The How-To Guide for Surviving Without a How-To Guide

Stranded on the island, a looming volcano about to erupt, we had exactly sixty minutes to find the key to the last boat out of there before meeting an unappealing death by boiling lava.

Sure, it was just a game and my life was in mere imaginary danger, but all I could do was stand there and scratch my head like a monkey.

Here we were, a group of eight teachers and doctors and other people with smartypants degrees, and you’d think by combining all our years of education, solving a few clues in a breakout game would be laughably easy.

But we didn’t make it out in time. The make-believe lava got us all. And if it hadn’t been for the game moderator giving us hints along the way, I’m not sure we’d ever have gotten as far as we did.

It’s rather terrifying to find your cerebral self as clueless as Homer Simpson looking for a donut in the cracks of the couch.

While lesser forms of intelligence scream for the missing donut, beg to know why all the rum is gone, I cried for the rules. Oh wonderful, safe, prescriptive rules!

I scanned the room, its cinder block walls painted in island hues of blue sky and beige sand. My eyes ate up every scrap of paper scribbled with cryptic clues. I looked to the television monitor where the clock had begun to count down.

But there was no how-to guide anywhere to be found.

I felt truly stranded.

The only guidelines we had were: 1) don’t jump on anything, 2) don’t break anything, and 3) think outside the box.

Think outside the box? Are you crazy? Who are you devils asking me to be creative, to think outside the box I was educated to remain in?

I can’t play a game without rules! I can’t pass a test without instructions! I can’t bake a cake without a recipe or save a life without CPR!

How am I supposed to break out of this room without a guide to the game, without at least knowing where to start?!

I felt myself begin to panic in near Homeric fashion, arms flailing, eyes bugging, a thought bubble over my head revealing nothing but a barren wasteland, blanketed by dust and blown by tumbleweeds.

I was doomed.

In the game of course. But I feel slightly doomed in real life too.

In real life, we’re stuck in the crevice of two economies colliding.

On one side, the old economy.

The one where you went to school, worked a job for 40 years, retired, and waited to die. The one with all the rules for coloring inside the lines, for melting down your soul into a standard issue cog, easy to insert into the industrial machine and easy to replace.

And on the other side, the new economy.

The one fraught with risks and emotional labor, defined by artistry and service and human relationships. The one that has already started to replace the age of corporate hierarchies, employee handbooks, and company policies.

Seth Godin calls it the connection economy. Fueled by the industrial system hitting its production limits and by humanity’s desire to be human again, this new economy demands creativity and “thinking outside the box.”

And there are no instructions for how to succeed in it. No how-to guide for how to survive while the world changes wildly around us.

Straddling the edge of it, eyeing the artists and the entrepreneurs braving the choppy waters of it already, I feel ill-prepared to navigate my own ship without a captain or a compass pointing the way.

Which leads us back to our problem. A population of well-educated, hard-working types looking for the rules when the rules no longer apply.

A population brainwashed by an industrialized society that created the rules only to ensure our conformity, not to encourage our flight. To make sure we knew how to follow orders in school so that we would know how to follow orders at work, whether on the assembly line or in the cubicle.

But the world is ours now, not that of the big, fat, monopolistic capitalists you see in the political cartoons with cigars hanging out of their plump lips and sacks of money at their feet.

Today anyone with a computer, an internet connection, and an idea can start their own business.

It’s liberating. And it’s terrifying. Most of us weren’t trained to be our own bosses, to chart our own course through uncharted territory, to live in a world our grandparents never could have imagined.

Since there is no how-to guide, how do we prepare ourselves for arrival in this new economy, whether we come by our own free choice or by the force of changing times?

I think we get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I think we start to think like our ancestors thought before they all went to work in the factories. How did they put food on the table without a steady paycheck?

We rediscover our curiosity and practice our creativity. We let go of the formulas, the outlines, the nonexistent prescriptions for a pain-free life that we relentlessly insist on believing in.

In our daily lives, maybe this means we let our kids color outside the lines. Or we put away games like Candy Land with their bossy rules and give the kids the backyard instead, where they can use their imaginations and make up their own games and their own rules.

Maybe we cook dinner without a recipe or create our own yoga routine instead of following the leader. Or we turn off our phones and get in the car and go somewhere new without Google maps telling us where to turn.

If it sounds scary, it’s because it is. But all the inventiveness and creativity and gutsy risk-taking that led our species to build cities and cross oceans and fly to the moon haven’t disappeared.

The industrial revolution may have claimed all these “talents” for the elite, for the inventors and scientists and higher-ups, but they have always belonged to us. All we need to do is reclaim them.

And in doing so, improve our chances of escaping the island and breaking free.

*If any of the ideas in this post intrigue or terrify you, I borrowed a lot of them from Seth Godin. You’ll want to check out his books Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? and The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? 

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