Red Pill, Blue Pill: Two Stories of Success
Imagine that, for the longest time, you were asleep.
The entire time you were sleeping, you had an amalgam of different dreams, ranging from euphoric to stressful, or from carefree to outright terrifying. Although these dreams range in perspectives, objectives, emotions and experiences, they are all at the end of the day inherently tied to a single experience where you, an individual who seeks to explore uncharted realms of possibility, can focus on yourself and those closest to you without worry of paying taxes or utility bills, grocery shopping, or even worry necessarily about the question of safety on your way to grab a bite to eat. All these dreams, although different in nature, all tie to an experience in which many of your closest friends, peers and inspirations are within a walk or a bus ride away, the gym is within close enough proximity to not really have any excuse for not exercising, the bars, parties and events are all similarly accessible, as well as computer labs, libraries and other resources to provide, or at least give some direction to, answers to all your greatest intellectual inquiries. In this dream exists proximity, convenience and adventure, one that pragmatically yet ironically includes a level of worry and responsibility, as well as previously unseen freedom and autonomy.
Then of course, as all dreams do, it eventually comes to a sudden and unexpected end, for some with a rude awakening. One day, you wake up from this diverse and unpredictable set of experiences, and the volatility of everyday life is suddenly replaced by what seems to be a future filled with routine and monotony. On this day you are woken up by your closest family, friends and supporters who are often crying cheers of “congratulations,” “you did it,” and “we’re so proud,” and you are now wearing the exact cap and gown that you had previously seen only in pictures or videos of relatives or celebrities receiving their honorary doctorates from prestigious institutions — a whirlwind of emotions that includes excitement, sadness, nostalgia, confusion, uncertainty, faith, and fear. Amongst these messages is an “our job is done; thanks for the money and good luck in the real world!” message from your university as they politely yet aggressively push you out their doors, out the gates and into a world of personal and professional responsibility, organization and self-preservation.
Welcome! It’s freshmen year, all over again. Culture Shock 101.
Immediately, upon waking up from the dream, the voice inside your head, or your gut, or the universe, or God, or whatever your personal name for God may be, or Morpehus (i.e. whomever it is that prompts inquiries into your mind for reflection and progression) presents to you two hands, each with a distinct option that will determine your immediate future: one red pill in one hand, one blue pill in the other. These two options are, upon finishing up whatever level of schooling you’ve recently completed to assert yourself not only as having gone through the system but actually beating it and attaining your diploma, ultimately the two options you have as you look out into the scary, undefined possibilities that make up what is now known as “your future.”
Then, you start to really think about what each option entails:
If you take the Red Pill, you realize the motivation and confidence to follow your dreams.
Whatever that thing may be, to be a famous musician, to be a writer, author or poet, to be a fine artist or designer, to own or run a non-profit, to be an athlete or a public speaker. You realize your own inherent ability and motivation to dedicate your time to being the absolute best version of yourself and to refine your craft by any and all means, whatever that craft(s) may be. You become aware, if you are not already, that time is precious, that we all, inherently as human beings, have one life to live that is considered our own and that it is, despite what many neglect to acknowledge, not infinite.
Complacency is no longer an option. Laziness or settling for anything less than extraordinary can not and will not be your future, for in order to succeed you must work hard, and you quickly come to the understanding that you will not work any harder doing anything else other than that which you love. You aspire to and work towards eliminating things from your life that do not make you excited to wake up in the morning, fill your life solely with the things that do, and work harder than you ever have as a result.
If you take the Blue Pill, you become an everyday person, an Average Joe, a layman.
With the Blue Pill, you continue throughout your career on the standard and often predetermined path, either as a result of your race, class, social status or otherwise held social or economic capital. The Blue Pill manifests itself in working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. sharp; it means working for someone else your entire life, in return for that someone’s compensation and, at least within the confines of your career, never truly working for yourself. Being an artist professionally or even being an entrepreneur are not included in this path, for it is the option of security and normality.
