Defying Cultural Gravity

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“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” – E.E. Cummings

You can blame bad luck and political enemies for your dissatisfaction, but cultural gravity is the real culprit.

Cultural gravity is the invisible set of forces that move you in the direction society wants you to go. When you deviate too far from the path, these forces yank you back on track.

Cultural gravity’s best-selling product is the default path, the socially-approved narrative about how to live a good and productive life. In many places, it goes like this:

Study hard when you’re young to get into college. Enjoy college, but set yourself up for a good job. Work hard in your career, save money, and keep going. Take a few vacations, get married, and have kids. Once you’re old, you can relax and enjoy the utopia of daily margaritas on the beach until you die.

default path
Learn, work, and retire until your time in this world comes to an end.

The default path offers an alluring proposition: If you follow the rules and work hard, you will live a good life. For many people, it fulfills that promise. Like organized religion, it gives you a framework for navigating the muddy waters of life. If the default path works for you, wonderful! Stop reading and get back to it.

But if you’re like me, it doesn’t work. It crushes your sense of well-being, leaving an existential hole that dampens the joy of existence. When you realize this, you fantasize about how much better life can be. And once your imagination starts to run wild, you have two options.

You can continue on the default path, or you can pursue an alternative path. In theory, this is an easy decision.

You understand that life is short. You know that you should avoid trivial pursuits. You want to be happy. And you’ve heard the self-help gurus and great artists tell you how fulfilling it is to pursue your muse.

Knowing these truths, it’s a no-brainer to choose the alternative path. But as anyone who has left the default path knows, that decision begins your war with cultural gravity.

And cultural gravity is a formidable opponent. It uses its army of people, stories, and institutions to enforce its will. As you embark on your journey for a better life, it brings you back to the default path:

  • Parents tell you to get a real job and give up on trying to be an artist.
  • Companies tell you to embrace the grind while you’re young to get ahead.
  • Friends smirk as you tell them about your startup idea.

You can endure these slights when the alternative path is smooth. But it never is. You inevitably face difficult moments. Perhaps you’re exhausted and struggling to get traction. Or maybe your craft is harder than you imagined. You see your friends on the default path succeeding and being admired by others.

If you take enough psychological punches, doubt enters your mind. You start to wonder if you made the wrong decision. You begin to believe that you’re not worthy of the cause. Exhausted from the battle, you give up. Mom and dad were right. Your pipe dream is not worth it. It’s time to get a real job.

So you return to the default path. But no matter what you achieve, you still feel empty. Existential angst burdens your soul. To quell the suffering, you turn to booze, stimulants, and sugary foods. You seek refuge in philosophy, therapy, and meditation. You sprint faster on the hamster wheel of achievement.

You try everything, but none of it works. Nothing soothes the dissatisfaction. No amount of money, admiration from others, or spirituality can resolve the truth. You’re a phony, and you know it.

But over time, you realize that this dissatisfaction is your muse pleading with you to try again. It’s the lifeblood of life reminding you of what you left behind. Many of us ignore this calling, but brave people find the courage to listen to their hearts and try again.

They understand the strength that beating cultural gravity requires. They know they may lose a few battles. But the stakes are too high to ignore the calling. It’s either perpetual inner death or taking a risk to feel alive.

If you’re one of those brave people, you accept that cultural gravity will always be there. And you jump off the cliff into the abyss anyway. You end a mediocre relationship or leave a comfortable job. You decide it’s not too late to reinvent yourself. You know it never is.

Heeding your heart’s calling, you take a step on the alternative path. You start to take cultural gravity’s powerful punches. But you’re not phased. You know that’s part of the game.

So you keep going. And as the joy of life re-energizes your soul, the cries of the default path fall on deaf ears. Little by little, you become a person that you admire.

You sleep well knowing that you have defied cultural gravity.

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