Sometimes it’s easiest to learn the hard way.
Our perception of what’s “normal” depends largely on the circumstances we were born into: our family’s income level, location, religion, ethnicity, profession, and health factors, for example.
We can think of this as our baseline calibration in life. This is where we form our beliefs about how people should live, what’s acceptable and unacceptable, the meaning of life, and our place in the world.
Many of us never stray from the cultural standards we were raised with. It’s easy to believe that our way of life is “just the way life works” — a universal norm — but if we’d been born to another family in another location, we might have radically different expectations of what it means to be a human.
In addition to these environmental factors, we also have genetic attributes that help shape our inherent preferences in life. Some people are naturally highly social; others prefer to be quiet and alone. Some people are content to enjoy a life of relaxation while others are high-energy and never want to sit still.
If we’re very lucky, we will have been born into an external environment that taught us to approach life in a way that matches our internal preferences. If so, we can thrive inside the pattern that was set for us.
For most of us, though, there’s at least one aspect of our lifestyle that doesn’t sit well with our intrinsic needs. There might be some other way of living life that matches our personality better, but we don’t know it yet because we’ve never tried it; it’s currently outside our comfort zone. It’s hard to pull away from the familiar in order to discover what unknown magic we’re missing.
If we want to be as happy, healthy, and effective as we can be, it’s important to learn how to adjust our lifestyles to match our internal preferences. This means growing comfortable with the process of recalibrating our expectations.
What methods are available for recalibrating ourselves?
Rumor has it some people are disciplined enough to identify a change they want to make, come up with some series of small actions that will help them accomplish their desired shift, and execute consistently over a prescribed period of time until they achieve their goal.
That sounds like a nice, gradual, gentle way to get there. Do that, if you can!
My problem is that I struggle to consistently choose that small uncomfortable change with the delayed payoff. It’s easy to get discouraged, bored, and give up hope.
Fortunately, there’s another way to make changes in life.
I usually do better when I throw myself into a situation where I have no choice but to cope with my new reality until I adapt to it. You could call it learning the hard way, because there is often a difficult adjustment period and perhaps a bit of struggle involved; but it can also be easier, in a sense, because I don’t have the option to neglect my learning. I have to change in order to survive. The immersion can result in a more thorough shift of perspective.
For those of us who need to learn the hard way, I’m a fan of dramatic, temporary lifestyle changes that are guaranteed to shake up the way we see the world.
Once you’ve experimented with a new way to live your life, you can make the decision of whether or not it works for you. Maybe you love the change and decide to never go back. Maybe you find a happy middle ground between the new experience and your old life. Or, maybe it reassures you that you definitely liked the way you were living before and you should stick to that. In any case, the extra data helps ensure you’re choosing the path that’s right for you.
What kind of lifestyle experiments am I referring to? It depends on your interests, needs, and preferences.
If you grew up in the city and never understood rural people, you could try living in a small town for a while, or vice versa. If you have prejudices against foreigners, travel internationally to see the world through the lens of different cultures. If you’ve never slept outdoors, join a group of friends on a camping trip.
The biggest experiment I’ve tried was quitting my job and spending 7 months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile footpath that stretches from Mexico to Canada. I had an opportunity to recalibrate my life in several ways. I’ll give you two quick examples from that time.
1. Just how social am I?
I am a relatively introverted person who can comfortably go days without speaking to another human. Throughout my life, though, I never had the chance to be alone for very long — because of school, work, marriage, and the like, I was constantly overstimulated.
Because alone time was such a rare thing, I savored every opportunity to enjoy it. I figured my true preference was not to be around other people at all. I had fantasies about disappearing into a forest and becoming a hermit.
This changed when I went through a 6-week period of isolation. I hiked several hundred miles alone and very rarely encountered another backpacker. At first, it was no problem; but as the weeks went on, I was surprised to notice a growing desperation to have a conversation with someone. Feeling starved for interaction was a brand new feeling that I didn’t know I could experience. When I finally had a chance to talk with another hiker for a couple hours, it felt like a big relief.
Turns out, even though I’m not a social butterfly, I’m not at the hermit extreme of the sociability spectrum either. Despite my introversion, I value my interactions with others, and I suffer if I’m alone for too long. This was useful information. When I finished my hike I returned to society with a greater appreciation for my friends and the opportunities I had to spend time with them. Now, I more capably balance my needs for alone time and human connection.
2. Do I really need to live indoors?
Like most Americans, I was raised to think my dwelling place needed to be a permanent structure, a traditional building. My options were to live in a house or an apartment… and that’s it. Anything less would be seen as tragic and wrong. That’s what I was accustomed to and accepted as the standard, but I was always interested in alternative living arrangements.
When I spent 7 months living out of a backpack, and found that those months were the best time of my life, I realized I could indeed be happy living without sticks and bricks.
What do I really need shelter for? It needs to keep me dry, warm, and cozy; protected from the elements. Turns out, a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad can provide those things indefinitely for less than the cost of one month’s rent.
A tent is certainly at the minimal extreme of the shelter spectrum. It might be the cheapest and most portable way to live, and it worked for me for several months, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of cooking, hygiene, or personal space.
In between a tent and a mortgage there exists a wide variety of options for the open-minded. You could live in a van or an RV, a yurt, or a tiny house of some kind, for example.
When I finished the trail I started to wonder: what if I lived in a vehicle full-time instead? That would be luxurious compared to my tent, and I still wouldn’t have to pay rent, which would mean I wouldn’t have to work as much. It could be a happy medium.
After living in a hatchback, then a minivan, I settled on a 23′ shuttle bus. I got it for $2,700 at an auction. I have a kitchen, a real bed, space to stand up and walk around, solar panels, heat, a sound system, a refrigerator — all the luxuries I care about most.
I’m satisfied with a much more minimalist shelter than I knew was possible growing up. It allows me to prioritize the values of freedom and flexibility in my life, which adds to my happiness. I might never have thought this was a viable option if my standards had not been recalibrated by living in a tent for several months.
I think it is especially valuable when people in privileged categories expand their perspectives by living on the less privileged side of the spectrum.
I think it is especially valuable when people in privileged categories expand their perspectives by living on the less privileged side of the spectrum. You might be surprised to find that some of your “luxuries” have actually been burdens. Or, you might realize how grateful you are for the privileges you enjoy, and develop more compassion for those who lack access to them.
So, what aspects of your lifestyle have been rubbing you the wrong way for years? Do you have a burning desire for a change you can’t quite identify? Maybe it’s time to experiment for a while and see if you can find a different solution that makes you come alive.