The Case for Checking Out of Society

John Maltese
Oct 20, 2018 · 15 min read

“Hell is other people.”

— Jean-Paul Sartre

Every time someone says that “the world” sucks, what they really mean is that the people in it suck. It’s implicit (and obvious), but it’s worth spelling out.

There’s nothing wrong with our planet. It provides us with all the oxygen, water and food we need for our survival. Animals are cool too: most of them are harmless or helpful to humans, and the dangerous ones you simply keep at arm’s length (or kill if push comes to shove). It’s easy enough to deal with nature.

Sure, there’s bacteria and viruses and ageing, but we have long since figured out how to cure most illnesses, and we all know from a very young age that eventually we’re going to die. No surprise there.

No, the reason why contemporary people get depressed, anxious, suicidal or enraged has nothing to do with tigers, blizzards and infections. It’s usually because of fellow humans.

Your spouse cheated on you. The tax man knocked at your door. A burglar helped himself to your possessions. An application or proposal of yours was rejected. You’re struggling to make money or friends. Someone made fun of you, or looked at you the wrong way.

Other people are, directly or indirectly, the root cause of virtually all of our daily problems.

I don’t want to sound too cynical — there are also good people out there, to be sure!— but the fact remains that actively participating in human societies — all of them — is a major pain in the ass.

From the classical antiquity to the modern age, from the West to the Far East, there has never been a society that wasn’t corrupt or problematic to some extent.

And the larger the society, the bigger the trouble within it.

Human beings thrive in small, tight-knit groups. Most of the kindness going around is found within families and friendships. The happiest time in human history was probably before the invention of agriculture, when our ancestors lived in small-sized tribes and truly depended on each other.

Back then, “society” was so minuscule that no one was allowed to behave badly, lest being ostracized, banished from the group, or killed on the spot. Conversely, I’m going to assume that fostering good relationships with everyone was of great benefit to the individual and the tribe alike.

Contact with unknown tribes must have been infrequent, because very few humans were roaming the planet back then (a few hundred thousands for most of prehistory) and there was plenty of space and resources for all. Ever wondered why our ancestors scattered to all corners of the Earth and evolved into different races?

I don’t think humans are made to be sedentary and live in thousand- (let alone million-) strong settlements. For all its material comforts, modern life is very much an aberration.

When you consider that we’ve only been farming for 10,000 years and writing for 3,000 years — while the first stone tools date back to 3 million years ago, and homo sapiens came around at least 200,000 years ago — it becomes clear what “civilization” really is: a novel experiment in human history, one that is still ongoing.

Was the trade-off worth it? I’m not entirely sure.

Living in large societies encourages antisocial behavior, because the majority of people will never know what you did (unless you’re a public figure; and even then you can get away with a lot). Plus, the fact that contemporary societies are based on private property fosters competition, as opposed to cooperation.

This makes it necessary and unavoidable to have a big, powerful government that will keep everyone in check — but the government itself is just a bunch of people, with the same thirst for material resources and little in the way of accountability, so it’s no wonder that governments are prone to turning rogue and abusing their citizens.

Much has been written about the alienation and “atomization” of the modern individual. There’s something inherently painful in the way we live today, constantly surrounded by perfect strangers, having to fake niceness for the sake of peaceful coexistence, our streets being watched by security cameras.

In the current century, we are also hyper-connected to one another via the internet, with a cacophony of different voices and opinions competing for our attention.

Can you see the problem? Our tribes have become too large.

At this point you may be wondering what’s my proposed solution, or if I have one at all.

I don’t think there’s a single, one-size-fits-all solution for such a dilemma. However, I’ve come up with a few ideas on how to mitigate the negative effects of modernity, and regain some much-needed peace of mind.

None of them are particularly original, but they certainly are effective. So you may want to try a few of them, if you haven’t already. Don’t be afraid to give society the middle finger: your well-being comes first.

And if you lead by example, you may encourage others to escape the Matrix as well.

Step 1: Cut Down on Internet Usage

The internet was both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, it has made the sharing of information and knowledge easier and faster than ever — a leap forward for humanity as huge as the invention of the printing press.

