Like many people, I hated high school. It was definitely not the high point of my life. I was unpopular, awkward, and interested in all the wrong things. Like most kids, I tried to fit in but eventually realized it was pointless. With my interests in sci-fi, board games, science, writing, and reading, there was just no way I was ever going to be one of the cool kids.
I wish I could say that I was the brave kid who took the high road and said, “Screw you,” to all the snobs and mean kids and did exactly what I wanted, but I wasn’t. I was a coward who hid for four years, just praying for the whole sorry mess to be over. When it finally ended, I thought, “Thank, God. Now I can get on with real life.”
Ha, ha. The joke was on me. “Real life” turned out to be a lot more like high school than I would have believed. I’ve been out of school for, well, let’s just say a lot of years now, and I’m still amazed at how much that high school mentality carries into the real world and how few people are willing to let go of it, even as they pass two, three, or more decades beyond high school. Seriously people, let it go.
I’m still a bit of an oddball in mainstream America. I hate the pervasive consumerist mentality that says, “You are what you own.” I can’t stand the politics and games inherent in corporate life. I don’t enjoy feeling pressured to take part in activities just because other people are doing them. My interests do not include smartphones (beyond what I have to do now for work and believe me, it was like pulling teeth to get me to buy one), texting, or selfie-taking. I have no interest in going into debt for a big truck or granite counter-tops and I don’t care what the Kardashians are doing, or even much about what’s on TV at all.
I prefer to keep my lifestyle small, do the things I want to do, and answer to no one. Avoiding clutter, both mental and physical, and living consciously are my priorities. The funny thing is, I’ve found that it’s not that difficult to create the life you want to live. What’s difficult is living with the backlash from the people who are still stuck in the conformist mentality of high school.
When I first started working, it was high school all over again. The pressure to fit in, to socialize with the right people, say the right things, have the right car, wear the right clothes, and carry the right cell phone was crushing. The first year nearly killed me. Fortunately, I realized that it didn’t have to be this way forever. If I banked more money than I spent, and filled in the income gap with some part-time freelance work, I could get out of the corporate world and do what I wanted to do. I quit working for “the man” at thirty-three and haven’t looked back.
All that’s missing are lockers to be stuffed into.
However… There are plenty of people who look at my life and judge me to be a failure. I’m not cool because I don’t have a “career.” Since I choose to limit my participation in social media, I must be some kind of backward weirdo (or not have a life worth posting about). Because I don’t have a big house and fancy car, I must be deprived in some way. My lack of designer shoes and handbags perplexes many of my peers. And on and on it goes with me cast in the role of unpopular kid and mainstream society as the jocks. I get the sneers, the behind-the-back verbal jabs, the subtle shunning, and the overt laughter. All that’s missing are lockers to be stuffed into.
The difference is that this time I am the brave kid who can say, “Screw you,” to the popular kids. The reason? I have enough life experience to know that I’m winning, now. You see, these “popular” people are, for the most part, unhappy slaves to the whims of other people. They aren’t pursuing their passions, forced instead to work at jobs they hate so they can pay to keep up with the Joneses. They aren’t fully expressing their interests and hobbies because doing so isn’t accepted in their workplace or social circle. They constantly say, “I can’t,” when presented with interesting opportunities, either because of money issues or the fact that people would look at them funny if they did the odd thing. Appearance is everything and now it’s not just your designer jeans being criticized, it’s your entire life.
Because I’m not “normal,” these are not my problems. I don’t live an over-scheduled, panicky, boring, soulless, fake life filled with crap. I work when I want and for clients that I choose. I say no to overly stressful jobs, instead choosing projects that excite me and allow me plenty of time to pursue my hobbies. I say, “No,” a lot and love it. I connect with people in the real world and have genuine experiences rather than spending all of my time behind a cell phone screen. Basically, I do what I want to do and dump the rest, outside of obligations that everyone has like family and taxes. The trade-off I’ve made is foregoing the “American Dream” for a freer life. Yet it isn’t a sacrifice. I look at my life and am 100% comfortable with my choices. That makes the grief I get from the rest of the world easier to take.
So how do you get to the point where you can walk confidently in the life of an oddball instead of constantly striving to fit in? The truth is, I can’t tell you that. I wish I could, but it’s different for everyone. Some people get there after a threat to their mortality, or the mortality of someone they love. Seeing death up close is a great way to get over the desire to follow the herd. Others get there after they’ve had so much pain that the alternative of being considered weird doesn’t seem so bad. That was the route for me. Living the life I was expected to live was too painful. Others get there when they have kids being bullied in school and they look around and realize their own life is no different and wonder why that is. Some people feel the change coming but run from it, deciding that it’s too scary to be different. Big mistake. Let it happen. Embrace it. Open yourself to the life you want and don’t be pulled down by people who want you to be as miserable as they are.
Being different, whether as an adult or as a kid, requires that you embrace living differently from other people and accept that it’s okay. Many people claim to want certain things out of life. “I want to be debt free.” “I want to retire early.” “I want to disconnect from the electronic age.” “I want to live a smaller, less chaotic life.” But they don’t do those things because doing so makes them different and they cannot get past that high school mentality that says popularity is worth it, no matter the cost. They’d rather give up who they are for who the world wants them to be. And that’s just sad.
It takes guts to be different from other people and most people cannot embrace that. But once you do, get ready for awesome because the whole world opens up to you. And now that I’ve reached the awesome in my own life, I’m praying for it to last as long as possible.