The Case for Being Less Serious

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girl with dad looking at asunflower

Too many adults become serious people.

Serious about work. Serious about politics. Serious about mowing their lawns. Serious about everything!

I want to make a case against being so serious, but first, I must make a distinction. I have no qualms with people who take the act of living seriously. Life is brief, and I commend anyone who tries to make the most of their time.

The seriousness I’m talking about is different. It’s a pernicious form of seriousness that emerges the day you accept the myth that life has to get harder, busier, and less enjoyable with time. This seriousness is bad news. 

It’s a wet blanket on adulthood that suffocates the childlike looseness and curiosity that makes life worth living. And it’s the loss of that looseness and curiosity that worries me.

This worry comes from direct experience, so let’s begin there.

Serious dude to mellow bumpkin

If you met me today, you might be surprised to learn that I was once a very serious guy. It was the kind of seriousness that I now resist, but that made sense at the time.

You see, my early life was heavy. Or at least it felt that way. I had to escape poverty, and that felt like serious business. I didn’t see any room for error or games in that pursuit. I only had room for focused effort, hypervigilance, and prayers for a lucky break.

For the first 25 years of my life, I felt like I was climbing a mountain and could not stop to take a breath until I had basic financial freedom. My ongoing battle with poverty meant that I never fully relaxed. I had many wonderful times, but it’s now clear that there was a limit on my joy meter.

Once I had some cash in the bank, my situation changed. The cash didn’t solve everything, but it turned the pressure down. It was as if I reached a flat spot with a beautiful vista on my climb up the mountain. I finally had time to breathe and widen my focus. 

As I enjoyed the view, something (probably a self-help charlatan) told me to stop climbing the mountain. It was time to regroup and take a look at my inner world. I could always keep climbing later on if I needed to do so.

That decision to pause upended my life, sending me into a difficult process of unlearning, decompressing, and shifting my identity. While I didn’t know it at the time, I was learning to live without the ferocious focus and seriousness that directed my youth.

Little by little, my inner and outer world began to soften. I started laughing more, connecting with a wider group of people, enjoying simple moments, and perhaps most importantly, taking myself less seriously. Collectively, these changes made nearly everything about life more enjoyable.

By my 30th birthday, my orientation toward the world had shifted radically. I was open to the random unfolding of life and felt very little connection to my past. I no longer felt obligated to do anything other than show up fully. I was at ease.

This was a strange orientation to have, especially considering where I started. For a long time, a part of me resisted this shift. It felt indulgent and unserious and like I was heading down a lame path. But at some point, the perpetually striving part of my serious self faded away and transformed into a silly curiosity that felt like enough on its own.

The other strange part of this transition away from seriousness is that I was moving in the opposite direction from many of my friends. As I started feeling more like a kid discovering the world for the first time, friends seemed to gravitate towards the more rigid and responsibility-focused idea of adulthood that everyone is always talking about.

But my own meandering experience was enough to convince me that not only is it possible to avoid the pull toward seriousness with age, but that it can be a rewarding shift if you can find a way to make it work. And that’s the next part of the equation: how does this type of loosening coexist with the unavoidable responsibilities of adulthood over time?

Can you stay loose?

These days, a lot of friends ask me when I’ll stop living like a kid and start being a real adult again. Embedded within the question is the idea that living in this way simply cannot last. At some point, one has to become serious again. Or so they seem to think.

But my answer for the moment is always the same: so far it’s working, and I don’t know if or when that will change. Why shake up a formula that’s working?

I think this question comes up a lot because it’s not immediately obvious how a loose orientation toward the world is compatible with the real and serious business of adulthood: paying the bills, working toward goals, taking care of kids, being a good partner, trying to do good in the world, and so on.

But even though it’s not obvious, it’s certainly possible. I still lead a fairly normal life where bills get paid, necessary work gets done, and responsibilities are taken care of. The difference is just in the spotlight that I put on certain areas of life.

I spend most of my days chasing waves, exchanging small talk with strangers, and avoiding self-created stress and striving. Practically speaking, that means that previous areas of focus like increasing my net worth, moving up the career ladder, and maximizing my potential have taken a lower priority.