On the other hand, it has given everyone a license to be a massive a-hole, due to the anonymity it grants (and the fact that you are often dealing with people living thousands of miles away, or on the other side of the world, who don’t fear any repercussions for their bad behavior).

On the net people will say and do things that they would never entertain in real life. I’ve already mentioned how a lack of accountability encourages antisocial behavior, and nowhere is this more evident than on the internet.

I’ve come to realize that it’s unnatural, and possibly even unhealthy, to engage (i.e. argue, in most cases) with untold numbers of of strangers on the internet. Quite simply, we didn’t evolve for that, and I’m not convinced that our brain knows how to process and cope with such stimuli.

In real life, strangers barely make eye contact on the subway… so why would you spend any amount of time arguing with them on the internet? Especially over complex and nuanced topics! When you think about it, it doesn’t make any logical sense.

Unless they have a photo of their face as their avatar (and that’s assuming it’s not photoshopped, or a fake one altogether), you don’t even know who you are talking to.

That person could be a septuagenarian or a teenager; a Lebanese man or a Mongolian woman; an angel of morality or a convicted murderer — but you just take your chances, and proceed to argue with them at length about the sustainability of fossil fuels or the future of Bitcoin. What the…?

Leaving a comment on the internet is akin to grabbing the microphone in a public square filled with thousands of strangers — from every conceivable walk of life— each one of them wearing a ski mask. Would you sign up for that in real life? Of course you wouldn’t: It’s the weirdest thing ever.

Leaving aside the issue of identity, the fact remains that communication on the internet is too “unfiltered” for it to be always civilized and productive. There’s no penalty for insulting someone or wasting their time, so people do it. Our vocabulary has expanded to include terms such as “trolling”, “phishing” and “shitposting” — none of which belong in a healthy lifestyle.

Personally, I got sick and tired of it all, and I completely stopped commenting on the internet. It’s one thing to write an article or a blog post (and I may quit doing that too, eventually), but I can’t be hassled to take part in the lunchroom food fights that are most comment sections — especially on places such as YouTube, Twitter, and pretty much all internet forums.

The AdBlock extension for Chrome has a handy feature that allows you to make any element of a web page permanently disappear from view… so you know what to do with comment sections from here on out (wink). That, and avoiding certain sites altogether, can do wonders for your mood.

Another thing I’ve done is delete all my social media accounts. And I mean all of’em — Facebook, Instagram, you name it. I’ve been living social media-free for over a year now, and let me tell you something: it feels amazing.

No more vapid narcissism and attention-seeking selfies being shoved in my face. No more accidentally discovering that a person I thought was cool has some crazy political views. No more worrying over how my personal data is handled by those shady companies. No more compulsively checking how many likes and responses my post received. No more nonsense, period.

One day I simply went “f*ck this sh*t” and I pulled the cord. My quality of life instantly improved, just like when I stopped watching TV (at the age of 14, be it known).

It’s no secret that TV, social media and suchlike are designed to mindlessly entertain (and make money off of) the masses… so they revolve around mediocrity by design. Ask yourself if you truly need more mediocrity in your life.

I’m willing to bet TV and the internet are doing you more harm than good — so you already know what to do. Cut down on them! Or get rid of them altogether. Whatever you find more convenient.

Nowadays, I only use the internet to do shopping, book flights, check maps, and do other things that are actually useful. I’ve cut off everything that qualified as background noise or an unproductive use of my time — and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Step 2: Avoid Politics and the News

News and politics are for bored (and boring?) people. You could literally be doing anything else and I guarantee it would be a better use of your time.

You could be doing some weird-ass sh*t like teaching parrots how to count to ten in Swahili, playing the bagpipe in a Scottish pub, or deciphering ancient Sanskrit rolls, and it would still be better for your mental health than listening to the news.

Aside from the fact that news and politics are a reliable source of negativity and will unapologetically mess with your emotions… you don’t really need to be informed about every little thing that’s happening in the world.

Remember my premise? You want to scale down the size of your tribe, because it’s large enough as it is.

For most of history, people never knew what was happening outside of their immediate surroundings… and apparently they were doing just fine. They didn’t care. So, stop worrying about things that don’t involve you personally and are outside of your control, such as politics. As they say, ignorance is bliss!

Trust me, if World War III breaks out, or the plague makes a comeback, you will find out one way or another. Most of what you read in the news is just fear mongering, and has little to no impact on your life.

With the amount of time and effort some people put into fighting tooth and nail over politics, they could easily learn another language, then train for an entirely new career, and finally move to some faraway land where they would have an enchanted life. Problem solved.

If you don’t like how things are going in your country, either move somewhere else (like I did), or cultivate a healthy indifference. Focus on things that are actually under your control — such as, um, your own life.

I was guilty of it too at one point. In my twenties, I spent way too much time worrying about politics and world events. Then I realized how little any of it mattered, and I took another step in the right direction (that is, as far away as possible from the crowds).

Insulate yourself from the madness of society, or be consumed by it.

Step 3: Consider Self-Employment

For some people, the problem isn’t even technology or the media — it’s easy enough to turn off a device, even temporarily — but rather, the fact that they are forced to have stressful interactions in their everyday life.

The workplace (or school, if you are still young) can be a hellish place. There’s a reason why people complain so much about office politics or their boss: it’s one of the main causes of life dissatisfaction.

Once again, I’ve found that the best thing to do is take radical action and strike at the heart of the problem. After trying many different jobs and being exposed to different work environments, I came to the conclusion that the act itself of taking orders from another person was making me unhappy.

I was always the confident type, and I don’t lack creativity, so for me it was almost unavoidable to go down the entrepreneurial path. I’d much rather do something on my own and fail (and learn a valuable lesson in the process) than allow someone else to decide at what time I need to wake up, or how many hours I need to work before I get to eat.

We are all wired differently in this regard, and some people actually prefer being told what to do (so that they don’t have to take responsibility), but I’m sure most people would quit their job in a heartbeat if they had an alternative.

Well, there is an alternative, and it’s called self-employment. With a modicum of effort (and some trial and error), anyone can become their own boss and learn how to make money independently.

There are a thousand different ways to make money in the modern world — too many to address in this article — but the one thing you need to understand is that capitalistic societies revolve around selling (and buying) all sorts of goods and services.

By default, we are all buyers and sellers. Even if you work as an employee, you are effectively trading your time in exchange for money. The trick, so to speak, is to stop selling your labor and start selling a product instead.

Basically, if you can find something (anything!) to sell, whether tangible or intangible, you are good to go.

What you need to do is switch from only being a consumer to also being a producer (or even just a retailer). Get the word out that you are selling stuff — visibility is essential — and see if anyone is interested in buying.

That’s all there is to business, in a nutshell.

You don’t even need to come up with a brand new product: you can simply buy someone else’s product wholesale and distribute it at the retail level, with a nice markup. That’s how most shops make money.

And if you don’t have enough money to start a brick and mortar business, you can build a web-based shop for a few hundred bucks; or you can try your hand at affiliate marketing. There are many options.

Moreover, you can start your business “on the side” while you are still working your day job, and only quit if/when you are sure that the business is going to be successful. It doesn’t get more risk-free than that.

You may not get it right on the first attempt, and there’s definitely a learning curve involved… but I see no reason why you shouldn’t at least try.

The internet is filled with blogs and resources about self-employment and entrepreneurship, so you can get your education on this topic entirely for free. Start browsing the net in your free time, and work your way toward financial independence — one step at a time, without pressure.

Sooner or later you’ll manage to build a side business; and someday it may grow to become your main source of income. It won’t happen overnight, but having some extra money coming in every month is never a bad thing, and the potential for growth is limitless.

If you can figure out how to make a living on your own, you will be closer than ever to freedom, and you will have greatly reduced the number of unpleasant social interactions that you are forced to go through on any given day.

Final Step: Move to a Micro-Nation?

