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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Living the Life of an Individualist

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As I look back at the amazing year that was 2015, I cannot believe just how many great experiences and people that I have had in my life. This year, I have done everything that I could to both live life in the moment and develop my self for the future. Through all that I have experienced this year, I have been given the opportunity to get a clearer picture of the things that I value the most in life and what it means to me to be an individual.

This fall, I took a course offered by Carnegie Mellon University Department of History Professor Scott Sandage entitled Individualism and Capitalism. This course gave me the chance to delve further into this topic and get some interesting insight on the role that American culture and the ideals of individualism play in my life. During this course, we discussed ideas from everyone from Founding Father Benjamin Franklin to transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. The interesting thing is that I did not find myself relating directly with any of the people we discussed. Instead, I found that my personal culture of individualism is a blend of many.

This course constantly had me questioning my views on life and what it means to be an individual. On the first day, we went around a circle and introduced ourselves one by one. To this, I said, “Hi, I’m Brandon, and I’m an ECE.” I was shocked when the professor pulled out a printed copy of my blog post, "Quit Labeling Yourself and Be Different" and proved that I had just contradicted myself. The passage from my post that he quoted in front of the entire class was the following:

We so often like to label people. Engineers. Doctors. Lawyers. Writers. Yes, I am an engineering major, but I would be offended if someone labeled me solely as such. I am also a Writer. Musician. Creator. Dreamer. 

As he pointed out, when I called myself “an ECE,” I had contradicted all that I emphasized about myself. I had thought it appropriate to introduce myself as such because everyone else had done the same; I had followed the crowd. 

Much more than the man on the $100 bill
I do not wish to spoil the course for those taking it in the future, but it really opened my eyes to just how much America’s historical individualists continue to impact us to this day. Franklin continues to impact our lives more than I ever expected, so much that the Huffington Post has referred to us as the "Ben Franklin Generation.” The whole idea that “time is money” was popularized by Franklin and continues to remain relevant today. This idea of opportunity cost remains with me in everything that I do. When I take the night off to go out with friends, I know that I could be using this time to make money or get that A in my most difficult class.

Clock I pass every day on the way to class
Image by Jon Parise via Flickr
However, the writings of transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasize that the reverse is also true: when you make a dollar, the cost can be measured in minutes. The quote from Thoreau’s famous Walden which stuck with me was the following: 

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” 

In other words, money is time. The time that I spend working could be spent exploring the world, spending time with my family and friends, playing guitar, or writing this blog post. In order to be fully satisfied with your life, you must find that balance between work and life; live life to work your greatest but also work to live life your greatest. Spend sleepless nights working your hardest to create the world which you envision, but spend the next day going on that road trip with your friends. 

Thoreau emphasized not following the path that society has laid out for you. In the course of writing Walden, Thoreau escaped society and went to the woods, where he built his own cabin and made it his dwelling for a year. His writings preach finding the truth through yourself instead of those around you. This popular transcendentalist idea can be extended to life in general. In all that you do, you should be yourself. If you are merely seeking to satisfy others, you are not being the person you wish to be. We only have one life to live; why live the life of someone else? Steve Jobs put it best when he said, 

“Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living the results of other people’s thinking.” 

Image via Kitty's Corner Cafe

The interesting thing is that I witnessed this same type of thought in my family when my aunt and uncle decided to leave their established life in favor of moving back and opening their own cafe in the small town where I was raised. My uncle left his successful IT career and what many would define as the modern American Dream in favor of being the chef of his and his wife’s new restaurant, Kitty’s Corner Cafe.

The reason that I bring this up is not merely to advertise for them (though I wish the best for their new business); I mention this because this is a great example of building your own life, despite what others think. If you told someone you were leaving your established life in tech in favor of opening a new restaurant in a small town, he or she would probably call you crazy. However, if this is what you love to do, this is what you should do. Dollars are merely a tool of exchange for things of value; the highest thing of value is your life itself. If you are not happy where you are, no dollar figure can make you happy. Money is time, and lost time can never be retrieved.

Fortunately for me, I have known my passion since a young age. I live and love tech. I have always dreamed of changing lives through my work and creating the next big thing. For me, dollars have never been the deciding factor in what I do with my life; I go where I find work that I love. I am willing to lose sleep to gain something much bigger in the form of meaningful work. When I am not working, I do all that I can to live the highs of life, such as traveling the world or learning something like design or music just because I want to. I am an individualist.

We live in a society of self-proclaimed individualists, but very few people actually do what they love. If you spend your day doing something that you do not truly love, are you still an individualist? Is the reason for your work your own happiness, or are you doing something because others around you told you to do it? If you have trouble answering this question, perhaps you should re-evaluate what you are doing and maybe even build a cabin of your own.

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