Learning To Stare At Goats

A revised and updated version of this essay can be found in A Minimalist Abroad: Essays on Finding Happiness, now available at Amazon!

The beginning of the end of my corporate career was when they sent me on a retreat with the people who trained the men who stare at goats.

If you’re not familiar with Jon Ronson’s book (and the comedy film loosely based on it), it documents the United States Army’s attempts to develop and weaponize psychic powers. Seriously. That was on the extreme, turned-up-to-11, totally crazytown side of the project, though. On the more reasonable end of things, there were people teaching mindfulness to soldiers with the aim of helping them increase awareness of their surroundings in dangerous situations. There was training on meditation techniques, to help soldiers to keep calm, heal more quickly, and recover from post-traumatic stress disorder better. There was a lot of actual science operating at the sane end of the pool as well, including studies dealing with the effects of sleep deprivation, the benefits of nutrition on mental acuity, and the behavioral science behind motivation.

Two of those behavioral scientists, who were also Buddhists, eventually branched out into corporate consulting. They taught retreats and seminars on improving management performance, including dealing with stress, improving creativity, and develloping resilience, couched in terms of work/life balance. All very normal stuff, devoid of any wacky, lurid trappings. Except they managed to ask me some very dangerous questions.

Learning To Stare At Goats

All of the leadership from the division I worked in were expected to go through this training, which took place at a nearby resort hotel over the course of several weeks. We would go for a few days, then go back to the office for a few days or a week so that we could assimilate what we’d learned into our processes and work flows, then go back, share, get some feedback, and learn some more. It seemed to have an effect, because my blood pressure went down, my anxiety waned a bit, and a portion of my overall self-loathing seemed to subside. How much of that can be attributed to the training, though, versus how much of that was just getting out of my soul-crushing non-stop ethical dilemma of a job to hang out at a calm, relaxing resort and eat breakfast and lunch from a four-star restaurant, is obviously open for debate.

We received must of the same training they’d supplied for the soldiers, although obviously less intense and tailored for desk jockeys. Along with meditation sessions and mindfulness walks, they’d hook us up to an EEG to show us how various brain wave states looked, so we could relate them to how we felt, and learn to get ourselves into and out of various mental states quickly. There was also a great deal of discussion and reflection, on what we wanted from life, on what we wanted from our careers, on what our long-term goals were. Most people kissed ass and talked about their jobs with the company and, I’ll admit, I did too. They were paying for this shindig, and it seemed both ungrateful and unwise to openly admit that I hated my job and wanted to do pretty much anything other than continue down that path.

When Reality Comes To Call

Admitting that I was unhappy was hard, even when I was only admitting it to myself. Coming to grips with precisely how deep and pervasive that unhappiness ran throughout my life was even harder. What was particularly brutal was having these cascading revelations and not knowing what to do with them. I was doing well in the corporate world. I had a job title that, while not exceedingly impressive, gave me some sense of dignity and achievement. I was making good money, and as many successful people do I’d managed to parley that respectable salary into impressive amounts of debt. I knew that I did not want to be there, doing that, but I also had no idea where I did want to be and what I did want to be doing.

By all conventional measures, the company had been very good to me. They’d recognized my abilities by hiring me, training me, promoting me, paying me. They even sent me on this cockamamie retreat! Who else would ever give me those sorts of opportunities? Who else would give me that sort of pay and benefits? What kind of an ungrateful lout was I? What was wrong with me that I didn’t appreciate and revel in and celebrate what a great career path I’d found myself on?

Staring At Myself

I stayed in that job for a few more years, then took a nearly identical job with another company for a couple of years after that. I felt trapped. I didn’t feel that I had options. I was still tied to other peoples’ definitions of success and happiness. It was like living in a world where the sky is clearly blue, but everyone else insists that it’s yellow, and you go along because while most of the time you know you’re right, at least some of the time you’re worried that you’re the crazy one. You don’t want to deal with the stares and the comments from people who have bought into and are clearly invested in that yellow-sky paradigm. When you scream that the emperor has no clothes, you’re not just shaming the emperor, you’re shaming all of your neighbors and family members and coworkers who went along with the charade. When you have something that other people want, and when other people admire you for it, how can you just throw it away and declare that it means nothing to you?

Being true to yourself is not easy. Committing to minimalism, or anything else that can change your life, is not easy. While I still kick myself sometimes for staying in miserable situations for so long, I can’t fault myself. You need to do things in their own time, even the right things. I appreciate my life now so much more because of it. In my own way I may be as crazy as the men who stared at goats, but at least now I’m happy.

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