“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.” -Henry David Thoreau
I’ve said it before, but there’s no harm in repeating – the above is one of my favorite quotes. I’ve essentially been treating it as my life’s mantra since the day I came across it in the conclusion portion of Thoreau’s “Walden.” The majority of the book (especially the beginning) is – in my opinion – actually a bit boring to read. It’s a basically a collection of Thoreau’s thoughts on what constitutes “living,” written from his voluntary, reclusive residence in a one room cabin on Walden Pond – a lot of musings and existential thinking and stereotypical “deep thoughts.” It’s kind of like talking to a drunk guy with no personality who’s been sitting at the same barstool since 8 AM – “What is life, man? Ya know?” I suppose I should give Thoreau credit for some pretty killer imagery and literary comparisons when describing the wildlife that Walden Pond attracts, and he does garner a few LOLs with his witty jabs at the general population. For example: “While England endeavors to cure the potato-rot, will not any endeavor to cure the brain-rot, which prevails so much more widely and fatally?” Zing! However, the conclusion portion of the book is where it’s at. Lots of quote-able nuggets nestled about its many paragraphs. I remember reading it in high school (Mr. Harmon’s class) and that “different drummer” part just jumping out at me and running on a loop in my brain for the remainder of the day. I dog eared the corner (because you can’t use highlighters on official school property) and then when I got home I typed it out in a fancy font in Microsoft Word, printed it out on a piece of computer paper and fun tack’d it to the outside of my bedroom door. Pretty sure it’s still there, too – tack and all.
He prefaced the quote with this: “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises?” and, here’s the thing…
I think I finally realize what my pal HDT was trying to say.
It’s not hard to see why that quote would appeal so much to a high school teen. At that age you’re all about challenging authority and being an individual. Square pegs don’t fit in round holes. Why follow the path when you can blaze a trail? I mean, take your pick of senior class quotes – they’re all the same verbal message, just wrapped up in different grammatical paper. They’re all about taking your uniqueness out into the world and making it a better place. Dream big, do bigger! You’re the key! You’ve got what the rest don’t! And while that it true, if you back up one sentence it’s clear Thoreau’s getting at something deeper. He’s talking about being yourself, but he’s also throwing a little shade at how we are constantly comparing ourselves to others and setting our own bars by how high our neighbors have theirs set. Think about it. This world is ripe with this comparison epidemic – social media being the biggest culprit. How many times do you find yourself scrolling through your news feed reading posts and seeing pictures and thinking about how your life does or doesn’t measure up to the highlight reel you’re basing it off of? The farther down we scroll the crappier we feel about our own life accomplishments or lack thereof. Suddenly what we bring to the table isn’t enough. But, “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises?” Why, my friends are we desperately trying to keep up with the proverbial Jones’s? Because, we never will.
I’m one hundred percent sure that tomorrow’s impending milestone birthday is the culprit of this revelation, but chalk it up to me embracing my almost thirty-year-old status. You can quote me: Constant life comparisons will be our undoing. If I compared all the things I’ve accomplished thus far to all the things you have accomplished, I’d probably feel like the last twenty-nine years of my life have been a complete waste and vice versa. But if we list our own accomplishments and let them stand alone, they all seem pretty impressive. I’m just as guilty as everyone else. Telling people that I graduated college with a degree in broadcasting feels like a cop out. Because in my head, “talking for a living” is nowhere near as noble a profession as say, using science to study and solve world problems. Ya know? All of a sudden my personal accomplishment of completing a four year program in three years with damn near perfect attendance and a 3.8 GPA to obtain a degree in my desired professional field is more or less a sloppy finger painting compared to the Chemistry and Microbiology double major Mona Lisa who is continuing another four year pursuit to obtain her doctorate. I look at others who have amassed this super versatile, young professional wardrobe and have full time, big kid jobs and all of a sudden my three part time jobs and closet full of gym shorts and Target tees seems unworthy and embarrassing. But, who’s to say being a radio personality or a voice actor isn’t as impressive as a chemist or a microbiologist? And, who’s to say that bartending in a Target tee is low brow and managing a department in a smart outfit equals higher status? We do! In our heads. We say this stuff to ourselves constantly! We convince ourselves that we’re behind schedule or professionally lacking or our relationships aren’t progressing as quickly as everyone else's. We carry this guilt of not being enough because – in our heads – everyone else has the cooler job, the perfect family, the more put together home, the bigger bank account, the dream spouse, the list goes on.
We give ourselves the short end of the stick, but we’ve done a lot of super impressive things, guys. I’m talking really cool shit. Think about all you’ve done in just this past year. How many goals did you reach? How many items did you check off your to do list? How pounds did you lose? How many toddlers did you potty train? How many dinners did your family rave about? How many work problems did you solve? We are all leading impressive lives, people!
Reflecting is mandatory on the eve of turning thirty (as is true with any major milestone birthday, I would imagine), and in doing my fair share of it these past few weeks this Thoreau quote is just speaking volumes and proving more relevant to me now than it did those ten-plus years ago. By comparing myself at thirty to others of the same age, I’m deeming myself unworthy of the title. But as HDT says, the “apple tree” and the “oak” cannot mature at the same rate. “Shall he turn his spring into summer?” No way! Imagine if spring and summer were the same thing. That would suck. We would have no new life to look forward to after the bare winds of winter and the colors and temperatures of autumn would look less impressive and feel less refreshing if we had none of summer’s vibrant greens and sunshine to proceed it. We need to stop comparing our springs to other’s summers. Spring and summer both stand alone in their own merit. They each contribute equally admirable qualities in their own time. And, thus it is with personal accomplishments.
Thirty carries with it this terrifying preface of being a reminder of life un-lived or a life stood still, but I say bring it on. I’ve pulled off a decent handful of accomplishments, and I’m optimistic that another decent handful awaits me as the “dirty thirty” ushers in the next decade. If your outlook is less confident, let me use my concluding sentences to drive home this one thing. Should you find yourself at a similar crossroad, my advice is this: Let your list stand alone. Take those filled with other’s accomplishments and toss them out the window. Follow the beat of your cadence and step away.