You are the product of your environment.
The environment we live in influences, and in some ways, reflects who we are. Similar to how our bodies reflect the foods we eat, the places we visit and the people we meet reflect the way we think and believe.
Being raised in an inner-city neighborhood means you’ll likely live in the same neighborhood as an adult, while growing up in a middle-class area is a strong predictor of your future lifestyle. It’s difficult to escape the chains in which we are bound.
So how do you thrive in an environment that doesn’t support your goals?
The Count of Monte Cristo
In Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the protagonist Edmond Dantès is set up for a promising future. He’s soon to become captain of a ship, newly engaged, and popular amongst his peers. However, his perfect life is about to take a turn for the worse.
A group of men that envy Dantès’ early success in life frame him for treason. As punishment, he is sent to rot in a dangerous prison. From here, he goes from turning to God in prayer, to anger over his situation, to eventually attempting suicide by starvation.
Yet, just when he is on the brink of death, he encounters Abbé Faria, an Italian priest jailed for his political beliefs. Faria is a highly intelligent and resourceful man. He takes Dantès under his wing, teaching him philosophy, history, science and various languages.
The priest’s knowledge and his pupil’s ability to learn quickly make a powerful combination. Dantès becomes well-educated and worldly, all within the confines of an isolated prison. Faria also reveals that, should they ever escape, there is a large treasure hidden on Monte Cristo.
After the priest dies, he helps Dantès once again. Dantès hides himself in the dead man’s shroud, which gets taken out of prison and thrown out to sea. He manages to travel to the island of Monte Cristo, and sure enough, there is a hidden heap of treasure. Dantès immediately becomes wealthy.
Although his newfound fortune assists Dantès in his quest to help those who were good to him and exact vengeance on those who wronged him, it is the knowledge he gained in prison that becomes his most important asset. Using what he has learned, Edmond Dantès rises up to become the powerful and wise Count of Monte Cristo. He awes those around him and is able to infiltrate Parisian society to fulfill his plans.
How to Succeed When Your Environment Is Working Against You
Edmond Dantès goes from having everything to nothing, and then back again. As a nineteen-year old, his future looks promising. Then, his “friends” betray him and take away everything from him. After being in thrown in prison, it seems like all hope is lost.
That is, until he meets the priest after six years in isolation. Under Abbé Faria’s careful tutelage, Dantès accumulates a wealth of knowledge over the next fourteen years. Yet when you think about it, it seems futile to bother learning so much if the knowledge can’t be put to use.
But here’s the key: the real prison is in Dantès’ mind, not the cell he is stuck inside. Soon after talking with Dantès, the priest sees that the young man’s depression isn’t from a lack of healthy food or sunlight, but from a lack of mental stimulation. Faria takes Dantès under his wing and teaches him everything he knows. When the opportunity to escape arrives, Dantès is ready to face the world.
In our everyday lives, our environment often does little to push us towards where we want to be. You might be surrounded by naysayers, people who eat junk food all the time, or work in a toxic environment. Even if you’re in a neutral environment, such as being surrounded by people who neither support nor oppose your goals, it’s hard to give yourself that extra push.
But still, it is possible to thrive in an environment that doesn’t support your goals. Whatever prison you are in, you can start bringing about change if you alter one or more of these factors: ideas, people, and objects.
1. Surround yourself with ideas.
When we use the term “capital”, it’s usually associated with money. We think financial capital, investment capital, or monetary assets. However, there are different types of capital that are just as valuable.
Through time and dedication, you can also accumulate intellectual capital, cultural capital, and social capital. In The Count of Monte Cristo, the wise priest knows that a large bundle of money alone is not enough. He recognizes the value of gaining intellect and knowledge. Later, Dantès recognizes the value of relationships as the person whose life he saved introduces him to Parisian society, taking him into the circle of people he needs to meet to fulfill his goals.
When you accumulate one of these types of capital, it provides an advantage in gaining access to the other two. Of the three capitals, the easiest one to begin with is intellectual capital. Even if you’re far away from where you want to be, you can still immerse yourself in ideas.
You can start picking up ideas from books on philosophy, history, and biographies. You can also absorb ideas from observing concepts and thoughts around you and then put them into practice. For instance, the concept of Lego came from a carpenter who originally made children’s toys out of wood. In order to create Lego toys, he needed the base understanding of constructing toys and the knowledge behind what children wanted.
2. Find people with similar aspirations.
In early 20th century Paris, 27 rue de Fleurus was the coveted meeting place for budding artists and writers. It was the home address of novelist Gertrude Stein, who hosted Saturday evening meetings for artists such as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Anyone serious about improving their art knew that receiving mentorship and discussing their work was paramount to getting the support and help they needed.
For the artists who were getting their feet off the ground, meeting at the Stein Salon on Saturdays helped them receive feedback on their work and exchange ideas. As a result, not only did the attendees become influenced in their work, but they in turn went to influence the literature and art of the day.
Belonging and contributing to a community is essential to strengthening ourselves through bonds to one another. Together, you can become aware of external threats, new opportunities, and experience growth. Similar to how wolves hunt in packs to take down larger animals, people join forces to tackle issues greater than themselves.
Time and again, people have relied on one another to accomplish tasks that would have been nearly impossible to achieve on their own. The Impressionists had their humble beginnings in a Parisian café, where they discussed their unique approach to art and made plans for an independent art exhibition. If they had approached their work independently, they probably wouldn’t have the support they needed and would have faded to obscurity.
Nowadays, you can find your group in numerous ways, whether it’s online, offline, in a local meeting place, or a large organization. In a community, you have the power to be influenced and to influence others.
3. Place objects in your environment to point you in the right direction.
Have you ever gone hiking and seen a stack of stones?
In all likelihood, they were probably made by fellow hikers for fun. But the primary purpose of a human-made pile of stones, otherwise known as a cairn, is to act as a trailblazer. When used properly, a cairn helps hikers to navigate along a path in the wilderness.
Whether you spend most of your time indoors or outdoors, you can apply the concept of trailblazing to improving your everyday habits. Let’s say that you want to dedicate time each week to your freelancing project. While knowing what you want is one thing, the goal becomes more concrete when you set away an hour in your calendar. Blocking out time for the project serves as a physical reminder, or a trailblazer, of your commitment.
You can also physically place objects to act as behavioral trailblazers. If you work in a company office, you might be surrounded by junk food and unhealthy coworkers who rely on takeout meals. Bringing your own meals and putting healthy snacks at your desk makes it more convenient to choose healthy options over the fast food joint downstairs.
If you want to implement change, knowing what you want to do is not enough. Before you can move in the right direction, you need to set up trailblazers to mark the path.
When Growth Meets Opportunity
Sometimes we’re stuck somewhere we don’t want to be. It might mean we’re in the wrong neighborhood, surrounded by the wrong peers, or in the wrong career.
Until you can move to a better environment, you can nurture your goals by getting closer to the right ideas, people, or objects. If you can change even one of these factors in your favor, you can start growing despite negative influences surrounding you. That way, when the time is right and opportunity strikes, you’ll be ready.
Melissa Chu writes about creating great work and successful habits at JumpstartYourDreamLife.com. You can grab the guide How to Get Anything You Want.