Getting off social media, disavowing politics and starting your own business are all essential steps you need to take if you want to escape the Matrix — but they may not be enough.

Society is such a large, fuzzy entity and it has so many tentacles that it can be difficult to flee its stranglehold… especially if you live in a big country, with a big government that can’t keep its nose away from you.

From tax obligations to government surveillance, from sub-par infrastructure to internet censorship, not to mention the general pervasiveness of a culture and its ideas (which you may not agree with), there are many ways in which a society can exert its unwelcome influence on you and your loved ones.

In that case, you should seriously consider moving. We are now living in an Age of Migrations of sorts, and more people are on the move than at any other point in history, so I’m not suggesting anything outlandish.

Truth be told, emigrating is easier than most people think. (Of course your government and your media will never tell you how easy it is: they have a vested interest in keeping you right where you are).

I can’t tell you where to relocate, since that’s ultimately for you to decide, but one argument I must put forward is that when it comes to countries, smaller is always better.

By all metrics, the most successful countries in the world also happen to be the smallest ones. (If you’ve followed my reasoning in the introduction, and throughout the article, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.)

Places like Singapore, Hong Kong, Liechtenstain, Monaco, or the tiny island-nations of Oceania, all enjoy enormous amounts of wealth per capita, and a murder rate that’s close to zero. They also tend to have efficient, transparent and dependable governments.

Next, you have middle-sized, sparsely populated countries like Qatar, Taiwan, Switzerland or New Zealand, to name but a few. They may not be at the top in every category, but their citizens enjoy a much higher quality of life than most other people on Earth, since those societies are fairly “insulated” from the rest of the world, and not so large that things get out of control internally.

At the opposite end of the spectrum — the absolute worst places to live in, for a multitude of reasons — you have massive and populous countries like China, Russia, Brazil, India, and even the United States. Notice the common pattern: all those countries are rife with corruption, censorship, violent crime, wealth inequality, military conflicts, and a whole lot of noise and trouble in general.

Some will take issue with me lumping the US together with those other countries, but let’s be real: doesn’t the US have a violent crime problem? Doesn’t it have massive inequality? Isn’t the government full of shady people who do shady things for shady reasons? There you have it: the US suffers from the same problems as any other country that’s too big for its own good.

The European Union is headed in the same direction, since it already works like a single country at this point — except it’s also plagued by remarkable internal differences, so it’s the most dysfunctional of them all, in a sense.

For the average person, there are literally no advantages to living in a big and powerful country — save for the fact that you are less likely to be invaded by a foreign army.

But most of us don’t fear invading armies. Rather, we worry about traffic, job opportunities, food and air quality, taxation, freedom of speech, gun crime, social cohesion… and those metrics are always worse in the bigger countries, compared to the smaller ones. Travel a little (or simply check the stats) and you’ll see that I’m exactly right.

If there’s one thing history teaches us, it’s that large societies don’t last for long — not without going through some messy transformations. Empires always crack and fall apart, typically as a result of internal divisions, worsened by the pressure to play power games on the world stage.

Living in a big, badass contemporary “empire” sounds great on paper… but it’s one of those cases where the job title is better than the job itself.

Look at the history of Russia, America and China: bloody civil wars; constant meddling by foreign powers; and in two out of three cases, dictatorships that starved and killed millions. Look at Brazil, with one of the highest homicide rates in the world and a huge poverty problem. Look at the ungodly mess that is European politics. And in all of these places, a small and powerful elite of billionaires has its way with the masses.

Meanwhile, nothing crazy ever happens in Switzerland or Singapore, and that’s awesome. It means the people over there are sleeping well at night and living normal lives. Wouldn’t you trade places with them?

So, go (or stay) wherever you want in the world — but never underestimate the problems that come with overpopulation and too big a government.

And don’t play down the importance of having a small, dependable “tribe” that you can trust and feel welcome in. For better or worse, the laws of Nature will always override all man-made laws.

John Maltese

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Small-business owner and lifelong traveler. Born in Europe; in love with Asia. Writing in English for the world.