Sofia flew off to Paris early this morning on a well-deserved weekend that will be spent traveling with her mother and sister. I'm alone with our 15-month-old daughter for 4 days. Well, I'm not entirely alone because we have a very helpful nanny during weekdays. This gives us time to work, exercise, make music, podcasts, and whatever else we tend to fill our time with when not parenting. I just now returned from a beautiful street cafe, and wanted to share some thoughts about my day -- particularly as it relates to the idea of living an authentic life.
For several years now, I've been thinking a lot about this idea of living an authentic life. I often question my own level of hypocrisy on this subject. Let's look at an actual day in my life. I took care of Isabella for a few hours. She danced in her play-pen to her favorite album (Tired Pony) as I ate my eggs. Then I let her crawl around and play, fed her, and put her down just as the nanny arrived. Were these few hours an expression of my individuality and my authenticity, or was this something done from duty?
Next, I went for a 2-hour mountain bike ride through the town center and then up to the the beautiful, wooded hills of Cermel. This is a ride I do twice a week when weather permits (other days I go to the gym, jog, or jump rope). Is my desire to get some exercise something I do as an expression of my authenticity or is it a matter of social conditioning (that desire to be fit and healthy)? Furthermore, is my desire to mountain bike a response to my inner voice or is it a desire to relive the summers of my youth? Either way, I enjoyed the sights of green plants, the tall trees, and the sound of birds all around me.
I came home, showered, and immediately went for my computer and headphones. I mixed some tracks and recorded a few vocal takes for my album for the next hour. What exactly is behind my inspiration and desire to keep on making music whether or not anybody is listening? Am I a victim to pop culture or is this an expression of my authenticity?
I then went to lunch on some narrow cobblestone street and had crispy duck at some cheap Chinese restaurant. I did this because I'm trying to lose weight and I'm on a low-carb diet (The 4-Hour Body to be exact). Have I been dieting, working out hard, and shedding weight these past several months in an attempt to conform to social expectations...or can this be explained as me expressing my authentic self?
Right after lunch, I walked over to the large town square (Hlavna) and sat at a cafe right beneath the cathedral. The town is filled with high school seniors celebrating their graduation. It is a tradition here, throughout all of May, for these graduates to dress up and go all around town in groups as they blow whistles, scream, and make all kinds of noise in an attempt to raise money (so they can get drunk later that night). If that wasn't enough, there were literally thousands of younger adolescents also walking around in matching, colorful t-shirts as they were taking part in some kind of dance competition. Despite all of this, I managed to find a quiet enough spot to order a coffee and read my Kindle for awhile. Was this me acting out some European cliche, or was this me just being myself? I mean, I just sat in the cafe and read. I didn't do anything original or inappropriate.
Now I came home to work my usual 4-5 hours per day selling eCommerce software to large companies all around the world. I've been in software sales since college. This profession certainly isn't inherently an expression of my uniqueness, is it?
Today is a relatively typical day and what I'm describing are the things I do. How does this different from the things I am? The entire topic of "authenticity" is admittedly very fuzzy, which is why I think a lot of people shy away from discussing it. I know that it scares people away because it sounds too "pie-in-the-sky" or too much like "self-help" garbage. I know that this type of thinking can also be quite imprecise. Everyone is always looking for that black-and-white, right-or-wrong answer. Maybe this isn't it. Furthermore, after earning a graduate degree and spending half of a life looking for truth and knowledge...I don't believe in clear, black-and-white answers anyway. Every idea connects with other ideas or theories. For example, authenticity gets us thinking about originality. Is any thought, action, or idea truly original or are we merely recycling what we've already learned or observed in the world around us? How can anything be authentic when nothing is truly original? Or is everything original anyway even though it flows from that which is not? After all, are any two acts, feelings, creations, or sentences ever exactly the same? So I concede that the subject of "authentic living" cannot be defined scientifically.
Yet it seems to me that authenticity is one of the most critical things missing from today's society. Too few people seem to be fully living their uniqueness and listening to that inner voice as the ultimate compass and sense of life direction and morality. Yet who am I to say 1) that we can all be happier by moving in this direction and that 2) I am practicing what I preach?
Let's go back to my day. First of all, everything I did today is something that I wanted to do for myself. Nobody told me to have a child (well they tried, but I waited a long, long time until I wanted to). Nobody told me to workout, that I needed to lose weight, that I need to finish that album, or that I should spend more time relaxing in the sun enjoying the sights and sounds of life around me. If they did, I didn't listen. Furthermore, nobody told me that I should live in Kosice (or Seattle before that or Colorado Springs before that). I did that because I wanted to. Nobody told me I should marry Sofia. I did that at a ridiculously young age because I wanted to. Nobody told me what kind of job I should have. People have tried to tell me how to do my job and who I should work for, but I do it my own way and I chose to freelance because I will not tolerate a boss watching over me all day. At the same time, I decided that money is important to me and that I want to make the most money I can in as few of hours as possible. To use another example, nobody suggested we hire a nanny (in fact, most people judge it harshly). I could go on.
Perhaps it is this simple. To live an authentic life means to do things you choose to do for yourself, as opposed to those things others tell you that you should do. The things you do from your own desires are things that reflect who you are. It doesn't even matter whether those things are truly original, it matters that you are choosing your own path. What would you do with your day, with your life, if nobody was watching and if you never had to explain yourself to anyone (family, friends, or loved ones)? What have you done today that was not your choice?
But even this isn't black-and-white. Even on my own path, I am constantly aware of the demands of others. The company I work for has certain requirements which must be met. My behavior on sales calls has to be "professional". My daughter has requirements which are absolutely set in stone (to play, to learn, to eat, to be loved). My wife has her own authentic life to look after. I choose to spend my life with her, but that's no guarantee that she will continue to choose to spend her life with me...not unless I fit the needs she has for her life. Most of this happens naturally when you are with your soul mate, but still there are many ways that I do have to compromise my selfish desires for the greater good of having a happy, healthy relationship with the woman I love (which is what I want).
To live authentically is to choose your own life direction for yourself. But all of us also exist within the confines of the world around us...the way that world actually is. We do not live on our own islands (and, if we do, we are probably miserable there). So, yes, we have to learn the skills of conformity in order to succeed on our own life path. We need to attend school, learn some manners, practice work ethic, and develop specialized skills whether or not these things are a direct reflection of our own individuality. Quite simply, we have to learn to function and to become good at functioning. We can ultimately use these acquired social skills, talents, experiences, and capabilities only to take us further on the path of living our own, unique, authentic life. These skills should be used for ourselves...not used in fear of what others might think.
It takes a lot of work to acquire the skills you need to succeed on the path toward a more authentic life. Then people will judge you as you take your first steps. They will not always understand. You will even feel isolated at times. There may even be things that you need to do for yourself that others will attempt to punish you for. But life is hard whichever path you're on. There were times, many years ago, that I was on the path of doing what everyone expected of me. That was work! Having to act about who you are, conform to what you think others would do, and try to fit in when you clearly do not...that takes hard work and dedication. Even if you succeed, your reward is only more of the same!
The path toward your authentic life inevitably leads to a day like I am having -- well, to your version of it. I work hard every single day. I am exhausted every single night. But my days feel light and nothing I do feels much like work. I don't know whether anything I do means anything to anyone else but, then again, that really isn't the point. I also know that the only way to maximize the value of your life is to claim your own life for yourself, to use that inner voice as your primary source of direction and morality, and to be that unique genetic mutation that you are.
I'm thinking of you as you follow your inner voice and I'm wishing you many authentic days, wherever you may live. To explore this topic further, check out the Abscondo Podcast and check back in the future.