Life’s not a Caucus Race in Wonderland

Jeffrey Erkelens
Dec 29, 2019 · 11 min read

In ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ the Dodo Bird proposes a caucus race where contestants run in patterns of any shape, starting and leaving off whenever they like, so that everyone wins, and everyone gets a prize.

Had the Dodo known better, he wouldn’t be extinct.

Life is not a game of musical chairs where everyone gets a chair, especially in today’s world where the rules keep getting disrupted at breakneck speed. Adapt, or you’re out! That’s the rule.

But that’s not what we tell our children, is it? Instead, we lie. “You can be anything you want to be!” we say, or, “The world’s your oyster!” or, “Work hard, follow the rules, and the prize is yours!”

I call bullshit.

We keep sending kids to our industrial-model schools where lessons are pelted on them like hailstones on flowers to get them ready for a world that will be dramatically different by the time they come out of the assembly line. We then scare them into the halls of higher education as the only route to success and shrug our shoulders when they come out and tell us they can’t find a full time job and are saddled with debt for the rest of their lives.

I call that a raw deal.

We entice them with images of ordinary people in faded jeans, t-shirts and flip-flops who went from rags-to-riches or online celebrity, seemingly overnight, and tell kids they can do it too. Rarely do we bother to show them the flip side of the coin… the tradeoffs, the grueling hours, the burnout, the number of people they will have to step on to get to the top of the food chain, nor are we honest with them and explain the role luck, timing, chance or connections play in success.

Be prudent, we counsel. Get ahead of the game. Start saving for retirement. Set up a 401K while young. But when a group of scoundrels on Wall Street gamble their money and blow it, then get away with it, our wisdom goes no deeper than saying ‘that’s really messed up.’

I call that a disservice.

Stay true to who you are, we tell teen boys. Be kind, respectful, a gentleman… girls really appreciate that. But when the blunt truth slaps their pimpled face with a cruel onslaught of rejections, we meet their despair with a cliché, like, ‘never mind those girls… you’re too good for them.’

“We’re failing in the most basic aspect of teaching kids about the human experience. Disappointment is more common than success, unhappiness is more common than happiness. It’s the first insight of every religion and robust philosophy.” — Dr. Leonard Sax, author of ‘Boys Adrift.’

My book for boys is meant to prepare them for the inevitable disappointments in life. My aim is not to sugarcoat reality but tell it like it is. “Most of us will never be rich and famous,” I tell them, “and that’s okay.”

“The world owes you nothing — zero, zip, nada. Remember… you are lucky to be alive on this magical planet. Honor that gift by contributing to the unfolding story of the Universe.”

I then elaborate:

“Someone once said that the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. Way too many people never discover their true calling because they are too busy thinking of all the things they want to be, instead of what they can be. For instance, while I never dreamt of becoming a famous basketball player when I was young, had I done so, I would’ve never made it, not only because I am too short, but because I can’t run or pivot fast enough. In any case, I don’t care for the sport.

Many people, instead of trusting their intuition… rather than understanding their innate strengths, temperament, and limitations, place their trust on what others tell them they should be. So when they fail, or, better said, feel like they’ve failed, it just means that they did not live up to someone else’s idea of success.

I think it would be better if everyone decided for himself what success means. That way, the target would not shift all the time. It’s just like fashion. One day ‘they’ tell us what we’re supposed to wear, and as soon as we obey them, they change their minds and say ‘No! Not that anymore! This is what you must now wear to be cool and fashionable,’ and we all run around like idiots trying to please them. Who are these people anyway? Where do they hide? I picture them sitting high up in a mountain laughing at how dumb we are for paying attention to what they say, filling our closets with stuff we don’t need.”

I then try to dispel de illusion that we are all equal or somehow special, which inevitably leads to disappointment, narcissism, or a sense of entitlement. “You’re not special,” I say. “No one is born ‘special.’ What we are is unique.”

