Eleven lives: reinventing yourself

Today’s SMBC comic resonated with me:

As I grow older, stagnation is my biggest fear. There is a thrill in gradually becoming good at something; there is a hope and a dream that you could be the best at what you’ve chosen to do, the optimism that you will use your profession to change the world. This thrill lasts for about 10 years. In those 10 years, reality bites: either you realize that you’re just not endowed with the natural ability to be dramatically successful in your career, you find that being one of the best has an oddly let-down-y feeling to it, or you realize that the odds are stacked against you, or sometimes the world simply changes. It’s a little bit like the difference between courting and being happily married for ten years (so my married friends tell me, anyway).

So the idea that you could ‘reboot’ your life every seven years is truly attractive: change your profession completely, maybe move to a different place, make a new set of friends, or even change your name and restart. The first of these options is the most feasible, and that’s what the rest of this post is about.

This comic reminds me of the story of Hob Gadling, a character in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. Hob Gadling is blessed with eternal life (and eternal youth). The cycle time is longer, though – perhaps about 30 years. Hob Gadling is a soldier, a merchant, a pauper, a slave trader, a nobleman, an aristocrat… and his 400-year lifespan, with its ups and downs, is nonetheless a life well-lived, thanks in no small measure to his attitude of letting the past bury its dead.

But is it possible, really, literally? Thinking about it, there are a few things that would be deterrent to this life of continuous reinvention. The first is that you would need to overcome fear of social rejection. I know someone who gave up a job as a business consultant to become a programmer of web apps. He is one of the bravest people I know, but society has not been kind to him. You need to be at a point where success and failure do not matter greatly, either to you or to your circle of friends and family, to be able to embark on something new (and risky) every so often.

The second is the monetary reason. It’s natural to be more highly paid as you climb the corporate ladder; when you’re learning something, though, you’re actually fiscally negative – at the very least, you have to go through a period of unpaid apprenticeship; more likely, you have to go through some kind of basic training in a formal educational environment, for which you end up paying money. So where is this money going to come from? And, if you start at the bottom of the food chain every seven years, how is your family going to keep up with the Joneses?

A good solution to that problem is for your first life (say between the ages of 28 and 35) to be that of an entrepreneur :-). That way, you get to sell your company, cash out, make tons of money, and spend the rest of your life not having to worry about whether your kids can afford college while you’re living the cool life as a juggler or a saxophonist or whatever. (Of course, another solution is to be born rich. But not all of us can aspire to that…)

The third problem is dealing with inherent ageism in our society, sometimes justified and sometimes not. For example, if I wanted to embark on a life as a professional swimmer at the age of 40, the odds are stacked heavily against me. But many other careers are also equally difficult to start at a later age. While you can certainly start as a novelist or a programmer or a carpenter or teacher at any age, it’s more difficult to be, for instance, a model when you’re 60 or a politician when you’re 20.

Some professions take so long to learn and become good at that they don’t fit in the 7-year period at all. For example, to be a doctor in the US is, I believe, a 10-year process. Just to start practicing! So careers like that are automatically out. (Which is a pity… I always wanted to be a doctor at some point in my life.)

The fourth problem is that you may actually enjoy what you’re doing so much, even after many years, that you take the easier route of continuing to do that, rather than take the risk of leaving it for something you may not enjoy so much. But this is a mental block more than anything else: if you don’t have the guts to change, you’ll never get better.

I think the best way of putting a plan like this into action is to have overlapping lives with, say, a 4-year window. Think of your profession as two streams, one of which is 6 hours long and the other 4 hours. Assume that the first one pays the bills – the second one is what you are going to do next, and as you get better at it, you slowly transition that into the first slot, and find something else for the second slot.

Maybe a few of us should give it a shot…

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