In 2008 I was in the midst of a nasty deployment schedule and what felt like the continuous death of deployed friends. So. Just four years away from a retirement, I decided it was time to leave the SEAL teams and quit the Navy.
With four kids, two houses and a lifetime of responsibility ahead of me -- I decided it was due time to jump on what I thought was the risk free “road most traveled” of work, family, eat, sleep, and repeat. It seemed like a good, safe, and reasonable plan. But it almost killed me, and if you’re over thirty-five, it might be killing you too.
A Safe Way to Die
For a while I traveled the traditional path of earning a living. I worked for a corporation, produced results, big results, and climbed the ladder for a bit.
It took a few years, but eventually, I began to feel a kind of decay. I became quick to anger, started to drink every day, and gained some weight.
Oh man. If I’m being honest, I even stopped doing the things that brought me joy. My regular activities: surfing, backpacking, climbing, running and free diving were no longer so regular. It was like those things no longer interested me.
This “safe route” was actually killing me; it was just doing it so softly over such a long period of time, I hadn’t noticed. Do you know what I mean? Does that sound familiar?
Why Do We March Off Cliffs Together?
I think I would have noticed this death march much sooner, but it turned out that there were all kinds of dudes surrounding me on the same path. For a while I thought I was missing something. I mean these guys looked successful and happy— looked good, dressed well, beautiful families and cars. I thought it was the path to be on. Like they knew something I just hadn’t figured out yet, but that wasn’t the case.
I remember hanging at a BBQ at a friends house and listening to a few guys joking about how fat they had gotten and how things like sex and working out had become things of the past. I had really thought they were just telling “Old Guy” jokes, but as the night progressed I realized that they weren’t joking. They were screaming for help. Sure they were sharing their pain but they were masking it in sarcasm in hopes of learning that everyone around them was living the same kind of life.
Now. If I’m being honest again I have to tell you this. That night I laughed it off and thought to myself, “those poor sons-of-bitches. Sucks to be them”. But then on the ride home I pondered it all and was surprised to realize that not only was I on the same path as they were, but I had been on that very path for a while. As the look of “I’m glad I’m not those guys” wore off my face, I really started to ask myself “how in the hell could I have let this happen”?
Here’s What I Found Out
It turns out there was a bit of psychology going on. This phenomenon is called “herd mentality”. The herd mentality ultimately results in this thing called deindividuation -- the loss of self awareness in favor operating from a group emotion instead of your own rational thought.
The default behaviors of this mentality are: acting from auto-pilot, not making a conscious effort to form one’s own opinion or decisions (also, letting stress affect those choices), and only desiring social acceptance instead of working toward a goal. Again. I bet that sounds familiar. If so, you know the deal. Keep reading.
So the question not only is how do we break free from the herd, but how do we make sure we don’t fall back into it? To begin to answer this here, I thought I’d describe some of the “withdrawals” I felt as I pulled my mouth off the udders of others and stepped out on my own.
Four Ways You Know You’re Breaking The Herd
Fully aware that I had been wrapped up in this nasty deindividuation thing, which could only lead me off a cliff to splat on the rocks below with all of the other dazed and bloated cattle, I became hypervigilant. I quit watching and following everyone else's lead. I stopped hanging out with people who were miserable. I stopped consuming any news or social media. I stepped off their path of conventional and old school careers and started to blaze my own. Was it risky? You bet. Was it frightening? Often it was terrifying. Was it worth it? I say yes, without a shadow of doubt.
It actually took me a while to fully break loose. It makes sense if you think about it. I mean, if you’ve gotten yourself to the point that you were mindlessly marching off a cliff, you can bet there are all kinds of other things, subtle things, that you have simply become unaware of.
Now free from the herd, well except from the occasional visit to get my udder fix, I can look back and share four distinct adjustments or maybe better said “Growing Pains” that told me I was truly making a break.
First: There's that initial period of time spent alone. The time after you give up on those who will not come with you, and before you create your true tribe of those who will and can.
Second: The transition feels a lot like being lost in the woods with bad weather approaching and the sun setting. The anxiety is multiplied times the amount of kids you have and the size of your mortgages. What I’m saying is there’s some second guessing and sleepless nights. No kidding, I still wake up in the middle of the night thinking about that time in my life.
Third: I often thought of those who took the paved road, and sometimes I even envied their guaranteed arrival at their destination. Even when I knew they were going somewhere like an RV park or a golf course I sometimes thought about how peaceful and pleasant their path must be even though it was bereft of passion, fun, or inspiration. Their words not mine.
Fourth: The worst of part of this all is the daily reminder that if you fail, there is no one to blame but yourself. There are no other fat ass cows around for you to point at and blame. If you go down, you’re on your own. It will be all of your fault! Think about it, isn’t it our desire to avoid blame the real reason we take the path of the “herd” rather than forge our own?
Discussions of a Tribe:
Answer these below.
1) Where are you currently living the “herd life”?
2) Name something that is stopping you from pulling yourself from the udders of others?
3) Where in your life have you “broken free of the herd”?
In what ways and how much did the withdrawal hurt?
In what ways and how are you glad you did it?