The journey of life: From unconquered infancy to obtuse conformity
With the drama of the election just behind us, I feel it is no better time than now to gather up some pieces of several blogs I had written over a year ago and glue them together to present…
A Riff of ideas on:
Infancy, Truth Seeking, Conformity, Sustainability, Charles Darwin, UKIP, The Rainforest, Netflix, Capitalism, The Stock Market, The Universe and You.
Bear with me… It will make sense
Below is an extract about youth and infancy, published in 1844 by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It forms part of a book I came across in 2010, and I feel compelled more so now than ever to talk about it. The extract is from ‘Self-Reliance’ a collection of ideas on individual expression, self-culture and to an extent, scepticism.
‘Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted. Infancy conforms to nobody: all conform to it, so that one baby commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it. So God has armed youth and puberty and manhood no less with its own piquancy and charm, and made it enviable and gracious and its claims not to be put by, if it will stand by itself. Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you or me. Hark! In the next room his voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic. It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or Bold, then, he will know how to make ust seniors very unnecessary.’
Emerson talks to us about the unconquered eye of infancy; innocent and non-conforming, uncorrupted and uninfluenced. He observes how as adults we are overcome by emotion when presented with the beaming glow of a baby smiling ear-to-ear awash with joy, conforming to its mannerisms. It’s funny right? In a way we all wish we could be like kids again – spending our days laughing and smiling whilst being loved by everyone for no clear reason. As infants our minds were free and creative, a boiling pot of imagination and adventure – opposite to the minds of most adults who have to attend seminars which attempt to help them re-ignite their childhood spark of creativity. It was this creativity and mental freedom that many of them lost along the way as they spend their days reading spreadsheets, being stuck in traffic jams and getting angry at waiters who don’t bring their paella fast enough. Sad right?
So why do we lose our glow of infancy, and how does this shape the rest of our lives?
Most of us start off in this world the same way – wearing nappies, crying, spilling milk and shitting ourselves. Somewhere after this, we begin to be influenced in a certain direction; our religious beliefs, our political opinions, our fears and dreams are all brought about by external influence in our upbringing. With the passing of time into adulthood we see ourselves become more stubborn and more resistant to change – most adults obtusely think they are always right and are afraid of being wrong. Everybody knows this from their early interactions with parents or school teachers, people who in some way press you to conform and unintentionally subdue and restrict your childhood spark to varying extents – all behind the facade of ‘knowing best’. But do they know best? Before we decide to fully conform to their practices and beliefs as we break through our early 20’s into fully fledged adulthood, it’s important we think about what is meaningful to us and take control of it before we let something else take control of us.
There are only two things constant in this universe: The passing of time and the truth. These things will never change and cannot be altered, everything else is up for debate.
At some points in our lives we will all find ourselves defending ideas that are subjective and have only by chance found their way into our minds where they become embedded like concrete. This is very bad, because these ideas come about by chance of how we were brought up, which country we were born in, what our parents once told us, who our friends are, and the insecurities derived from our experiences. Sometimes we take it a step further and pick and choose ideas and opinions that are convenient for our own situation, I mean isn’t that what politics is all about? As humans we do this all the time; I recently came across someone who reckoned he was an expert on all topics, you know the type of person who has an answer for anything (even when they are wrong). Usually this attitude just so happens to conveniently justify people’s own actions (or lack there of in his case). We all encounter such people and we dread to ever become even remotely like them.
So why does conformity take over from non-conformity as we grow older?
So we go from being free-thinking infants who can visualise a pile of sand on the beach being an erupting volcano, to becoming adults who have ‘priorities’ and have ‘grown up’ (which translates as having to spend time batting bullshit around at Sandra’s house warming party with work mates they secretly don’t like). We become fearful of being wrong, we live in our bubble and get by expressing our discontent though brief wafts of small talk and never any real action. This is made so much easier in the modern age where we can tweet and post statuses of our thoughts and opinions, giving us a feeling that we are doing something worthy. We are all guilty of it, even I cant hide from doing that!
Conforming, living a life more adverse to risk and always choosing the easy option is derived from this pre-occupation with a monotonous and ‘responsible’ routine. I guess I’m not sure if people can be blamed for this, they simply don’t have time to worry about and take action regarding the misfortune of others as much as they should be doing. However, I for one don’t want to end up like this, as there is an urgency to be found when we are not distracted.
Since we are aware of this eventuality that looms over us, there are at least a few things that we can all do very easily to make things a bit better. Firstly, we must be careful that in our conformity we control the extent to which our pre-occupation translates into stubbornness. The more stubborn and naive in our thinking we become, the more likely we are to take on beliefs such as voting twice a decade is the only way we can shape change in our world.
