To Jump… Or Not To Jump

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In light of independent thought, I’ve been thinking lately about how often authority figures like to play both sides of the fence, in terms of controlling those under their jurisdiction.

Picture this scenario:

Junior wants to go to a party where all his friends will be in attendance, and he knows it’s going to be a sketchy deal to get the parents on board.  He presents the details to his mom and dad, breezing over the cons and highlighting the pros, and when their hesitation is still apparent, he brings out the big guns and appeals with this: “But everyone else is going!”

To which the parents reply, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?”

I know you hear echoes of that argument in your own personal experience.  I doubt many of us growing up in America reached adulthood without hearing that one at least once, or a hundred times; I suppose other countries have their equivalents of that same logistical reasoning.

The implied thought processes behind that question are, Be individual.  Think for yourself.  Don’t let peer pressure sway your decisions.  You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing just because everyone else is doing it.

That’s all incredible advice.

Now fast-forward twenty years or so.  You’re becoming an adult, you’re making some big decisions on life such as whether to marry or not; attend college or not; travel or not; and what kind of work you are interested in pursuing.  Conventional wisdom says to go to college; find a steady, good paying job with benefits; get married and have 2.5 kids; and while you’re at it, take on a 30-year mortgage for the house of the American dream.

You’ve traded in the parents as your central authority figures for that of a boss, co-workers, peers, and social status.  They are who you answer to these days.  (Your friends may or may not be lumped into that group, depending on how wise you were in selecting them; obviously they have a lot of influence, but should never attempt to control you.  When they stop understanding personal choice and independent thought, they cease being true friends.)

Okay, so you’re living the average life, with a degree under your belt in a major that has nothing to do with your current career.  Good job, good marriage, cute kids, nice house, two cars, an annual vacation, full benefits, and yet – you live for the weekends.  You hate the cubicle, the rut, the lifestyle you’ve taken on that doesn’t fit, placing you in a position of continual chafing.

That echo haunts you, the memory of your parents so long ago asking for some independent thought.  Use your head.  Be different.  Make smart choices.  You don’t have to be the same as everyone else.

So you step out.  You leave the path of conventional life.  You quit your job, or downsize your house, or volunteer in a foreign country.  You home-school your kids, you start your own business, you sell your cars and utilize public transportation.  You begin pursuing that dream you’ve always had in the back of your mind.  You begin to garden, to write, to play your accordion on the street corner for tips as you design electronic gadgetry in your garage at night.  You return to school to get an education in the culinary arts because you’ve always wanted to be a chef.  You move to a new city, or a new state, or a new country.

Whatever it is you do, whatever the details of your side-step off the well-traveled path, you choose to do it.  Emphasis on you and choose.  This is the point where you begin to employ independent thought and unconventional means of living.  Your life and lifestyle begin to look significantly different than that of those around you.

And now comes the blow-back, which according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary is “an unforeseen and unwanted effect, result, or set of repercussions.”  Because you better believe the repercussions are coming.

Those authority figures, which were your parents twenty years ago and are now your boss, your peers, and your neighbors, have been threatened by this subversive change in behavior that you have adopted.  You can’t do that!  Nobody does that!  It will never work; if it did, everyone would do it.  What makes you better than everyone else?  Be responsible.  Grow up.  You need job security.  

And then comes the real kicker: Why can’t you just be normal?

In other words, why can’t you do what everyone else is doing?

That handy little question introduced when we were kids rises up, only in reverse.  Back then, we were encouraged to be different because it gave the authority figures a good reason to say no.  And I’m not entirely knocking that logic.  Obviously, parents have legitimate grounds for saying no at times, and it’s not a bad idea to begin early in fostering independent thought in our kids.

But what bothers me about that reasoning, is that it is all too often used as a method of control.  When the figure in authority wants to say no and pressure you to do something different than the status quo, the question is “If everyone jumped off the bridge, would you do it, too?”  However, when the boss wants you to knuckle under, tow the line, and fall in with the rest, the pressure is placed on conformity, and on being just like everyone else.  The assumption is that, of course you’ll jump off the bridge because everyone else is doing it, too.  The logic has made a direct 180 in it’s reasoning.

I’m thinking you can’t have it both ways, especially in light of exerting pressure on others.  There are very real times when “no” is the best answer.  There are times when fitting in is the best choice, just as there are others when standing out is the right way to go.  But the same argument, twisted one way or the other, should not be used to funnel the herd in the direction that best suits the authority at any given moment.  If independent thought and individual rationale are good for a teenager to learn, they are every bit as critical for an adult to implement.

Bottom line: the bridge question is good to ask, no matter the age, no matter the authority figure.  When you’re a kid, wanting to fit in, ask it to remember that you are unique and making good choices is a life skill.  When you’re an adult, wanting to find the right fit, ask it to remind yourself that while adapting and integrating has its place, you are the only one who has to live your life.  It’s up to you to make it one that fits you.  It’s up to you to continue the pattern of wise decision-making that you started back as a kid, being asked the bridge question.

Doing something solely for the reason that everyone else is doing it, is just not a good enough reason.  Not when it comes to kids, and not when it comes to adults.  Especially not when it comes to living your life.

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