This story is about you. It’s about your neighbor, your best friend, your mother and your ex. It’s written from my perspective because that is what I know, but the deeper meaning found between these lines is about you! And although it’s about you, and I wrote it, it is much bigger than both of us. I do not know if I possess the skill to communicate this message, but you do! So I invite you into my mind with the hope that you will carry this message with you, because I cannot carry it alone. All I ask in return is this: If you are moved by my words, then be moved. If you find a trinket or treasure, take it with you, make it yours and share it with anyone that likes to see pretty things. These riches are not mine. I did not create them. They belong to you!
This year my birthday came and went without a party. I didn’t go to a big concert or have an expensive dinner at a fancy restaurant, and I didn’t open one wrapped gift. I ended up at an arcade at one point, but for the majority of my day I celebrated my birthday in a way that I had never tried before. As it turned out, this alternative celebration was, hands down, the most impactful and profound birthday I have ever experienced. What I have realized is that it was part of something much bigger than myself or any one person. It was the answer to everything! Before I tell you about my birthday, however, I have to explain why I celebrated the way I did. To do this, let’s back up a bit.
Last year was tumultuous for me, as it was for many others. Life is struggle and an accepted reality of the human condition. We will experience rough times in our lives, but the hardship we experience can be crippling, or it can be empowering. For most of my life, I have dealt with all my troubles predominantly on my own, effectively enduring a self-induced isolation. Many tried to help, but I shut them out, often unaware that I was doing so. You can only help those who want to be helped and I wasn’t ready.
Like so many others, this method worked well for me. I developed just enough to get beyond my obstacles and continue with life. As we grow stronger, so do the challenges we face. It’s like going from the Minor Leagues to the Pros. The problems of children are different than the problems of teens. Teen problems are nothing compared to adult problems and greater still are the obstacles we face when attempting to do great things. Last year I found limits to my known abilities of resilience. I had a choice to make: find a different way to overcome the barriers to the future I desired, or accept that I was already as far as I would ever get in life.
What is the saying, “I’ve come too far to stop now?” Something like that, right? It was true, for the most part. I had decided a long time ago, based on my philosophy regarding regret, that I would never stop , but at this juncture I had to take a shot of humility and accept that I didn’t have the answers or strength to continue forward. I knew others did, though. In my search for solutions, I discovered incredible things, many I already knew on a visceral level, but would have had trouble articulating. We all have this instinctual understanding of how to overcome even the biggest obstacles. Obscured by our ego, it stares us in the face our whole lives without us seeing it, like a piece of art so large we mistake it for part of the landscape.
Through reflection on my personal experiences, examples from my parents, and interactions with friends, I understood the awe-inspiring power of human connection. However, it wasn’t until I studied the works of people like Simon Sinek, Eric Greitens, Alan Watts, and Tony Robbins that I truly understood what made us great and WHY it mattered.
We crave human connection! We need it! Not in the way someone might say, “I NEED a taco,” but in the way we need water. It is a biological necessity. If you disagree, then tell me why solitary confinement is the highest form of punishment below death and why individuals that experience it predominantly lose their minds and abilities to function. Many of us say we love being alone. We love our solitude, but we are not truly isolated, and if we are we develop coping mechanisms to avoid the reality of our circumstances. Usually though, we still have connections, whether they be hobbies, comics, fan clubs, or anonymous chat rooms where we get together and bond over our inability to connect in real life. They are not the same as true human connection but more like methadone for morphine addicts or vapes for cigarette smokers. The urge is curbed but not fully satisfied, and the addicts will need more of a high to get through the day, generally going back to their vice if there is no supplementary treatment.
My birthday has nothing to do with addiction, but the cause for my irregular celebration has everything to do with addiction, and so it must be explored so that this story makes sense. Even for those of you who think that the revelations of a reformed addict don’t apply to you, I urge you to continue. We all experience these struggles to varying degrees or know someone who would benefit tremendously from the lessons I have learned. So please, read on for them if not for yourself.
What is the supplementary treatment that allows addicts to break the chains of the vices that lord over them? What is the antidote? Until recently, I thought the solution was chasing the things that make you feel alive, your passions. I wasn’t wrong, but this is only part of the answer. I’ve struggled with addiction my entire life. It manifested itself in various forms. The only way I was able to wrestle control from my “monster” was by pulling myself closer to things I am passionate about. Primarily, that was fitness, and I was able to walk away from many vices that I had allowed to plague my life.
The irony, I realized, wasn’t that I beat the addiction so much as that I simply replaced a destructive habit with a constructive one. As long as your replacement doesn’t become a negative force, there isn’t anything wrong with this. This actually helps us build discipline and habits that become the foundation we need to really make a change. Still, the addiction remains. It’s like placing a very thin piece of glass between yourself and this beast that seems to be holding the strings of your life like a puppeteer. You can’t hear it lick its lips anymore or feel its warm breath on the back of your neck, but you know it’s right there, glaring at you. You face away as long as you can, but you get distracted, make a careless choice, and all of a sudden you are peering into those burning red, cavernous eyes, and that’s all it takes. You welcome the embrace and lose yourself again.
(Don’t think that just because you haven’t taken drugs or gone to an AA meeting that this doesn’t apply to you. Anything can be a drug, even something as innocent as a cell phone.)
This internal staring contest was life for me. I was walking the edge of a razor unless I was playing an organized sport or training in a group. During those times, I found it easier to ignore the calls to my escapes and vices, and the voice in the back of my mind got incredibly quiet. Back then I thought it was because I was pushing myself for competition. I resisted longer because I wasn’t doing it for me. My teammates needed me to perform, and I didn’t want to let them down. However, I was focused on myself and missed the real answer. Even though I’ve always cared for those close to me, my eyes were veiled by my own pain and self-pity. Interestingly enough, the activities that I thought were saving me weren’t the actual solution. They were, however, helping me grow into someone more capable of grasping what had been in front of me all along. Eric Greitens explains this phenomenon in his book Resilience when he explains how fighters change as they hone their skills:
“Most of the fighters I knew were wounded people who felt a deep, powerful urge to wound others at real risk to themselves. In the beginning. What happened was that in almost every case, there was so much self-discipline required and craft involved, so much else besides one’s original motivations to concentrate on, that these motivations became at least cloudy and vague and were often forgotten, lost completely. Many good and experienced fighters (as has often been noted) become gentle and kind people.”
