Two high school friends changed the course of my life.
I’d been raised to believe success (or at least being a good person) was a product of following the rules exactly, of being able to recite all the correct answers, and of deferring to the superior wisdom of authority figures. That’s certainly how it had been in school. Obey and conform.
Then I met Paul and Joel in my senior year sociology class. They were brainy Honor Society types. I don’t know why they took me under their wings. Maybe it was my pathetic, lost, depressed vibe. If so, then pity can be a good thing.
The assignment was to do a research project, on a topic of our choice, either alone or in small groups, and present the findings to the class. I pictured dreary hours in the library. Joel and Paul pictured something completely different. They would turn the presentation into our “research.”
We gathered a random collection of slides—vacations, families, mundane objects we photographed ourselves—and loaded them haphazardly into the carousel. Then Joel rewired an old phonograph so it played backwards. Paul supplied a record of Polish folk songs. Then we created a multiple-choice questionnaire with nonsensical answers, such as:
And elderly person is trying to cross the street. You should:
( ) Buy new squirrels for your car
( ) The 3rd Amendment
( ) Pie
( ) What light through yonder window breaks?
The day of our presentation, we showed the slides and played the backwards record while classmates worked on the questionnaire. Then we gathered the questionnaires and threw them in the trash.
Paul then explained that we had been testing how people react when a situation is totally different than expected. We asked our classmates what they had been thinking and feeling.
I went home with no idea how our presentation had gone over with the teacher. I was hoping for maybe a C. We got A-pluses. Holy cow! I’d never gotten an A+ on anything before.
Joel and Paul later explained to me that teachers get tired of the same old thing year after year. They also explained that originality is more valuable than conformity, that human progress was the product of people stepping out of line. Originality is a rare, and therefore precious. Conformity is only worthwhile to those who want your obedience in order to advance their own purposes. Conformists get exploited.
This was 180 degrees from what I’d been taught.
I applied that insight the rest of my life, with excellent results. For the most part.
Then, a couple of years ago, I realized I was very unhappy with my life. Not for having chosen the nonconformist road, but because I’d become trapped in the whole homeownership thing. Because I’d been treading water for about five years, waiting for some sort of positive change to happen along. I’d become passive. I realized I had to take action, to step out of line.
“Live in a van? No house? Are you nuts?”
Maybe, but I had to give it a shot.
Presto, a complete change in attitude. New possibilities, new challenges, and that glorious old nonconformity. Yes! I liked myself again.
I’m not changing the world, but I’m changing myself.
Paul and Joel? I looked them up on the web a few years ago and thanked them for changing my life. They had no idea.