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Living Life at Periscope Depth

I have observed a significant number of people in my lifetime who are risk aversive: they are afraid of change, of overhaul, of uprooting, of adventure, and even success.  They hide in their (relatively) secure little jobs, in their secure little neighborhoods, their secure little group of friends, and their secure and predictable belief systems. Essentially, they are living at periscope depth, below radar, hoping that no one will find them out.

Actor Burt Reynolds once said, “I walk around in constant fear that someone will pat me on the back and say, ‘Burt, we’re going to pay you what you’re worth, which is about $4 per hour’.”

There is a fundamental flaw in this idea: the assumption  that life is like a tunnel, and you will come out the other side okay if you’re careful. Unfortunately, there is no other side. Life is what you are doing right now, this second. And, if it’s not right for you, then you are on the wrong path – whether it is a job, relationship, mortgage, or mind set. THIS IS ALL THERE IS!

How many people cling to a job they do not like in order to get the retirement and other benefits? “But I can’t quit my job. I’m vested. I have children about to enter college. I have a mortgage.”  Right. There will be some risk if you leave, but there is also risk if you stay – mental health, physical health, longevity, happiness, and self-respect. A colleague of mine once described her employment as a soul-withering job.

What are some warning signs that you are in the wrong job. Here are a few:

  • You dread getting up in the morning.
  • You call in sick often.
  • You can’t wait for the weekend to come.
  • You have difficulty getting out of your car in the parking lot.
  • You feel like you have been shocked with an electric cattle prod when your boss calls you.
  • You either have little respect, or contempt for management.
  • You are frustrated by supervisors, also motivated by not being found out, who lack the courage to do the right things.
  • You do not feel that your work is appreciated or counts for anything.

I remember many years ago, I had a job as a management analyst for a California county health department. The pay was good, promotional opportunity promised, some, but not much status, good colleagues, a tolerable boss, and ten minute commute. The danger signs began when I would arrive at work and found it near impossible to pry my fingers off the steering wheel of my 1962 Volkswagen convertible. I felt the cells in my body dying one by one, letting out a little chirp as they passed. That, plus wandering around the parking lot during breaks, and longing for weekends, began to seal my exit. The last straw was when I realized that no one read, cared about, or acted upon my near-brilliant management assessments, designed to save the taxpayers’ money.

I quit and got a job driving a truck. My father would jokingly tell his friends, “My son Mike is a college graduate, a former commissioned officer in the Navy, a management analyst, and now a successful truck driver.” Speaking of my dad, we would spend Saturday afternoons at the wharf in Martinez, California during the last years of his life. Nearly every time at some point in the visit he would say, “I always wanted to be a (biology teacher, musician, actor, anthropologist, historian, etc).” Or, “I always wanted to have a (boat, car, beach house, piano) like that one.” When I was charitable, which was most of the time, I would say, “Too bad it wasn’t meant to be.”  In the few less than kind moments I would say, “You didn’t want it bad enough, did you?”

Psychologist Vroom in his Expectancy Theory posits that the likelihood of anything happening is directly related to how badly you want it, and how clearly you can visualize it. My friends who have more money and cooler stuff than I work harder. It’s that simple. Dominguez and Robin in their thoughtful book, Your Money or Your Life point out very graphically how we trade our lives for money. For several months after I read the book, when I bought something I would pause and say to myself, “How much of my life do I have to trade for that purchase?”

Whenever adults seek my advice about mid-life career change, the comment inevitably will arise, “But if I go to law school, I’ll be 57 when I graduate.”

“How old will you be if you don’t go to law school?”

Catholic priest and media personality Father Miles O’Brien Reilly says, “Many people live their lives in pain – pain in their job, their relationships, their bills. Don’t live with pain. Get rid of it!”

Getting back to the main point of this article, why is it that people do not try new things, the simple answer is fear of risk, fear of failure, fear of loss, and even fear of success, which can be paralyzing. I reflect on what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation,” the depression era, World War II survivors. I am in awe. That’s my father’s  generation. Willingly they went off to war, sacrificed nearly everything, took impossible risks with minimal rewards, had an uncertain future, and nobody had any money. They came home from war, rebuilt their lives, and vowed that their children would never suffer their hardships. For the most part they succeeded. Unfortunately, they may have inadvertently spawned multiple generations of soft narcissists. There are too many soft landing systems now.  And, when you are the beneficiary of entitlements, or even a cushy job, risk taking is often off the table.

What is the one thing successful people have in common? They fail more than unsuccessful people. They try more things. I believe it was Orville Wright who said, “If safety is your primary goal, then you would do well to sit on the fence and watch the little birdies fly by.”

Now I am not advocating that everyone go out and become an adrenaline soaked adventurer. What I am arguing for is an honest appraisal of life: am I doing the things I want to do, am I with the people I like being with, and do I have the possessions I want, or too many? Do I need some changes in my life?  

It is impossible to change one’s stripes, and even if you did, it would be phony and stressful. I’ve always admired the Bohemian lifestyle –  the artist, the nomad, the iconoclast. Could I do it? Never. But I have quit numerous jobs, jettisoned friends, changed careers, earned a doctorate late in life, took hang gliding lessons, and still own a motorcycle.

You can’t change who you are, that’s etched in your DNA and life experiences. However, you can push the envelope out a little and try some things. Learn something new. Hook up with another cultural group, listen to funky music, learn line dancing, read Emerson, take up race walking, Bonsai plants, volunteer at a local shelter, learn Photoshop, write a poem, go on a visionquest, even a small one. Do SOMETHING!

You cannot stay at periscope depth. Actually, nobody cares if you are under the radar or not. But you do, and you may find out too late. Nobody is going to get out of this thing alive. Why not keep the regrets to a minimum.

A fabulous movie made in 1975 called The Wind and the Lion stars Sean Connery, Candice Bergen and Brian Keith. It takes place at the turn of the twentieth century.  Brian Keith plays Teddy Roosevelt, Candice Bergen the widow of a diplomat, and Sean Connery an Arab Sheikh named Raisuli. Connery kidnaps Bergen and her young son in Morocco to embarrass Teddy Roosevelt. After an epic journey, the final scene shows the shadow outline of two men on horseback in the shallow surf of the North Atlantic Ocean. Connery’s brother says, “Great Raisuli, we have lost everything. All is drifting on the wind as you said. We have lost everything.”

Raisuli: ”Sherif, is there not one thing in your life that is worth losing everything for? “  

[They both begin to laugh.]





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