Notes: Counter the Counter-Culture

In a recent letter, Sandra Pawula writes about being wary of simply accepting easily dispensed advice:

I will - at times - be counter the counter-culture. But not because I actively ascribe to the traditional mores. I know it's all in earnest and who am I to judge. But sometimes, I find it hard to swallow too easily dispensed advice in the new standard of 160 characters.

A "wisdom" tweet recently advised, "Don't work a job that is too small for your spirit."

I replied, "If your spirit is big, is there a job that is too small?"

Notes: Reject Defining Yourself According to Exterior Standards

Chris Guillebeau reflects on how he once chased a "proper education", striving for things simply because the path from here to there was clear and easily marked out by milestones that many others had followed.

It took me a long time to get away from validating my life according to something that didn't relate to my true hopes and goals. At the time, I really did want to devote years of my life doing things that no one would notice, in hopes of obtaining letters behind my name that no one would care about. As ridiculous as I knew it was, I still wanted it! It was hard to let go of... until I finally did.

Part of it was the attachment to something of questionable value (a degree, useless letters), but I was also attracted to the linear nature of academia. I wanted to do something interesting and meaningful, and I saw a clear, if not entirely sensible path. Never mind that the end was muddled; at least I had a certain next step. Pay this amount of money, write a certain number and type of essays, complete such-and-such requirements, meet with these advisors, and so on. All fairly straightforward.

But when you venture out on your own, the next step is often unclear. You don't necessarily know what to do at any given time, which is why having a specific direction is a superpower. There is also no degree or graduation waiting for you at the end, and you have to determine your own milestones.


Years later, I write these notes while sitting in a hotel lobby in Tajikistan, a place I had never heard of back then. I fly around the world and work on projects I find meaningful. I have no qualifications to do much of anything, yet for the most part I do whatever I want.

I realize now it wasn't so much the acceptance or rejection of academia, an institution that may very well serve other people's needs more than mine. It was the rejection of defining myself according to exterior standards, a system that was rigged to reward conformity by design.

How often do we give up the things that make sense in return for things that are less ambiguous? Clarity might make our day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month lives easier to plan and easier to predict, but are we really growing and learning and challenging ourselves if everything we do has been done a thousand times before?

The Annual Placebo Effect

It happens every year. The smiles, the handshakes, and the family get-togethers. The gifts, the goal-setting, the reviews, the time made for deep reflection. We feel a sense of passage, a sense of movement, possibly even a climactic transition from one moment to another.

Sometimes it's a birthday or an anniversary or the remembrance of a historical date. Sometimes it's the transition to a new year.

But what's a date, really? It's a system for tracking time, a system that a group of people agreed to use for communication. There isn't only one system and this isn't just the year 2011.

1460 (Armenian)
6761 (Assyrian)
1418 (Bengali)
2961 (Berber)
2555 (Buddhist)
1373 (Burmese)
7520 (Byzantine)
1728 (Coptic)
2004 (Ethiopian)
5772 (Hebrew)
2068 (Hindu Vikram Samvat)
12011 (Holocene)
1390 (Iranian)
1433 (Islamic)
4344 (Korean)
100 (Minguo)
2554 (Thai solar)
2011 (Gregorian)

Many of us have agreed to use the Gregorian calendar system, but does that really mean today or tomorrow holds anything special? In another calendaring system, today could represent the middle of the year, not the end. On another planet, all of these systems would become meaningless.

One year on Mars is actually 686 days on Earth.

One year on Pluto is 247 years on Earth.

Our entire concept of time only works on this infinitesimal blue dot, in the minds of people who agree to the systems in place. And yet every year billions of people are affected. They're changed, moved, and motivated to act, think, and behave differently. 

By what? A date? A thing that is entirely arbitrary?

No. We're changed, moved, and motivated because we choose to be. The moment we choose is the moment it becomes reality. It has nothing to do with a number.

There's no need to wait for an agreed upon date. You're alive today. Let's recognize today. Let's choose to celebrate today. Let's choose to celebrate now. Seize the moment, every moment. It's new.

Hang a Question Mark

Nature has no broken status quo because the moment the status quo breaks down, nature adapts. When the status quo stops working, nature takes action and changes to maintain its harmonious existence.

Humans have the ability to adapt as well, but our intelligence -- our ability to ask 'Why?' -- also gives us the ability to resist adapting. Unlike nature, we can maintain a status quo even if that means causing harm to ourselves, our family, and our environment.

When something is accepted as-is, its flaws, no matter how great, are irrelevant. The status quo is the status quo because it's not questioned. This can be -- and usually is in the long-run -- disastrous.

If no one ever challenged the status quo of wheel design thousands of years ago, we'd still be rolling around on stone tires today.

If no one challenges the wasteful and irresponsible culture that exists today, we will have a future human species diseased with distrust, living on a planet depleted of resources.

The gift of curiosity and intelligence comes with a responsibility to adapt and to look towards the future. It comes with the responsibility to determine when the status quo is broken and when it needs to change.

Accepting things as they are now ignores the one thing that makes us all human: the ability to hang a question mark on the status quo and ask, 'Why?'