Seeking New Soil
It might seem like a very stupid, unimportant lesson, but I learned something as a kid that really stuck with me. The World Wrestling Foundation, or the WWE now, was all the rage. At some point in my early teen days at school someone told me the whole thing was fake. It was staged. No way, I thought. They were really breaking things and jumping on one another. While this was true, and they probably did get hurt to some degree, it was all just a show.
Growing up I breezed through school. Getting grades in the 80s and up were pretty easy to come by, and it sounds awful looking back, but it was strange to me why other students struggled so much. Despite getting good grades I never thought too much about school and what it all meant. All I knew was my parents considered school a top priority. I liked learning anyway, so as long as my grades were good everyone was happy.
When time came to pick a major for university I originally applied and was accepted into engineering. Within a month before graduating high school I switched my major to psychology. Studying people somehow interested me a lot more than machines or chemicals. I only applied for engineering in the first place because that’s what most of my male friends were going into. Little did I know that I lived in the oil and gas capital of Canada.
Everyone said it explicitly, that school was the path to a better life, yet no one bothered to explain why. My own parents, being refugees from the Vietnam War, barely spoke English let alone knowing about the economics of higher education. I never really talked to guidance counselors at school. Teachers never mentioned it. And the only class on life planning (appropriately called Career and Life Management, or CALM) was considered sort of a joke. It wasn’t until I graduated with my prized double major in psychology and philosophy that I started to understand how little value this really carried in the game of careers.
It almost felt like a giant lie. Getting good grades. Completing high school. Finishing a degree at university. It was all as fake as the chairs and tables “professional wrestlers” pummeled each other with. It didn’t matter that I had analytical skills, abstract thinking, university level English, and insight into the workings of the human mind. The degree you get shoves you into a box that gets stamped useful or garbage. It didn’t matter which wrestler you cheered for. The outcome was already predetermined. One was the winner. One was the loser. I became a loser in life of no fault of my own, yet it was entirely my fault. It was all so unfair.
I spent the years afterwards (8 years and counting) applying the very skills I had obtained from my useless degree to discover how the world actually worked. My education in psychology was not a complete waste. It set inside my head a seed. That human behaviour, at any scale, could be understood and reduced to a simple set of rules. The problem was that psychology focused too much on individuals or small groups. My philosophy training taught me to search for big ideas. The absolute core reason why things might be the way they are. So, I started digging into sociology, cultural theory, economics, history, biology, and anything else that could help me grasp at some pattern.
The rules are out there. I know they are. Otherwise nothing would work. There would be chaos. And then I found it. It was disappointing.
All of the information accumulated into a better understanding of the workings of the first world, but one book in particular made things clear. It’s called Linked by Barabasi. His researched focused on network science when computer networks were only just beginning to form. What stood out was that there is this concentration of connections in an exponential curve in every network. It was universal. Very few have the most connections, and the many with very few. The rest of the social psychology started to make sense. Humans are so strongly influenced by social factors over and above facts and numbers. Many scientists believe our frontal lobe, the prized part of our brain that makes humans special, developed to help maintain social relations.
What it came down to were connections. Merit was secondary.
There must be a room of people laughing at me for stating such an obvious fact of life. A room full of socially intuitive and successful people. This doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that it mattered more how well liked, how similar you are, and how well you presented yourself far more than the actual measure of your skills and performance. The man with the highest IQ in North America makes his living as a bouncer because he was not socially acceptable, while countless celebrities become rich and famous sometimes for no reason than being popular. But being popular and well liked is only the beginning.
The Invisible Rules
Having the right connections came down to a few things. None of which I had.
It mattered greatly where you came from and the legacy your parents have. Descendants with a rich background and powerful connections are often inherited. My parents were forced to flee from their homeland to a foreign country with a sack of clothes.
- Industry. The larger the industry, the larger the pool of money floating in it. More to go around to anyone willing to join the club. Much like the water from Mad Max, there was not a lot of money in psychology and even less in philosophy.
- Social skills. Navigating conversation and emotional balancing is in itself a game filled with invisible rules. Basically, all rules can be bent if you can convince people to do so. Some people are able to play this game effortlessly. I am not one of those people.
- Location. Where you live matters, a lot. Location combines the last three rules. You could live in a place with a rich history, the right industry, and the kind of people you get along with, or you could be like me and live in an oil and gas town full of engineers and business people with an irrelevant degree.
Time to Play the Game
It has been a few years since I discovered these rules for myself, and I had spent them in anger and resentment. I was angry why no one had told me this. I was upset at the school system for not building this into their curriculum more seriously. I was mad at myself for not being more social and asking for answers. It was stupid of me to believe that doing well in school would lead to a better life. I took it out on myself and on my girlfriend.
It wasn’t until recently that I started to realize that hating myself and my life didn’t help change anything. I could research all I wanted and expose the unfairness of this whole game. Nothing would come of it all in the end. Or I could wait patiently for the rules of the game to be exposed and good hearted politicians to change the system for me and everyone in the same situation. But even then the rules of the networks seem very much inherent in world. There was no way for me to escape this.
I spent a lot of time thinking hard about what it is that I enjoyed doing and what I was good at in hopes of coming up with a new path that could put my knowledge of these rules to use. I had to find an industry that was growing, that suited my skills, and had people that I could connect with more effortlessly. This fall I will be heading back to school as a 31-year-old undergraduate in computer science. Once my acceptance comes through, I will also be moving away from my hometown for good to a city in Canada that embraces tech rather than oil and gas.
Going back to school as a full grown adult doesn’t really bother me that much though I feel rusty and am uncertain how I will perform. Moving is the more difficult part. One bit of social data that I accumulated was that most people stay close to home. This, too, is part of our social nature. The power of history is one of the strongest forces as social beings, especially for the less socially savvy. Our families raised us. We meet and connect with a lot of people through our years of school. This adds to my naivety, but I never quite understood what it meant to set up roots or why it was so important. People don’t want to be alone, away from all the people they ever knew, even if they didn’t get along with them. The loneliness is a lot more scary, again, because of the power of networks. We would rather be connected in some way, rather than singled out, rootless.
These rules that I have discovered I feel are rules that the bloodline of the elites have always known. That in order for a seed to grow and reach its potential it needs the right soil, and those that know the game well know where to plant themselves. No one chooses to be planted where they are, but we can choose to find a new patch with conditions that may suit us better. It is all very risky though. I’m guessing that the industry is the right one for me, that a city that embraces that industry has people that I can bond with, that everything will work out better than it has in recent years. The new land of opportunity may end up no better, or even worse than it is now. It is no an easy decision, yet the idea that things could be better, that hope it could work out, is something worth pursuing if your current situation is a dead end. A seed that barely grows and barely survives is worth replanting in new soil.
If, in the end, it all doesn’t work out your roots are still there (likely because they were too afraid to uproot themselves!).