“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on somebody else’s path.” – Joseph Campbell
Whenever you go through a difficult life event–a loved one passing away, a divorce, getting fired or laid off–you quickly feel the inadequacy of the “script” that people follow in fraught social situations.
Someone finds out your loved one passed? You get a rote “I’m sorry” and people struggle for what to say beyond that.
You get laid off? People worry for you but say you’ll find something soon.
Get divorced? People often reach for the hideous catchall “everything happens for a reason,” which manages to feel both judge-y (“so you’re saying I deserved this?”) and an enormous reach for positivity.
We all fall back on these niceties and bromides. But these scripts aren’t just things people say. It goes way deeper than that. There are crucial cultural assumptions that underpin the sentiments in these scripts–that one should look on the bright side, that there is (or should be) order in life, that one should minimize others’ discomfort, that one must keep moving forward.
Few things expose society’s script more than trying to step off it entirely, which, I’d argue, you must do if you are hoping to pursue meaningful creativity in your life.
The life script
The “life script” varies somewhat depending on location and culture, but it broadly goes like this: you grow up, you go to the best college you can if you have the opportunity, you get the best job you can, you may be pressured to find a spouse with the best job you can, you put your nose down and work as hard as you can, you get married, you have kids, you retire, you oversee the next generation repeating the script, you die.
Chances are you will be pushed at every turn to stay on script and fulfill society’s twin directives: Be as economically productive as possible, and you better reproduce.
You’ll feel the presence of the script whenever you tell people you want to pursue a creative life. People will push you to make it a hobby that’s subservient to a more economically viable job.
And if you do engage in a creative pursuit, questions will quickly turn to whether you’re making money. If you tell them you’ve published a book, they’ll wonder if it’s a bestseller or being made into a movie. Anything short of that, they’ll faintly pity you as a dilettante.
The “solution” some people come up with is to do the meaningful personal things after they retire. And look, no judgment if you went that way and you’re happy. But if you’re hoping to do something meaningful for yourself before you’re 65, chances are you’re going to need to step off script.
In my opinion? It’s better to ditch the script as soon as you can.
Stepping off the script is extremely difficult for two main reasons:
- Our entire society is organized around paying for things and, well, you have to figure out how to pay for things.
- At every step of the way, people in your life and influential cultural winds will push you to stay on script.
For #1, the challenge can be enormously difficult, but the contours are straightforward: You have to find enough money to cover your expenses.
For #2, the challenge seems easier but is more opaque: You have to resist the influence people have over you and the pushes and pulls when you try to step onto a different course.
The farther you get down your path on “the script,” the more invested other people are in keeping you on it: parents, significant others, friends, children. Your variables become more constrained. Even when they’re supportive, they’ve often internalized a lifetime of “lessons” that have kept them on script. Their advice will reflect their desire for you to stay in your role in their lives, as well as their own lived experiences.
And don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting you ditch everyone you love in order to pursue a creative passion. Some variables get (rightly) locked in.
Then there are the broader forces at play: Status symbols we find ourselves coveting, a culture that valorizes the rich, our internalized beliefs about what others will find impressive and attractive.
There are a wide array of bumpers configured around you that will keep pushing you onto our culture’s prescribed course. If you want to pursue a passion project that’s truly your own, particularly one with dubious economic utility, you’ll have to resist the script.
Escaping the script
I’m going to keep returning to the topic of building a creative life over the course of the next month, but the first and most important step for stepping off the script in life is to first recognize the script’s existence.
When you start sharing your dreams and acting upon them, people around you will often react fearfully. If for instance, you pass up a lucrative job offer to preserve time for creativity like I did a few years back, you’ll need to see that when people are horrified on your behalf, they are only following the script. It’s crucial to see this lest you internalize their doubt.
It’s important to see the script within you when you find yourself coveting a bigger house, a nicer car, a more prestigious job title. Whose voice is telling you to want those things? Are those “nice” things really worth what you’d have to give up to get them?
And, importantly, you have to shed the false certainty the script provides. Nearly everyone I know who follows the life script reaches a crisis point where it fails them. A divorce, an unexpected illness, a job loss… We’re all implicitly told that if we just do X, Y, and Z–if we do things the “right” way–we’ll have a prosperous and safe life. At some point you find out the hard way that just isn’t true.
You have to learn to shut off the auto-pilot and fly the plane yourself, and in order to do that, you have to realize that’s the kind of plane you were flying in all along. It’s scary and confusing to always be at the wheel, but as the Joseph Campbell quote at the start of this post articulates, it’s the first step toward charting your own course.
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Art: Hans Gude – Norwegian Landscape in Rain