At the same time, if we take the step to speak out and embrace non-conformity we must do so in a way that is cooperative. In our maverick attempts to speak out we risk overlooking the viewpoints of others, thinking we have a monopoly on what is right. It’s not about who is right or wrong – it’s about the truth. Our success lies in our ability to collaborate on issues, not defend our insecure ideas.
‘It’s not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change’
– Charles Darwin
The key in all of this is to keep an open mind. Society has already made us feel divided by race, politics, religion and even through classism, so let us not be divided by our ideas when really we all have the same goals as young adults. Learning not to compete and politicise our ideas, but instead competing to find truth and the best solutions is more important – otherwise we will simply conform to the self-interested divide that seems to plague our current society and politics. Try not to listen and believe everything you’ve been told, while at the same time try not to become obtuse in your outlook in an effort to embrace non-conformity, or you will run the risk of providing solutions for problems you don’t understand (as many grown adults do so often).
Looking at the world around us, it’s easy to see the old rhetoric and principals apparent at all levels – the comedy in the fact that there are three mainstream political parties in the UK, all of which claim to be doing the right thing for every citizen, yet can’t agree on most things and will not give credit to opposition when something right happens. Also the fact that a lot of political policy across the board is recognised by experts as being factually flawed and concentrates on keeping things the way they are to protect old ‘wing politics’ instead of doing what is best.
This is apparent all over the world and not just in the UK. As humans we originally lived in smaller communities of around 75 people, so larger societies are actually counter intuitive to what is natural to us despite what we tell ourselves. Our selfish outlook on life does not fit a large society, and it never will. No matter what kind of political or economic system we have in place, most problems will remain unless we are willing to evolve our attitude to start thinking about the welfare of those outside of our immediate daily contact.
What does all of this mean?
We need to wake up to the obvious: As young people of the world it is our generation that will soon become the leaders of tomorrow. To do this effectively, we need to recognise what is truly important, so as a starting point it might be worth considering what is not important by looking at the facts and not at what you are being told.
For example, the majority of young people don’t consider immigration as being a problem – we infact celebrate it. Most of us have diverse friends from around the world, who introduce us to new ideas and experiences, and many of our parents were immigrants many years ago. Despite this, a margin of society seems hell bent on making us conform to the plaguing rhetoric on this issue. The divide in opinion is contextualized when you consider age – 70% of UKIP party members are over 50 years old – and to be frank, with much respect, the future of any country doesn’t depend on the insecurity of a bunch of stubborn soon-to-be senior citizens.
There are more pressing issues at hand.
The future is not inherited as something to control but is something that is borrowed from the next generation – and what really matters to future generations? Most attempts at structured arguments against diverse societies fall to pieces when you consider the facts – the net financial contribution of immigrants to the UK, the cultural contribution and even the high percentage of the NHS workforce being migrants. In addition to this is the frankly shocking statistics that show how very few immigrants are actually supported by the welfare system when compared to the home population. The real reason people are afraid of immigration is because they are afraid of change, this is just justified by their clambering together of facts on public services pressures.
Aside from all of this is the joke in the fact that we seem to be okay with eating foreign food, sitting on foreign furniture, drinking foreign tea, wearing foreign clothing and using foreign technology but seem to have a problem with foreign people? Give me a break. It gets worse when you watch the news and see an MP asking a young boy in a primary school who he would vote for if he was old enough… his response? ‘I’d vote UKIP to kick all the foreigners out’.
We must recognise that this boy was not born with this world view, he conformed to it because of how he was influenced. Good job mum and dad. This is why all of us play such an important role in our future; nobody is relinquished of this responsibility despite what they may think.
What can we do?
In order to discover the real and pressing problems that face our world we require young people to not only be engaging with the direction of society twice a decade when there is an election, but to live their everyday lives in a way that can create the change we are all after. Doing this is easier than you may think…
Here’s a short story
In 2013 I had attended a seminar and got to meet globally successful businessman and ex-politician Lord Drayson. I had the opportunity to pose one question to him after he finished his talk.
I told him how many people in my peer group (close to graduating from university at the time) are forever looking at jobs that offer the best pay above all other variables. Many talented and versatile candidates that could be spread across many industries and job types seem to want to work in the same similar high paid office jobs, usually in financial services. Either that, or some of them have been forced into pursuing a line of work on the premise that ‘their parents know best’. Large financial institutions seem to suck up a lot of the top talent – graduates of physics, mathematics and engineering amongst many others. I asked him if other industries or professions need to put in more effort into changing the way they are perceived, and need to be re-branded to attract talent. In his reply, Lord Drayson reaffirmed what I had always thought was important – ‘Do what you love and enjoy’ he also added in a humorous tone ‘…and become an engineer.’
