In his book United, Senator Cory Booker shares a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois, “The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.” Booker used this quote to start the second chapter in his book, and to begin discussing the important moments of change that we experience.
This quote to me refers back to the reality that our lives are often best described by the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We may constantly evolve and change throughout our lives, but often times we are pretty stable and follow predictable routines and patterns until at some point we go through large changes. For many people there are predictable points of change such as graduation and retirement, but often times the changes can be less predictable such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or on a more positive note an unexpected promotion within a job or a chance meeting that leads to a new opportunity. The quote from Du Bois is about living in such a way as to be ready to adapt during these moments of change. We can be successful in our routines, but we should also be ready to embrace change when it occurs.
The quote also reminds me of a conversation I had last weekend with my wife and a very close friend of her’s from college. We were discussing plans and trying to predict what she should do as my wife’s friend tries to find the right path in life. I shared ideas of being prepared and engaged in the world for unpredictable changes and ended up searching Google for a quote about planning from Dwight D. Eisenhower, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The quote from Du Bois aligns with the quote from Eisenhower by connecting with the reality that our plans for the future will never play out in our complex and connected world, but it is important to be planning our growth and thinking about how we can take advantage of future opportunities. When we have a plan we have something to work toward, but we must be ready to give up that plan and take advantage of the opportunities that actually arise in our lives and allow us to become something we could not have predicted. We must give up who we are to take advantage of the chance to pursue who we might become.
In Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright explains why he is such a fan of travel and of putting ourselves in difficult situations. He is focused on growth in all that he does, and he argues that the challenges of travel push him to growth he would never reach without traveling to new and unique places, and without being introduced to so many different cultures. In his book, he writes, “There can be joy in rote living, but there probably won’t be growth.”
Wright acknowledges our human desire to maintain consistency in our lives and the predictability that routines can give us, but living the same comfortable life style does not give us room to explore, learn, grow, and better understand the world. Rote living may help us feel secure and comfortable, but it does not challenge us as human beings to think beyond ourselves and our bubbles that filter the world. Maintaining a routine in some way limits us and others as it prevents us from meeting new people and engaging with new people in the world. By pushing back and striving to find something different in our lives and routines, we will begin to have opportunities to impact new people and participate in more collaborative activities.
I struggle with expanding beyond a routine lifestyle. I find that I crave routines to be able to accomplish what I want and avoid challenging situations where I have to make decisions about my time. I have never been good at planning ahead to have fun and enjoy my time with others, and as a result I find that I fall back on routines to keep me engaged yet less social. I have recognized on my own what Wright wrote, but his explanation of the importance of avoiding rote living shook me to be more active in my quest to experience new situations, people, and places.
I have also heard of the danger of being stuck in routines from a couple of recent podcasts. Tyler Cowen was interviewed for the Ezra Klein Show recently, and he talked about our human default that he calls the Status Quo Bias. Avoiding this bias and pushing ourselves to experience new thing, to adapt, and to change is the only way that humans as a species can find ways to move forward. Senator Corey Booker recently did an interview with Tim Ferris for his podcast, and discussed the risk adverse nature of politicians, and he discussed the benefits of running personal experiments in our lives to help us have new experiences and learn more about the world around us. I don’t know how to introduce this idea in my own life directly, but I want to push back against the Status Quo Bias that I have developed, to experiment and learn more about my life, and to find new ways to grow rather than be trapped without growth by my life routines.