27 April 2014

Autonomy and Life Choices

The Canadian Skies // Personal picture, 2013.

I read a very thought provoking article over at Raptitude this week. David explains the life lessons he learned by leaving his day job and working as a self employed "workforce escapee". One of his points in particular made me think: he says we are trained to have bosses, to let society guide us through rails and we don't know how to "take the wheel" of our own life. Without going as far as quitting our day jobs, what does it mean for our autonomy and life choices as human beings?

When I started questioning my life and engaging in simple living, one of the key questions I tried - and am still trying - to answer is: how will I decide to live within this consumerist society while remaining true to my values and growing as a human being?

No matter how appealing Thoreau's autonomous life in his wooden shed is, it is hardly possible to get completely out of society today. Because we have loved ones we want to live around, which means we have to be inserted in society somehow, earn money, find a place to live and respect a number of social codes (being dressed for example). Also, because we want to enjoy the comfort of modern life, electricity, access to food without hunting, electronic devices, planes to travel etc.

But, in order to be integrated in society and maintain our social life, do we have to follow these "rails" of education, college, 9-5 job, morgage, retirement...? What are the choices we can make to live in this society while leaving the consumerist cycle and traditional definition of success based on accumulating riches?

Trained to Follow the Rails

I am not going to answer this question today, as I am still pondering it, but I'd like to discuss David's point from the Raptitude article linked above. We are trained to follow the rails. Think about it, if you were to leave your job tomorrow and try to live as a freelancer with your projects, would you know how to do it, concretely, day to day? I certainly wouldn't.

For example, it is my dream to become a writer and live off my writings, but I don't even have time to write everything I'd like, because I spend 8 hours a day at work. Without going as far as leaving my day job tomorrow and living off my personal projects, I'd like to find a way to write more and publish my writing - in other words, lead my personal project, outside of my day job, as a way to live my own personal life and grow outside of my 9-5 career, while remaining integrated in society and receiving my paycheck every month.

But we aren't trained to know how to do that. We are trained to go to work, do our job, get our money, spend it in department stores, buy real estate and pay a morgage all our life, consume entertainment and keep spending our money till the last penny. But we aren't trained to take the lead of our life and make the choices to grow as a human being.

How Can We Take the Wheel?

So, now my question is, how can we learn to take the wheel, lead our life with more autonomy, and know what choices will take our life in a different direction, how to refuse the traditional model of the consumerist society, help our personal projects move forward, lead our life toward more fulfilment and contentment? It is not natural, and not taught by our education and social references, but can't we learn how to?

So, I don't have a guide for you, unfortunately. But, I believe that the first step is to actually ask ourselves the question: how can I take the wheel of my life? Maybe it starts with shutting the automatic drive off and question the rails we are currently sitting on. Asking ourselves where we want our life to lead us to. What alternative to the current social model we want to reach, what is our own definition of success and fulfilment. It may be asking ourselves what our life priorities really are about, what personal projects we'd like to spend time and energy on. After all, the first step to change is to realize that we want to.


  1. This post comes at such a timely moment! I'm really reconsidering whether my degree is teaching me how to do what I want to do in the future and it is HARD to stray from that planned path, especially if you're not sure where you want to be, you just know you don't want to be here.

    We are definitely put on a very defined track and I think you have to be quite courageous to subvert that. I noticed that even when I strayed from 'the path' in quite minor ways, people really questioned it. Like when I left school I took a year off to travel and a lot of people said to me that I wouldn't come back to university, or when I chose to study fashion a lot of people disapproved because of the lack of job security (now I'm not sure I want to study fashion, but for different reasons entirely) and because my grades were good enough to study medicine or law or something that was far more 'respectable' (and higher paying), so why wouldn't I do that instead??

    I hear from a lot of people that they really want to leave that prescribed path, but they always talk about doing it in the future. Traveling after university (which seems harder to me, because you're chained down by a student loan and FINALLY have the chance to have a 'real' job after many years of being poor and working in whatever job you can find) or leaving their job soon, soon, soon (but not now).
    I read that you can either be comfortable or courageous, and I definitely try to bear that in mind and pick the latter whenever possible!