“Think of the world as a giant orchestra, with its string section (violins, cellos, etc.), the woodwinds (flutes, clarinets), the brass section (trumpets, trombones, tubas), and percussion (drums, cymbals, triangles and tambourines). Each and every one of us has a particular place in the world; a unique instrument to play. To be in harmony, we must play the role that best suits our nature and capacities.

I think the dumbest question a grownup can ask a kid is ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Using the word ‘what’ at the start of the question automatically implies that the kid is a thing, rather than a person. It sends him the message that the only way he can be, is to turn himself into someone else. The best answer to that question is, ‘myself.’

The question should begin with the word, ‘who.’ Who do you want to be when you grow up?

Asking ‘who’ is the same as asking ‘What kind of person do you want to be as you grow up?’ And here is where it is useful to think of your heroes and the qualities which makes you admire them. You’re not trying to be them, but like they are. Big difference.

A good follow-up question is: How would you like to live your life?

Imagine you’re 70 years-old sitting outdoors by an open fire surrounded by your grandchildren eager for you to tell them how you lived your life. Would you rather tell them a story, or give them an explanation? Answer that, and you will have found the secret ingredient to a satisfying life.

Would you rather have little else to tell them than ‘this and that happened to me and there wasn’t much I could do about it, so, yeah, that’s what happened, and then I got old and tired and there’s not much I can do now, and… the end?

Or would you rather mesmerize your grandchildren with an adventure story… the true story of the many dangers and challenges you faced and overcame, the dragons you slayed, your travels, the places you explored, the people you rescued, the hearts you mended, wounds you healed, and all the things you learned along the way? I can almost picture them — far in the distant future — looking up at you with wide-eyed admiration, not missing a word you say, calling you a ‘hero,’ or ‘legend,’ learning from your wisdom and getting excited as they imagine their own adventures.

So tell me, how do you want to live your life?

Would you want to do something you love even if it doesn’t make you a millionaire, or do something you hate as long as it makes you rich?

Do you want to work long hours even if it means not being able to spend time with your kids?

Would you rather have a million fans you never meet in person, or one very good friend you can turn to when you’re sad or in trouble?

Would you like to own a lot of stuff you have to worry about, or just stuff you need?

Do you want to be someone else, or yourself?

Choices are for men. Wanting everything is like hoping to find a pink elephant in the jungle.

There’s more to being a king than getting your way all the time. — Mufasa, The Lion King

Be warned, though. Choosing to be yourself will be the hardest battle. Many people will reject you — for what you look like, how you think, what you say, or how you choose to live your life.

We all want to be liked and belong. We all want to feel included and validated. I get it. However, some kids go to the craziest and most dangerous extremes to earn people’s approval, like joining a gang or online hate group; even changing the way they look through plastic surgery.

Here’s the thing though… as President Lincoln said: ‘You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.’ And the one person you can never, ever fool, is yourself.


What happens when your dreams don’t come true no matter what you do or how hard you fight? When life presents you with obstacles you just can’t push away or dodge? You’ll learn a lot about yourself when that happens.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. — John C. Maxwell

My stepmother, for instance, wanted to move to the American West in her early twenties. She wanted to work at an Indian reservation and help children. That was her dream. But almost at once, both her parents got really sick and she had to care for them for many years. She couldn’t do what she wanted or was good at doing. She did what had to be done, and she did it with a smile, with great care and devotion, until they died. My stepmother is one of my heroes precisely because of this.”


When it comes to girls, my message to young boys is equally blunt and straightforward. I want to prepare them for the onslaught of rejections they will inevitably face. I want to avoid them the fate of Elliot Rodger and that of the many innocent lives he took not knowing how else to deal with his suffering.

“My life didn’t start dark and twisted,” Elliot wrote in his manifesto. “I started out as a happy, blissful child, living my life to the fullest in a world I thought was good and pure. Ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection, and unfulfilled desires.”

