Life as Reinvention

[Of the 247 kickstarter backers of The Ghost of My Father, there was one gold sponsor, contributing $1000 in return for a blog post on the topic of their choice. This fine gentleman is named Keith Klain, who is the CEO for Doran Jones. One of the projects he works on is the UDC, which teaches underemployed adults in the South Bronx how to become software testers (see story in WIRED). Keith asked me to write about reinvention and I was thrilled to oblige as it’s a theme close to my heart]

There is a list of sayings on a whiteboard near my desk that I can’t help but notice several times a day. It contains ideas I try to remember, things I forget are true and important about the life I want to have. Near the top of the list is this one: you could be dead. It makes me laugh every time I see it, for reasons I can’t entirely explain.

The part I know will make the most sense to you is this: when we’ve been alive for decades, we forget what being alive means. We slide into a paper cage of our own habits and forget that with a little effort we can slide our way into new habits too. I can stand up whenever I want. Or sit down. Or put on some music, or close my eyes and lose myself in silence. I could dance, scream, stand on my desk, or anything I choose to do. Anyone can do an infinite number of different things, small and large, in this or in any moment as long as they are still alive. But I forget. We all forget. We live many of our waking moments asleep in a lazy dream of our own invention, a dream of boredom and regret that we don’t even enjoy. We become familiar with our favorite memories and allow ourselves to believe the feeling of familiarity is an acceptable replacement for investing in the life we have today.

There are hundreds of cliches about how to live life and it’s easy to dismay cliches. Sayings like “Carpe Diem”, “Memento mori“, or even “Sing like no one is listening” are reminders we often see, inspiring us to nod our heads affirmatively, “Yes! I should be more in the moment!” but then our attention moves on and we return to our waking slumber. We fool ourselves into the confusion that thinking about doing something, thinking about writing a book, thinking about changing a career, is practice for actually doing it.

But merely thinking about playing guitar does not make you a better guitar player. How many people do we know who continually talk about the movie they want to make, the company they want to start, or the trip they want to take, yet never take even the smallest act towards that goal? Complacency is a disease of affluence: if our lives were worse perhaps we’d be desperate enough to take chances, since we’d be less afraid of what we have to lose.

Children are masters of reinvention. Every day for them is another dream, another game, another world of kings and queens, or dragons and unicorns. Why as adults does it become so scary to try something new? We know our proudest memories involve moments of fear, risk, and doubt that we overcame. All adults remember dozens of firsts, their first time riding a bicycle, their first good grade, their first kiss or midnight tryst, yet along the way into middle age we forget the fear we felt before we did those things. It doesn’t make sense: why do we become more afraid of fear as we age, when we should have more experience with it and how to use it to our advantage? A masterful life would have an increasing number of risks and chances, perhaps carefully considered but risks no less, taken in it, not fewer. Why not try a new philosophy? A new kind of music? A new relationship? The older we are the less there is to lose.

Every winter the trees shed their leaves. They bravely drop their finely crafted foliage into the dirt, literally leaving parts of themselves and their past behind, to make room for what’s going to come next.  Life itself is a cycle of ending things to start new ones. It’s only the dead rocks and cold stones that move only when pushed. The very cells in your body don’t live forever, they fade away every few weeks to be regenerated and renewed. On each day you are lucky enough to wake up, your body has changed, reinventing itself as a natural course of your biology. It’s stasis that’s unnatural. Staying in the same place, with the same thoughts, the same sadness, takes more energy than moving on.

Half or more of my life is behind me. As the darker cliches go I should be stuck in the loops of my memories, telling the same old safe stories of past adventures, pretending it feels as good and as real as doing something interesting or new today. But I’m not. I’m on my second career now, not out of any particular courage but simply because I decided I wanted to live in the present, and not let myself hide in my memories or be a slave to my doubts. Even if I fail to live up to my ambitions, I wake up each day giving myself a chance to discover a new dream, a new possibility, a new chance that, however small, I’d never find if I believed all of my imagined limitations. I’m here! I’m alive! I’m doing this right now! These are things I can say to myself during my days, even if they are the only reward for my efforts. I’m not dead yet and I will treat every day as the precious mystery that it is. Life is to be lived. To try, to reach, to stretch, to dance, and sure, yes, to cry and fail at times, but the avoidance of uncertainty is a denial of life itself.

18 Responses to “Life as Reinvention”

  1. David Greenlees

    Nice post Scott.
    As I read the paragraph about children I was reminded of this little gem…

    We need to take the scissors away from those that use them as cookie cutters. How? No idea… but making sure, at the very least, that my daughter is not a victim of this is within my control. One child at a time perhaps. :)

    I’m close to doing something I never thought I would (life change I guess you could say), and reading your post has helped me reflect on the reasons why I’m taking the ‘risk’. So thanks again.


    1. Scott

      The rub is we are social creatures which means learning to fit in is an important part of our psychology. We are prone to wanting to fit in. There’s nothing wrong with this of course until you’re unhappy with the way you fit or what you’re fitting into.

      I did like that cartoon, but for some things it’s exactly what teachers and parents are supposed to do: conforming to how to dress, how to speak, how to sit in a classroom, etc. are all essential parts of fitting in to civilization. Where it falls apart is when we’re aiming for the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy where we seek to discover how we are different, or simply wish to explore who we are as individuals at all.

  2. Elliot

    So beautiful and true.

    There’s a lot of layers beneath people becoming ossified alive. It’s the comfort of familiarity, but not just that. It’s the misapprehension of past memory for present vitality, but not just that. It’s the fear of risk and loss, but not just that.

    I almost want to say, perhaps the underlying frustration comes from trying to frame life as an optimization problem, when the goal is vague and elusive (“happiness?”), and the context of the world and oneself is always inescapably shifting. It’s an impossible problem to try to nail down a static optimization of this, and perhaps that’s the folly of the adult trying to “win” through structure and control. The child has no pretension of understanding or controlling, and so by necessity can only explore and encounter the unknown, experiencing the whole overwhelmingly unmediated joy and sorrow.

    Once we’ve been around the block, we’re experienced enough to be wary of pain and danger, but deluded enough to think we can control it with a rigid plan. But that strong, rigid structure can easily go from a shelter to cage, if it restrains one’s self instead of supporting it.

    Great thoughts as always, really looking forward to digging into the new book.

    1. Scott

      The metaphor of an “optimization problem” is a good one – as is the false notion of “winning”. Perhaps the real issue is how we try to frame every problem, including metaphysical/personal problems, in overly simplistic and mechanical ways. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Doug Shaw

    Please pass my thanks on to Keith Klain for his generous backing of your new book and for this excellent suggestion for a blog post theme. I needed to read this today, so thanks to you too.

    1. Scott

      Will do. And thanks Doug for your support too :)

  4. Karen

    I have become more afraid of fear as I’ve aged because I now have people in my life that depend on me for theirs. I feel like I have so much more to lose, so I act cautiously. And that’s in spite of the fact that my life experience has proven to me that my ‘reckless’ actions are rarely dangerous and almost always work out.
    But I’m still so afraid to let go. How can we relearn a little bravery?

    1. Scott

      Hi Karen: I don’t know. I don’t think there is any answer anyone can give that changes how you feel about things. Emotions don’t work that way. From my own experience being brave is a habit and habits fade away if you don’t tend to them.

      One of the other aphorisms on my whiteboard is “Do it Anyway” – it reminds me our brains excel at finding reasons for not doing things our hearts want to do. My life gets better when I do things anyway, despite the fears. I don’t always live up to my whiteboard but I’m proudest of myself when I try.

  5. Dan Szuc

    What helps people take a leap in order to try new things and break out of fixed ways of thinking?

    1. Scott

      I wish I knew. There are plenty of books about finding inspiration but it seems many people confuse reading about finding inspiration with actually finding it. And then plenty of people seem to find their way into interesting lives without any outside help at all. We are a multitude of mysteries.

  6. Sean Crawford

    Hi guys,
    As for spending your waking moments in a dream, the Nov 6 edition of Rolling Stone, besides having an interview with Stephen King, has a super piece on Bill Murray, where Murray is shown as wanting to be awake. I am keeping that issue to think over Murray saying:

    “…I’m only connected for seconds, minutes a day, sometimes. And suddenly, you go, ‘Holy cow, I’ve been asleep for two days. I’ve been doing things, but I’m just out.’ If I see some note who’s out cold on their feet, I’m going to try to wake that person up. It’s what I’d want someone to do for me. Wake me the hell up and come back to the planet.”

