How To Be A Guinea Pig: A Tutorial

2010 February 15

I promised that I’d offer a rough and ready guide to Project Guinea Pig, in which you acknowledge that you can’t predict the future, stop trying to and start diving down interesting rabbit holes as you encounter them, without thinking about how these life tangents will affect A) your personal “brand”  B) your five-year plan C) your upward mobility D) all of the above and then some.

Photo by Thorsten Becker

How To Be A Guinea Pig: A Tutorial

Get a handle on logistics

Before you can be wonderfully spontaneous and unfettered, you’ll need to do some legwork.  Figure out the minimum cash flow you need in order to maintain a tolerable quality of life. If you have the relative luxury of being able to save up for a couple of months of potential dark night of the soul expenses (like I managed to do – I’m a scrimper, no doubt), absolutely do it.  If you’re inclined to downsize yourself out of a lot of unnecessary possessions, so much the better (following whims is easier if you don’t have to load up the U-Haul first). And even if you don’t plan to relocate to a strange city to start from scratch, having the cash to pursue non-freebie flights of fancy (Fencing lessons! A weekend road trip to Carhenge!) never hurts.

Realize that it might not work out

Maybe you aren’t cut out for being aimless (maybe I’m not cut out for it, either).  Maybe you need order and structure and deadlines to sleep at night. Maybe you’ll gamely grind through the entire experiment and not feel enlightened or edified at the end of it. Maybe you’ll open yourself up to the whims of the universe and the universe will totally blow you off. It can happen. It might happen.  If you’re looking for a guaranteed miracle or epiphany,  save your money and trek to Lourdes instead.

Give yourself permission

The first hurdle is overcoming the worry about what others will think of you if you take a temporary timeout from upward mobility. Let’s try a little game of imagination. Think of your mother. Think about talking to her on the phone. Think about her filling you in on all the gossip from back home.

Can you believe that Matt and Jess are expecting another baby and they’re still not married?

You remember that Amy girl you graduated with? Well, I saw in the paper where she’s got this big time job at NASA now.

You’ll never guess who got arrested for shoplifting boxes of Sudafed from Walgreens!

How long does any of this stay in your head? 10 seconds? The length of the conversation? Two days, but only because you take a giggle fit as you pass a Walgreens on your way to work? That’s exactly how long your  information (as reported by their respective mothers) resonates for Matt, Jess, Amy and the unnamed shoplifter-cum-meth maker.

But what about what you think of yourself? Even if you can dismiss others’ fleeting judgments, what about all of your internal expectations, pressures and unmet potential? How will you ever look at yourself in the mirror if you bail on your biorobotics PhD to tour dive bars throughout the Midwest with your half-assed jam band?

Think about it this way –  Is the PhD making you happy or are you still battling the nagging fear of not doing or being enough? If you’ve condemned yourself to carrying around an albatross of guilty inadequacy, why not do so while having the time of your life grooving to Phish cover songs? I kid. Sorta. My point is that  if you’re doing everything “right” according the Young & Ambitious playbook and you still feel dissatisfied and unfulfilled, can changing courses and pursuing a more “selfish”  trajectory actually make you feel that much worse? I’m gonna call BS on that one.  If it’s a question of damned if you do and damned if you don’t, why not opt for being damned while doing something that gets your motor running vs. being simultaneously damned and dejected?

Set a time limit

This serves two purposes. It provides a little structure, especially for those us who get angsty at the idea of endless ambiguity. Secondly, it forces you to dive into the deep end, instead of splashing around in the kiddie pool with your water wings on. You’ve only got a finite amount of time (in my case, a year to possibly remake my life in the image of a Gillian Welch song ) to cram full of as many adventures, detours, false starts, mistakes, object lessons and anecdotes as possible. There’s no time for dithering, just doing.

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