Shortcut to making big life decisions

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You become the people you surrounded yourself with. Once you accept this, it's much easier to answer tough questions like “Where should I live?” or “What job's right for me?” or “Who should I marry?” I think the biggest barrier to making decisions based on how we become the people we hang out with is that we live in denial.

1. Geographic stereotypes are true.
When I moved from LA to NYC, I was horrified at the lack of yoga studios in NY. Yoga was already huge in LA, but not yet in NY. I was also scared that New Yorkers were always a little bedraggled, and I had just spent ten years learning how to look perfect everywhere I went in LA. It's fun. It's fun to have no weather and no fat and no rushing in LA. It's fun to get a day off from work to prepare for watching the Oscars. I grew up in Illinois, but I got used to living in LA.

The panic about New York was unnecessary, though. After ten years of living in NYC, when I imagined leaving, I thought I could never leave because the cultural opportunities are so amazing. The expertise people have in NYC is so vast and varied and I thought I'd never get that anywhere else.

When I left NYC I didn't care about looking perfect everywhere I went. I didn't care about the kind of car I drove. I was a New Yorker.

2. Never say never.
When I moved to Madison, WI, there were some things that were just plain shocking. There are no foreign cars here. I mean, maybe there are. Maybe ten percent of all people drive a foreign car. It's usually someone from out of state. Recently moved here. Because after you live here for a while, you get so used to the idea of driving a Ford that it doesn't seem weird.

You know the pictures of Midwesterners in NYC? I spent ten years learning how to spot a Midwesterner in NYC but really, it only takes ten minutes. Because people in the Midwest have no style. It's plain top, plain pants, plain shoes. You can rarely peg the decade their outfit comes from because it is tied to no particular style. I have made fun of this for years. And now I’m pretty sure it’s what I look like.

3. It's not about genes.
If your friends are fat, you'll be fat. This is true irrelevant of class, education, race, etc. The Framingham Heart Study goes a good distance to show who you hang out with is who you become. Not just for fat. For drinking and smoking and dying early. (Interesting tidbit from the Framingham Study: You are likely to drink the amount the women in your life drink. Men don’t like drinking without women.)

4. It's not about values.
How many people go to law school thinking they are going to represent the underdog and save the world? Thousands. And how many people can pay off law school loans and support a family and save the world? None. You have to marry someone who makes more money.

This is so common that people are making parodies about the save-the-world-types who apply to law school.

Once you get to corporate law, you don't want to leave. This is what you tell yourself: You will just stay there to pay off your loans. Then you'll stay there and do pro bono work. Then you tell yourself it's silly to go to nonprofit law when you can earn so much in a big law firm and just donate the money.

It happens to everyone. It's arrogant and delusional to think you'll be the exception.

And that is true for everything. When you are deciding what you want to do with your life, look at peoples' lifestyles. Ask yourself if you want that lifestyle. Don't tell yourself you'll be different. Statistically, that is absurd. And why put yourself in a situation where you have to be different than all the people you choose to be around every day?

5. Emotions are contagious.
If you have a happy person close to you, you’ll increase your own happiness by 9%. I have announced, of course, that I am done looking for happiness in my life. I think it’s overrated. Which means reading this blog is not going to boost your happiness by 9%. But I am hoping that interesting lives are also contagious and your life is much more interesting from spending time with me.

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  1. kevin blumer
    kevin blumer says:

    its true about the happyness to off my best friends are allways happy and they do cheer me up there allways happy i dont know how people mange to be happy all the time i would love to be like that

  2. WI Girl
    WI Girl says:

    I get what you are saying but your reflection of the midwest is based on your current rural setting. I live in a metro area and probably only know 15% of the population that drives US made cars. But, there are very few luxury cars. We do dress less fashionably. This helps us save money and have a better work life balance than the coasts. Isn’t that part of why you moved here?

  3. Natan
    Natan says:

    The way happiness is packaged and pitched is overrated. Happiness comes from simple things.

    I have a friend who’s moving to Toronto from Montreal to increase her “happiness”. She say’s it’ll bring her closer to her family, she’ll find a better job, make a lot of money, marry a nice guy, have a family and that’ll make her happy. I told she stands a very good chance at being miserable. She sarcastically asked me what would make me happy. I told her that having piece of mind, being happy with very little, being generous and being compassionate would make me invariably happy.
    Think about it, how many people are close to their families, make a ton of money, have a good job, have a great job and a nice marriage, who are completely miserable? Very many. How many people do you know, on the other hand, who have piece of mind, are happy with very little, are generous and make an effort to be compassionate, who are miserable? None, because those things bring incontrovertible happiness. We always look to our left and to our right, mimic the guy or girl next to us.. there should be some thought to it.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The last sentence – “But I am hoping that interesting lives are also contagious and your life is much more interesting from spending time with me.”
    Beyond the happiness and interesting concepts, people will spend time with you based on your ability to communicate and their ability to identify with you through your successes and failures and your trials and tribulations. Then they will ask themselves – how is this relevant to my life or other people in my life? I think interesting is fine but it’s only one metric. Relevancy is more important to me so I have read and will continue to read with those thoughts in mind.