    I wonder many readers missed that? In a sense, the entire article by Gavin Edwards is a delivery vehicle for that paragraph.

  7. Sean Crawford

    Darn typo: It’s not “some note,” it’s “someone”…. But it sounds intriguing the way I mistyped it.

  8. Rosie Sherry

    Failure, I believe, is a huge part of the problem in society. We are drummed in to believing that we must succeed at all costs and that failure is the worst thing that can happen. Schooling of kids is a great example of this where we are bringing up generation of kids to fear failure and conform to other people’s expectations of what they should learn until they are 18. However, it’s also very apparent in the work place, and politics. It makes me sick.

    I come across people all the time saying they wish they could live ‘that life’. But they do nothing about. Or take a few steps and quickly give up because it’s easier to go to work and get a guaranteed wage. They are not prepared to fail repeatedly to achieve their goal. They are not prepared to make the sacrifices for the longer term vision.

    I’ve spent the past 5 years (little by little) trying to release myself, husband and my 3.75 kids from this world – where we define our own rules. We choose what we do. We make a living. We learn to create important things for us. We do not measure ourselves against anyone. We are who we are. We are content and grateful for where we are now.

    What I’ve discovered over time is that creating stuff that is important to me (not someone else) makes me happy. Whether it’s an article, a drawing, a product or a business. This is really where my confidence and ability grows in my life. The more I created, the more confident I became. And as a result the less I cared about failure – as it is merely part of the process.

    I have seen this in my children too. When I first took one of my sons out of school (to homeschool) he was so reluctant and fearful to try anything. He saw himself as a failure and anything he did was not good enough (in his eyes). We have been drumming that out of him for the past couple of years and it is great to see him not care about the failure as much anymore. He’s definitely on the ‘creation’ road.

    Failure hurts, but it’s a learning process and the outcome often isn’t as bad as we think it will be.

    1. Scott

      To follow your line of thinking one element is living beneath your means. If you are able to live beneath your means than you have more resources for making different life choices. But we have so much social pressure to buy fancy objects and go into debt that many young adults enter independence with a heavy psychological burden. They enter adulthood largely trying to catch up to an invented idea of what adulthood is.

      I love the idea of a gap year – a year of service, or work, or travel – before entering college. It makes so much sense for a young woman or man to enter the world for awhile and learn about themselves and other ways of life before deciding where to go to school, or what to study or what to do with the rest of their lives. The compression of these major choices into the senior year of high school seems so foolish and sets our children up for such narrow, unexplored existences.

      As you suggest the perspective on failure is part of this – not racing into the rat race seems like a failure if you’re surrounded by rats – but exploration is by definition filled with small failures, or to use a less negative vocabulary, surprises.

  9. Ian Sutherland

    A very interesting post. I just wanted to say that reinvention can be contagious.

    As a young man I was most certainly too serious, too afraid to try things and always thinking through the consequences ad finding reasons “why not”. In fact I learned recently that the sister of a friend who I fancied as a teenager commented at the time that I was not very interesting.

    Scroll forward 30+ years and every year since my 50th birthday I have created a small, but real challenge fro myself. This is usually something that takes me outside my comfort zone and can be measured by an achievement of some measure. Initial ones included getting a photograph published in a national magazine and trying my hand at art and design a personal Christmas card for my business.

    Last year I took a standup comedy course and delivered a public set one Saturday evening in London and this year I have entered two story writing competitions and one screenplay. I had not written a story since my schooldays and had never written a screenplay.

    My point is not the specifics of what I have done, but the interest friends and acquaintances have had in my endeavours and the fact that it has inspired a number to take on their own challenges/dreams. One started hot yoga and is now learning spanish while another started singing lessons.

    These do not need to be huge challenges. Indeed it may be better to start with small ones and learn the feeling of achievement. learn not to fear as we used to and to create real changes in one’s mindset.

    1. Scott

      That’s an inspiring story. Thanks for sharing it. I agree it’s contagious and it helps to have friends who are similarly motivated to try new things. But what fascinates me is how so many people have the dream of trying new things and being that kind of person, but it seems many people never do it, despite how many books and such there are about that kind of lifestyle. I find people and their life choices endlessly fascinating – we are such a mystery.


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