Just as fighters often grow into more complete and understanding individuals while in pursuit of their craft, I too grew beyond many of my limitations. The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when hard work meets opportunity.” I believe in luck but not in a superstitious sense, and it surely applies here. I had been struggling for years to better myself, with very slow progress. Finally, the discipline of being self-employed met with the opportunity of finding Simon Sinek’s work and resulted in “luck”: a profoundly deep understanding of the monster staring at me through that alarmingly thin piece of glass.
For those of you that still think this story doesn’t apply to your life, perhaps you haven’t yet met your monster. I know, I didn’t think I had one, either. Before you laugh this whole thing off and stop reading, let me bring it out of the shadows and introduce you. Our monsters are all different sizes, depending on whether we feed them or not, and none of them look the same, but we all know how they feel. I’m sure we describe them differently to ourselves, but let me try and explain mine so that maybe you can identify yours.
On days that my monster was looming over my shoulders whispering in my ear, I felt an incredible emptiness, like a crater in my chest as dark as coal. On those days, I could be in a room with hundreds of people or among friends, but I felt alone, floating around like a ghost trapped between two realities but in neither. The self-doubt, hatred, anger, displeasure with who I was, displeasure with who I wasn’t, and shame of anything I had done or gone through was amplified and forced to the surface, while the positive memories and happy thoughts of my life slipped through my outstretched fingers and faded from view as they sank below. When my monster was distant, figuratively taking a nap, it was like being locked in a cage with a sleeping dragon. The pain wasn’t gone, it was just covered up by something the way white noise makes a room feel quieter. The monster was always there, always in the back of my mind, tapping on the glass. If I slowed down or found myself alone, it would be there to break the silence, like the high-pitched ringing of an old TV that was on but not showing a picture; you only notice it when you stop moving and get quiet.
I craved…something. I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know how to find it. I just felt this terrible sadness that would build and build until I couldn’t stand being in my own head anymore. I NEEDED something, anything to escape the pain of loneliness that felt both tearing and dull, like I was being filleted by a butter knife. Like a man drowning, experiencing extreme terror and panic, I reached for a raft, an escape. Just like that, I felt relief, but only for a moment. I finally broke the water’s surface and gasped for air only to be violently yanked back underneath to a greater depth than before. PANIC. FEAR. LONELINESS. EMPTINESS. I had to make it back to the surface, so I fought my way back up, and the cycle began again. Every time I reached for relief, I was forced to pull my body farther out of the water to feel ok, but no matter what I did, I was yanked back down, deeper.
Over time I indulged my monster and it grew, but like many of us I managed my monster well. I looked fine and my life seemed average, but I was drowning inside. I created an enclosure in my mind and did my best to keep my monster contained. I thought I had it under control, but really, I was just living my life by its schedule. That’s the ego. We tell ourselves it’s what we want even though we know damn well that we aren’t the ones driving. It is like repeatedly getting into car accidents because you love the thrill of speed and validating it to yourself by saying, “I wanted to crash. I enjoy the process of healing, getting the car fixed, and paying hospital bills.”
For example, one of the vices I had in my life was tobacco. I hated it! How it made me feel. How it made my body hurt. How I craved it first thing in the morning and last thing before I went to bed. It was like a deep love, but only in the moment I was being used. Afterward, I felt dirty and used up, only to quickly forget and run back to it like a lover who gets lonely after finally escaping a toxic relationship. If you have ever felt an urge, a craving that you desperately need to stop, even if it’s something minor like snacking, but you can’t seem to win that argument in your head, that’s your monster pulling the strings. That’s you trying to escape your reality by indulging your monster. You feel better for a moment, but we both know you can’t get all the way out of the water. You can never fill that hole! Not by escaping, anyway.
What I learned from Simon was not what my monster looked like. Although, that is the beginning of personal mastery; of freedom, but that is something only we can identify for ourselves. It takes courage, persistence and a ton of humility to identify our monster. No, what Simon helped me understand was WHY it was there at all. He explains in his book, Leaders Eat Last that our bodies are like machines made up of systems designed for one purpose: to ensure the survival of the machine. Like I said before, our greatest strength is found in community. Our brains reinforce behaviors that promote relationships and cooperation because that is how we survive. This is it! This is what I believe is the answer to everything and why I decided to change my birthday celebration forever.
What it all comes down to is our ability to trust one another. While in the past, every other creature on the planet had to expend all of their energy simply to avoid death, we were able to create an environment where only a few of us at a time had to worry about survival. This allowed the visionaries of our population the freedom to explore the unknown- to go into research and development, so to speak. While Allan and George kept watch, Steve and Margaret made a spear, Janette designed the first loincloth, and Bob went hunting. Obviously, this is a simple example, but the point is if I trust you, I can actually go to sleep at night knowing that you will wake me up if danger threatens. This feeling of trust and safety is everything. This is the foundation that our world is built on.
Simon goes on to explain the biological makeup of this foundation and its historical functions. There are four chemicals in our brain predominantly responsible for happiness: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. They are released to guide our behavior- to reinforce that trust. They make us feel good, happy, euphoric, prideful, confident, and fulfilled. The way we experience these emotions is calculated, aimed completely at strengthening the bonds between us so that we may live on.
Endorphins mask physical pain- that is it. Their purpose is to help us enjoy strenuous activities we need to accomplish, like hunting and tracking (runner’s high). Dopamine helps us get things done that are not immediately needed. For example, if we wait until we are hungry to find food, there is a strong chance we won’t eat at all. So we get a shot of dopamine when we eat, and we also get one when we see something that reminds us of eating, like a tree bearing fruit in the distance or tracks from prey. The dopamine feels amazing and we want more. As we get incrementally closer to our quarry, we get more hits until we finally reach our prize and get an even bigger hit. It feels incredible. This is why eating feels good and makes us happy.
