I’ve always been one to follow the rules. I don’t jaywalk, cheat or take shortcuts. I read through the instruction manual and then carefully build the plywood furniture, one piece at a time.
The internet if rife with guidelines, instructions and unsolicited advice. How do I find a job after college? What will help me get over a cold? Where can I find love? The problem with all this advice from mysterious internet gurus is the answers are not as cut-and-dry as they’re made out to be.
Your job prospects post-graduation are dependent on your degree, industry experience, location, professional network and how you present yourself in an interview. The ability of your immune system to successfully fight off a cold may be affected by the unique strain of the virus, environmental factors or the robustness of your body’s immune response. Knowledge of the top “love hubs” around town or online is useless if you haven’t built up the self-confidence and communication skills necessary to begin and sustain a lasting relationship.
There is certainly a place for methodical instruction. I want a safe and reliable car that will protect me if I’m involved in an accident. I expect that my pharmaceuticals are rigorously tested to ensure efficacy and quality. However, I don’t believe that the same stringent standards should, or even can, be applied in all areas of our lives.
Our modern culture seeks to measure, improve and optimize. How can we be stronger, faster, more profitable and simply better? The question that we are perhaps failing to ask is whether or not every single aspect of our lives warrants optimization. Often times, this striving for more makes it impossible to find contentment where we are and with what we already have. We occupy ourselves with unimportant tasks, claiming perpetual busyness. Oftentimes, we don’t even bother to consider what actually takes priority. We simply hop onto the nearest treadmill and start running.
I’ve spent much of the last year asking the internet questions which procure nebulous and inaccurate answers. Why has my aerobic capacity dissipated overnight? How do I leave a miserable job? Can soft tissue tumors be caused by something other than cancer? Should I accept a lower paying job if I’ll be happier?
The problem with asking these questions is that no one outside of myself can truly and fully answer them. Perhaps an internet stranger can point me in a direction I had not previously considered, but that self-proclaimed guru doesn’t necessarily have the qualifications to be prescribing advice and certainly hasn’t considered the unique context of my question. Not even the best of doctors can collect all the data necessary for a confident diagnosis after a series of 30-minute appointments. Perhaps, seeking such external clarification and validation is just another form of pointless busyness.
After several years of foraging through forums, soliciting advice and asking the experts, I’m slowly coming to realize that nothing important comes with instructions. No one can tell you when it’s time to leave a toxic workplace or a failing relationship. No one can look at a series of labs and offer a full picture of what’s going on in your body.
In lieu of an instruction manual for life, we must rely instead on a series of clues. You may consider the pit in your stomach, your broken heart or that chronic feeling of anxiety, along with loved ones’ observations or advice from that self-help book you picked up at the grocery store last week. Every life is unique and, thus, everyone is responsible for constantly working and reworking the draft version of their learnings, lessons and possible next steps.
The problem is that far too many people are seeking a versatile instruction manual, unwilling to commit the necessary time and effort to exploring their experience and writing their own story. There is no universal answer, no one-size-fits-all solution and no guaranteed path to perfect health, career success and lasting happiness.
Life is a journey and the world as we know it is composed of billions of perfectly unique paths. When we come into this life, we’re not equipped will all the clearly labeled pieces we’ll need, nor an instruction manual explaining how all of the yet-to-be acquired components will eventually fit together. Every moment of every day is an experiment–an opportunity to pick up new resources and skills, construct ideals and objectives and to write our life’s story.
We are the authors of our own life’s instruction manual and, if we fail to identity, collect and piece together all of the skills, lessons and dreams that will shape our lives and bring fulfillment, we will have done ourselves a disservice. Nothing important comes with instructions and when we answer our burning questions with piecemeal musings from internet strangers, we willingly give up our power and sacrifice our best possible life. And your life is too precious of a commodity to entrust to anyone outside of yourself.