Elliot Rodger (22) wrote this before stabbing three men to death in his apartment. Afterwards, he drove to the sorority house in which my elder daughter lived and shot three female students, killing two. Next, he drove to a nearby deli, shot and killed a male student, then sped through Isla Vista, shooting pedestrians and striking others with his car. Rodger exchanged gunfire with police during the attack, receiving a gunshot to the hip. The rampage ended when his car crashed into a parked vehicle. Police found him dead in the car with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering. — Parker Palmer

As a young boy, Elliot was told by his mother to be polite and kind. Girls like that, she said. But Elliot soon found out that, “In a decent world, that would be ideal. But the polite, kind gentleman doesn’t win in the real world. The girls don’t flock to the gentleman. They flock to the alpha male. They flock to the boys who appear to have the most power and status. It was a ruthless struggle to reach such a height. It was too much for me to handle. I was still a little boy with a fragile mind.”

Elliot Rodger

In Chapter 12 of my book, I try to demystify the female gender, which often becomes an obsession by the time boys hit puberty:

“You’re probably too young to be thinking about girls so might want to skip this chapter. But before you go, let me warn you that soon you’ll be thinking of nothing but girls… day and night… trust me. So while I still have your attention, let me ask you a quick question: Do you like Brussel Sprouts?

I don’t.

I actually hate them and know many people who share my distaste for the smelly vegetable.

Does this mean Brussel Sprouts are unlikeable or disagreeable? Not in the least. It so happens I also know many people who love them.

What’s my point?

That people’s tastes are subjective. They are based on opinions, emotions, sensations, or feelings which are particular to each one of us. My dislike of Brussel Sprouts is not based on any fact outside of who I am. I just don’t like the way they smell. That sensation has made me form an opinion about their taste.

I was a Brussel Sprout all the way to my senior year in high school. I don’t mean plump and smelly, but short and scrawny. Many girls rejected me, preferring Broccoli instead… the jocks at my school. For a while, I tried to turn myself into a Broccoli but that didn’t work out too well.”


“There is no real mystery about girls. They’re not goddesses, but flesh-and-blood humans, just like you and me. Thinking they are goddesses is what gets guys in all sorts of trouble. They lose their minds and end up placing girls on pedestals to be worshipped. They build an unrealistic image in their heads of the ‘perfect’ girl and waste lots of time trying to match that idealized image in the real world. That’s probably the origin of the phrase ‘blinded by love’. Their biggest problem, it seems to me, is that they don’t have much to do with their lives so chase girls instead, hoping to find one who will fill that hole. They get too intense (which freaks girls out), and they end up being rejected over and over again. What they forget is that girls are not meant to substitute for a boy’s lack of a life of his own. First get a life, then find the girl!

Girls want to be honored, not worshipped. Respected, not venerated. Appreciated, not idealized. They like someone who pays attention and listens to them. Someone whose conversation extends beyond their latest score on Fortnite or Call of Duty. They value affection, tenderness, honesty, and openness. A sense of humor is a big plus.

Of course there will be girls who will still prefer Broccoli and reject you despite doing everything right. Since I’ve already trained you on the Life Force of Clear-Eyed Optimism, you’ll know exactly what to do when that happens, and it will happen, over and over again, so long as you insist on being someone you are not, or seeing girls as objects of conquest or goddesses instead of who they are — ordinary human beings.”

Life is not a game of musical chairs where everyone gets a chair. That’s for Dodo Birds.

Most of us will never marry the ‘girl or boy of our dreams,’ or work at a job we love, or be rich and famous.

Justice won’t always be served to those who cheat, lie, embezzle, or deceive.

Good deeds are not always rewarded.

Bullies, cads, and scumbags sometimes become men of great power.

Life is not a cakewalk in wonderland. It’s no buffet either where one gets to choose what one wants. It’s sit-down dinner, where what you’re served is what you must eat — joys, sorrows, victories, disappointments, love, loss… the whole enhilada.

Being honest with young people and then helping them navigate reality, instead of feeding them false illusions, is our duty as elders of the human tribe. If we keep failing them, let’s at least not act all shocked when the next Elliot Rodger rings another desperate wake-up call with a shower of bullets and a bath of blood.


Follow the book’s journey to publication.

Jeffrey Erkelens

Written by

Flying fish. Iconoclast. Currently writing ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys: https://www.facebook.com/bookforboys/

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade