Don’t read this if you are happy living a normal life
Warning: self-therapy alert. If you have a great normal life, perfectly happy, then this will not be relevant for you. But if you ever felt the pressure to be normal but then wondered why it is not so great, then this is for you.
I chased being normal: feeling I belong, doing what everyone else does and following what society says is the path to success.
I achieved this normal and I was utterly miserable.
Only when I gave up on trying to be normal, I could be free to seek real meaning for myself. I am much happier ignoring whether what I do and believe is normal or not.
I was weird as a kid.
I preferred playing chess with myself instead of hanging out with the neighborhood gang of kids. I did not understand interactions with other children very well. And I only sometimes enjoyed them. I had a younger brother. This should have taught me to socialize from an early age. But we did not have a good relationship when we were little. He liked annoying me. I liked doing stuff alone.
I was full of weird contradictions. For example I was disorganized and my room was a mess. But one summer when I was 8 y.o., I decided to rearrange all the books in the living room. There were about 400 books. I spent a valiant three weeks of my precious summer vacation trying to reorganize them by genre, then by author name, then by style. I did not even finish.
I liked stories a lot. I pestered my grandparents to read to me. After I learned to read, I devoured fairy tales, Jules Verne, adventure stories, science-fiction. But I also read philosophical stuff that I barely grasped. After reading about life after death, I wondered what it was like to die. I was so curious, I pondered jumping from my window (second story) to see what it was like. I was not depressed or anything. I was merely very curious. Fortunately I reasoned that I would find out about life after death anyway, and I might miss out on life by ‘jumping to the end’.
In school I had mostly good grades because I found much of it interesting. But if I thought something was pointless, I would not make any effort on it. Even now I remember the grade of 4 (equivalent of F) I got two times in a row in fourth grade for not reading the assigned book. I had started it but it was so boring compared to the books I read by choice, that I refused to waste time on it.
I was a weird kid, content to do what I found interesting regardless of consequences: social rejection, risk of academic failure.
At some point in the seventh grade, this changed. I realized I did not like being unpopular and socially unsuccessful. I thought it would be more fun to have lots of friend and for people to like me. So I decided to change myself.
It was the start of becoming normal.
I became popular as a teenager.
High-school came as a fresh start. I went in a different person: funny, likeable, sociable. I was not Mister Popularity. But I got most people to like me. This was quite a change from my introverted primary school years. And a difficult challenge in my high-school which was full of cliques.
The more this popularity worked, the more I chased it. I became better and better at reading people and adapting to them. I did not know it but I was interested in understanding their psychology. My childhood introverted thinking was a help in this. I had practice understanding myself. I think this helped me understand what drove other people.
The game of being liked was infinite unfortunately. It was always shifting. There were always more people. And the same people changed their minds. It was a race that never ended.
I was still interested in some school subjects, but it was cool to be disinterested in school. So I walked a fine line of doing no homework or preparation at home and acting like I don’t care, but being attentive and engaged in class. This worked surprisingly well. I had good grades overall, great at what I was interested in, and passing for the subjects I did not care about.
Like others, in high-school I also adopted many lifestyle choices that were likely to remain for the rest of my life. I had a junk food diet, like everyone. The Internet was just starting then, so we did not have social media or smartphones. We did play computer games in computer cafes. But it was not a cool activity so I did not do it that much. This spared me digital addiction. But I did become used to staying up late and destroying my sleep. I also started smoking at the end of high-school, despite the fact that I had been an anti-smoking advocate until then.
I wallowed in hedonism
More freedom led to worse habits. Like everyone else in University I indulged in instant gratification and momentary pleasures. It made me normal which meant I belonged.
It is said students party, drink and chase excitement. This was normal and so it was me. I tried to do all of these things more than the average. To be more normal to compensate for feeling not normal.
Despite little quirks, I had achieved normal. I did normal student time-wasting activities like drinking, playing stupid games, parties, socializing. I was in a normal relationship status: long-term but with constant drama. I ate crap because it was normal. I wasted time online and playing games because it was normal. I spent more effort on my clothes than the state of my body. I let my health go to hell because it was normal.
It would have been abnormal to renounce any of those normal activities for health or fitness. That was the normal of the day.
The popularity game was not satisfying any more. Negative effects of all this normal lifestyle were starting to be felt. I was becoming rather unhappy. But I could still ignore it.
The crisis of normal
Finished University. Barely. Because I had no time for proper studying with all the normal time-wasting activities I was doing.
I started a white-collar job. Market research which was suited to my interest in understanding people and my Psychology. It was Qualitative Market Research which means moderating Focus Groups, Interviews, Ethnography. It was getting people to talk and open up. At its core it was about getting people to like enough to be honest and deep in sharing what they believe. This fed right into my quest for popularity. I could achieve normal belonging from scratch with every group anew. It was frightening, exhilarating and addictive.
I became a workaholic because I identified with my job. It was the normal thing to do. As with others, I took it to an extreme. I worked more and more.
Like other normal people, I spent my time outside of work distracting myself with ‘normal relaxation activities’: eating, talking, games, thrills, binge-watching, shopping, mindless online browsing, social media.
I was unhappy. But so were most of my friends I think. It was normal.
Later in young adulthood
I had achieved a normal life. I had a normal job where I had above normal performance and a normal salary (for my social circle). I worked too much which was normal. I spent my time with instant gratification and entertainment which was again normal. I had normal friends, normal romantic relationships. Meaning these relationships were a lot about passing the time rather than anything else. I had the most normal hobby: self-entertainment with little value or challenge. I had normal health for a 20+ y.o. meaning I had some aches and pains, but nothing serious. I was overweight and sedentary which was normal .Underneath, the chronic health problems were in fact building up.
I had a normal life. And it did not feel good. It felt empty and unpleasant. I kept myself distracted most of the time. But I had moments of self-reflection when I did not like what I saw. So I looked away.
I threw myself into work as an escape. I identified with my job, so if I did it better I should have the happiness promised for following the normal path.
Guess what? That did not work.
The more I worked, the more I alienated myself from everything else. But it did not feel meaningful. So I worked even more.
The breaking point
It was a vision of me in thirty years time.
I saw myself continuing down this normal path.
I could see no happiness of meaning in sight.
It was more of the same misery and distraction.
This path felt more like a corridor than a road. It felt like a corridor where the walls were closing in. Soon I would be stuck on this path, with no way out.
After 25 y.o.
I quit trying to achieve normal.
Don’t imagine it was sudden or dramatic. I wrestled with the problem for months. I tried very hard to ignore it. But I could not.
So I took action. I put limits on my working time to get time for discovering myself. I started learning what I could about happiness, meaning and self-fulfillment. I tried all sorts of new things to see what had meaning for me.
I also took measures about my health. I stopped eating normal. One day I gave up sugar, bread and potatoes because that’s what I saw at the time made me fat. I lost 14 kilograms in one month. This was a great motivator. I went on a journey to continuously experiment and improve my diet. I went through many phases in this learning experience. At one point I was vegan, while at another completely carnivore. Despite the drastic differences in these diet phases, they were all weird by normal standards.
Health improvements also led to quitting smoking. At the time smoking was normal, not like now. So it was difficult doing it and then hanging out with smoking friends who found it weird I was not smoking anymore.
The increased health led to explore sports. First mountain biking, then trail running. This felt good and meaningful so it grew into a big part of my life. I was even doing ultramarathons at one point. But it did not prove sufficient in itself so I kept searching.
On the professional side, this search led me to quit my comfortable, stable job to take on a role in a different industry. This was leap into the unknown because the job itself was only vaguely defined. The uncertainty was an advantage as it provided the freedom to explore.
After 30 y.o.
Comfortably not normal
In the first many years, this exploration of activities, lifestyles, attitudes, perspectives, was difficult. I always felt the pressure of conformity, the push to do what other people around me were doing. I also felt the fear of failure: if I am not normal, I will be rejected and unhappy. One example can be seen even in my rejection of sugar. There is real social rejection even in refusing cake from people on their birthday.
At some point I got comfortable being not normal. I took it as a badge of honor even. I reasoned that normal is in fact mediocre. Normal is what most people do so it is the average. I do not want to be average, I want to be exceptional. This goal needs me to embrace not being normal.
If I chart my progress through life until now I went from weird to normal, then coming back to weird, abnormal.
If I chart my happiness or contentment on the same timeline, it’s clear how it correlates with not caring about being normal:
Ignoring normal is paying off for me:
- At 20 when I was normal I was sedentary, fat and smoking I probably had the fitness of a 50 year old. Now I have the fitness of an 18 year-old.
- At 20 when I was normal I was unhealthy, probably pre-diabetic, I ate to feel good emotionally, had pains, aches, low energy. Now I feel healthy and have enough energy to have a provocative job, write a book about human behaviour, do sports and maintain meaningful relationships.
- At 20 when I was normal I was stressed, anxious, bitter and angry at the world. Now I am calm.
- At 20 when I was normal I was always in a rush because I felt I had no time. Despite the fact that I was constantly wasting time. Now I am making time for what matters to me.
- At 20 when I was normal I felt meaningless, seeking for gratification to fill the void. Now I found meaning in explaining human behaviour in such a way that helps us improve what we consider normal life.
Some examples of things that I do or believe now which are not normal
Many of them are advice given often, but very rarely actually done:
- I don’t eat sugar, vegetable oils or grains. Sugar and grains have become mainstream, but I have been doing it for 6+ years. Vegetable oils will soon become a hot topic in health I think.
- I keep an office job in a corporation but live in the mountains. I calculated that this move brings me an additional nine years of life.
- I strongly believe we decide our behaviour unconsciously. The conscious part is there to narrate what we do and what happens to us. The implication is that you cannot change through willpower. You can only change by changing your unconscious model of the world. This happens through the stories you absorb.
- I also believe that our unconscious model of the world is essentially that of a Paleolithic world. Thus we make choices for a Paleolithic world although we live in the modern world. These choices are harmful to us. This is the main topic of the book I am writing.
- I never complain. I believe complaining puts you in a victim mindset.
- I prioritize what I think is important in the long term, not what is urgent.
- When I work on anything that requires focus I make myself unavailable . Almost everyone says they would love to do this, turn off email to focus, but nobody does it.
- Attention is our most precious resource. I take drastic steps to control any new information because it steals attention.
- I walk barefoot in grass to get the health benefit of electrical contact with the Earth.
- I believe most companies do harm because that is how they survive. The environment is one where they need to make profit at all costs. Without changing the incentives for them, either by penalizing harm through no sales or by changing the explicit goal, they will continue to harm no matter what nice CSR they also do.
- I believe a calorie is not a calorie. You are not a furnace. What you eat and when you eat matters. Not how many calories you eat. I also fast 16+ hours every day.
- I believe most work is bullshit work. We create work for each other that is unnecessary and achieves nothing.
- The best management of people is to give them the authority and permission to try and fail on their own.
- I go to sleep by 10 pm — hard deadline. I remove bright screens and interactive digital activities an hour before. I sleep like a baby and wake up at 6–7 am with no alarm.
- I taught myself to enjoy physical effort that hurts. Like other things in life, there is a big payoff afterwards.
- I believe people are more the same than they are different. Our different choices are because we adapt to different environments, rather than because of different genetics or moral character.
- I try to think of death sometimes. This reminds me we have little time and each second is precious.
- Emotions are not truth.
- You not make choices based on what feels good.
- Bonding with others happens over shared activities, not over talking in cafes
- Life is about doing good, not about getting rich, powerful, liked, important.
- I expose myself to cold intentionally.
- When it comes to health and wellbeing, data trumps personal experience, but evolutionary biology trumps data.
- I believe we should live as similar to our ancestors 100,000 years ago as possible, while avoiding their problems: predators, infectious disease, famine, death by cold, groupthink, lack of knowledge, superstition.
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