He spoke about many of his peers who chose the path of chasing money and corporate success, and now have all the money in the world, but lack one thing – happiness and fulfilment.
I never took his use of the word ‘engineer’ in its literal sense. I looked at the word trying more to understand what it represents – to design and innovate in order to solve a problem. Becoming an engineer doesn’t literally mean working in engineering, it means a number of things – Whether that is researching a cure for cancer or malaria, developing cheap and renewable energy sources, creating sustainable businesses or even finding a better way to run our economy. Whatever it may be, there are thousands of important issues that need addressing and we need more people pursuing a life working to innovate and come up with solutions to them. As a bonus, along the way you will find the fulfilment many people lose in adulthood.
Don’t worry about UKIP and immigration – leave that to the 50+ camp. It doesn’t concern me that someone who was born beyond a manmade line on a map wants to come to ‘our country’ even if they want to visit the GP once a month. We have more important things to worry about, and we don’t have time to get distracted by a minority of people running the old media pushing an irrelevant rhetoric. We should be worried about the scarcity of resources, unsustainable business practices, inequality and exploitation, the linear supply chains creating waste and pollution in the developing world, the destruction of the Amazon and Congo basin rainforest, the 21,000 people who die of hunger every single day and the 700million tonnes of plastic in our oceans that poison aquatic life with toxins which then end up in our food.
Let’s not worry about all of the things we have been told to worry about – let’s start worrying about what really matters and spend our lives trying to change them.
Why we are all so important in this.
One of the major challenges we face with a growing global population is not only the scarcity of the resources on our planet we are so dependent on, but ironically a scarcity in the amount of people working to come up with solutions to overcome such problems. Maybe this is because as I pointed to earlier that people have fallen into routine, choosing security and comfort over risk. Too many people are unwilling to give up their own economic self interest in order to consider how they can create change using their talents.
So if the pre-occupation of adulthood takes away from our ability to contribute to wider society then why not make our pre-occupations something that does contribute?
This change in the way we approach our lives will have impact not only for ourselves, but will affect change for others who are less fortunate, more vulnerable and those exposed to less opportunities than us. This means we will be embracing non-conformity every day of our lives, finding solutions for things that are wrong and finding value in action instead of passive protest or blame culture.
We live on a finite planet with finite resources – so technically any form of ‘growth’ is actually counter-productive, especially in our current situation where we are so dependent on these finite resources. This is a truth, but one that is often overlooked because economic growth is high on the agenda – for the simple reason that it is something that appeals to the old individualistic, self-interested and bubble mentality I have spoken about. Listen to this!
Just as we left behind the practices of early humankind, competing with opposing tribes for food and water on the African Savannas, we must leave behind the mentality of self-preservation once we ourselves reach a favourable position in our own lives. This idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ is another one that has been distorted and skewed. As much as I am the biggest advocate of self-achievement and personal goals, I’ve been able to recognise that this is not the ultimate aim of our lives.
This is infact something that Charles Darwin said, which has been twisted and hidden in the shadow of his misrepresented work on natural selection. Darwin’s thinking was in fact the opposite to what you might expect, he provides evidence that altruism is a key component of any species’ ability to continue on successfully. He wrote about our ability to have compassion for others and also compassion for strangers outside of our immediate family or community. This stuff is probably in our genetics, and I’m sure it’s clear that embracing it and facilitating it will fare us better than suppressing it.
I guess you could call it the next step of evolution – we need to seriously rethink the rhetoric we are portraying to the world as this is the same one that we will eventually feed to our children. When we post pictures on Instagram and tag #lifegoals maybe we should think about what kind of ‘goals’ we are endorsing.
How about that elderly man who goes round to hospitals visiting lonely patients? Or that lady who works to provide support for homeless people every night? What about the teacher who gives up his evenings to feed children in the slums of Kenya, many of which are forced to turn to sniffing glue in order to suppress their hunger? Pictures of your shopping bags and receipts are not progressive for society. We need a culture change for the next generation because for many of us it is probably already too late. You, I and everybody else are responsible, and we are all guilty of making things the way they are.
It is important for young people all over the world to take action on this. Volunteering and leading change for the progression of society isn’t just for your gap year and CV, it should be for every single action you make for the rest of your life. We must remember that we are all connected, and that non-conformity combined with collaboration will create real change.
