“There are only a few who control themselves and their affairs by a guiding purpose; the rest do not proceed; they are merely swept along, like objects afloat in a river.”

– Seneca

Modern culture is highly goal-oriented in that it advocates setting and pursuing goals as effectively as possible. But it places much less emphasis on ensuring that one is setting the right goals. It is up to each of us to find our own path to a great life, but this path can be riddled with red herrings and tourist traps. Often our own desires are the most deceptive guides to the good life, and the most common desire which commandeers our goals is the desire to fit in with our tribe.

It is very easy for us to become convinced that we have defined our own goals when they were defined for us by our culture. Cultural narrative poses as a guide to the good life, reinforcing our ingrained delusions about well-being and leading us astray. The social nature of human beings which makes culture possible drives us to instinctively trust and conform to the pervasive narratives of desirability. And if a person is deceived into pursuing ends which are not aligned with her own values, she will not realize the fulfillment for which she aims.

During a trip to South America, I was once struck by how frequently the word “quiero” appears in Spanish music. “Quiero” means “I want,” and I would guess that the phrase “I want” is no less common in American music. Television, film, and music all reinforce the idea that we should get what we want. That our desires are valid and there is something wrong if they are not satisfied. That our only chances at true fulfillment lie in immediate pleasure, romantic passion, material possession, power, and prestige. And we all know it would be nearly impossible to create a great film in which everything is just as it should be and everyone is pretty much cool with it.


“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.” 

– Lao Tzu

We acquire beliefs about ourselves from our culture just as we acquire beliefs about the world. Every culture has its own “success” narrative. This narrative assigns arbitrary milestones that deem people “successful” after they meet them. And we’ve all heard our culture’s success narrative a thousand times.

You are born, given a name, and also given a cow name and a goat name. You are given head massages to elongate your skull to make you appear to be a strong warrior. From an early age, culture tells you to herd goats. You are told to plow the fields, learn to raise beehives, and steal livestock from other communities. 

If you are a man, you are told that in order to be “successful,” you have to have your head partially shaved, get rubbed with sand to wash away your sins, and get smeared with cow dung. You are told to strip naked, jump onto the back of a cow, and then jump across the backs of a row of fifteen cows, which have also been smeared with dung. You must do this four times without falling, and are told that falling off will deem you a failure and a shame to your family. Success will allow you to marry a woman you have never met, but not before you accumulate 30 goats and 20 cattle in order to purchase the marriage from her family. The more wives you accumulate, the more you are deemed a “success” by your culture.

If you are a woman, you are expected to meet men who have gone through this process, and to beg them to brutally whip you, not showing any pain the whole time. Cultural narrative dictates that you marry a man twice your age who has been assigned without your vote. If your family fails to find you a husband, you have to watch all of your friends receive phallic-shape necklaces, indicating their “success,” while you wear only an oval, metal plate on your head. If you become pregnant outside of marriage, your child will be considered cursed, and your peers will encourage you to abandon it. If you do get married, your husband will beat you routinely for no apparent reason until you have had two to three children. The more scars you receive, the more “successful” you will be considered to be by your tribe.

Not the story you were expecting? Oh, you must not be a member of the Hamar community of southwestern Ethiopia. I guess I just assumed. Yes, these are all very standard practices in the Hamar community, and they are not even the most bizarre traditions we see in cultures around the world. What is really hard to grasp is that the Hamar would likely view our culture’s definitions of success to be just as strange and arbitrary as we find theirs.


“[Most people end up] spending the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it.”

– Henry David Thoreau

The special thing about the western narrative is that every industry which can make itself vaguely relevant is fighting for a piece of it. Just as our culture builds onto our genes and creates new decoys to well-being, our economic system builds onto culture and introduces more diversions still. Businesses capitalize on the great tourist traps of life – the things which are presented as highly desirable by culture and industry, but are not necessarily good deals at all. And in order to sell these fantasies, they have to find ways to shape culture to tell us what it means to be “successful.”