“Dopamine comes with a warning!” Simon elaborates further, “It is highly, highly, highly addictive.” Here are some other things that cause a release of dopamine into our brain: alcohol, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, sex, gambling, heroin, meth, cell phones, likes, followers…you get the point. Say hello to your monster: dopamine. You may feed it a number of things and it may take different forms, but there it is. By itself, dopamine can be incredibly destructive and we will sacrifice our well-being completely just for another hit. In a balanced system, however, it is tremendously effective at making us creatures capable of incredible achievement. Most of the “vices” I mentioned are not necessarily bad in their own right. Some of them are very natural or helpful parts of life, like sex and cell phones. It’s only when they go unchecked that they become problems, and our monster begins to grow. So what brings the balance? What is the antidote?
(With respect to physical health and mental stability: yes, the vices I mentioned are pretty much all terrible for you, but whether they are good or bad philosophically or morally is based on your belief system. I’m not trying to tell anyone how to live. And for everyone that just pointed a finger and said, “Meth and heroin are always bad, Zack. Those aren’t part of a good person’s life.” Go look at your medicine cabinet or the prescriptions you give your children. Just because your drug dealer wears a lab coat and went to college doesn’t mean you get to ride a big ole’ horse. Pointing your finger at yourself first is a beautiful way to expand your mind. Anyway, moving on.)
Simon describes these first two chemicals, endorphins and dopamine, as the “selfish” chemicals. The last two, serotonin and oxytocin, are responsible for keeping our community and our feeling of safety intact. We would not survive without the first two, but without the second two we become fiends interested only in our personal survival and pleasure . You see, serotonin and oxytocin strengthen relationships. From these we get feelings of fulfillment, pride, confidence, trust, and love. For example, we get a shot of serotonin when we perform an act of kindness or generosity toward others. Even more fascinating, anyone witnessing our good deed will get a shot of serotonin as well and feel inspired to do something nice for someone else.
Serotonin and oxytocin reinforce relationships that we need, like between parents and children, or alphas and betas. When you do something nice for others, you feel good. When you give your time to teach and mentor someone, your chest swells, you feel pride, and your status in the community goes up. Yes, status is a real thing and in communities where everyone is needed for survival, cooperation is crucial. It helps us establish harmony in the hierarchy of our communities and was probably based primarily in physical stature or hunting ability. The dynamics of our communities have changed, but the relationships and the chemical systems that reinforce them remain.
Who Cares about Manners Anyway?
Survival is no longer based on being able to fight off a tiger or being the best hunter, but “alpha” is still a very real part of our society. We are driven to find our place in the pecking order because there are perks to being higher up. Back before manners existed, the strongest and most aggressive people in the tribe took first choice of food. They did it not because they were jerks (this was before the time of jerks) but because they could. They pushed smaller members of the tribe out of the way, and eventually the trust of the group began to fracture. If danger threatened, no one alerted the big jerk that elbowed Steve in the face. This hurt the collective survivability of the group. If danger threatened, Steve probably won’t alert the big jerk that punched him in the face. Tribes couldn’t survive if all of the alphas continuously got eaten. Sure, Steve might have been satisfied with his petty victory, but our species suffered, and so a system developed: serotonin.
The other members of the group willingly gave up first choice of meat and first choice of mate (yes, that too), and it felt good because of serotonin. The kindness and respect showed to the alpha released serotonin and made everyone feel happy when they gave up their spot. Steve gladly woke up the alpha, and he didn’t get punched in the face because he willingly moved out of the way. Our ability to survive strengthened.
It’s good to be king, which is why we all try to raise our status and move up the social ladder, if you will. Today, this deference to our “alphas” continues, and we compete for higher positions on the social ladder. Unfortunately, many of our “alphas” don’t hold up their end of the bargain, which gives rise to many of the systemic faults in our society. (Oh, you just thought he was a big jerk still? Don’t worry, there is a balance to everything.)
Back then, our social order was determined by our contribution to the community and we all had a place. One spot was not necessarily better than the other because they were all needed for the group to survive. Yes, being alpha sounded awesome, but it came at a great cost: self-interest. The rest of the group wasn’t stupid. They weren’t just giving up their food and girlfriends to a cafeteria bully. There was a deeply seeded instinctual contract between the group and the alphas. When danger threatened, the alpha was expected to run toward it to protect everyone else. They were the strongest because they were GIVEN the best food and they were the most confident because they were GIVEN respect and kindness (large amounts of serotonin surging through their veins). The alpha was expected to sacrifice himself to save others. When he did, his end of the bargain was fulfilled and the bonds of our community were reinforced. This is why we have no problem giving up the best of things to our alphas, because expect them to be willing to take on the dangers when we can’t or won’t. This is where oxytocin comes into play; deep trust, fulfillment, and love are the result of self-sacrifice.
If you have ever been in love, you know how oxytocin feels. It creates such a deep bond between people, a trust so strong that it feels like there is a safety net below us all day long. As if no matter what we do, we will be ok! We are more willing to take risks because we know someone has our back. We are more comfortable getting outside of the things we are familiar with because we aren’t worried about survival. We feel safe! This is one of the reasons why being in love feels so good. The things we do have more meaning and our lives feel like there is a purpose, to help that other person smile (survive). This feeling is not reserved for only a lover. Deep trust and friendship gives us this feeling too, but there is only one way to get it. Selfless acts and sacrifice, putting others first is what puts oxytocin in our body. One of the amazing traits of oxytocin is that it makes us far less susceptible to addiction. It is the balance to our monsters! It also takes a long time to build up, so it can’t be faked. It must be genuine and consistent. It must become who you are. We must truly act in the interest of others consistently to reap the benefits, fulfillment, and belonging.
(I know it gets much more complicated than this, but I am trying to simplify everything, and I am not a biologist. I am simply relaying what much smarter people say is true because it makes perfect sense to me.)
Our world is much different than the one our ancestors developed in, but our systems for survival remain. We may not have to worry about lions, tigers, or bears (oh my!) anymore, but there is still danger. In our world, danger is social or professional competition. It is getting the girl, landing the sensitive rustic guy, having that good life, or providing for our loved ones. This looks different for all of us depending on the lives we choose. Unfortunately, some of the changes to our society are tricking the systems in our brains.
