The instinct to imitate others is hardwired into our brains. It's our primary tool for learning, and it works tremendously well, turning little kids into eager sponges that soak up their environment.
However, despite its usefulness, this instinct to imitate can lead to a negative habit called over-imitation. One study from Yale demonstrated this effect by letting children watch an adult perform a simple task with a number of unnecessary steps included. Even though these steps accomplished nothing, the children (learning from imitation) were guaranteed to perform these useless steps when doing the task themselves: "children follow the adults' steps faithfully to the point where they actually change their mind about how an object functions."
This problem becomes magnified in later stages of life. As these researchers put it, "learning by imitation occurs from the simplest pre-verbal communication to the most complex adult expertise", meaning that this same over-imitation done by children is likely done by all of us, at every age.
I've included this psychological tidbit for a couple of reasons: (1) it's fascinating, and I'm a huge psychology nerd; and (2) I want to loosen you up to the possibility that you might be making the same mistake as these hapless five-year-olds. How many tasks do you do wrong just because everyone around you does? How often do you take the easy way out, opting for the default choices of society instead of thinking things through? How many decisions have you forgotten to make for yourself?
When you go to the gelato shop, you choose the flavor YOU want. There’s nothing else to base the decision on. Choosing black raspberry won’t make you any cooler in the eyes of your friends, and your parents don’t enforce an ancient family tradition of pumpkin spice. So in the world of gelato flavors, the pressure’s off. Just get whatever you want—whatever will make you most happy.
If only the rest of our decisions were made this way...
We can think for ourselves when faced with a choice as simple as gelato flavor, but many of our most important choices will cause our decision-making process to be bypassed, short-circuited by our tendency to over-imitate.
Below are four decisions that I see many people completely ignore. When faced with these decisions, many people don’t realize a choice is available to them. They just do what everyone else is doing, adopting the same frustrations, limitations, and excuses as everyone else, and joining what Shawn Achor calls the cult of the average.
Read these carefully and consider whether you’ve really made these decisions in your own life…
1. Do I want to live here?
There’s a fine chance that you’ve already found a place that’s perfect for you, but I think there’s a bigger chance that you’ve accepted your location as a constant in your life and given it no more thought.
How did you end up where you are now? Did you grow up there? Did you go to college there? Do you have a job there? Are all your friends from there? Did you already find a pretty cheap apartment, and your roommates are okay, and you live above a great taco place, so fuck it you’ll just stay there?
These might sound like good reasons to live somewhere, but quite often they’re actually excuses disguised as reasons. Wouldn’t you rather live somewhere for the following reasons instead?
“I love it...It’s the perfect place for me...The people here make me happy...It lets me live my ideal lifestyle and do all my favorite things.”
Answer this: if you could live anywhere, where would you live? Now, answer this: what’s stopping you from living there? What, they don’t pay people to work there? I want you to realize that there are jobs, friends, and great taco places all over the world.
I’m not trying to convince you that you need to move. But I am encouraging you to ask yourself these questions. I want you to appreciate that moving to your perfect location is an option, and I want you to explore this option.
Sure, it might take awhile to get settled there. It might take an entire year. But if you take your current age and add a measly one to it, you can put things in perspective. Would one year of relocating be worth 20 years of living in your ideal place?
2. Do I want to own a car?
Americans love cars. They view owning a car as part of the human experience. The Pew Research Center found that 92% of Americans consider a car “a necessity”, and I’m sure it is for a lot of people. But this is no guarantee that a car is a necessity for YOU.
Car’s are certainly convenient, and they provide many people with a sense of freedom, but as with any big purchase, you should only be buying one after you’ve carefully considered the alternatives. Cars aren’t the only way to get from here to there, especially in this day and age.
