Motivational speakers, psychologists, politicians, and poets speak of our ‘paradigm,’ the inherited mass of strictures, and assignments, and directions, and assumptions that craft the blueprint of our lives. This paradigm determines who we are, how we think, how we make decisions, and what comfort level we settle into. It’s our subconscious guiding all we say, think, and do.
Imagine Bill Gates, or Warren Buffet living in a trailer home next to the B&N tracks. Impossible. Picture that raggedy fellow in the busy intersection, with his cardboard sign begging for scraps living in a suite at the Waldorf. Equally impossible.
But imagining these scenarios is what Americans delight in doing. The rags to riches tale is endemic. Dreamers and schemers that we are, we’re told from the time we’re in grade school that working hard, and striving for a better, higher station is our birthright, indeed our obligation. But rising above our station, ‘grabbing the brass ring’ as they say, means changing tribes.
Very few of us fulfill the American aspiration to rise above our peers. For the most part, we get comfy with our assigned paradigm, settle in, and resist moving either direction, up or down.
It’s downright terrifying for, let’s say, middle-class Americans to imagine moving downward, losing income, cars, the Netflix account, the Sam’s club card, and end up living under a bridge, even if it’s a very nice bridge. That terror is what keeps us running on our particular treadmill.
But it seems to be equally frightening to move up. Imagine yourself living in a suite at the Waldorf, mixing with poo-bahs, knowing what a fish fork is for, carefully raising a pinkie finger while sipping tea. Heck, I don’t have the dinner outfit, or the manners, or the argyle socks to pull it off! If I’d meet Warren Buffet in the hallway on his way to the annual Berkshire-Hathaway gathering, I wouldn’t know how to act. That’s my paradigm at work. That’s my tribe whispering (or shouting) ‘you don’t belong here, pal, back to your condo-complex! And what’s with the socks?’ Changing tribes means moving beyond our paradigm, and that’s one of the more difficult transitions we can make, in either direction.
When my wife and I chose to leave the U.S. as ex-pats five years ago, we felt pressured by our tribe to stay put, to abandon our plan, and to be content with what we had. The pressure was very subtle, but it was there. It came from family, friends, and associates. It was a message of confusion, dismay, even open disapproval at times. “You’re going where?” “Why would you do that?” “Is it safe?” In all the responses we received, not once did we hear outright or enthusiastic support, even though our reasons were legitimate, and the plan was well considered.
It took time to sort out the mixed messages, and the ambivalence broadcast our way, but we learned a few things from it: One, is that those messages came from a place of love and concern for us; that peoples’ ambivalence reflected their own yearning to do the same thing we were doing, coupled with their fear of doing it; and that we were abandoning them, and how could we! We were changing tribes.
Socrates allegedly said an unexamined life is not worth living. Only in looking at our aspirations, hopes, dreams, and paradigms can we ever know who we are.
Having returned to the U.S., my wife and I realized that five years ago we really did leave our tribe. Now that we’re back we no longer fit into the narrow slot we’d been assigned. We also realized that leaving our assigned slot to move abroad automatically raised our comfort level, perhaps not to Warren Buffet in the Waldorf hallway altitude, but much higher than it once was. And the tribe? Their welcome back was as mixed and ambivalent as ever. I’m still not crazy about argyle socks, but the tea is pretty good.