Issue #99, 1/15/2008
Family Court Philosopher
My favorite book from the 1960s is The Peter Principle. The principle is simple: In every organization, employees tend to rise to the level of their incompetence. Someone who is happy as a line worker may make the mistake of accepting a promotion to supervisor, where he is unhappy and incompetent, so he is promoted no further. He is stuck there forever, and the whole competence of the organization drifts downward.
In the past few decades, I've thought a lot about that book. The principle turns out to be quite universal, and it applies to individuals as well as organizations. People always want to upgrade to what they see as the bigger and better thing, but in doing so they often get themselves trapped and end up killing their own growth and creativity.
In whatever track you are in, you are tempted by new promotion opportunities. People with old cars that are already paid for are attracted to new ones they can't afford. Unmarried romantic partners are drawn to marriage, and married couples want to upgrade to children. Apartment dwellers may become fixated on owning their own home, while politicians always want more power. No matter what your current pursuit may be, there always seems to be a "next step" that will solve all your problems.
What people don't see at the time is that this upgrade is often deadly. It can move you from a position of relative freedom and dynamism to one of servitude and stagnation. Even if you appear successful on the outside, the upgrade may not have been the best for you on the inside.
The ideal of life is to be constantly growing and productive from now 'til the day you die. You want get the most you can from your limited time on earth. You don't want to be wasting time on unproductive activities, like digging a ditch and filling it up again. You want to be constantly expanding yourself and not retracing the same road twice.
The thing is, it is hard to tell now where that growth will lead you. The "you" of ten years from now could be radically different from the you of today, so how can you reasonably make plans for the future you?
When you are young, it seems like there is an infinite staircase ahead of you, and the possibilities for your life seem unlimited. You take a few steps—from junior high to high school, from high school to college, from loneliness to romance—and each time it feels good. The solution to happiness, you figure, is to keep taking these steps—to keep upgrading to the bigger and better thing.
The thing young people don't usually see is that at some point on any conventional path, one of these steps is going to be the final one. This is the point where no further steps are possible, because you have already committed all your resources and future discretion and it takes all of your energy just to keep your head above water.
I call this last step the "Fatal Upgrade."
People are easily seduced by pyramids. Business, politics, fame, consumerism and even romance are all pyramidal in nature. They all make you believe that happiness can be achieved by stepping higher and higher along a well-defined promotional path. At the top of one pyramid, you could become a corporate CEO or President of the United States. At the top of another pyramid is a mansion, a personal jet and maybe a small private island to keep them on. At the top of the romantic pyramid are fantasies of perfect love that your current relationship hasn't quite achieved.
The trouble with pyramids, however, is that there isn't a lot of room at the top. Most aspiring politicians aren't going to become President of the United States; they're going to be sidelined somewhere along the way. The mechanism of this is usually the Fatal Upgrade. It is the point where you bite off more than you can chew and where you may find that what you are chewing isn't exactly what you had hoped for.
True growth is very fragile. It requires that you retain the option to move and change in ways you didn't previously anticipate. It is painful to be impoverished, unloved and undefined, but it could be worse if you sacrifice too much of your freedom to try to address these things. At least when you are nobody you have the room for growth and creativity that more established people may never again experience.
Every "next step" is extraordinarily dangerous. It could open up new opportunities or trap you in a prison. You should not be hasty in making a decision. Just because this shiny option is dangling in front of you doesn't mean you have to take it. It has to be an inherently wise move in terms of the freedom it gives you vs. the freedom it takes away.
Sometimes, to retain the vibrancy of your life, you have resist the upgrade. This can be extraordinarily difficult at times—like turning down free drugs. If someone offered you a million dollars to become a movie star, you would probably take it, but that doesn't mean the move is the right one for your own life. Your life has its own organic nature that needs to be respected.
The greatest danger is life is not that someone else is going to hurt you but that you will hurt yourself by taking some bait you shouldn't have.
Visit Glenn's other websites: Glenn-Campbell.com, RoamingPhotos.com, KilroyCafe.com and GlennsDrivingService.com
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