The Calculus of Courage

Do you read Zen Habits?  The Minimalists?  The Four-Hour Workweek?  Any one of dozens – hundreds – of other blogs purporting to simplify your life, to offer solutions towards a stripped-down, out-of-the-rat-race kind of happiness?


These blogs tend to share a few common characteristics: namely, they’re written by successful white guys.  By “successful,” I don’t just mean guys who have been successful at writing blogs – I mean guys who had achieved a certain measure of success in their previous lives, whether as students, businessmen, or trustafarians.  No one decides to “simplify” their lives by cutting out, say, the bureaucratic headache of quarterly food stamps reporting, although as anyone who has experienced that particular joy can tell you, it’s a bitch.  My life would sure be simpler without it, but I also wouldn’t be able to eat; everything’s a trade-off.


No, what these gents tend to cut out are what only the very privileged would ever deign to call necessities: oversized homes (and accompanying mortgages), overpriced clothes, dinners at fancy restaurants.  And jobs.  Authors of life-simplification blogs are damn near obsessed with quitting their jobs, becoming entrepreneurs of their own destinies, taking the leap that – they loudly proclaim – too many of us are just too damn scared to consider.  If only we had their wisdom and their bravery, to live lightly and boldly!


Of course, there are legions of folks in the world chasing their dreams and living a minimalist lifestyle out of a concomitant necessity: total brokeness.  And real, legitimate broke-ness teaches you a few things that these bloggerheads have barely even noticed, in spite of the self-assuredness which leads them to challenge the faceless masses to follow in their footsteps (for instance, a bunch of these dudes talk separately about “soap” and “face wash” and “toothpaste” – don’t these artists of the zen know that you can replace exactly all of your cleaning and personal hygience products with castile soap and baking soda and call the damn thing a day already?).


More seriously, their real blind spot has nothing to do with shampoo and everything to do with playing the odds.  “Finding your passion” is a beautiful dream, and I encourage everyone to do so.  But “quit your job to find your passion” is a very different piece of advice than merely the latter half of that sentence.  “Make your passion into your livelihood” is not a guarantee of happiness; it is a gamble, and an enormous one.


For example – I know a lot of stand-up comedians.  Most of them have found their passion; it is stand-up comedy.  Almost none of them make a real living – a rent-paying, food-buying, independent livelihood – from this passion.  They have day jobs.  They write jokes on the bus.  They make sacrifices.  And not just the sacrifices these aspirational blogs would tell you about: not sacrifices of credit cards and second cars and so much stuff, but real sacrifices, like their health (or health insurance – what a luxury!) or their relationships or their sanity; it’s easy enough to talk about controlling one’s own fate when one has a cushion of savings and a dream of writing about an aspirational lifestyle on the Internet, but for most of us out there trying to make some kind of art, well, the old adage of having to suffer for it still applies.


And failure is always a real possibility.  Failure means many things, and it can be liberating and propulsive, but it also sucks.  I took my first off-the-cliff leap back in early 2008; I landed flat on my ass, homeless in Los Angeles.  A friend got me a very part-time job that paid just enough to keep me in ramen noodles.  I couch-surfed until the goodwill of family and friends reached its expiration date, and then I squatted for a few months, until my father was in a serious biking accident and my mother begged me to come home and act as chef and chauffeur during his recuperation.  Eventually I got back on my feet – I still haven’t broken $20k in annual earnings (and I’m approaching thirty) but I haven’t slept in a car in over four years, which is a good enough feeling that it counts as a victory.  But it is a victory which looks very, very different from the “Be your best self now!” prescriptions peddled by Internet cheerleaders.


I’m still chasing the dream – still living my passion – but I’ve also struggled long enough to crave a certain stability; not enough to make me complacent (I’ll write comedy under any conditions, and I’ve got the jokes to prove it) but enough that I can stop worrying each day about how I’m going to pay for my next meal.  Sometimes a little bit of fear and uncertainty can motivate oneself to take charge of one’s own life.  Sometimes too much fear and uncertainty can just leave one exhausted.


And while I’m on the rant – can these too-smug dudes stop telling me about the joys of nomadism?  Sell your house, they proclaim all-too-easily; quit your rent!  Rent or mortgage is most people’s biggest expense, after all, and so losing that particular bill is key to unlocking genuine freedom, or so the story goes.  But nomadism by a less glamorous name is just homelessness, and having both been there and done that, I will once again tell you: that shit is some of the most exhausting, soul-destroying garbage I have ever experienced in my life, and I once had a job interview at a right-wing think-tank.  First of all, let’s acknowledge that one person’s gleeful, independent couch-surfing is entirely dependent on another person’s staid, dutiful couch-owning.  All of the “stuff” which the couch-surfer can shed so easily becomes instead by provided by a rotating cast of others, leeched off of by the whimsical nomad under discussion.  The post-modern vagabond needs only a change of clothes and an iPad; the world will provide him his toilet paper (and toilet, and shower, and sink, and bed, and cooking utensils, and cooking equipment, and a plate to eat on, and a fork to eat with, and – well, you get the picture).  The world will provide him with his toilet paper because he is, essentially, shitting on the world.


Sure, you can gallivant around and treat other people’s lives as one exotic tour for your own edification.  Or you can take some time now and then to travel, meet new people and experience other cultures, but spend enough time – the bulk of your life, perhaps – parked in the one place where you’ve decided to make a goddamn difference.


It’s a lot less glamorous of a prescription for a fulfilling life, but it just might actually accomplish something.

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