Unraveling the real world

Playtime is over

“’Welcome to the real world,’ she said to me / condescendingly,” begins John Mayer’s “No Such Thing.” The song attacks an idea that has been expressed to me all my life, one offered ever more often to my friends and I as we approached high school and then university graduations – the clichéd closes of the supposed best years of our lives.

Mayer’s characterization captures the tone with which people usually speak of the real world. Relatives and neighbors warn kids about it with a sad irony and couple their cautions with advice to savor childhood, high school, or college; or, they lament their own inability to escape. But the common thread uniting those who bemoan the real world is less adulthood or responsibility than it is suppressed yearning. Mayer wonders if parents have “wished for anything better / while in their memories, tiny tragedies.” He hits at the regrets and buried dreams which are the cost of rent in the real world.

Conspicuously absent from this particular strand of unhappy people are artists, entrepreneurs, and those otherwise meaningfully occupied. This is not to say that the pursuit of a passion or meaning or some altruistic end ensures eternal or even sustained happiness, but that doing as Mayer and many others have, deciding that there is “no such thing as the real world,” is a liberation from a false, harmful, and constricting belief – but one that is systemically difficult to beat.

What do real worlders mean when they use the phrase? There are as many definitions as there are users, but the similarities previously mentioned, subdued aspiration and bitterness, and the words themselves, “real” and “world,” make a few key implications.

First, real worlders consciously or unconsciously believe themselves to be confined by some objectively true set of circumstances or rules that are not only real but natural and universal. (Ask yourself if those you hear complain about the real world also overuse the phrase “it is what it is.”) Chief among these circumstances is typically the need to obtain or keep a job which might range in quality from mundane to mind-numbing but is fundamentally characterized by the person wanting, almost always, to be somewhere else instead of at work. Real worlders feel that this need is inherent to their existence: it is a natural circumstance that binds everyone.

The second implication is paradoxical. Real worlders who complain implicitly make the claim that there is at least one other world; however, to them these worlds are somehow invalid. For example, a real worlder may tell a child or student (perhaps with Mayer’s mentioned condescension) that their sorrows are false or meaningless because they do not live in the real world and, therefore, lack real problems.  In this dismissal is the admission that the real world is not all-encompassing: child- and student-hood can lay outside its bounds, along with other, more fulfilling modes of life.

This suggests a boundary between the real and other worlds. Mayer addresses this third implication when he sings “something’s better on the other side.” Graduation might be an instance of such a border, but Mayer is alluding to his own decision to pursue a career in music instead of taking the “so-called right track.” His example demonstrates that the boundary exists and is permeable, even after childhood – Mayer crossed it with a decision.

These implications are made by anyone who refers to the real world as the natural and universal mode of existence that demands they adhere to a set of rules which restricts them from doing what they capital W “Want,” as in “I’ve always Wanted to be a teacher,” or “I Want more than anything to make music.” This restrictive conceptualization of the real world seems to act as a central impediment to self-actualization.

It is also crucially different from the real world’s more literal interpretation as a foil to a fictional or imagined world. This version has utility: in books, television, and movies, happy endings are commonplace, whereas in life they are incredibly rare; and using the real world as a conceptual tool to combat unrealistic expectations about finding a soulmate or saving the world is, if not laudable, at least understandable. But I think the phrase has shifted from this usage to its present, popular, and more pernicious definition, one that serves less as a counterweight to fictional narratives of improbable adventure or love than as a cultural enforcer of the notion that economic security is the primary and natural mandate of existence.

That this is harmful or incorrect might seem laughable. Economic security affords healthcare, shelter, and nutrition, which all are vital and can be painstaking to obtain; but the connotation people now associate with the real world proves something is wrong. If people conceive of the real world as I have described it – and do so contemptuously or dejectedly – they make a fourth implication: the real world is bad, and they would rather live some other way. This is the problem.

How real is it?

Let’s make the assumption that people tell a story to themselves about themselves. Real worlders may or may not believe they do this, but when they lament the rules of the game, they are indeed telling a story, one where they either are a victim or play a victim. I think our situation is more complicated than this – we are somewhere in between.

In Mayer’s “No Such Thing” he tells the story of his victimization by the real world, which, for him, is a contrived narrative of life imposed by cultural expectations and embodied by his parents, teachers, and classmates, who all comply with its demands. But the song is about everyone’s ability to escape such victimization by rising above the real world’s lie. In his idealized story, we are able to break the bounds of the real world by doing what we love instead of what we are expected to do.

We could then assume that there is a process of de-victimization that Mayer and kindred otherworlders followed: they were victims, played victims, then fought their way out of the real world. In the first stage they believed they were victims of the real world, the natural, universal set of circumstances restricting them from doing what they Wanted. Then, via some form of epiphany, they realized that there is no such thing as the real world. In this stage they understand life is not constrained by the real world’s circumstances yet continue to adhere to them. A crucial distinction here is whether they continue to criticize their lives. If they accept the rules and are fulfilled, or do not inwardly or outwardly despair, then this stage is unproblematically satisfactory; but, if they do despair and choose not to change things, they lose victimhood and start playing it. Here is where otherworlders quit playing, summon the courage to accept the risks posed by breaking real world rules (e.g. economic security), and start working towards what they Want.