Public praise and admiration release serotonin That is why our parents feel prideful watching our graduation. We need that feedback because it reinforces good behavior, mentorship, learning, etc. The problem is that we have lost sight of what the praise is actually for. Money and fame are byproducts of success. Success used to be a result of good character, virtues, and service to others. Over time, clever marketing played off our need to move up the social ladder (along with other factors) and diluted our ability to see real worth or value in our community. Now, we mistake money and notoriety for status because we get recognition and a temporary boost of serotonin. That is why being flashy is so trendy now.
Understated is generally regarded as a trait of the higher class. It is often exhibited by people that value character over clothes.. This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy nice things it means that having nice things is not where real value lies. Collectively, we have forgotten this. That is why clothing labels are on the outside. It feels good to flash our stuff, but it never satisfies because there is no relationship to reinforce, no oxytocin! This is why some of the richest, most famous people in history hate their lives, constantly trying to quench a thirst that cannot be satisfied. When we skip the reinforcement of a relationship by seeking admiration from meaningless acquaintances, we get no oxytocin and feel no real value. We get a temporary shot of serotonin, but no real fulfillment.
Status is no longer tied to quality of character and a willingness to serve those in our community. It’s become more about the car you drive or what your clothing label says, which has opened our society to a very ugly truth. The fact that you HAVE stuff is more important than HOW you acquired it. Let that sink in. The ENDS are more important than the MEANS. It doesn’t even have to be yours! Stolen, borrowed, or leased items have the same effect. This means that as a society we acknowledge and endorse people and companies just because they are monetarily successful. This develops a society with alphas that will not face the danger for the rest of us. “They fail!” as Simon said.
Shit Rolls Down Hill
We let them reach the top by supporting their bad behavior with money, “likes,” and “views,” and then they dump all over us by promoting the horrible behavior that encourages our monsters! Businesses help them soar higher by endorsing their brand because it helps them rise up too, but this is just as bad. The process continues all the way down, everyone telling themselves it’s ok because they are just trying to get by. Each person stepping on the head of someone else and justifying it because it’s not someone they know or because “it’s business.” Eventually, you have a society like ours that feeds on conflict, negativity, and scandal because it sells. When does it stop?
Pay attention, because this concerns you!
I’m not sure when it stops, but I know HOW to stop it. It’s the solution to healing our sick society and the same thing that gives us oxytocin, allowing us to tame our monsters. Before this remedy can make sense, I have to explain one more of the many things I learned from Simon.
Stuck at Attention
There is another chemical in our brain that is also vital to our survival but promotes a much different behavior, cortisol. Cortisol is our stress hormone, and its job is to keep us alive! When we sense danger, the beginning of our “fight or flight” reflex is a hit of cortisol. It turns off all non-essential systems, like GROWTH and our IMMUNE SYSTEM so we can focus all energy on our survival of any possible threat. It inhibits the release of serotonin and oxytocin and also makes us paranoid! This means that we are biologically less generous, less empathetic, wildly LESS HEALTHY and incredibly SELF-INTERESTED. It is also contagious! This is very useful for surviving in the wild because the animal that first senses the danger will alert the others allowing for a much better chance of locating the possible threat and escaping! Cortisol is part of a great system that helps us stay alive, but it is only supposed to stay in our system for a moment.
Today, we work piled on top of each other in offices and teeming cities. When one person hears about layoffs and gets worried, we all get worried. Instead of focusing on our job, we worry about watching our back. In the entertainment industry, success is still predicated on hard work, but the way is guarded by the opinion of an individual or company. Someone has to give you a chance and so it becomes incredibly difficult to remember that self-worth and confidence originate internally. If this is forgotten, the stress of trying to compete with others can be toxic. We should only compete with ourselves, but the allure of fame and money is seductive. We want that status! So many of us sacrifice who we are by putting on a mask to present what we think will help us “get there.”
I moved to Los Angeles nearly a year ago. The first thing I noticed was how rude and inconsiderate everyone was. It wasn’t so much that they were mean as much as they were so focused on themselves that they were incredibly disrespectful. The part that baffled me was that they had no idea. They didn’t even notice! I used to think that it was a symptom of bad role models and the degradation of society in general. But after learning this information, I started to see it differently. Those other factors play a part, but really, we are all stressed the F@#& out!
Everyone that lives here is trying to be somebody. They are all chasing a dream, which I love and admire! That by itself is stressful enough. Add in the uncertainty of the entertainment industry, the congestion of the city, constant traffic, and high rent prices, and you have the perfect recipe for a high-stress environment. Add to that the fact that many of the people try to emulate the “alphas” of their industries, which are music, acting, fashion, and entertainment in general. I am absolutely not saying any of those are bad, but pop culture has become a pageantry of who can be the most flashy and self-centered. Physical beauty or the number of chains around your neck doesn’t make you a good person. This isn’t specific to the entertainment industry, either. Just look at office politics.
Angry or Lost?
We have masses of people who live their lives doing jobs they don’t enjoy, in circumstances with which they aren’t pleased, because of environments in which they aren’t comfortable! We constantly have to watch our backs with half of our energy and try to focus on our life with the rest. The result is a self-interested society that is constantly trying to escape its reality! TV, social media, drugs, alcohol, sex, gossip, food, you name it. They are the coping mechanisms of an unbalanced system. Not all of those things are bad, mind you, but pleasurable things should be the punctuation to a great sentence, not the whole paragraph. The intensity and proportions are the problem. They are the manifestations of our need to feel whole, to connect, to feel SAFE!
This is what I learned from Simon. This is WHY my monster was there! My inherent need to connect on a deep level. The revelation hit me like a freight train. Have you seen Fight Club? Remember that scene where Edward Norton’s character realizes he is also Brad Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden? That’s what it was like. I dropped into a vortex through time and space, flashed past events in my life, saw my behavior, and for the first time, I understood. I found clarity to so many questions that plagued me, and in a moment, I could see the answer to everything. Like Bilbo stumbling upon the Ring of Power, I fell in the dark and found a great treasure in the form of a small circle. To help you see it, I have to go back once again. (Hang in there, when I reach my birthday celebration, I’ll give it to you.)
