Accepting the Limits of Personal Options

The Modern Survival Guide #16

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I do take responsibility for them. But frankly I just can’t be bothered about the national debt right now.

In the age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest there is a key concept that needs reinforcing from time to time:

This wasn’t always a major source of personal anxiety, of course. If you’re an illiterate peasant farming your lord’s fields, your personal responsibilities and opportunities are fairly limited — get the harvest in, try to raise a family, don’t starve, and don’t get killed. But we aren’t illiterate peasants, and we are connected citizens of a modern, vibrant country with lots of opportunities and lots of responsibility.¹ We are not afforded the luxury of looking away or saying “it’s not my fault” as the citizens of a democracy. Everything that is done in our name, we do by proxy. That’s the trouble with self-government.

Add to that the pressure of social media. Everyone’s feed is stocked with pictures of friends who go everywhere, do everything, and look gorgeous doing it. You know who they are. You might be one of them. If you are, congratulations on your lifestyle and do try not to brag about it much.

If you’re not, you’ve probably experienced one of my favorite modern acronyms: FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out. That creeping sensation that there’s a whole world you haven’t and won’t experience because, well, you’re stuck working 9-to-whenever to pay the bills, your kids need tending to, or you can’t leave your incontinent gerbil, Willis, for more than half an hour. Seriously, Willis is just awful. But regardless, you that you’re never going to climb Mt. Everest or surf a sand dune, or take a helicopter ride over a glacier, or maybe even just visit your relatives in California. These things are not going to happen to you, because you’re not .

All in all, these feeling of responsibility and FOMO can create a bit more stress than you really need to be dealing with. So repeat after me, before we move on: “You are not responsible for everything, and you cannot do everything.”

The Limits of Responsibility

You are not responsible for everything that happens in the country. Except you are. And you can’t save everyone. Except we could. And you can’t blame yourself when stuff goes wrong in the world. Except how else can we change things?

This is the terrible calculus of living in an age of empowerment and information, and at its heart it rests on two variables: time and money. If you want to be concerned with how much you’re doing to better humanity, consider those two variables. Now add two more: survival and comfort.

The simple, sad truth of the matter is that no one should ever assume that anyone else will take care of them. That means you too, middle-aged suburbanite. Your privileged life is just a few medical problems or a bankruptcy away from changing radically. The safety nets are being eroded as we speak, labor rights aren’t getting any better, and for all you know your investments (assuming you are lucky enough to have some) might be worthless when you decide to retire. Some prudence in spending is still called for.

Similarly, you do not have infinite time. Skipping work to serve food to the homeless is not a viable long-term strategy — pretty soon you’ll be on the other end of the ladle. And failing to devote time to your friends and family will pretty rapidly result in losing both. Failing to devote time to your own health and well-being will similarly result in your losing both.

You should therefore conduct life with the goal of providing for yourself and your family first. This means you need to meet your own survival and comfort goals — you need to have sufficient resources on hand to provide for your own survival, and you need to be comfortable enough in that survival that you are not super stressed about it. Only then can you reasonably be expected to provide significant support to others.

That was a key phrase — “significant support.” What I mean by this is the ability to devote serious amounts of your time and money to charity, politics, and community organization. “Significant support” means that you’re dedicating a piece of your life to a cause. This does mean that, if you can’t do this, you should avoid giving that dollar to cancer research at the grocery store, or hold off on dropping your change in the Salvation Army box, or kicking in ten bucks for your friend’s medical Kickstarter fund. There’s a balance here between being a miser and being Mother Teresa.

The exact balance you find is something I can’t tell you. It’ll differ from person to person. But be aware that this sort of thing scales with income. The richer you are, the more power you have, and the more ability you have to make significant changes to the world. If you make it rich and don’t give a serious buck back to the society that supports your right to own all that wealth, you’re not being a wily businessman, you’re just a dick.²

A quick checklist to keep in mind:

  • Survive first. Take care of your people second. give to charity. Priorities matter.
  • De-stress before doing big things. If you’re planning to do something beyond your survival responsibilities, make sure you’re focused enough to make it count.
  • Budget and prioritize your responsibilities. Fulfill your obligations in priority order. Write these priorities down if you have to.
  • Stay as flexible and relaxed as you can when dealing with non-obligatory responsibilities. Missing PTA is not the end of the world. Do not treat it as such.
  • Stay real. Recognize that your circumstances are not universal. Remember that with money and power come proportional responsibilities if you’d like to stay human.

