Drink your milkshake

On conventional achievement & opening your eyes to the cafeteria of life

Sometime in the first decade of my life, my dad and I entered into a strange sort of barter agreement: every few months, I would bring home a good report card and he would take me to the mall near our place and outfit me with a milkshake the size of my pointy head.

At the time, I didn’t stop to consider what the hell good grades should have to do with milkshakes… If anything, I’m sure I felt like I was winning the trade -- why go and play dentist to a gift horse, as they say. As long as those milkshakes kept flowing, I’d keep bringing home the academic bacon.

Conventional achievement tends to work that way: when you’re winning, you rarely question the premise. Milkshakes are good, as are their grownup equivalents: status, money and -- okay, you got me -- more milkshakes, even if I’m the one buying them now. So if you’re lucky enough to collect those things as you go, chances are you’re not going to stop and worry that the game is rigged.

For me, the milkshakes turned into accolades and a surplus of opportunity -- honour roll, scholarships, my pick of careers. And so I did what you do when you’re 17: I picked a career path whose selling points -- good money, comfort, status -- were just sort of... understood to be things you should be looking for.

The specific career choice I made (to be an actuary) doesn’t really matter -- the point is that with all options open to me, I made my decision based on criteria I inherited. And while things could obviously be much worse than accidentally ending up in a cushy corporate job, eventually I recognized that there were some questionable assumptions baked into my choices.

In particular -- money, comfort and status are all great, but they’re definitely not all there is to aspire to. They may not even be the most important things, depending on how you do the math. At some point, if you’re fortunate enough, you’re very likely to come face to face with the question of what you actually want in life. And if you don’t stop and actually pay attention to your experience along the way, you may end up with lots of money, comfort, status… and a never-ending desire for more of each.

Once I started asking myself the Big Scary Life Questions, I discovered that I had itches that can’t be scratched purely by leading a pleasant, upper-middle-class life.

The trouble with conventional achievement isn’t that the comforts it tends to produce are bad -- it’s that those comforts can cause you to forget to consider what really matters to you. And, as much as this is a problem of privilege, there’s legitimate tragedy in the fact that many successful people spend their whole lives mistaking some never-quite-graspable ‘more’ as the thing they’re after.

So go ahead: drink your milkshake, and when you do, enjoy the hell out of it. Just make sure you don’t accidentally confuse it for the only thing available in the cafeteria of life.