Going “against the grain” is a widely known colloquialism in English. Have you ever considered what it means? A simple summary would be to act unconventionally. My search for freedom is based on the perception that conventions aren’t working for me. Such a perception may warrant closer inspection.
The first record I can find of it is Shakespeare’s use of it in Coriolanus (1607) “Preoccupied with what you rather must do Than what you should, made you against the grain”. From the start, it seems to have carried negative connotations and suggests fault. It evokes images of wood being planed or sanded and acting in line with its natural order to give best results. Or more correctly: implies that to act against the natural order will cause suboptimal results or damage. The idea is paralleled by “don’t rock the boat” or “follow the path of least resistance”. To me it smacks of imposed control and mental enslavement by a ruling class. An insidious idea encouraging conformity hidden within mainstream culture.
Conversely, we have phrases like “thinking outside the box” and “three dimensional thinking” which really mean the same thing (i.e. to do things differently), but carry nearly opposite implications. While “against the grain” implies hardship and suffering, “thinking outside the box” implies innovation and revolution. The same act may be considered in either manner depending only on the accepted attitude of a given setting and being independent of the result.
The time we live in now is a time of cultural upheaval. Perhaps more so in western cultures, but with the internet spanning the whole globe, very few places are unaffected. On the one hand we see the established social orders of the world keen to maintain the status quo. It has allowed humanity to band together and achieve much more than would’ve been possible as individuals. But prosperity has been reserved mostly for a select few at the expense of the labouring classes. On the other hand we have a renaissance in technological and managerial innovation. Advanced technology means unprecedented access to knowledge and the ability to distribute information, products, money and ideas at the click of a button.
In seeking freedom, it must be assumed there is a degree of entrapment or lack of choice. The more I examine this idea consciously through stripping away constraints and obligations, the less it holds water. At least in New Zealand, it truly does seem that there are no givens. There most certainly is a “grain” and there are plenty of people in “boxes” but I’m at a loss to judge what that means.
Friends I’ve gone to school with have faithfully followed the “right” way. I guess this is the “grain”. You know the way. The idea that you go to school, then to university to get a degree, get an entry level job and climb the career ladder. Several have families, hold well-paid positions and seem to be enjoying life. At least one friend from my year at school is now earning upwards of £200,000 a year and several others have secure lifestyles and have built equity to support them for the rest of their lives. While their time is promised to work, their finances offer freedom. Particularly if they have enough capital to cover them through an unexpected financial change.
Other friends have developed entrepreneurial ventures. Most are based on classical models of fixed premises with shops selling goods/services, farming or contracting tradespeople fulfilling local contracts. A few work as consultants (mostly business systems and practices) and there are some outliers running e-businesses or micromultinationals who outsource everything worldwide with a fluid business structure based almost entirely on short-term contracts. Many of these people are free on paper, but constantly working. Others have managed to create freedom of both time and money.
Still others of my friends travel from contract to contract, year to year and bounce from country to country being paid disproportionately well to offset the ‘inconvenience’ of working in a foreign land. This category varies a lot in their circumstances but they often have money, time and none of the hang ups of a career-based mind-set. They have chosen a less fixed lifestyle. They are more focussed on enjoying (or at least experiencing) life now rather than setting up security for later. You could say they’re free, but I can assure you many of them are not. I know I wasn’t when I lived that life. I was bouncing from one high to the next and when there were no highs, there was a bottomless hole in the bottom which needed to be filled.
Then there are those who have plodded along getting jobs as they came. Perhaps working their way through an organisation, but generally just getting by. A lot of them live from paycheque to paycheque but live happy enough lives. They participate in their community in average ways with average results for an average experience in line with the status quo. Not born into the ‘right’ families or into ambition, they provide they make up the force that allows systems to function. They are ok with that for the most part.
These are sweeping generalisations (yet again) with questionable validity, I admit. You could argue that each of these represent freedom. You could argue that none do. You could argue that categorising like this oversimplifies the uniqueness of human experience. You could argue that it is a meaningless exercise if not accompanied by statistical analysis. You could argue that all this arguing makes your head hurt and you’d rather just get a beer and play XBox.
The common thread among all of these is that each experiences a similar situation very differently. Although the details obviously vary and contribute to this, the broader practical situation remains similar. So what creates the vast difference? Some of those included are happy while others feel trapped. Some feel grateful, while others hate their lives. Some feel content mostly showing others how they feel, while others mostly project an image of what they want people to believe. The common thread is that it really doesn’t make any sort of difference what resources you command if your attitude is wrong.
You may think this is obvious. That it is common sense and you can’t believe someone would bother writing it. Another time-waster cluttering the internet with more useless bollocks. Well, I reckon you’d be right on all counts… but the interwebs begs to differ. People study this stuff. It turns out so many people study it that at least one group of very clever people even did a meta-analysis on ‘positive psychological capital’ in relation to attitudes, behaviours and performance (check it out in the summer issue of Human Resource Development Quarterly in 2011 if you want).
There has always been a ruling class. There will likely always be a ruling class. Some would say it is necessary for co-operation and order. Others would impose anarchy with a view to true freedom. But when it comes to freedom and the power to be free, “Power resides where men believe it resides” (Yes. That was a cheeky Game of Thrones quote- it was Varys- nice one George R.R. Martin).
So what’s the best path? Turns out that’s not really the point. It’s your attitude toward your path. Scientists call it a ‘locus of control’. I call it getting my shit together and taking responsibility for myself. Everyone agrees that creating your own freedom is easier said than done. Yet it may also be the simplest thing in the world.