What are they? “Cultural Survival Manuals”
Our cultures, societies, and families tend to prescribe paths for us in life, especially in the realms of purpose and the pursuit of happiness. We can often get stuck or simply not know what we want because we’ve been innocently following other people’s ideas for things like fulfillment, success, what’s valuable, and/or how to be happy. Things we should do in order to have purpose or happiness. Ways we should be.
- “You should get good grades.”
- “You should earn more than enough to get by; you should aim for serious wealth.”
- “You should have a life partner if you want to be happy.”
- “You should do something that God/Allah/Vishnu/etc. would deem worthy.”
- “You should do better than your family of the generation before you.”
- “You should have flawless skin and weigh X lbs.”
- “You shouldn’t cry.”
- “You should care more about XYZ.”
Can you think of things you did as a kid primarily because you were told you “should”?
Author Ken Robinson calls the big shoulds about how to live your life “Cultural Survival Manuals,” because they function as guides for how to “survive” within the context of the culture propagating them. Following them may reward us with comfort because we don’t feel exposed to the level of uncertainty we fear we might be without them. They can offer us a sense of ease because we don’t have to worry about figuring out what to do.
Unfortunately, when we’ve been following the recipe book for success that was handed to us we can run into some problems. Sometimes we end up doing things that society thinks are valuable rather than doing what utilizes our best skills. We may spend years building skills in things we don’t enjoy (like becoming a lawyer or a doctor because we know such jobs have high impact; or studying code or finance because we know there will be good career opportunities). Or we could end up doing something that we don’t necessarily dislike or aren’t exactly poor at, but simply do not care deeply about– In a situation like that, we might quit on the spot if we were handed enough money.
What to do about it: Find out where your beliefs came from, then become a “chef.”
When we find ourselves following these Cultural Survival Manuals, we probably haven’t been deeply asking ourselves what it is that WE truly want and making that choice consciously.
- Cook: Someone who follows “recipes”; they use conventional wisdom or things that already exist as guides.
- Chef: Someone who experiments until they find something unique; they invent and troubleshoot to solve problems and make decisions.
Urban explains that there are plenty of things in life where being a cook is a perfectly reasonable (and preferable) choice. He gives the example of choosing what to wear, claiming he likes to be a cook about his fashion because it isn’t something he is too personally invested in. When it comes to what to do with your life, however, he strongly advocates for people to be chefs.
Are you being a cook about what to do with your life? Are you following a recipe? Have you experimented, failed, and refined your process to create a path entirely suited to you?
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with following cultural survival manuals or using recipes; plenty of recipes have worked well for many people for many reasons and contain valuable wisdom. However, using a recipe without consciously choosing it (through understanding the full spectrum of our options) can leave more serving possibilities unexplored.
Strangely, it can be tough to tell if we’re following a ‘cultural survival manual.’ Like a fish that doesn’t recognize the water it is swimming in, it can be challenging to see the beliefs and cultural influences we’re basing our decisions on. In order to see them, we need to explore our beliefs about how life works, happiness, purpose, and success: what exactly are they and where did they come from?
You can do a thorough excavation of your beliefs in the Clarify section of Purpose. Some common misconceptions about Purpose can be explored on The 7 Myths of Purpose page as well. For even MORE understanding of the influences on our narratives about how life works in regards to Purpose, check out Purpose in Context.
And if you’re curious to simply whet your palate and get started, try the following exercise:
Try This: Write your recipes
Contemplate the following questions on paper, in your head, or discuss amongst friends (or strangers!)
- Write a simple definition for each of the following (and why they matter). Then, briefly for each, write down your personal recipe for achieving/making the best of each.
- What is most meaningful
- Your personal duty in life
- For each of the above topics write down where you learned them. Did you pick them up from a parent who believed them and practiced them? Did you find them in a book or movie? Was there a group of people/movement you admired that taught you about this? Did you discover it yourself through trial and error? Did you pick it up from conventional wisdom/your general culture?
- Pick two of the recipes that stand out. How has believing each of these recipes impacted your choices and behaviors?
- What other recipes can you think of for the two you chose?
*You can learn TONS about narratives and how they impact your life by doing a deep dive in the section Your Storied Life and Discovery Cornerstone.