On Hardship, Opportunity, Transformation, and Fear - Part 1

This series of pieces was originally published on my Linkedin in October of 2015. Although completion was postponed by the continuation/general severity of my homelessness, Part 4 of the series will finally be published in May 2019.

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The image for this post is from a panel of the only manga I've ever read, The Enigma of Amigara Fault, by Junji Ito. It's reasonably frightening, and I don't recommend reading the full story if you don't enjoy horror fiction, so I won't be responsible for linking you to it -- but it's all on Imgur and easily Googleable if you're so inclined. (Remember to read from right to left. Also, as an afterthought, here's a link to a Wiki page where you can read a summary of the story if you want to contemplate it without experiencing it as thoroughly.)

I'm sure people get many different things from this story, but for me personally, it's about more than just an interesting, creepy tale, although I do love those. To me, it's about the inevitability of change, and the innate human compulsion toward it, juxtaposed with the fear of limitation and uncertain outcomes. That's why this image came to mind for this post. The story explores the scariest possibilities about turning into permutations of ourselves, turning into something we would fear, wondering whether it's the right choice to commit ourselves to something "made for" us with no ability (or no perceived ability) to turn back.

Most of what the tale focuses on -- again, in my personal interpretation of it -- is the apprehension building up to commitment to change.

For this post and the three that follow it (it was going to be one, but I had to spread it out into parts because my wit hath no soul), I'll be discussing the pivotal growth that occurs when that apprehensive stage becomes commitment.

 

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Some people are born chronically reinventing themselves, some achieve reinvention, and others have reinvention thrust upon them.

Somewhere along the way, I've forgotten everything I learned when I used to be a chronic reinventor. I was way cooler and cleverer when I was a kid, and more motivated. I haven't lost my ambition, but I've lost most of my motivation, some of my resilience, and what little decisiveness I cultivated at one point. Now I'm awash in an ocean of choices, drowning in freedom itself, being forced to evolve quickly and reinvent under pressure. (In my experience, opportunity doesn't knock once; it camps out and waits for me to get off the internet and come have a drink on the porch with it and listen to it talk.)

Thanks to some good advice as of late, I've finally begun to take the ship's wheel again. Here's the first of four lessons from 19-year-old me, and a few other people.

 

1. Change starts with your perspective about learning and learning experiences.

And I'm not even talking about calling crap situations "learning experiences" after the fact. I mean, that's just logic and the progression of life, right? I'm talking about the specific choice of identifying your present as a perpetual learning experience, no matter how mundane or peculiar a given moment is. I think change starts with expecting everything to teach you something.

I recently found a one James Altucher here on LinkedIn, and I'm a huge fan of his writing; he directly inspired this post, by writing a brilliant advice piece a-week-and-change-ago, "The Ultimate Guide to Reinventing Yourself". (I recommend opening that up in a new tab and following this with it.) His words reached straight to my heart -- like a Facehugger, and similarly painful, but more benevolent -- and he called out to the memory of my younger self with many parts of the piece, but especially this one:

"If you ... have passion for reinvention, then everything you look at will be a metaphor for what you want to do."

Once, I knew that every experience and opportunity was a mentor. I exercised this mindset most thoroughly when I was a street kid in Denver at 19. (It would ultimately not be the only time I was homeless, but "street kid in Denver" is a very different designation from "working homeless family", in which I have more recently specialized; 2007 was a summer of partying and freedom and risk, and it was awesome.) I lived on the streets because my home life wasn't any more stable, but I didn't resent the move to the curb; I chose it over continuing to struggle for stability, as a way of hitting F5 on life. It felt like -- and was -- a lateral move.

I experimented with drugs, of course. I got conned once, and I'm still going to kick that guy's ass if I run into him again. I stayed up all night behind the courthouse singing with strangers. I got up to all kinds of crazy shenanigans.

I got into a deep conversation with a heat-packing gangster from out of state, while he was standing guard on the sidewalk for a massive coke deal in an office building on 15th Street, at four in the morning. I asked him for a hug (I was on Ecstasy for the first time, don't judge me) and we ended up chatting, he ended up hinting at his business, and we laughed about how dangerous he theoretically was to some chick walking around alone at that hour.

We agreed that humans are fundamentally kind when given the right opportunity, the right resources, and the right information. We discussed how funny it was that -- and I repeated this many times downtown and have repeated it many times since -- "98% of people always go around warning you about how bad 98% of people are". He asked for a little pot, which I would have just given him (even if I hadn't been rolling) since he didn't have small units of cash handy, but he insisted on giving me some coke I could trade away later -- everything is currency on the streets right down to expired bus transfers -- instead of just accepting a little weed for free. Nice guy.

I had a huge variety of conversations that deep on the street, but that one stands out the most. That perspective-creating conversation, and the way the circumstance of the conversation illustrated its content, came about because I lived by learning from everything, and treating every experience and stimulus and byte of information as a mentor.

I've spent years in paralysis about some of my biggest ideas, and I've come up with a thousand rationalizations for holding off executing them. I'm spectacular at that. I choose one of every category of excuse like Garfield orders one of everything on the menu. But a major one for the last couple of years has been this idea that I need to find the right mentor, someone to just be a good influence and get invested in my ideas and make them all work out gloriously. Naturally, this was highly idealized and realistically unattainable, and mainly a function of my fears standing their ground -- and I wouldn't have been ready to benefit if I'd met the right advisor or benefactor anyway.

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Thanks, Google Image Search and Randy Glasbergen.

Much of that has been a product of living in poverty on-and-off for forever and the radical sense of insecurity that it breeds, because I really just want someone to make all the problems go away, like anyone else with problems does. But I know, just like many other things my mother drilled into me, that I can only be accountable for one person's choices -- my own. There's no point in waiting for the right book, the right person, the right idea, the right stimulus of any kind. Further, waiting is just an excuse to safely, predictably fail to act. As pointed out in the Animorphs series (the source of about 90% of my collective knowledge and wisdom), choosing not to make a decision is still fundamentally a decision.

I used to know how to treat the entire world as my resource, and lick every bit of knowledge off the grass. I used to know how to take direction from life's gentle pushes (I found my first stepping-stone career on the streets of Denver, because the other youth shelter kids wanted the medical geek chick to pierce them, so I got an apprenticeship to learn the details before I'd touch anyone).

I used to know how to find a single-serving mentor in the heat-packing gangster from out of state standing guard for a coke deal at four in the morning. And I used to know how to find a mentor in everyone else I met, too.

And there's no excuse for not continuing to live like that, using every bit of information and inspiration as much as possible. But it's an easy habit to lose, and a hard one to regain, and usually requires taking a clue-by-four to the head (or several). But in order to change, it's vital to stop perceiving a lack of guidance as an obstacle, and instead to address it as an opportunity to find guidance in everything.

I'm not saying everyone should try drugs or homelessness -- not that they hurt the process (edit post-comments: the process of experiencing and seizing chances to learn, I mean /edit) -- but it takes stepping outside of one's comfort zone in someway to be in a new mental position and see things in a different light. It could be an altered state of consciousness, or a drastic risk, or a life crisis (which just means point of great change, really), or some other stimulus. But it takes a major adjustment of perspective to rediscover the childlike habit of really tasting, and thoroughly chewing, every new piece of information.

But however it happens, we have to learn to be permanent learners and see all of the world's denizens as teachers. And not just any teachers -- the teachers we need right now.

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Check out Part 2, "Complete transformation requires the ability to regain and retain a childlike open mind", for a discussion on expectations, conceptual matrices, and magic. Thanks for reading!