Living in a foreign culture for one year, what struck me most was how many things were the same as at home. Not just cultural similarities, although between France and Canada there are many, but similarities in my life.
I remember one night in Paris, the girl I had been seeing for a few weeks decided to break it off. Despite us conversing in a language I hadn’t spoke just a few months prior, the conversation was nearly the same as one I remembered having three years prior, with a different girl, nearly a world away.
The good parts were mirrored too. I had a best friend and a great circle of friends in Canada. In France, the same great friendships evolved, even though the two groups of people had nothing in common.
It took time to realize the reason for the eerie similarities, both happy and disappointing, between my lives: the commonality was me.
Changing the Backdrop Won’t Change the Story
The two cult-like obsessions of modern self-improvement seem to be:
- Quitting your job
- Travelling around the world
In many ways, I admire these pursuits. I haven’t had a job in four years and I’ve lived abroad, so they are pursuits I’ve lived.
But I suspect part of the appeal of these two aspirations is that they both represent an escape. If you quit your job, you get to escape the tyranny of a boss, work and financial obligations. If you travel the world, you get to escape your life, starting fresh where nobody knows your name.
The problem is that the escape is a lie. Yes, you can successfully quit your job and follow your passion. You could even pack everything away and start again in a new continent. But you would still be you. You can escape to a new destination, job or relationship, but you can’t escape who you are.
The Temptation of Escape
Changing yourself is hard. It’s probably the hardest thing to change. Not only is personal change a lot of work, but it’s ego-deflating as well. It’s easy to blame a job, city or person. It’s much harder to see yourself as the cause.
The discomfort of personal change makes escape tempting. After all, if you pick a difficult aspiration, you can pin your hopes upon it as being your salvation. Just getting that better career, better place, or better relationship will lead to a better life.
Cal Newport shares a great story  of one man’s own tortuous quest to find career fulfillment, and his agony in believing it was always just around the corner:
“For years, Thomas had imagined living at a monastery to be the ‘zenith’ of his passions — in his fantasies, it held the magical qualities that all his previous jobs lacked. But once he arrived at the Zen Mountain Monastery, he realized that although his surroundings had changed, he was ‘exactly the same person.’”
Don’t get me wrong, I think living in different cultures and loving your work are great. The fallacy is assuming that changing the backdrop of your life will fundamentally change you as a person. In some cases they can be a catalyst, but they aren’t an escape from who you are.
Bending Hope Inwards
People want to be tempted by escape. They want to believe that if they buy one more product, quit their job, live in a different country, embrace minimalism or maximalism, that they will be fulfilled.
They want to be tempted because the alternative feels bleak. After all, if you can’t pin your hopes on something, won’t they just tumble to the ground?
I see the solution as bending hope inwards. Instead of changing the backdrop, work on changing the pervasive commonality of your life: you.
Admittedly this is a lot harder than pinning hopes on an external goal. For one, personal change has few obvious fixes. Quitting your job is straightforward. Loving your job has no instructions.
Second, personal change requires looking hard at yourself. It requires embracing the paradox of being ruthlessly objective with your own insecurities while being confident enough to move forward. How do you spend hours examining your faults and leave feeling completely self-assured? Is it even possible?
Perhaps more than anything, personal change has a lot of false starts. Reading through my old journal entries, I see hundreds of failures. Each one seemed to be a grand solution to some problem in my life, and the majority ended back exactly on square one. Jumping on a plane feels like progress, especially when your personal efforts fly in circles.
It Begins With You
Whenever I get the feeling that a different career, degree, city or group of friends would change my life, I remind myself that it all begins here. Even if outside changes are good, they won’t escape who I am, and ultimately if I want to change the big problems it has to start right here.
The advantage of this approach is that, when you begin with you, changing the backdrop can actually help. It can catalyze your internal commitment and make it easier to change. But if you aren’t beginning here, with you, then escapes generally don’t lead anywhere.
Beginning with you also makes it easier to accept the things you can’t change. When you still fantasize about escaping, it’s easy to resent the things that change slowly, instead of adapting with them. The weather becomes less terrible, the work less toiling and the challenges more bearable when you start with yourself.
Best of all, when it starts with you, it can begin right now.