    Anyway I feel like this comment has become a look into my angst ridden doubts more than anything, but thank you for this post :)

    1. Thanks for your comment, on the contrary it's very interesting to read that other people are also asking themselves the same type of questions.

      I think the aspect of social pressure and how people don't understand choices that are not "standard" is a very important point. A lot of people may not gather the courage to make a different life choice because they "ought to" go to school, find a high paying job etc. This aspect is also discussed in the minimalist movement - how many people would like to lead a simpler life but don't because they worry about what people would think of them and how it would make them stand out in the community. I think it takes a lot of self confidence, and courage, to walk away from the 'normal' path.

      On the other hand, there is also the apect of comfort and security versus risk and adventure. I think that's an important one too, specifically because we are trained to follow and not to lead our own life. We don't know how to do it and that's frightening. For example, refusing the safe path of a high paying job (lawyer, medecine...) and deciding to go for something more uncertain like artistic paths is risky. It's always easier to follow the rails.

      For example, I have a friend who is jewerly designer, she comes from a very "cultural" family, his father being a retired French teacher and mother librarian and all. After high school, she decided to go for a short and manual study path of jewerly instead of a 5 year master degree of something, which was hard as she had to stand against her family. Then she had to fight all the way to keep creating jewerly on the side while working in an atelier to get income, find ways to sell it and become more well-known. Even today she works a lot between a part time job to pay the rent, and all her creations and activities to make them well known. It is the hard path and it takes courage to have followed it for so long. She says a lot of her fellow jewerly students are now waiters or similar, they gave up on being a jewelry designer.

      Finally, student loans are definitely a barrier that stop young active people from doing what they really want. I think buying real estate and getting chained to a mortgage is the same issue. And, simply, needing to earn a certain minimum amount of money to pay for rent, food etc. is a limitation as well, and that's where I'm not quite sure, concretely, what sort of life choices to make to meet these needs while taking the lead of my life. If it makes sense.

  2. Like Emma, I was contemplating my degree value and I decided that after 10 years of higher/further education to burn that bridge, I have paid my small maintenance loan off with some help and now have a fresh start.

    You know what, I'm the happiest I've ever been, I now volunteer regularly with community projects, have taken up squash, surfing and climbing and am going to learn to ride a motorcycle. After years of putting these things off I now have space to reflect on what truly makes me happy and am more confident with my choices. I am unemployed at the moment but I do odd jobs for people and have made a network of friends that I didn't have before, I no longer feel isolated.

    My path may be uncertain but I am happy and feel as though anything is possible for the first time in forever! Life is too short to not be filled with life enriching experiences, whatever form they may take. I would heartily recommend it to anyone. This drop of pop culture wisdom reminded me of this, "sometimes you need to step outside, get some air, and remind yourself of who you are and where you want to be".

    1. Thanks for sharing this, it's very interesting to see how you found happiness that way. I think education, and its promises, are a very vast subject indeed.

      In France, there was an article published a few years back about high-middle class 30 somethings, and their inherent unhappiness. The article mentioned specifically people who did "everything right" - graduate from high school with high grades, went to prestigious "prépa" schools to enter the best business schools on the market, got their Masters degree, found a high paying job. And, at 30, they started depressing because they asked "I did everything I was told, everything right, where is the happiness I was promised in return?" They felt trapped instead. The article actually mentioned many examples of these people completely turning their life around in their 30s: leaving everything to become farmers, or cooks, bread makers...

      The point of the article was to question education in France - we are a very elitist country that promotes only one type of education: scientific oriented, with master degrees and white collar jobs. And by following this path, a lot of students cut themselves from other jobs, more manual and crafty, which would make them happier.

      I'm not sure where I want to go with this, but your comment made me think of that article, and how education put us on these rails in the first place.