The Mold

Society expects us to fit into a mold.

And society has countless molds that it expects us to fit into.

There’s the Body Type Mold, the Moral Standards Mold, the Workplace Behavior Mold, and the largest, most overarching, and most insidious, the Societal Success Mold – aka The Mold.

And we’re raised to think that the more of these molds we fit into, the better things will be.

And there’s truth to that idea. If we brush our teeth, style our hair, take enough baths, eat right and exercise, don’t break the law, say the right things, go to college, find a job, get married, get a house, have kids, raise those kids, build a career, save for retirement, retire, and then die, we’ll be met with a lot of positive feedback from our societal peers.

And that positive feedback will feel good.

But if we stray, even for a moment, from what society deems “normal”, we’ll be met with a lot of negative feedback.

And that negative feedback will feel bad.

Society will tell us that we’ve gone too far off the “right” path and it will implore us to find our way back. And through grit and determination, and with a lot of encouragement from our societal peers, we will ultimately come back to the “right” way of doing things.

We will reorient ourselves as we struggle to once again fit into The Mold.

But our struggles are no accident. It’s not easy to sand away the roughness of our character in order to become “socially acceptable” human beings.

Because there’s one simple truth that is not often talked about:

  • No one fits perfectly into The Mold.

The people that look like they fit perfectly are simply better able to compartmentalize their frustrations into a hidden corner of their subconscious than those that struggle fitting in.

These “perfect fits” are submissive to their desires for belonging and community in a way that overrides their desires for freedom and independence.

How Does The Mold Manifest In Our Lives?

Throughout my childhood, I was pressured into believing that I needed to have my life’s direction figured out by the time I was 18 and ready to enter college.

I heard that I had until I was 18 to “figure out life”. But if I turned 18 and I hadn’t figured anything out, I would become “societally useless”.

I looked around at my high school peers and saw that many of them had indeed “figured out life”.

They had found socially acceptable colleges to study at, picked out good-looking majors, and planned out seemingly respectable paths that would take them well into old age.

But the problem was that they were unable to see anything else. If I expressed reservations about the path, they would tell me that I was being ridiculous. They would say that this path was important, that no other path was as important, and that society needed me to become this kind of person. To them, this path was the ultimate goal of societal expression. If I neglected this path, then I would be neglecting the only “true” path that could take me to the goal of societal fulfillment. They were trying to fit me into The Socially Intellectual Mold of Business and Science.

Eventually, I awkwardly stumbled onto a path that looked objectively cool while also being acceptable within the confines of The Mold.

In the process of finding my path, I tried to offer myself a compromise between the burning creativity I harbored in my soul and the burning desire to become a “productive member of society”.

That was a really dumb thing to do.

Society Mold

Scientific Glassblowing – That SOUNDS like it could be pretty cool…

After a few years of intense emotional suffering, I hit a breaking point at 23 years old.

I left everything behind and decided to completely change my life’s direction.

That’s when I heard that I really had until I was 25 to “figure out life”. But if I turned 25 and I hadn’t figured anything out, I would become “societally useless”.

Alright, the pressure’s on… two years to get my life in order…

Those two years were spent nurturing the creative spirit that I’d neglected when I was trying to fit into The Socially Intellectual Mold of Business and Science.

The societal peers I was now interacting with were all about me pursuing this path, unlike those peers I had when I was in high school. They were supportive, encouraging, and even a little bit compassionate. It finally felt like I was “fitting in”.

But the problem was that they were unable to see anything else. If I expressed reservations about the path, they would tell me that I was being ridiculous. They would say that this path was important, that no other path was as important, and that society needed me to become this kind of person. To them, this path was the ultimate goal of societal expression. If I neglected this path, then I would be neglecting the only “true” path that could take me to the goal of societal fulfillment. They were trying to fit me into The Socially Creative Mold of Arts and Humanities.

By the time I was 25, I had given myself a societally appropriate title, which appeased all of my peers but made me feel anxious and inauthentic.

The reservations I had been feeling had no easy resolve, and I couldn’t find a single person in this social mold that would even entertain the idea that this path was not “the right path”.

I had kept my socially agreed upon title for another two years when I ultimately hit another breaking point and threw it off.

At 27, I had no social title, no career path, and no idea what I wanted to “do with my life”.

I left everything behind and decided to completely change my life’s direction.

That’s when I heard that I really had until I was 28 to “figure out life”. But if I turned 28 and I hadn’t figured anything out, I would become “societally useless”.

Alright, the pressure’s on… one year to get my life in order…

I decided that I was going to start blogging and sharing my writings so that other people could find solace in times of need. I billed myself as a “meditation life coach” because, well, I could.

I spent many sleepless nights creating a website, writing meditation guides and life coaching articles, marketing my services to various corners on the internet, and building up a brand that I envisioned would take me to “Internet Legend” status (aka high social status).

It didn’t take long before I realized the hypocrisy in everything that I was doing.

