A friend of mine the other day told me he was quitting his career in advertising to go work for his brother's insurance company. He said the old career just had too many hassles. The hours, the stress, the clients...
"Just too much bullshit," he summed up.
"Huh," I said, then paused. "Any chance the new job's got a huge pile of bullshit, too? But you just don't know about it yet?"
"Maybe," he acknowledged. "But at least it'll be a different pile of bullshit," he chuckled.
But somewhere beneath the joke was an irritating truth nudging for recognition: any path you try in life is going to have a pile of bullshit attached as standard equipment.
And the sooner that we accept that facing bullshit is inevitable, the sooner we can transcend it.
If you spend your life trying to avoid never dealing with bullshit, you'll never accomplish anything.
Because you can't build anything wonderful in this life without encountering a fair bit of it.
The rewards of parenthood require endless, thankless hours of disobedient children ignoring you. Possibly while vomiting on you at the same time.
The highs of being in a relationship inevitably come with some low days when both of you are questioning the whole deal.
Even the thrill of great sex often comes with unpleasantness, awkward moments, and frustration, not to mention a whole lot of work just to get there in the first place.
A rewarding career as a doctor isn't arrived at without 8-12 years of grueling education, most of the time your superiors telling you you're screwing everything up and will never make it.
Building that tech business that maybe one day gets bought for millions? First be prepared for hundreds or thousands of people to tell you you don't have a chance, that your idea is awful and the world will never embrace it. Then spend 2-10 years struggling to get traction until that day when everyone agrees it's pure genius.
Even the richest, most successful people in the world have bullshit. More than most of us, in most cases. Because you don't (often) get rich or successful without facing a lot of risk.
Warren Buffett? Managing those $66 billion? The stress, the countless financial decisions, the people trying to swindle him, those trying to partner with him, those trying to leech off of him? It's not all Caviar and Courvoisier.
Even an A-list Hollywood actor has paparazzi hounding their personal lives, stalkers to file restraining orders against and the public criticizing their every move. To say nothing of the fact that each time you meet someone new in life, you have no idea if they're genuinely interested in you as a person or just as as a symbol to tell their friends about.
Becoming an Olympic medalist requires being constantly on the road, in a gym, and battling injury and spending most nights alone. Then there's the fact that even if you do bring home the gold, the world is filled with Olympians who are broke and directionless once their career is over.
So: to think there is some life waiting for you when all bullshit is miraculously removed from your path is ridiculous. The point is to figure out which pile of bullshit you can deal with. Because we all tolerate different kinds of bullshit with different degrees of ease.
Take for example the bullshit of choosing a life in here New York City where I live: We have almost no privacy, are confronted by constant horns, sirens, construction, jackhammers, traffic, crowded sidewalks, and the smell of urine and garbage everywhere, not to mention that I have just a 1-br apt that costs more per month than my father's 3000 sq ft home in Maine. Most of my out-of-town friends can't deal with it for more 2-3 days. But I've been here 6 years. Because while that stuff is frustrating, to me it's bullshit I'm willing to stomach in exchange for the rewards: A never-ending stream of fascinating people to connect with who are all doing brave, passionate things with their lives, a city that fills my career as a writer with constant opportunities, and being surrounded by the best art, music, comedy, film and restaurants in the world. I'm a stimulation junkie and a people-person--and for those two highs, to me, the lows aren't that bad.
But, put me in the countryside where everything is peaceful 24 hrs a day? Or on a beach with nothing but the waves to listen to? The very definition of "paradise" to some? After about 3 hours, I'm climbing the non-existent walls. My restlessness misses the energy, activity, conversation and passionate debate I have in NYC every day.
A friend of mine is an incredibly devoted doctor who achieved his life-long dream of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. But after a few years, he realized something: he was bored simply doing the same 2-3 procedures every day, which is what most orthopods do. He realized he needed more of a challenge, and remembered that he found his days in residency as a trauma surgeon more fulfilling. So we switched paths and abandoned the safe path of a widely-acclaimed knee and hip surgeon to take on the much more daunting task of handling ER patients in trauma surgery, often whom have just barely survived a horrifying car accident and are on the brink of death. And on top of that--he now had to "take call" again, which means being woken up at 3am to come perform emergency surgery. Most people would consider this a level of bullshit they'd never put up with. But to him, "Eh, waking up in the middle of the night is no big deal. I don't need a lot of sleep anyway." It was bullshit he knew he could tolerate, especially for the satisfaction of getting more variety and challenge in the operating room each day.
There are countless more examples all around us, but the point is this: in addition to figuring out what you do like to do in life, figure out which negatives don't bother you much, either. For example, an actor or artist has to tolerate a large amount of uncertainty in their lives. The "not knowing when my big break will come or how I'll pay rent next month" aspect is crushing to most people, and they choose careers with a more reliable path. But some can stomach it for the rewards of getting to live a life in the creative arts.
Maybe you can tolerate long hours more than most, required of doctors, lawyers and bankers.
Maybe you can handle rejection--the kind that writers, musicians and artists must endure.
Maybe can simply handle a ton of pain and discipline, and can make it as an athlete.
Maybe you can bear hearing people's hardships all day long and would make a great therapist.
Maybe you don't mind spending 12 day in a dark room obsessing over code and would make an amazing programmer.
But chances are, there's some pile of bullshit you can put up with more than other people, and that's as much of an asset as the natural talents, interests and skills you possess, too. By picking a pile of bullshit that can make peace with, you'll be able to stomach it longer, and therefore succeed more than most.
But most important of all: you won't naively spend your life quitting things all the time because you're dreaming that there's some bullshit-free life waiting for you.
Because while being a dreamer is important, it's the people with their feet on the ground who get enough traction to leap the farthest.
This piece was originally run on the Good Men Project.