[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.