My parents are amazing people, and I wanted for nothing, but they are human, too. They sacrificed their happiness for their kids, thinking it was the best choice. (I am not saying it wasn’t. I couldn’t possibly know how that decision felt. I’m just telling you what happened.) Without going deeper into the personal business of others (because it’s not mine to share), I’ll just say the environment that was created was one that I hated. I did everything I could not to be in the house around my family, and even when I was, I hid. I got really good at lying and concealing any behavior that would bring unwanted focus. I developed the ability to adjust my personality based on my company. I could get along with anyone, still can, but the problem was that I never fully connected with anyone, not to the depth that we need to build that tremendous bond.
Don’t get me wrong, I had great friends and my family loved me, but there was always a piece of me out of reach. I had one personality around my family and one around my friends. As I grew, so did the difference between these personalities. I had a different walk and even a different speech pattern. A schism formed in me, and because I straddled two very different worlds, I grew into a dynamic person. So even when I wanted to connect, it was difficult to find someone that could relate to all the different facets of my being. I had friends that understood large parts of me but never seemed to understand me as a whole, or maybe I just didn’t show myself fully to them. Either way, this kept me from reaching the levels of vulnerability and trust that are needed to form that bond.
That bond is what makes us feel safe! That bond is what allows us to thrive and survive! To try new things, to dare to be great and not worry about failure because we have our tribe watching our backs. Simon calls this the “Circle of Safety.” A lot of things can happen when we lack this good environment or “Circle.” I created my own circle of safety around myself, just outside my skin. It was the only option that worked for who I wanted to be at the time. It was my comfort zone, my shroud of armor I never took off. Maybe it was stubbornness, maybe it was nature, or maybe it was the role models in my life. I’m not sure why I receded into myself as opposed to reaching out, but it made me strong. I think we all do this to various degrees.
Have you ever met anyone and thought, “You are an old soul?” It is because they went through something in life that brought them to their knees, and they decided they were not going to stay down. They forged a piece of armor and rose back to their feet, each time with a changed perspective on life. Go through enough shit and refuse to quit, and eventually you will have an entire suit. This armor made me strong, but it also gave rise to my monster because I was the only person in it.
Our monster is an answer to a lack of connection, of community. It’s the feeling that we don’t belong or deserve to. It’s what happens when we are the only person in our CIRCLE. Not everyone feeds their monster, but they know it’s there masquerading as intense loneliness.
So it was with this knowledge that I reflected on my life. I thought back to the times when my monster was quiet: when I was in sports. Working with other individuals toward a common goal was really the cure, and it had nothing to do with how proficient I was, or whether I was a starter. True, being good meant higher status and more of that good feeling, but that isn’t required to feel like we belong. We are intensely communal creatures, human beings. It’s not necessarily what we are doing, or our role in the activity, but the fact that we are working together for something bigger than all of us combined that fulfills us.
Take the Marine Corps as an example. The bonds we make during our time in boot camp last lifetimes. It’s only three months long, yet we find ourselves more connected to our brothers-in-arms than people back home that have known us for the actual entirety of our lives. Many of the tasks we did were menial, boring, or outright awful, yet no matter how much we hated the activity, if we were forced to work together to complete a task, we grew closer and eventually loved doing it. If you know anyone that has gone to Marine Boot camp, ask them what happens halfway through and they will tell you a similar story to what I will tell you now.
The first month, we are all there for ourselves and we are incredibly miserable. Yet, as we begin to let go of our self-pity, something strange begins to happen. Individuals begin to sacrifice themselves so that others have to suffer less. The fabled Drill Instructors are there to be our enemy. They are there to strip us of ego and show us that our greatest strength is found when we put our brothers first. The punishments inflicted on a single recruit would be met with a flurry of movement because everyone else would join in. We couldn’t stop the suffering, but we could make sure he didn’t suffer alone because no one Marine was more important than another. At this stage (for me it was the last two months) the most difficult part of boot camp was not exploding with laughter when one of us was getting verbally reamed or physically thrashed. Many of the funniest moments of my life happened in boot camp because our circle was unwavering.
We all need deep connection and we all need a circle of trust and safety. Even the misfits of society, the forgotten and ignored, need a circle. This goes for the most hardened military men, cutthroat gangsters, and thugs, too. To outsiders, they seem like wild animals, but to their lovers, crews, or children they are tender teddy bears that would stop at nothing to defend them. They also need community. When our circle is strong, regardless of our walk of life, we are resilient, daring, incredible creatures capable of amazing things. When we have no circle, or it is weak, we turn to our monsters for relief.
Who’s to Say?
Remember, it’s only through acts of sacrifice, giving things you can never get back, like time and energy, with no expectation of anything in return, that enables real trust to form. Give expecting nothing thereof. This doesn’t mean you turn to martyrdom, sacrificing yourself for anyone that comes along. It’s a give and take! There must be reciprocation to fill us back up because we have a limited amount of time and energy to give. This means our personal circle can only be so large. This is where leadership comes into play. It’s the responsibility of the alpha to decide who gets into the circle, or community, and how big it is.
In a company, this is the responsibility of the people in “leadership positions.” The best leaders include absolutely everyone all the way down to the janitor. There is no “inner” circle or executives club. When everyone feels like they belong and that the CEO would go to bat for them, no matter their position, the company will prosper because the people inside it are able to thrive. This is accomplished by being very selective when it comes to who works for the company. When the circle is completed and all social responsibilities are kept, people don’t have to be incentivized to work hard for the sake of the company with bonuses or threats. They work hard because they want to. Because they want to do their part. Because they are part of a unit, a family working to accomplish something bigger than all of them put together, and they are all needed!