The ubiquitous belief in the American dream carries with it the promise that enough success and prosperity will bring happiness. No consumer corporation that knows what is good for it will go against the idea that getting what you want will make you happy. They sell the belief that the hours you most likely gave away doing unpleasant work for someone else are best compensated for with shiny new things. Most advertisements succeed by convincing potential customers that they do not yet have what they need to be content, but that they can get it for a very reasonable price! Companies don’t simply sell products, they sell promises to turn you into the kind of person who is successful, loved, and respected.

The education industry has convinced people that after spending 18 years (20,000 hours) learning things that don’t interest them, they need to spend 10,000 hours just to make the money to attend college, or to accrue debt which may take even longer than that to pay off, and at least another 10,000 attending. The education system operates under the assumption that the best quality to develop in young people is employability, presumably because employment will allow people to purchase the things that will make them happy.

The wedding industry has helped spin the success narrative to tell us we need to spend 500 hours making the money to spend on a rock, and another 2000 hours for a ceremony to show your friends and family you’ve met an arbitrary milestone, complete with a certificate which boldly states that you and your beloved may or may not spend the rest of your life together. There are also tax benefits. You should spend most of your life paying off the mortgage of and maintaining a large suburban house, conveniently isolated from all the friends and other people you love.

You are expected to spend 30,000 (and counting) hours bringing yet another person into the world, and paying for it, despite the fact that adults with children have lower life satisfaction, less marital satisfaction, more anxiety and more depression. But don’t worry, the sleepless nights, dirty diapers, adolescent rage, and thankless sacrifices in nearly every area of your life will all be worth it once those little troublemakers finally leave and become adults that only vaguely despise you.

And in order to do all of these things you are supposed to do, you have to make a living. And you have to give more than a third (half if you’re a good overachiever) of your life away in order to do that. Beyond lifting you out of poverty, money and the things it can purchase (including that college degree which will allow your children to give half of their lives away too) do little to increase well-being. Finding purposeful, fulfilling work that allows you to progress toward your values is an extremely rare luxury. By the time you have done all the things the success narrative demands, there is little life left to spend aligning with those values we talked about.


“The goals that you have set for yourself may be ones sold to you by the larger culture – ‘Make money! Own your own home! Look great!’ – and while there may be nothing wrong with striving for those things, they mask the pursuits more likely to deliver true and lasting happiness. In this case, your priority should be to discern which goals will make you happy in the long term and to follow them.”

– Sonja Lyubomirsky

What am I thinking? Am I really calling the decisions of the vast majority of my readers into question? That is so rude of me. Let me make my point clear. My goal here is not to suggest that all of the above decisions are bad ones, nor is it to offer a tired critique of capitalism, consumerism, or popular culture. None of these decisions are invalid in and of themselves, and if I told you they were, I’m sure you wouldn’t listen anyway.

I do not regret my decision to attend college. I don’t regret spending time doing work in order to make money, or spending money on vacations, being in a relationship, or any of the other choices I’ve made that happen to mesh with the success narratives of my culture. And that is because I have not done these things out of blind conformity to a social script. Being an unconditional nonconformist is nothing to be proud of. When you have a defined goal hierarchy, those goals will inevitably overlap with cultural prescription some of the time. What matters is the reason – or lack thereof.

When you fail to define your goals, you will default to imitation and construct your goals to resemble the “successful” people in society. And if you do this consistently, there will eventually be little room left for your values.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

When you reflect on your life, ask yourself if you really chose it. If you are living it because it truly allows you to reach your ideals, or because the housing industry wanted you to think it does. If you really want to pursue that prestigious career as a notary, or if your parents just want you to. If your life is genuinely the product of a top-down goal strategy in which your decisions are directed toward your ideals, you’ll get no criticism here. But if you look around you and see a life that looks like a cookie cutter – one that would seem to the Hamar community like blind conformity to arbitrary “success” milestones, it may be time to pause, reflect, and make use of wisdom.