With the Blue Pill, you do indeed make enough money to survive, as well as to thrive occasionally. You take one big vacation a year, work standard hours, work your way through the corporate ladder which, assuming you work hard enough, could eventually result in a couple pay bumps and possibly future management positions [if that’s your thing]. Because of the standard eight-hour workday, you spend ample time with family and friends and even get the chance to pursue some of your long-held passions outside of the workplace, which, although not professionally, may include artistic, intellectual, public service, or even athletic pursuits. Assuming proper organization and motivation, you can ensure a healthy eight hours of sleep every night, which most people do not get, while also waking up early enough to continue your pursuits in the morning before work, starting every single day exactly how you’d like to. Reading books of your favorite genre, reading the newspaper over breakfast, and shared-interest meet-up’s are all a part of your daily routine, with still enough time to relax every once and awhile. You are continually making new friends and experiencing something new because your so-called life of ordinariness permits it, in contrast to the Red Pill’s quest for meaning that necessitates the work being your life, as opposed to work being a part of your life.
To be honest, life isn’t too bad, at least outside of the eight hour workday. Besides work, you’re having a blast, focused on family, recreation, happiness in other pursuits, and continually striving to attain a balanced lifestyle and a comfortable income.
As you can see by the language I am using, the Red Pill is something that is often praised by the general public but, given the reality of truly following your dreams, presents some challenges that I’d love to take into consideration.
Is the narrative of following your dreams entirely positive?
Sure, we’re all aware of the accomplishments and innovations of those who pursued some of their craziest ideas, realized their passions and worked harder than everyone else in their field, but we’ve also become increasingly aware of the lifestyles that many of the actors and actresses of these achievements lead: lack of family time, loss of social awareness or involvement, inability to pursue anything other than work.
Recently, I finished one of the most prolific and influential works of literature, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. As an aspiring black intellectual, writer and public influence, Malcolm’s story changed my perspective and life in ways that most often cannot be explained solely in words, but rather only through my future actions and overall perspective on life. Even in Malcolm’s story, however, he speaks of his wife and family, who were so incredibly supportive of him and his endeavors, despite him never being home. At one point, he directly mentions, not long before his assassination, that he came to the realization that he was not getting to know or spend as much with his daughters as he would have hoped, due to traveling, working, speaking engagements and other factors that evidently only allotted him three to four hours of sleep per night, many times while traveling, and limited days at home with his family.
There is no doubt that the achievements, movements and ideas sparked by Malcolm X forever changed the course upon which this country’s ship was sailing, but I mention this because one, it is fresh in my mind, and two, because it is one of the many examples in which people often times are not aware of the other side of the story of such success. By no means am I personally suggesting that Malcolm X’s work should have been necessarily stopped or even delayed in exchange for time with his family; I believe it is up to each individual to decide that fate for themselves. For some, though, achievements and aspirations towards changing the world may be worth sacrifices such as these, but for others, it is always something worth taking into consideration.
So, whether this month you are receiving a diploma, switching roles or careers, or simply inquisitive as to what your next steps in life may be, the question I certainly hope to ask is: which pill will you take?
Are each of these options equally valid paths to what society and individuals often constitute as success?
What we have defined as the Red Pill is certainly an option that is often venerated by society, one of well-doing, intelligence, action, perseverance and overcoming obstacles. Taking the Red Pill is a path of silencing the haters, proving the doubters wrong, often lifting up those who have fallen, and creating a life of recognition. This is achieved by focusing on what exactly it is that one has personally identified as their intellectual, creative or otherwise professional passions.
For others, the Blue Pill make a compelling case. A life of so-called complacency could also be aligned with a life of simplicity, one where they are often, if not always, on the clock for someone else. A life where their intellectual, creative or otherwise professional pursuits simply won’t be pursued during the [hopefully] forty to fifty hours per week that they are working, but rather, assuming the attainment of a role in society with a manageable work-life balance, will be pursued otherwise. A life where family, relationships and experiences are the top priority, as opposed to working, creating or solving. Would these two paths not be equally considered successful, both in the eyes of society as well as, for many of us, in our own two?