This is why we have an interview process to get into any Marine sniper platoon. At the end of the “indoc,” the period of time meant to test and expose your physical, mental and emotional fortitude, each applicant has an interview with the current leadership. The platoon commander, platoon sergeant, chief scout, and team leaders all sit on a panel and interview the applicants one by one. Most of the men that try out for the sniper platoon don’t make it to this stage. Keep in mind, they are already Marines and have all passed SOI (School of Infantry). It’s not enough to simply make it through, you have to mesh. Even if you were the biggest and baddest dude to ever earn the EGA (Eagle Globe and Anchor), if you disrupted the cohesion of the circle, you wouldn’t make it. We have to know that every member of that team is not there for themselves. We conduct missions in teams as small as two men and any tear in the trust of our family would mean a huge loss to our combat effectiveness and survivability.
As individuals in the civilian world, we also get to choose who is in our circle and how big it is. Like I said though, we have a finite amount of time and energy, so unfortunately we can’t give that type of trust and effort to everyone. If we do, it will drain us emotionally and physically until we are just empty, depressed shells of our former self. This is why it is so important to be very selective with who you decide to associate with in your life. You are the leader of your circle. It doesn’t matter if you don’t see yourself as a leader, or have never held a leadership position, you are in charge of steering your boat. LEADERSHIP is simply a choice. Actively choosing the types of people you spend time with based on where you want to get in life is one of those choices.
Grab the Wheel
I know you have heard it from motivational speakers and business accounts on Instagram, but you are the average of the people you spend the most time around. If you associate with volatile individuals, it will be very difficult to have a life that is anything but. It’s like having a ton of friends that are always breaking the law and then wondering why you are always broke after paying tickets and fines.
That being said, if that is the life you choose, and you love and trust your crew, then your circle may be tremendously strong. It often is, proven by the willingness to engage in highly risky behavior and endure the consequences of failure. It isn’t always about what is “right” based on society’s standards. (This is an entirely different discussion altogether, but ultimately every choice has a consequence and you must deal with them based on your actions. If the results conflict with who you wish to be, then a change is needed.) Who is right for your circle is relative to who you are and the type of person you aspire to be. You can alter your life by changing the people that you spend time around, even pull yourself out of depression, or change your financial wellbeing.
This is only possible when your circle is built with intention based on the things that actually matter to human connection. This means that quality of character, virtues, and morals reign supreme. The “right” choice is relative to your own beliefs and moral structure. There are so many ways to do this thing we call life. We can’t expect to mesh perfectly with everyone.
Cards or Concrete
When we choose our circle based on material things, or fake status items like money and notoriety on social medial, then our circle will be just as fake. That feeling of comfort, our safety, will fade, leaving behind what most people call their “friends.” Most people think they have a huge number of friends when they actually have none. How many times have you been in a situation where you truly needed help and no one came to your aid? Have you ever truly been in that type of situation? Most of us have, but sometimes, when we really need help, we cocoon and shut people out. It’s difficult to tell who is really there for us when we never ask them to be, which isn’t an excuse, but let’s give people the benefit of the doubt.
There are a few ways to determine who really belongs in your circle. You can ask for acts of sacrifice from others, like pretending to need help moving and seeing who shows up. As illuminating as this may be, you will simultaneously find out who cares about you while also damaging trust. The second method would be to OFFER your help to others in your circle and set the example, effectively becoming the leader. This way will take longer. You have to allow genuine situations to arise and then step up to help your friends without any expectation of reciprocation. Over time, your example will strengthen bonds between those that belong in your life and highlight others who do not when they fail to reciprocate the generosity when the opportunity presents itself.
You will be vulnerable doing this and people will let you down, but that is what it means to be a leader, looking out for those next to you. You do not help your friends because you want them to help you. You help them because you want their life to be better and because when you wash your face at night before going to bed, you can look at the person in the mirror with respect and love. Putting the integrity of your circle before your own needs, which is to put the lives of others before your own interests is what it means to be “Alpha.” The cost of being alpha is self interest, remember? You do not have to be the biggest, the toughest, or the smartest. You simply must care for the person to your left and to your right!
I know this concept seems fruitless in a world where so few go out of their way for others, even those they call “friends.” “What’s in it for me?” we ask ourselves. I’ve even had someone ask me, “So how does this help me gain financially?” We are always looking around the corner to see how it helps us. That defeats the purpose entirely because your actions have ulterior motives. The individual on the opposing end of your “generosity” won’t feel at ease, they will be on edge. Why? Because instead of generosity, you are setting up a protracted transaction without telling them what it is for. That is like asking someone to sign a contract before reading it.
The goal is not to prosper from these actions, although your life will improve exponentially the more you act in this manner. The whole purpose of this behavior is to work WITH the systems in our brains to help create environments in which we feel safe! Not safe like the way political correctness lies to everybody, but safe in the way that a true friend will be completely honest with you, even when they have to tell you something negative. You can trust them! You don’t have to wonder, play head games and doubt yourself. You just know they are there for your. You feel as though you belong, that you are you are welcome in this place and you are supposed to be here! We all know how this feels, even if we have only felt it for a moment. Think about it. Imagine what you could accomplish if you felt that way for an entire year.
I Think I Can
That’s the thing about feeling good and having confidence. For the most part in life, positive and negative outcomes are more dependent on your confidence, your commitment and follow through, than whether you were actually correct. As Allan Watts says, “You must regard yourself as a cloud in the flesh. You see, clouds never make mistakes. Have you ever seen a cloud that was misshaped? Have you ever seen a poorly designed wave? No, they always do the right thing.” Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you are right either way. When we are not confident we make mistakes due to sheer fumbling. When we are confident, we can often get away with doing completely the wrong thing. Even if it’s disastrous, it all comes out in the wash one way or another. So imagine what it would be like if you conducted your life from a place of confidence every day; if you committed to things as if you couldn’t fail. What would you do differently if you believed you could be successful in any endeavor? What projects would you finally start?
You would immediately begin to improve your life! Not only that, you would feel amazing and begin to improve the lives of everyone you interact with because you would be biologically more generous, more empathetic and less self interested (more serotonin and oxytocin in your body). You would be physically healthier and more connected to the world around you (less cortisol in your body). Your energy would be infectious and anyone that had an interaction with you would be empirically better off! That is why I spent so long explaining the chemicals in the brain. Smiling at people as you walk by them on the street isn’t just a polite thing to do, IT ACTUALLY MAKES THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE!
