About halfway through the India trip I met a guy whose name I won’t mention here, both to protect his identity and because I’ve forgotten it. He’d been to college and was now working a comfortable middle-class job that paid a decent salary, had plenty of room for advancement, and didn’t require him to work too hard. He seemed pretty happy, or at least satisfied with how his life was going.
During the hour or so we spent together he told me about a lot of things: about his job, about arranged marriages in India, and about the political problems and corruption the country faced. Then we got on the subject of social media, which he wasn’t a big fan of.
I thought it was odd that someone so close to my own age (he was in his late twenties) could have such a strong conviction against social media, so I asked him why.
“Because all these people on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, whatever, they just want to glamorize themselves,” he said. “They’re always posting selfies, sharing everything, always trying to get attention like they’re celebrities or something.”
His sentiment felt extreme to me, so I pointed out how the internet made it possible for regular people to share more of their creations, ideas, and art than ever before. That’s when he said something that stayed with me for the rest of the trip, and that I still think about now:
“But these people aren’t celebrities, they’re regular people with regular jobs, and if a person is just some regular person, they shouldn’t be acting like they’re above that. People should know their place and be satisfied with what they have instead of always trying to move up and get attention.”
I realized as he was saying this that he wasn’t just talking about social media—he was sharing a much wider opinion of how people should live their lives.
Reaching for Better Things is a Staple of the American Dream
Last week I wrote about social stratification in India as it relates to people’s jobs, but this guy’s comment about social media hit me on a more personal level: to what extent does sharing one’s creative work (like I do on this blog) represent a kind of arrogance, where the person doing the sharing thinks they’re so important that other people should pay attention to them even though they’re just an insignificant nothing?
My answer is fucking not at all!
Sometimes, though, it sure feels like putting our work out there is just one big cry for attention.
In India more than anywhere else I’ve been to people stood by their beliefs, their culture, and the world that they were born into, which for so much of my trip created a beautiful, strong, and caring atmosphere that had stood resilient for hundreds if not thousands of years. Though this cultural pride has fostered wonderful traditions and values, what about the people who feel limited by the world they were born into?
In America, by contrast, I grew up surrounded by images of the American dream—in school I learned about how the pilgrims came to the New World to gain religious freedom and the immigrants who came over at Ellis Island and built skyscrapers, started businesses, and found new jobs in America’s factories. I learned how after World War II when the country had more wealth than ever, generations of Americans who’d grown up poor in cities could afford cars, nice houses in the suburbs, and new conveniences that opened doors to a brand-new way of life that they’d achieved by working hard.
All this amounted to a simple mantra: if you wanted a better life than the one you were born into, you could go after it. Then, if you worked hard enough and were skilled enough, you could get it.
For most people, going after a better life means getting a higher-paying job that opens new doors for wealth and social status, but for me and so many of the writers and creative people I’ve admired, going after a better life means finding a life where you can share your creations with the world, reach people on a genuine level, and be recognized for it.
And I think about going after that life every single day.
Reaching Out to People Through Your Creative Work or Social Media Is One Way of Finding the Fulfillment That Comes From Sharing Things
I’m a big believer in the internet, independent publishing, indie film, Twitter, local art scenes, and anything else that allows people to share their creative work with others. These things not only help people grow as creators, it helps the people interacting with that work to grow by experiencing it. That’s pretty awesome for everyone involved.
By contrast, “knowing your place” means that for people who aren’t established writers, artists, filmmakers, photographers, or dancers, they have no business developing these crafts because they have no business doing them in the first place, because this isn’t the life they were born into. It’s not their place.
“Knowing your place” also means that people who aren’t established politicians have no business sharing political views or running for office, people who aren’t fashion models have no business posting photos of themselves, and people who aren’t mechanics have no business learning to fix cars because this also “isn’t their place.”
In short, “knowing your place” means not growing, changing, or developing yourself in any way. It means accepting the way things are, saying “Whelp, it is what it is!” and never trying to make changes in your life. It means stagnating, stifling your potential, and limiting what you do as a person, and that’s not cool.
I came back from my India trip thinking about my role as a writer, a thinker, a creative person, and a person who doesn’t currently live the life that I want. Somewhere along the way I realized that developing my potential and going after that life is the most important thing in the world to me, and that not pursuing those things would be the worst kind of giving up imaginable.
As Usual, Somebody Else Said It Better Than Me First
I was lucky in that when I was young, nobody ever told me to know my place or that I couldn’t go after the things I wanted to. That’s probably part of the reason I felt comfortable setting out to be a writer in the first place. Not everyone’s that lucky, though.
I’ve been reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and I’d recommend it to anyone since it not only deals with so many of the racial issues we still struggle with today, it’s a story of rising up from the lowest of the low and finding the confidence and voice to do great things. The knowing your place conversation reminded me of an incident from an early chapter when young Malcolm is trying to decide where he wants his life to go and tells his eighth-grade English teacher that he’d like to become a lawyer:
Mr. Ostrowski looked surprised, I remember, and leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. He kind of half-smiled and said, “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer—that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with your hands—making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person—you’d get all kinds of work.”
Don’t ever let anybody tell you to know your place, or that you can’t do the things that you want to do. It doesn’t matter who you are—if you really want to do something, then you should try.
I like to inspire people and help them lead better lives, because this means a lot to me. If what you’ve just read has inspired you, consider signing up for my occasional update email list or Liking But I Also Have a Day Job on Facebook to get more stuff like this.