Re-think where you are applying your talents
You could be a young, talented software engineer who instead of using your time, technical ability and capital to work on a project concentrated around consumerism, you could use your skills to come up with digital solutions to societal problems affecting people across the world such ascreating new ways to spread information to those who don’t have access to it. It could mean you are a young entrepreneur creating a company that is not simply motivated by profit maximization and incentivising its employees through sales targets, but is instead rewarding innovation, compassion and progressive thinking. Its these companies that are considering the people and the planet in addition to profit that we need more of. Everyone at all levels of society can contribute to this change – through little things like spending time helping to spread awareness of other people’s projects, or donating some of your money to a worthy cause (even better to encourage the wealthy to make such pledges as Warren Buffet is doing). As future parents we should remember not to tell our children that the sole aim of their life after formal education is to secure their highest earning potential, but is instead to do so whilst also securing the livelihood and well being of others.
We must find other ways to size ourselves up to each other; we should start competing on how much value we have created for each other instead of how much we have created for ourselves.
We should become the engineers of our future – because self preservation and greed will bring about our own self destruction and unhappiness. The super-power nations of the planet should not be measured by how many atomic bombs they have or which has the biggest hoard of gold and currency, but the nations that are making the biggest impact on changing lives and raising living standards for all. This can only change if we decide to alter our own values instead of blaming others.
This does not mean that we should not be discouraging competing – we need competition, but let’s make sure we are competing on the things that are important. Instead of finding people to blame, let’s concentrate on becoming the people that can replace those who have led us astray.
Business and ‘Capitalism’
The world of business is changing, anyone who doesn’t keep up with the new way of doing things will grow stale and become the Blockbuster to Netflix. Sustainability is not only a must for our planet and people but is something that is becoming a key factor for businesses to gain a competitive advantage as time passes. Businesses respond to market forces and as a consumer it’s the choices you make that dictate the direction of businesses and the allocation of resources.
I’m not keen on the overuse of the word capitalism, as though it is some kind of concrete block that we can suddenly smash down. This is not true as it is simply an ideology that exists in people minds, not a kind of machine. Let’s take the stock market and any financial institution as an example; areas which recently have been viewed by the outside world as places filled with greed and a prime demonstrators of bad values.
The markets are the means by which we allocate the resources of the world, and money is simply the vehicle that represents a set and transferable value. The stock market is the crossroad at which money is exchanged, transferred and re-allocated, often with each deal derived from the profit motive of the executor. As the great Benjamin Graham once said, the market is there to serve us, not to guide us. Therefore, since we are in control of the market; any judged immorality manufactured from within it is of our own doing, as we are the operators of the system and the system itself is inanimate.
The only way we can change the output of the markets and its resulting consequences is to change the direction of commerce from within. Aside from regulation there is a much needed change in the mentality of the people in these jobs – the way we incentivise our employees and the yardstick we use to measure success against must be altered… Remember that it was not the child in the video above that doesn’t like foreigners, it was his parents that made him conform to this idea.
The election result doesn’t matter as much as you matter
Funnily enough, I for one as someone actively involved in investing and entering the business world can easily find comfort in the election result. For me the Convervatives are in many ways favorable – rising allowances for stocks and share dealing ISAs, reduction in stamp duty levies, tax cuts and the SEIS scheme bringing hoards of investment to the start-up scene. However, this doesn’t mean I’m going to conform to all of there ideas just because they suit me. I still have a glimmer of the unconquored eye of infancy, and a calling to think over and above my own self interests and consider the truth.
It doesn’t matter who has won the election, just remember that the universe dictates that the passing of time waits for nobody. Soon it will be us setting the agenda, it will be us building the businesses of tomorrow and it will be us raising the next generation that will follow. Its up to you if you want to conform to or change the current rhetoric.
We live in a diverse world full of complex problems and there is not one single blanket solution or approach to all of them. There is also no one human with all the answers – Russell Brand’s recent set-back being an example of this despite his great intentions. That’s why we need you on-board. We need you to consider the path of your own life, where you plan on applying your skills, talents and hard-work, and also what you hold in high regard. We need 100,000 people sharing ideas and creating change, not the same amount pointing fingers.
I’m not saying my views are correct, I’m asking you to find your own truth and clear your own mind of influence as you once did in infancy to see what you can find. I ask you not to simply live a life where you move between voting and political apathy, but to start thinking about how you yourself are embodying and acting on the principles you hold in high regard, and more importantly if those principals are truthful and altruistic.
I’m here to make you think about who you are becoming, and what your opinions will be like when you are 50 years old. Will your preoccupation with your personal bubble make you forget what is really important? Will you think that saving the lives of our fellow human beings who are oppressed in conflict, disease and despair is not as important as the possibility that a Syrian person may be sitting next to you on the bus next week?
I hope not.
‘Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you or me. Hark! In the next room his voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic. It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or Bold, then, he will know how to make ust seniors very unnecessary’
By Shammi Raichura
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