The Comfort Trap


At one time or another in the course of a life, many people become aware of “the thing they want to do,” a vision of a life where they are spending their days doing the thing would nourish the soul and engage their capabilities to the fullest. This may happen at any time, and the emergence of this thing presents different challenges at different stages. For the younger set, it’s often an issue of resources and connections; for a senior, it’s the omnipresence of age-related prejudice telling them they’re too old to go back to school or launch a post-punk touring band.

For those in the middle years, the presence of this thing is often a major inconvenience. The middle years are the years in which we are busy implementing a life-plan, and the appearance of a new or old passion threatens to turn everything helter-skelter. These are the years in which the vast majority are trying to “settle down,” leave behind the extreme behavior of youth and attempt to gain security and stability.

For most people, this means getting a job. Even in a recession (or whatever we’re in right now), a job is the most direct path to the alleviation of financial insecurity that bedevils most people living in our land of plenty.

The problem with a job is that once we get comfortable with a certain lifestyle, it becomes difficult to give it up for “the thing we’ve always wanted to do.” This is in part because jobs establish routines: fixed patterns of time and space that give us a sense of security. Once we’ve passed that point when we are no longer worried about survival, we have a strong yearning to relax and rest up from the anxiety we’ve experienced. Any dreams that we might have had are placed securely in the back of the mind, where they are filed as “impractical” or turned into hobbies we never seem to find the time for. We compensate for the loss of the dream by turning to the numerous mind-numbing experiences offered in our culture, from bad television to sporting rituals to alcohol. We are safe and secure, we have a place . . . and we get comfortable.

This comfort comes at a price. Giving into the status needs engendered by American marketing experts, we often choose to get that new car instead of saving money to start the non-profit organization we dreamed about, or to take time off from the daily grind to develop that idea for the novel we always wanted to write. We enter into financial obligations driven by a questionable need to have things, only to regret it later when an opportunity that awakens those true desires happens to arise and we are financially unable to move on it. Taking a full-time job, then, often becomes a sticky web with strands that stretch out to infinity, trapping us in piles of bills and other financial obligations. Instead of feeling content, we feel restless and stressed out as we realize that we are indeed stuck.

This is not an argument against capitalism or having cool stuff. Nor is it a judgment against people who wish to accumulate possessions. There is nothing wrong with acquiring something that gives us pleasure or is useful to us in some way. There is nothing morally deficient about wanting your kitchen to look nice or having a computer that performs to your demands. The problem with entering into financial obligations is simply that they limit our ability to make choices. Our drive to accumulate often forces us to choose between a limited range of undesirable options, particularly as far as employment is concerned. With a mortgage and car payment, we become less willing to take risks, even when staying in an unpleasant job or in a crappy organization is draining the spirit and ruining our health.

Some people respond to the pressure created by financial obligations by digging themselves deeper. They work for a promotion, ask for raises or threaten to quit if their demands go unmet. Not only do these strategies rarely work, but even if they do work, they will not solve the problem of financial pressure. Anyone who has received a promotion will tell you that more money means more obligations; we raise our living standard to suit our income level. It is the rare human being who puts the extra cash aside to invest in their dreams. What happens is that once we get a little breathing room, we buy better stuff, go to more expensive restaurants, buy the new iPad and wind up even more trapped.

Even when financial obligations seem to have us chained to a particular job or career path, a little creative thinking combined with a financial restructuring package might be able to buy us more freedom. I knew a guy who was doing very well in a conventional sense until he got sick and tired of worrying about how he was going to keep up. He sold nearly everything he owned, bought an old VW van and lived in it for a couple of years while saving money to embark on a year-long cross-country journey. His diet consisted of peanut butter sandwiches, apples and water, a culinary sacrifice he deemed necessary to achieving his goal. After two years, he started up the microbus and headed off into the sunset.

Of course, his personal circumstances had a lot to do with his ability to follow his dream. He was without marriage and without children, two situations that can create even more conflicting obligations, depending on the quality of the marital relationship. Even so, he managed to survive two years of low-status life (he didn’t entertain much during that period) and resisted every pressure to accumulate things in order to realize his goal. Getting past cultural expectations and pressures is never easy, no matter what your circumstances.

But the real reason he was able to follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark was that he had a strong sense of self. He not only wanted something but he decided he deserved to have it and then had the courage to see it to completion. These are qualities often drained from people who work for a living.

Many people get jobs and join organizations because they are not really sure of what they want. Getting a job is the default choice for people who are uncertain about their goals, whether that uncertainty is due to having generalist tendencies in a specialist culture or simply not having found something that really grabs them. Life in an organization, with its distorted communication and constant frustration, is hardly the best place to go to seek clarity, but hey, it’s a job. The comfort trap then kicks in, leaving us both confused and stuck at the same time.

It is almost impossible for a confused, stuck person to have much self-confidence. Without self-confidence, it is difficult to make any significant changes in one’s life, for confidence gives us the courage to take risks. More painfully, the lack of self-confidence causes us to brood and beat ourselves up for having been so stupid in the first place. We start blaming ourselves for past choices, adding to our stress levels and leaving us feeling more and more stuck.

Organizations support this cycle by validating the use of blame and guilt as legitimate methods to induce people to display desired behavior. This reflects the norm in our culture, where we are far more willing to search for culprits than show compassion for human beings who make mistakes. After experiencing the constant finger-pointing that goes on in most organizations, any confidence we had dissolves into a series of defense strategies designed to ensure survival. People in survival mode do not create new opportunities for themselves. Their primary concern is protecting what they have and after doing battle week in and week out, they are tired, drained and unable to generate possibilities.

Burdened by blame, guilt and obligation, the average person starts to wonder about his or her unhappy circumstances. Most tragically, they start to wonder, β€œIs it me?” They think that if they try harder solve this particular problem or please this particular person, that some sense of self-worth will be restored. These are only temporary solutions leading to relief without achievement, and relief is not the best tonic for strengthening sagging self-esteem. So, the average person counts their blessings, tells themselves they’re lucky just to have this job and forgets about any possibility of life beyond the workplace. They “crawl up their assholes and die,” in Vonnegutese. They are trapped in the pattern of modern life.

It does not have to be so. The primary voice telling you that you can’t is your own. Yes, our social norms and institutional prejudices create serious challenges. The commitments we have made to others appear to be huge obstacles. But using those excuses to prevent you from following your dream makes no sense because an unhappy, paralyzed person isn’t likely to contribute much to the workplace or to a relationship. Sacrificing your dreams and becoming a martyr to obligations and the expectations of others is psychological suicide. You can’t contribute to anything or help anyone if you’re practically dead.

You have choices. You could do the Wakefield bit: disappear and gain some space. You could carefully plot your escape by coming up with a plan, like my friend with the microbus. Most importantly, you can share your feelings with your mate or your friends. This will get your ideas and feelings out of your head and into the light of day where you can see them more clearly. Doing so may trigger fears in others that you are (heaven forbid!) changing in ways they aren’t going to like or that you’re going to leave them stranded. Prepare yourself for resistance and get ready to say to them, “I need to do this . . . and I’d really like your help. I don’t want you to get hurt in the process, so I’m asking you to help me figure out how we can move in that direction that works for both of us.”

They may resist. Be patient. It may turn out that they don’t want to help you, which means you have another set of choices.

But you always have choices. That’s a lot more than you thought you had.