Now, an open question is whether or not this reorientation of priorities is good for the long term. It’s certainly possible that I’m on a path that will leave me with deathbed regrets.

But while it’s possible, it doesn’t feel likely.

One guidepost I use to think about whether this path has legs is thinking about what I’ve valued most in my 31 years of life. I’m not old, but three decades of life is enough data to get a sense of what worked and what didn’t work.

And when I think about my life in those terms, what I’m most proud of are the times when I stopped striving, pulled out a big floaty, and waded down the river of life.

The moments where I had one too many drinks and lots of giggles about nonsense with friends and strangers. The endless days I’ve spent checking surf reports and flapping around the ocean. The years I’ve spent traveling without purpose and reading books. These are the moments I cherish.

Before I leaned into the looseness, the moments I cherished looked quite different. I was proud of getting into a great university, making a good living, solving problems, building systems at startups, and other classic markers of achievement. Those pursuits now feel like they were done by some other person and are no longer interesting to me.

With time, they seem more like means to an end than a representation of my life or who I am. They were mechanisms for enabling the freedom I now have to enjoy a simpler existence. And to my surprise, that simpler existence seems closer to what I want and more satisfying than my younger self would have guessed. At least for now.

As to how these ideas hold up or change over time, I have no idea. Given the magnitude of shifts in thinking and values over the last decade, I can only imagine that similar unpredictable shifts will happen over the coming years.

A thought experiment for you

By this point, I think you have a sense of why I’m in favor of taking a less serious approach than is considered normal for adulthood. And while I’ve shared my path to this conclusion, I’d like to explore how this idea of resisting the pull toward seriousness could be useful for you. Or at the very least, I’d like you to consider what rejiggering the balance between seriousness and play looks like throughout your life.

To do so, let’s imagine that you’re accompanied by a two-year-old child on a morning walk.

While you lock the front door, you hear the child cry out with joy. She’s pointing at a beautiful yellow flower near the garden. Before you get to the end of the driveway, she’s giggling at a squirrel eating a nut at the base of an oak tree. As you walk down the street, she grabs your leg firmly as she sees a cat emerge from under a car.

The entire walk is like this. Pure discovery and presence.

Now imagine that you took the same walk without the child. What would you see and think about on your walk?

If you’re in the mode of being a serious adult, perhaps by the time you get to the end of the driveway, you may have seen some weeds that need to be pulled or bird poop on the car that needs cleaning.  You may also be thinking about the many things that you have to do today.

You throw in Airpods, queue up a podcast, and go on walking to avoid further irritation.

This is a bit of a silly example, but do you see the point?

During your solo walk, you’re thinking about adult stuff. The things you need to do, the problems you need to solve, and so on. Maybe you’re thinking about good stuff too like an awesome date you had or how you’re stoked about a new promotion. It doesn’t matter.

The point is that you’re likely lost in some story in your head. You’re not in the moment, and you’re missing all of the wonderful stuff of life — the sunflower, the squirrel, and everything else the child notices. And maybe those seem like trivial observations, but I think being a person who can notice that type of thing enhances nearly every area of life.

The child is the opposite of most adults. She is not lost in some story about what her life is or what it needs to be. She’s simply living, fully present with the seemingly infinite novelty, joy, and pain that exist when you’re experiencing the world for the first time.

If there is any takeaway from this essay, it’s that you can (and may benefit from) seeing the world more like the child. Instead of being engrossed in the incessant dialogue of the adult mind, try to see the world with fresh eyes. Even if you can do it only once a week, that’s better than nothing.

The philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “The day you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see that bird again.”

Krishnamurti gets to the core of my quibbles with allowing yourself to become too serious. As you navigate life, the tendency is to start to think you understand and know things. You develop ideas, names, and concepts for all that you encounter. You see a tree and it’s not interesting because it’s just a tree and who cares? You have plans, goals, and ambitions to get to. Nonsense!

You don’t need to lose your childlike curiosity as you age. And remaining curious doesn’t mean that you have to be enamored by every tree you see. But what if you could nudge yourself toward being a person who can take a moment to appreciate small pleasures like a beautiful tree or a cool breeze on a sunny morning?

What might a subtle shift like that do for your life?

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