  5. Sonia Winland
    Sonia Winland says:

    It can be difficult making decisions that we ultimately have to leave with, but we are all adults and you know what your doing when your doing it. Everything else after that is an excuse. It’s like choosing whether to have an affair or not when you know the affect it will have on your current relationship. We have all have choice, the question is will it be the right choice or wrong? Life isn’t easy, but facing your own issues head on makes life allot more simple if you just be honest with yourself.

  6. Christine de la Garza
    Christine de la Garza says:

    Penelope, I don’t even know how I got to your blog today, but I want you to know that I’m grateful I did. Random isn’t random when you believe that nothing is random. And so, I’m reading your blog postings and reading intently and then laughing and then shaking my head and saying to myself “no way, did she just go there with that…” and then smiling again and slapping my hands on my desk and saying “amen sister!”

    I’m reinventing myself yet again. Sort of. And embarking into old territory (relationship/marriage) with renewed perspective and traversing into new territory (career evolution) with good ol’ hard-earned self-respect for all that I truly do know about what I bring to the table and how I got here to be here now.

    And well, I’m just damn happy to peek into a life that is similar to my own. Thanks for sharing what you have going on… inside and out.

  7. angie
    angie says:

    I. Love. You. Penelope. Trunk. This is one of my favorite posts yet. It really hits home for me. I’ve been trying to sort myself out and beating myself up, thinking I should be a nicer person, but the truth is that you do become the people in your life. I thought that I was being obnoxious or judgmental to notice that, but this is just how it is- after awhile you wind up living the same lifestyle as the people around you, even if you think that you are an exception.

    Birds of a feather…or something like that. Your inner circle of friends truly has to be filled with people that hold the same core values or else you wind up constantly losing parts of yourself until you no longer know who you are anymore. I’d been thinking that maybe this was a personal weakness of my own, but it’s not. That’s just the way it is.

    It’s hard to let go of the people that just don’t quite fit into your life anymore as you’ve both grown and changed. I let myself go while I was trying to hold onto to the people I thought were so important in my life. I started living their lifestyles instead of my own, losing sight of what I really wanted. I’m only just learning that holding onto your core means more than any one friendship.

  8. sarah
    sarah says:

    I’ve never commented before, but I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now.
    As someone who is between jobs (read: unemployed), I find your blog so fresh and inspirational! I’m so glad I came across it when I did, as it’s helped me focus on what I really want and perspective on where to go from here.
    I remember one post where you said that you read comments, so I thought I’d say something.
    Don’t ever listen to nay-sayers and keep up the good work.

    PS- I hope you will eventually find happiness as well as lead an interesting life. I assure you, they can co-exist!

  9. Wing
    Wing says:

    How can you say that New Yorkers don’t care what they look like, and don’t care what kind of car they drive, then make fun of Midwesterners for not having any style and driving only domestic cars? (Neither of which is true, as I’m sure you know).

    I know you’re writing for effect, but at least have the honesty to draw a distinction between rural and urban areas of the Midwest.

    I used to live in DC and I remember my friends there were mind-boggled to hear that we had an Ethiopian restaurant in Minneapolis (this was in 1995). Duh, the Midwest is not the rural wasteland you make it out to be. I wish you would stop using such stereotypes in your writing. You are a better writer than that.

  10. chris Keller
    chris Keller says:

    I, too, am disturbed by stereotyping. Those who believe
    these stereotypes lack openness, it seems to me. It has been my experience that if you scratch below the surface, you will find that everyone (barring no locale, barring no age group, barring no race nor educational nor socio-economic status) has his/her own story. And peoples’ stories are interesting . . .

    How can you be interested/interesting if you are closed to “otherness”?

  11. Kara
    Kara says:

    Re: Stereotypes (geographical or otherwise)

    While some stereotypes are true (I read somewhere that 50% of the time they are true), I try my best to see beyond them. Because even if you are a sterotypical southerner or midwesterner or New Englander for that matter, you are more than your hobbies and your heritage. Penelope has written against snobbery quite eloquently and the fact that she befriended a Jehovah Witness who knocked on her door shows that she is open to people different than herself (hence making her more interesting). What’s worse than stereotyping is avoiding talking to people because of the stereotype. We all judge without realizing it but we can ignore that initial judgment and get to know the individuals.

    Chris brought up earlier the question of whether or not teachers become more like their students or other teachers. It’s a tough question. I still see teachers who stereotype and judge kids as “good” or “bad,” which ultimately colors the way they view their actions. In that respect they have become more like the kids, putting each other into categories, stereotypes. As an English teacher, I get to learn more about my students’ real selves through their writing which changes my view of everyone. The quiet kids have interesting stories but nobody knows them. The defiant kids are secretly insightful and sensitive. One of the challenges of teaching is to see past our personal bias. To not feel threatened by the kid who questions everything but to foster his thinking process and help him channel it into something positive. These skills have humbled me at times but ultimately helped me to see past my assumptions in the rest of my life as well.