I had very few tangible things to show for my life coaching abilities as I myself hadn’t yet figured out anything about being successful in life. How was I going to offer any life advice to anyone?

I was still in the “fake it” part hoping that it would quickly lead me to the “make it” part. (Pro tip: Most people that look like they’re “making it” are still very much “faking it”.)

I decided I needed a break from all of this society stuff.

So I went to Myanmar to sit in a Buddhist monastery for a couple months.

The Mold of Society

Let me tell you about life…

When I left the monastery, I felt refreshed and rejuvenated, but I was more confused than ever about what I wanted to do with my life.

That’s when I heard that I really had until I was 30 to “figure out life”. But if I turned 30 and I hadn’t figured anything out, I would become “societally useless”.

Alright, the pressure’s on… two years to get my life in order…

I started to travel around Asia and ended up falling in line with a “spiritual path”. I was meditating for hours a day, intensely contemplating the subtle nuances of existence, exploring various world religions, and teaching people about how to “live their best lives”.

The societal peers I was now interacting with were all about me pursuing this path, unlike those peers I had when I was in high school and after college. They were supportive, encouraging, and even a little bit compassionate. It finally felt like I was “fitting in”.

But the problem was that they were unable to see anything else. If I expressed reservations about the path, they would tell me that I was being ridiculous. They would say that this path was important, that no other path was as important, and that society needed me to become this kind of person. To them, this path was the ultimate goal of societal expression. If I neglected this path, then I would be neglecting the only “true” path that could take me to the goal of societal fulfillment. They were trying to fit me into The Socially Spiritual Mold of Religion and Philosophy.

I spent my 30th birthday drinking tea at a small café in Beijing telling a friend about how disappointed I was that I had fallen under society’s influence for so long. I was sad that I lived my whole adult life up until that point trying to live someone else’s ideas of what my life what supposed to be.

I spent the next several weeks fantasizing about what would have happened if I had just pursued my creative passions straight out of high school and lived life following my intuition.

I’m now 31, and I haven’t figured out shit.

I work online doing various odd jobs from writing travel articles to designing t-shirts to buying and selling domain names.

I call myself a “digital nomad” because it’s an easy way of giving people a social title without having to explain the fact that:

  • I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing with my life.

But it’s OK.

Because I heard that I really have until I’m 35 to “figure out life”. But if I turn 35 and I haven’t figured anything out, I will become “societally useless”.

The Allure Of Social Status

The biggest point of internal conflict when trying to fit into The Mold revolves around social status.

The more “figured out” a person is, the more they are seen as being emotionally healthy and stable.

And the sooner someone can “figure it out”, the more advantageous their social posturing becomes.

We’re often inundated with stories of remarkably successful and accomplished young people. These socially awesome people are seen as the “pinnacles” of success.

Why?

Because the earlier we can harness success, the more we get to experience the joys of a high social status before the inevitable destruction of death.

Success, as dictated by society, needs to be measured with some kind of tangible marker. In the case of a scientist, the marker could be a novel discovery that somehow changes society’s beliefs or behaviors. In the case of an artist, the marker could be a painting or a sculpture which captures the attention of a large portion of the population.

The key here is that these tangible markers need to have some kind of usability in society.

For instance, a painting is useless if no one wants it, and you will not be a successful artist regardless of how prolific you are in producing outputs of your artwork.

Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh are two notable examples of prolific yet unsuccessful artists. There are millions more artists no one has ever heard of because their work was never deemed “usable” in society.

The Mold of Society

What do you mean “Broken Chair Kingdom” isn’t useful to society? It’s art!

When your output is met with usability, you have created a tangible marker, and you become successful in that venture. When you become successful, you begin to increase your level of social status.

And reaching a high social status is usually the goal of every kind of societal pursuit.

Because what comes with high social status is a number of objectively “good things” that make a person feel “happy”.

Some of those things are:

  • More opportunities to hold power.
  • Increased potential to earn money.
  • Higher sexual desirability.
  • A marked easing of many kinds of material suffering.
  • Fame (aka parabolic levels of increased social status).

In general, when we feel “happy”, we have greatly placated our inherent sense of suffering.

Society Wants To Keep Us All Together

Most people are sad.

Most people won’t ever admit that they’re sad, but they’re sad.

Not clinically depressed or mentally ill per se, just sad.

They’re sad that life can’t be what they imagine it can be. They’re sad that it isn’t 100% blissful all the time. They’re sad that bad things happen and there’s an underlying level of suffering percolating beneath every fleeting moment of joy.

Most people experience the existential sadness that is implicit in normal human cognitive function. That is, if you can conceptualize and think rationally, there is no escaping the fundamental dis-ease of suffering.

While popularized by Buddhism, there is a universal truth that spans all religions, all philosophies, and all human thought:

  • Life is suffering.

Sure, we can mask that suffering, and we do, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there and it isn’t fundamental to human existence.