Because of our predisposition for self-storytelling, I think many of us make it to the second stage and then return to the first. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a hypocrite or a coward, but victimhood requires a kind of heroic endurance. That story, in tandem with consumerism, can sufficiently numb the gnawing thought that there ought to be more to life than economic security.

However, this process is a drastically shortened and simplified side of the story. The risks posed by leaving the real world are not insignificant, and the middle stage – knowing the real world is a lie but not knowing what to do or lacking the courage to change – is messy, arduous, and anxiety-provoking. This is why those stuck in this limbo are not so easily criticized, and why the notion of the real world as fact is problematic.

Yet even if we accept Mayer’s process of de-victimization, why must it and its trials exist at all? Why does it so often feel like we must choose between security or the pursuit of fulfillment? And why, although there are plenty of individuals who achieve both security and fulfillment, do we choose to resent them instead of imitate them?

Partially, it is because what real worlders are feeling is not entirely a fiction. David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, believes their perception is accurate, and comes in part from the modern prevalence of what he calls “bullshit jobs.” In an essay that went viral a few years ago, he examines a claim made in 1930 by the influential British economist John Maynard Keynes that developed countries, enabled by technological advancements, would have cut the average person’s work week to fifteen hours by 2030. Graeber argues that Keynes was not incorrect – we are capable of meeting his prediction – but that “instead, technology has been marshaled…to make us all work more” at jobs that are, “effectively, pointless.” He cites a study of the U.S. that found between 1910 and 2000 “’professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service [work]…grew from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment,’” while “productive jobs…[were] largely automated away.”

This leads Graeber to describe the “moral dynamics of our own economy” as a kind of “Hell” comprised of “individuals who [spend] the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at.” In a later interview with The Economist, he elaborates: “[there] is an almost perfect inverse relation between how much your work directly benefits others, and remuneration. The result is a toxic political culture of resentment.”

Although the accuracy of Graeber’s arguments are questionable (The New Yorker described his book on the subject, Bullshit Jobs, as informed by “ad-hoc empiricism”), he thinks their validity is proved by their popularity and the way in which people have resonated with them. Like the real world, bullshit jobs are defined more by feeling than objective fact; and it is not the certainty of their existence that makes them problematic, but the prevalence of their perception.

At least in the developed world, it is unclear where on the spectrum between real victim and play victim any worker or most workers reside. There are the John Mayers, those for whom rejecting the lie of the real world turned out to be a lucrative and celebritizing decision; and even though we enjoy what they offer, it is easy to resent them. We wonder what makes them so special, why they have some talent that we lack, how they escaped the real world’s drudgery. It is a cultural habit to think famous and talented people are the superhuman exceptions that prove the real world’s rules, but they are not. “No Such Thing” was recorded when Mayer was 22 and preceded his fame or fortune – his insight about the real world came when the only thing he shared with his present self was his dream and his drive. And beyond Mayer, there are the fulfilled people whose name almost nobody knows: the writers you’ve never read, the teachers you never had, the YouTubers and the podcasters and the many, many other crowdfunded creators. These people liberated their Wants, left the real world, and found or scrounged a way to support themselves and their families.

Yet for all the success stories, those who cannot or will not cross the boundary have justified complaints. Graeber’s bullshit job-holders and real worlders in general face an economy that too often presents the unfair choice between fulfillment and security; and any number of self-help books or inspirational quotes ultimately cannot alleviate the pressures and miseries posed by a decision either way.

This is the sinister brilliance of the “real world.” There are just enough fulfilled people speaking from the TED stage or elsewhere to make it feel distantly possible to become one of them if we work hard enough, even though hard work seems to be frequently misdirected into a black hole of BS euphemized as ladder-climbing or “just the way things are.” To prevent despair we tell ourselves and children that this mode of existence is natural and “it is what it is,” despite it being a relatively recent phenomenon and not at all the way things have to be on the individual or societal scales. Calling this state of affairs the real world is an insidious linguistic trick which stops any thoughts of reform (personal or otherwise) before or soon after they start.

The “real world” loves to go unquestioned: it’s crucial to business-as-usual. So ask yourself what you are doing when you complain about life in the real world. Ask if your job really needs to exist – does it help anyone beyond the shareholders? Do you feel like you are contributing something positive? Something meaningful? What is it that you Want to do instead? And when someone else deplores the real world, ask them what they are really trying to say, what story they are telling. To everything, to yourself, ask why.

Author: mjfleck7

Living and working in Heidelberg, Germany. Interests in shifting societal narratives, understanding, employing, and deploying art, reciprocity with the natural world, and Calvin and Hobbes. Running and folk music are good, too.

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