This, frankly, has been something I’ve been struggling with recently as a twenty-something living in a major metropolitan city, evidently working for a large corporate giant where each individual is, at the end of the day, replaceable. This has caused me to, at least in my short time in the real world, opt for the Blue Pill, striving to work no more than forty-five hours per week and ensuring that I am doing the things that make me incredibly happy to be alive the other fifty-six hours of the week that I am awake: spending time with my partner, developing extant relationships and building new ones, reading as if life is a class with unlimited homework, writing down most thoughts that come to my mind, playing sports I’ve never played before and experiencing places and cultures I’ve never seen before, all while, might I add, working for “the man” and being an ‘Average Joe’.
That being said, however, the very fact that I have the time to explore these things, to build the relationships that I find important and to attain the knowledge I pursue is something that I would not be afforded if I were to, as I’ve often mentioned the possibility to some of my close peers, dedicate my time to becoming a professional writer, entrepreneur, full-time creative, and/or my own boss. Executives and other upper management in corporate environments continue to serve as testaments to this idea, demonstrating the sacrifices that these pursuits may require: delaying having a family, delaying meeting a significant other or simply not remembering to call your mother. Again, this is not to denounce any actions of those who have become successful by accepting the sacrifices I have outlined in this piece, but simply to serve as a reminder, if not a notification, of both sides of the story of success.
That being said, I can only speak objectively about my personal experience.
What I’ve learned, in my nascent adulthood, is that truthfully you can do either, taking either the blue pill or the red pill, as long as you know yourself and what makes you happy, keeping that as the number one priority.
What is inherently lost in taking the Blue Pill is the assumption that you can not do exactly what it is that you want to do when you have a 9–5, or that you cannot change the world outside of your occupation; I want to challenge that.
What I am coming to learn is that, at least for now, it doesn’t matter where or when you do it, as long as you do it. Eventually each person will learn what’s best for them, what’s best for their career, and what’s best for those immediately around them. At the end of the day, you can and will achieve your own personal definition of success, assuming you want to, whether or not it’s necessarily a part of your career or your job at the time.* (*Footnote: I want to take a moment here to acknowledge those who unfortunately do not have the opportunity or capability, due to certain circumstances or job requirements, to explore themselves in the way in which I am promoting. I completely acknowledge those who do not have the luxury of working less than fifty hours per week because at the end of the day they need to work. I realize that this idea, although I believe applies to everyone, is not easy for many, and I wanted to take a second to recognize that.) Realizing, too, that life is mercurial — you never, ever know what’s going to happen next or what opportunity is going to present itself in the near future. You will bounce between different ideas that require different visions of what it means to be successful, how to follow your passions and how exactly to do them within those spaces. You must know yourself, be yourself, and trust yourself.
So if you’re like me and you’re lost, and you’re not quite sure what’s going on in the present, let alone what your future entails, my main piece of advice is do what you want. It is literally that simple. By do what you want, I mean be aware of what makes you excited to wake up in the morning, and then wake up and do it. As much as you can, as often as you can, as passionately as you can. As long as you know what makes you tick, whether it’s art or music or writing or teaching or public service, and relentlessly work towards it either inside or outside your current profession, it is my hope that you will achieve your own personal definition of success.
I will end with this: no matter what path you choose to take, never constrain yourself to becoming a “thing”, or some title, or the next whoever. For those interested in science and healing bodies, I ask you to not solely constrain yourself to being a doctor, and similarly for those interested in computers to not solely see yourself as the next great software engineer. I even urge those who aspire to more grand things to never restrict themselves to becoming the next Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michelle Obama or Malcolm X, for when you put names and labels on things you inherently restrict yourself to the very limits of these definitions and do not allow yourself to explore outside of them, or even surpass them. A wise woman once told me, “You don’t have to know what you want to be when you grow up; what you were put on this earth to do probably doesn’t even exist yet. So there is no way for you to know!”
Be passionate, be aware, be hard working, and be you.