Just think about it. Imagine a world where the majority of people were positive and self-sacrificing. Not only would it improve the lives of our communities, but it would also improve the health of our planet. When we aren’t consumed with our own survival, we begin to think of bigger things than ourselves. Instead of walking over a piece of plastic on the sidewalk because we are consumed by a meeting that went poorly, we might pick it up because there are more important things in the world than whether we get a bonus!
This is the importance of the environments we live in. As Simon Sinek says, “When the environment is right, human beings will do incredible things.” I’ve explained the importance of our individual circles. They are the communities we build in our lives that give us the strength to be who we aspire to be, to reach for our fullest potential. And although we cannot include everyone we meet in our actual circle of trust and safety, that doesn’t mean we cannot treat everyone as though they are in someone else’s and have the potential to be in ours.
What if we gave everyone we met the opportunity to be in our circle? What if we went out of our way for strangers giving them the chance to step up and show us that they are deserving of such kindness. Many will let you down, but more than you would ever expect will rise to the occasion. This is behavior that will potentially “Grow the Circle” of your environment based entirely on the quality of someone’s character as opposed to their professional or financial prowess.
Regardless, someone may not be in your immediate circle, but we are all in the same boat! To put it simply, acting with the intention to “Grow the Circle” is looking out for others in small ways. It is choosing to be a leader to those we meet on a daily basis and allowing everyone with whom we interact to feel like they deserve to be here- like they belong. This doesn’t mean being fake. I can disagree with someone politically and still respectfully allow them to merge ahead of me in traffic. It just means that we make small choices all day with the assumption that others might need things more than us; that we aren’t more important than them!
Imagine a world where the majority of people woke up with the intention to “Grow the Circle.” What would our SPECIES be able to accomplish when the majority of people felt as though they belonged here and that they had a safety net underneath them all day?
I Believe This is the Answer to Everything.
This isn’t a race issue, a gender movement, or a religious ideology. This is a transcendence of our collective mindset to the next level of our existence where the vast majority will finally be able to see beyond all of the petty differences we use to segregate ourselves. We are all different in many ways. We can accept that everyone will manage their circles differently, but ultimately we are all the same! There is no difference between each individual, or between humankind and the other creatures that inhabit this beautiful world. We are all in the same boat! When we begin to understand that on an individual level, the conflict between us will fade. The conflict between our species and our home world will vanish and the things we will be able to accomplish will surpass even the most vivid imaginations.
Ok, So How Do We Do This?
It was Gandhi who said,“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” He was absolutely correct, and this also applies to our individual worlds, or circles. If you want more generosity, empathy, or effort in your life, become that change and it will eventually start coming full circle. Obviously, I am not the first to say things like, “Your vibe attracts your tribe,” but they are often dismissed as motivational masturbation. This stuff matters! Positivity matters! Smiling at someone you pass on the street could literally save their life. It might be the determining factor on whether or not they take their life that day. That may seem dramatic, but I’ve been at the receiving end of five phone calls that were supposed to be the last call they ever made, but I answered and talked to them. I’ve gotten messages from strangers through social media telling me that I had saved their lives! ALL I DID WAS SPEAK TO THEM! All I did was help them feel like they belonged in this world…
Clearly, just saying these things isn’t enough to make a change. Clearly, it isn’t the fact that people don’t know these things because uplifting and inspirational quotes are plastered all over the internet and on our physical world. We need something more! We need a movement! We need to “Grow the Circle” on a global scale and with your help, I think we can. Finally, I’ll explain my unconventional celebration this year.
Happy Backwards Birthday
The current and accepted birthday ritual is all about celebrating self. This has always felt strange to me for many reasons, primarily because what is there really to celebrate? We didn’t personally do anything spectacular that day, yet we celebrate ourselves like we cured cancer. Honestly, most people celebrate themselves all year anyway, with self-proclaimed “BOSS” lifestyles and flaunting “what they got.” I always felt uneasy with this form of celebration considering our mother gave birth to us, and the doctors and nurses made sure our head wasn’t shaped like a lemon and that we didn’t die. If anything, they should be celebrated. All we did was complain, crying like a baby (haha).
A few days before my birthday, I was thinking about what I wanted to do, and I took it a bit further than negatively looking at the normal tradition. I wanted to figure out a way to celebrate that reflected the man I wish to become. I began to think back to my experiences with my monster and everything Simon taught me about environment. I realized that I would not be sitting in an apartment looking at a computer, let alone be alive had it not been for the people in my life that were there for me. I have always been grateful for the people in my life, but I didn’t always show it as much as I should.
As I matured, I slowly began to take off pieces of my armor, allowing those close to me to see who I really was. I still went through a lot of hardship, but I was going through it with the help from my circle. It had always been there, I just never willingly joined it. It’s a good thing I did, because the situations I put myself in last year were far too much for me to handle on my own, yet there I was, happy and smiling on the verge of creating a life that I used to believe was just a fairytale.
That’s when it hit me! Instead of celebrating myself, I wanted to celebrate the people in my life that helped me to be me. I immediately began writing a list of people. It wasn’t a very long list. The people on it were individuals that had profoundly impacted my life in a positive way. They were all people that inspired me to be great, or believed that I could. Some of them showed me love and what it felt like to be needed. Others gave me friendship, even when I may not have. Others still offered me kindness and generosity, helping me in times when I could not help myself. These were the people responsible for the man I had become and grown to love. These were the people that created an environment in which I could grow. These were the people that should be celebrated.
So on my birthday, I spent literally all day, except for the late evening, calling each person on my list. I explained that I had decided to celebrate my birthday differently and told them how fortunate and grateful I was to be a part of their lives and how much of an impact they had on mine. Honestly, it was quite exhausting. Each conversation was emotional, bringing with it the memories and gravity of the experiences with which the individual was associated. Some conversations were over an hour and some were only a few minutes. When I finally finished, I was worn out, but I realized something. Even though I had gone through an emotional roller coaster that day, each call ended with a tremendous smile and a happiness that carried me to the next. I had a smile stuck on my face all day and although I was tired, I felt incredible!