Society and The Mold

I must follow the Road To Happiness…

Society is based off of a thought paradigm. Society forms from a cohesion of ideas that seeks to lessen the impact of suffering on the citizens within that society by subscribing to those ideas.

The members of society seek to create a kind of “thought harmony” between other members of that society, thereby eliminating the tension that would be stroked if any one person’s principal perspectives were challenged.

Social harmony exists on the premise that the similar majority needs to oppress, shame, and ostracize the dissimilar minority in order to maintain the concordance of the predominant thought paradigm.

This is why people within society persuade others to behave in a “socially appropriate” way – the harmony of the society depends on our individual levels of systemic agreeableness.

When people tell us to fit into The Mold, they are telling us that there is a path that will lead to satisfaction.

Whether or not it’s our satisfaction is irrelevant.

Society Is Like A Bad Relationship

As we’ve explored, the desire to fit into a social mold is necessary for success and the ultimate attainment of “high social status”. This attainment will give us a whole host of “good things”.

When people reach these higher levels of social status, they are seen as being more determined, more intellectually capable, and more independent. They were able to persevere in the face of hardship and ultimately realize that elusive goal of success.

They are seen as mentally strong, stable, and healthy individuals.

But it can easily be argued that it’s this succumbing to societal pressure that is the antithesis of stable mental health; instead, it’s symptomatic of a large-scale insecurity that is fed by a need to fit into The Mold.

To put that another way:

  • If you were emotionally healthy, had high levels of self-esteem, and were not easily influenced by what others wanted from you, you wouldn’t need to play society’s game.

You would be perfectly fine being homeless, scrounging the forest for berries, and meditating in a cave.

Sure, society will treat you as an outcast, but you won’t care. And even though you are perfectly contented with perfected levels of self-esteem, since you don’t need society to function, society will shun you and call you crazy.

Society wants attention. The more you ignore it, the more it hates you. The more you pay attention to it, the more it loves you.

Now, I don’t think that society is “bad” per se. In fact, I think it’s objectively “good” in more ways than not.

But I think what happens is that people tend to favor the convenience of buying into a well-defined thought paradigm over needing to critically think about something.

And that’s not particularly bad. These largely accepted beliefs are useful in many cases.

Example:

We largely accept that it’s generally unhealthy to eat a lot of ice cream. Every time we’re faced with a person who is chronically overweight, lethargic, and depressed about their overweight depressive lethargy, we can quickly and accurately advise them that their lifestyle decision of eating 3 pints of ice cream every day is probably causing them to suffer a lot of ill health.

But when it comes to an individual’s “function” in society, we are spectacularly narrow-minded.

We are stubbornly unaware of how any other person thinks, how they behave, what their personality is like, what kinds of experiences they want, what kinds of experiences they’ve had, and what their overall character is like.

We neither have the time nor the patience to aggregate all of these experiences and parlay them into a well-rounded evaluation of this “other” person.

We simply see them as an un-molded member of society that desperately needs to fit into a mold in order to become successful.

“Damnit, Sprinkles! You need to get your shit together!”

Furthermore, because we’ve probably experienced a similar set of frustrations, we feel qualified to offer advice.

If this advice-giving is done in a way to facilitate a healing conversation around that person’s experience and personality, then that’s great!

But if it’s done in a way that’s meant to “solve” that person’s dilemma, then we’re not letting that person express themselves the way they need to, and we’re simply trying to get them to behave with a socially agreeable disposition.

The most common reason for giving advice is the latter.

Is There Another Way?

The good news is that we can live in society and not force people into socially agreeable dispositions just because it is more harmonious according to the prevailing thought paradigm.

We can challenge the status quo.

We can challenge society.

We can challenge The Mold.

  • We can teach ourselves to hear the frustrations of another human and encourage them to find the path that fits them best.
  • We can tell them that there’s no such thing as a time line for “figuring life out”.
  • We can tell them that society doesn’t dictate who or what they need to become.
  • We can tell them that we will stand by them and support them throughout their life regardless of circumstance.
  • We can tell them that we don’t think they are any less amazing if they haven’t achieved some arbitrary level of success by a certain time.
  • We can tell them that the allure of high social status is illusory and that the real mark of success is self-satisfaction brought about by behaving in an authentic and genuine way.
  • We can tell them that our love for them is unwavering, unfettered, and unlimited.
  • We can tell them that we are now and will forever be here for them.

And most of all, we can listen. We can pay attention to another’s story, let them express themselves in the way that they need to express themselves, hold their hand, and listen.

Listening is often the best advice.

 

Now I want to listen to you.

How has The Mold impacted you and your life?

Let me hear your story in the comments!

Eric Michelson

Eric Michelson is a writer, blogger, philosopher, activist, artist, Buddhist, and mindfulness enthusiast. He is the founder of and editor-in-chief for Perspective Earth - an online discussion space for revolutionaries and thinkers. His lifelong mission is to serve and serve he will. You can follow him and PVEarth on Facebook and Twitter.