the places, organizations, and people who do the same.
That’s what I think a good life looks like. I think it’s important to consciously know, and to name it. It’s what I want.