The Limits of Opportunity

Remember those money and time variables that control your ability to be responsible for things beyond your own survival? Yeah, they have an even heavier impact on your personal opportunities.

Put quite simply, no matter who you are, you will never have enough time or money to do . It’s physically impossible. Even if you visit every site of natural beauty on Earth, you still won’t be that guy on Facebook who’s getting a guided tour of a nuclear silo. Even if you’re that guy who’s getting a tour of a high-security site, you won’t be that girl who’s eating a honey-coated locust in Israel. There are some things you can only do if you are in the right place at the right time, and you will never, ever, be able to do all of those things. And even if you could, jet-setting around the world gets old after a while.

Depressing, right? Well, no. Not really. Part of the reason why we’re different from each other is that we have different experiences to mold our personalities. It’d be a boring old world if we all did the same things. But that’s only half the story. The other half is that, to a large degree, the extent to which we feel FOMO depends on our own personal understanding of things that are important to us… and the ways in which that feeling gets skewed by advertising, envy, and jealousy.

Remember, Facebook does not edit your news feed based on your personal wealth (or at least, it doesn’t edit your friend’s stories). Your personal wealth will not stretch to everything that all of your friends are doing. If you think about it, this is no different from anything else: do you feel the need to buy everything you see in an ad on TV? Of course not. Now extend that logic to FOMO.

As with all other things, it’s OK to wish for things, and it’s good to work toward your dreams, but it’s not OK to build your life around those wishes when they focus on other people’s accomplishments. Instead of focusing on what other people are doing, do your own stuff. Go to a game. Build something. Watch some Bob Ross on YouTube and paint a few happy little trees. Pretty soon, you’ll be the person other people want to be.

Some quick points:

  • Survive first. Take care of your people second. take that trip you’ve always wanted.
  • De-stress. If you’re planning to do something fun, make sure you’re capable of having fun while you do it.
  • Do not be house-poor, car-poor, or any other type of -poor that requires you to sacrifice major portions of your life in order to present an image.
  • Do not max out your credit card to go on a world tour or buy that super-wide TV (unless you’re sure you can pay it off).
  • Do not neglect important in your life in favor of in your life.
  • Remember that ads don’t care about your life or quality thereof. They only care about your money. Do not make the mistake of believing that a company has your personal wellness as their highest priority. They do not, ever. Not even that spa with the cucumber facial masks.

Final Points

Last but not least, there are a couple of important concepts to keep in mind. One is a thing called “opportunity cost.” This simply means that everything you do is a trade-off.

Going to the Grand Canyon one summer means you can’t go to Europe at the same time, because you can’t be in two places at once. Donating time to a political party means you can’t get that same time back to spend with your friends. Money spent on one thing cannot be spent on another thing.

So much FOMO is caused by people who are discounting the value of one experience simply because of opportunity cost. Also note that this affects your responsibilities almost as much as your opportunities.

There is also an important concept called “sunk cost” to keep in mind. This simply means that, once you have paid for something, that money is gone. Your future decisions should not necessarily be based on trying to justify that purchase. You should move forward based on the present conditions.

What this means in terms of responsibility and opportunity is that you shouldn’t always press ahead with a plan just because you’ve already put money into it. The classic example of this kind of thinking is the old story about getting married just because the bride already bought the dress. Never be afraid to walk away if your priorities change. If you lose your job, going on an expensive vacation most likely no longer makes sense… even if you already bought some of the tickets.

To wrap this up, for some people the statement “you are not responsible for everything, and you cannot do everything” is probably not very helpful. It smacks a bit of resignation and apathy. Nonetheless, it’s true, and acceptance of that fact will result in just a tiny bit more zen in life. There is a balance to be found between what you can and can’t do, what you should and shouldn’t do, and between what will make you happy and what will make you fulfilled.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.

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