Just ask Katherine Krug. While the monthly payment for her car lease only cost $271, the additional cost of gas, insurance, parking, maintenance, and tickets added up to $1,518 per month. This realization led Katherine to ditch her car entirely. Now, she relies on the apps Uber and Lyft as a chauffeur service, while renting an occasional car for the weekend using Get Around:
"Since giving up my car, I haven't waited more than 5 minutes from the moment I thought about needing a car to buckling my seatbelt. They hydrate me, tell me great stories, or, if I want, give me the space and time to do that last bit of work before a meeting. I don't look for parking, or worry about gas, or get upset if someone cuts me off on the highway. That's real freedom."
Using these three apps for all her transportation needs caused Katherine’s total monthly payment to fall to $572, almost one third as much as when she drove herself.
Could you save as much yourself? Only one way to find out. Uber to work one day as an experiment, see how much it costs – you might be surprised. Crunch the numbers and make the best choice for you.
3. Do I want to buy a house?
One of the cornerstones of the American Dream is the house with the white picket fence; one of the realities of America is overspending and massive debt. Why do we need massive homes with massive mortgages? I grew up in an unnecessarily large home, and I never complained about it, but only because I wasn’t the one paying the bills.
You might think buying a house is a good investment that will save you money in the long run, but this is a common myth. When adjusted for inflation, the increase in housing prices from 1890 to 1990 was right around zero percent, as Nobel Prize laureate Robert Schiller explains. Over that same period, investment in the stock market (specifically the S&P 500) would have gained you a return over 43,000 percent (see for yourself).
If you want to buy a house because you need a large space for you and your family and you’re intent on staying settled a while, then it sounds like you’re in a good position to be a homeowner. But for the rest of us, renting can be a much better option than we realize.
Don’t compare your cost of rent to a mortgage payment and feel like you’re missing an opportunity to build equity every month. When you factor in additional costs like insurance, maintenance, interests and taxes, the true cost of house ownership is usually 50% greater than the monthly mortgage.
On top of that, don’t take it for granted that your landlord is the one who has to call the plumber, the inspector, and the tarantula exterminator; owning property is a job in itself.
4. Do I want these relationships?
On my first day of high school, I only knew two kids in the entire school. They were a couple of authentic metal heads, black band tees and all, but they were my only refuge as I stepped into the harsh wilderness of freshman year. Can you guess what I immediately became...?
I quickly bought the necessary clothes, downloaded the necessary music (yes, even Cradle of Filth), and adopted a new identity as a sign of solidarity.
But, as I started developing authentic friendships with my new peers, I no longer needed the security provided by my metal-loving posse, and over a period of time we slowly drifted apart.
Was it sad to see them go? Yes, in a way. Was it worth it to spend my time with people who shared my actual interests, and who I felt an authentic connection to? Absolutely.
I believe this situation is more common than we think; usually it’s just harder to recognize. The motive behind a friendship can be positive or negative. The positive ones are easy to recognize: the other person makes you happy, shares your values, or helps you develop as a person. The negative motives can be more insidious...
We might fear being alone. We might seek the approval of friends we think are more popular than us. We might feel obligated to befriend someone because of family connections, or to be polite. We may maintain a friendship with someone out of pure habit.
Fear is never a correct motive to follow. Our friendships should bring us joy and excitement; any relationship that doesn’t do this is wasting your precious, limited time on Earth. Beyond that, negative relationships can drag us down without us even knowing. Jim Rohn insists that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”, and I couldn’t agree more.
We are often told to “make new friends, but keep the old”. Instead, let’s make new friends, and keep the ones that we truly care about. The idea of abandoning your friends might sound cruel and heartless, but you’re not helping anyone by maintaining relationships that were developed for the wrong reasons.
The decisions you make in these four areas will dictate the vast majority of your satisfaction with life. You’d think the amount of time we spend making a decision would be proportional to the importance of that decision in our life, but that usually isn't the case. For instance, which of these questions have you pondered more: “what things contribute the most to my health and happiness?” or “what the fuck am I gonna wear to this party?”
Don’t feel pressured to craft your lifestyle based on what others are doing or what others expect of you. Everyone is different; we all have different backgrounds, different values, different tastes and different dreams. There is no “right answer” to how to live. The only choice that’s objectively right is the choice that makes you happiest.