Looking Inside and Out

I’ve been noticing a trend in many of my friends: they’re ending one phase of their life, to start a new one that is “better”. There’s a feeling of optimism and renewal, the grim determination of post-bubble, post 9-11 survivalist thinking transmuted into desire to do something meaningful.

Po Bronson identified this trend a couple years ago in his book What Should I Do With My Life. It’s an read that doesn’t particularly go anywhere or give you a step-by-step. It doesn’t make any grand claims or offer any profound insights. It’s just the kind of book you read to trigger your own thoughts, sort of an “introspective spirit guide” to get you wandering on your own.

I wonder how common this is for Gen-Xers in their 30s…they’ve put in their dues, figured out what they’re good at, and are ready to redirect their energy toward something that is more personally satisfying. Or it could just be that I tend to hang out with people who think like this. In other words: The training is over. We’re ready to do something about ourselves to make the world rock a little more, free of the kind of crap that got us in the hole in the first place.

In the past, I think the “new phase” thing has been called a midlife crisis. Our generation grew up seeing the Boomers crash into theirs, desperately trying for a big course correction with kids, mortgage, and community in tow and not quite succeeding in making the turn. We decided we’d skate, surf, and slack instead. When we got into the job market, we went through an intense bubble-and-crash cycle to tempt then slap us upside the head. We thought we could rule-the-world-by-wire, and learned the hard way that to get anything done for sure, you need hard tangible assets, real numbers, and dedicated people to see things through. This reminds me a bit of McNamara’s air war over Vietnam; it’s a theme repeated throughout history. I believe Sun Tzu warns us of this very pitfall in The Art of War…wait, actually that was Vizzini in The Princess Bride:

You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is: Never get involved in a land war in Asia!, and only slightly less well known is this: Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!

But I digress…Along the lines of classic strategic thinking, Alen and I have finally culminated a discussion revolving around our creative work, Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, and making a buck, over burgers at Ruby Tuesday:

In the past we’ve mistaken the Selling of the Way for the Way itself. In advertising, marketing, whatever we’ve been doing to make money: we’ve contextualized the job we’re supposed to be doing. In advertising, for example, doing Nike ads that awe and inspire has a surface resemblance of the Way. There’s the sense of having done something that’s Good. However, this is not what we’re supposed to be doing…it’s a diversion from the path, because it is ultimately about Selling and Service. We need to get back on it, and start making again.

So I am inspired and happy to be back on that path. The difference between now and 8 years ago is that we’ve actually gotten some experience under our belt, slain some personal demons, and have personally confirmed what is Good For Us and what is Bullshit.

Coincidentally, I’ve just reread Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Plot aside, the ambiance of the characters functioning in a libertarian wonder/wasteland is still relevant for we who want to make things happen on our own terms by our own wits for the right reasons. Stephenson makes this theme a little more explicit in The Diamond Age: “how do you prevent your kids from becoming empty-headed tools?” And we see Stephenson bring it up again, as a character point, in Cryptonomicron. The specific passage eludes me, but there’s the idea of “adaptability” that’s at the heart of the Shaftoe clan. It’s part Marine-think, part humorous acceptance of how crappy a hand Life can deal you. So you take it on, and do something stupendously unexpected and cool.

That’s the way to do it.