I was so high on life that anyone I interacted with in person noticed to the point of commenting on my disposition. The best part was I never came down. In the days following my birthday, I began to get calls from the people on my list either responding to voicemails or simply compelled to call me back. The message was the same. My phone call radically improved their day and their week! The feeling of happiness and fulfillment that I got was an unforeseen side effect and was the best gift I’ve ever received. You could have tied me to an anchor and thrown me in the ocean and you still wouldn’t be able to bring me down. I felt that good and so did the people I called, making it easily the best birthday I have ever had!
Someday, I’d love to be in the financial position to give a gift to all the people on my list, and someday I will be. I’d invite them to an amazing party, on me, so that all of the most important things in my life, my friends and family, would be in the same place. Until then, a phone call and time spent together is more than enough. Nothing extravagant is required for this celebration have an affect. The whole point is to give your time and energy to the people that have given you everything, whether they knew it or not. And only by giving the things you cannot get back, will the true gifts be exchanged. Showing appreciation to them by spending money will just be an added bonus, like bringing really good scotch to a party with an open bar. It’s nice, but everyone gets drinks anyways.
No Spoon Full of Sugar Needed
Now, let’s bring this full circle. How does wishing someone “Happy Backwards Birthday” reinforce the movement to “Grow the Circle” and reverse our upside down society? Well, instead of trying to think of your friend for one day of the year, you have to be there for them all year long. Instead of being reminded by Facebook to post on someone’s wall, which takes two seconds, you actually have to be a true friend all year long. There is no faking it. You can’t pretend and you can’t simply butter up to them in their birthday month. If you truly look out for the people around you and cultivate a healthy circle, then eventually someone will honor you with a phone call or a dinner, thanking you for the profound impact you have made in their life.
Imagine what an honor it would be to receive one of those phone calls, how good it would feel and what it would say about you as a person. Again, it cannot be faked because those feelings, the levels of serotonin and oxytocin required to feel trust and love, take time to build up and must be a part of a system; it must be a two-way street. The gesture must be genuine or it won’t feel right. For anyone that chooses to begin celebrating their birthday this way, they will notice a profound change in their life starting on the day they begin. It will become more about the remaining days of the year than just the one they were born on.
It forces us to hold ourselves to a higher standard of living. As we practice “Growing the Circle,” the way in which we see the world and those around us will begin to change. We will begin to see people for who they are on the inside, as opposed to what they show everyone on the outside. Flashy accessories and lavish lifestyles will no longer impress us when presented without class and good character. Instead of aspiring to be bougie, which is actually defined as “exhibiting qualities attributed to the middle class, especially pretentiousness and conventionality,” we would begin to collectively discourage that type of behavior.
If “Backwards Birthdays” became the norm in our society, so too would the intention to “Grow the Circle.” The result would be a systemic reversal of the qualities that our society regards as the most important. As individuals, we would stop supporting businesses and brands (that means artists and actors too) that promoted ugly behavior.The truly ugly people (on the inside) and businesses that were only there for money and fame would slowly lose favor and fall back into the masses as just another face until they started thinking about others. The news would begin to actually report what was happening, instead of trying to give us their opinion, because that would be the right thing to do. And they would show positive things along with the bad, because people would stop wanting all that negativity in their lives.
Don’t Call it a Dream
I imagine a world where the “Alphas” of our society earn their place because they make the world better for everyone else, not just because they are beautiful or good at making money. I imagine a world where the majority of people are simply competing with themselves and everyone around them cheers them on instead of cutting them down. In this world, advertising and commercialism don’t dominate every type of media outlet because individuals do not hold “stuff” at the top of their priorities. In this world the vast majority live in an environment that allows them to not only envision their fullest potential, but helps them reach for it. In this world, high quality of character will be valued above all else. Integrity and compassion will be the rule not the exception, and the lines that segregate all of us, drawn in our physical appearance and ideologies, will fade into memory leaving only one circle: all of our backs to each other ready to face the danger that threatens our collective livelihood, our co-dependant survival with our planet.
This world I imagine is real. I can see it already. We have enough resources on this planet to allow everyone to thrive. It cannot be forced or mandated by laws, because that is just another way of passing the responsibility to someone else. The only way this will work is if each individual makes the change under their own volition. It’s not good enough to like it on Facebook or get together in a big group and walk around with signs demanding someone else take care of the problem. If you want to feed the homeless, then go feed them. We each have to rise to the occasion and give what cannot be returned. We each have to wake up and decide to become the change we wish to see in the world, every day! If we all decide to look out for the person to our left and to our right, the world will become a drastically different place.
I don’t expect “Backwards Birthday” to catch like wildfire, but I do know I am not the only one who believes these things. I also know that this will happen someday. It isn’t a hunch or a prediction. I KNOW it will happen simply because the benefits are too great for anyone that gives it a try. Only a few of us will adopt this way of celebrating our birthdays early on, but by our example others will be inspired to follow suit because of the drastic change they witness as a result. It will be like an infection that you want to catch! If you doubt me, or if you are ready for a better life, I implore you to have a “Happy Backwards Birthday.” Then, as David McCullough Jr. put it, “You too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience; that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.”
Changing the world doesn’t happen in Congress, it happens in each of us. It’s a choice we make each day we wake up and every time we are given an opportunity to put someone else first. It’s leadership. It’s sacrifice. It’s holding ourselves accountable to a higher standard beyond money and fame. It’s understanding that LIFE IS NOT FAIR and it can always be worse, but if we each extend our hand to those suffering next to us, we all win.
“Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise so I am changing myself.” – Rumi
We live in a society that loves to pretend to care. We march for causes and tell our friends that something should be done about this issue and that issue. We “like” and “share” things on social media for “awareness” as if we are making a difference, yet very few of us actually put in the time. So many of us are suffering, being controlled by our Monsters because we are empty inside. We turn to our vices to escape, and we continue to pretend to care one click or double-tap at a time. Each time we do, we pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves that we are a good person, But Who Are You Really? This isn’t said to hurt. On the contrary, it’s said to illuminate so that you can take an objective look into yourself. Are you the type of person that will keep pretending to care, letting your monster continue to pull the strings, or will you “Grow the Circle?”