  12. JP
    JP says:

    Interesting post. I live in a Big Ten college town in the midwest. It is nice and safe. People are friendly, but I notice that our friends are all folks who moved here from somewhere else. Folks who grew up here tend to stick with others they grew up with.
    This is a great place to raise kids, but growing up in a bigger city, I miss the energy and action of a bigger city.
    I suspect a key to you being more happy and engaged is to travel. I am lucky that my job takes me around the country and the world. I crave the outside stimulation if I am here for too many weeks in a row.
    Keep traveling so you can engage with those things you find interesting in NYC and LA.

  13. Janie
    Janie says:

    I liked this post. I found the same thing about Madison – nobody dresses up. But saying that they all drive American cars is untrue. In any rural area, that’s all you see. But in the greater Madison area, there are a million Subarus and Toyota Priuses. My down town condo parking garage is a great example of this.

  14. Roy
    Roy says:

    So true Penelope. People adapt to the tribe they are part off. When I moved to Toronto I pretty much stopped drinking because most of my friends there don’t drink.

    But here on the ship, it’s normal to be an alcoholic!!

  15. Joselle
    Joselle says:

    I find it hard to believe there aren’t tons of Subaru wagons in Madison, WI. It just strikes as the kind of place that would be teeming with them!

    I picked my next career in large part based on who I wanted to be like and who had a life I could imagine. I wasn’t getting that life in my previous job. I decided to be a nurse because I wanted to work 3 days a week and make more than I could make 5 days a week. Because I want to have kids and I want to see them. My mother is a nurse and makes a very good living. My friend is a nurse and lives the kind of life I’d like. I’m not looking to be super rich (although now that I know I’m good at science, I wish I could go back 10 years and just go to medical school and make even more money but I am too old for med school now), just able to provide for my family. Also, the nurses I know love to tell people what to do and so do I. If I can be a bossy boots and see my kids, I think I can be somewhat happy.

    Although I do feel wistful reading Patti Smith’s memoir knowing I missed out on being a hipster starving artist in my twenties. Interesting versus happy is definitely a battle I wage.

  16. mightymouse
    mightymouse says:

    Penelope, I came across your blog from a google search: “where to live.” This post just speaks into my situation. I’m a junior lawyer feeling stuck in a big firm (and yes, the video is spot on) living in NYC among the snowy piles of trash and constant car honking, just desperate to the leave the city. For over a year now, I’ve been determined to find a way out of my current situation into a livable city and a sustainable job, despite the languishing economy. I know this sounds like the dreaded job whining, but I’m still at my job because I’m continually talked out of simply quitting due to a variety of pragmatic considerations (e.g., poor employment prospects, substantial law school debt). Of course, I’m influenced by the other ‘birds’ in my sphere – other lawyers who are deeply unsatisfied with their jobs but unable to leave them for lack of opportunity or risk-tolerance or lawyers who have been laid off and unable to find substantive work for years at this point.

    This blog is a much needed independent perspective from someone who has navigated similar waters. I still can’t say where I belong or how I can get there, but the search continues. Thanks for the valuable insight.

  17. lym
    lym says:

    At first I disagreed with this post as I’ve been married for 20 years to a vegan, and oh how I want to eat the same way he does, but I just haven’t been able to. Then I had this thought, I’m probably much, much more like him than I would have been if we weren’t together. I used to have to eat meat with every meal except breakfast and now I go days without eating any.

  18. lym
    lym says:

    Now I’m reading the comments and it’s so funny because I’m pretty much a loner. I hang out with my family–husband, children, mother, sister and that’s pretty much it. And then I work…I just left a job actually…and I’m thinking that is probably the key to my happiness on the job, I’ve got to work with people I want to be like. Very interesting! Thanks for the post.

  19. Danye
    Danye says:

    Penelope I love your writings and your personality in your words. I listened to your speech at Cornell a long time ago and have been following your blog via google reader and sharing them with my other friends ever since.

    I absolutely LOVE your most recent blogs on “how to bounce back” and this one: I especially agree with your 1st point on geographical stereotyping and 5th point on contagious emotions. I wrote a blog on relocation a while back which resonate with some of your points as well. It will be an honor if you would like to check out my posts and my blog when you get a chance:

  20. Alyosha
    Alyosha says:

    I enjoy your writing and sense of humor. Thanks for a fun blog.

    For what it’s worth, the insights that I have into big decisions are, first, to define a big decision as any decision where you don’t know how it will turn out (or who you will be afterwards — which is the same thing) when you are making the decision (college, marriage, choice of career, etc.).

    Second, it might be helpful in making big decisions to think about what the outcome of the decision might do to you instead of what it might do for you.

  21. Joanne brock
    Joanne brock says:

    Hey you young guys. I’m 75 years old and am having a Wonderful time. Tonight I watched a Swedish movie (everlasting moments) on netflixstreaming, while drinking a Bottle of Pinot noir with my husband of 55 years. We are in the midst of a blizzard and I am planning to go outside and make a snow angel in my yrd before I go to bed tonight. Relax a little. It’s all over way too soon. Enjoy!

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