The Odyssean Lifestyle
I recently came across an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, entitled “Odyssean lifestyle makes a comeback”. I liked the title and was immediately curious, partly because, being a Sydney newspaper, my first thought was that its author was in fact the very David Brooks who had been one of my profs at The University of Sydney. It was not so – the article, which had first appeared in the New York Times, was written by an altogether different David Brooks.
“There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the additions, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.”
The odyssean lifestyle is aided by new workplace flexibility, social media, easier and broader access to tertiary education, vastly changed perceptions of roles and status according to sex, gender, race and cultural background, ease and affordability of travel, more flexible social mores, online dating, the list goes on. The world has never been so full of choice and possibility, or, for that matter, such a variety of role-models. Personal development now includes a far richer range of experiences and opportunities, and the naturally curious human species is exploiting this to the full where possible.
Brooks is likely correct in suggesting the odyssean stage of ones life typically spans a single decade, yet there is, arguably, no limit to how long this may run. I myself have been on an odyssey since I left high school twenty years ago and, let’s face it, I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing with myself. It’s fair to say, however, that despite having three degrees, including a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge and a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Technology, Sydney, I haven’t exactly been successful.
It has also become increasingly difficult as I age to justify my lack of assets and financial security. Most would consider the odyssean phase to be one in which one tried ones hand at various things, ultimately with the aim of finding a suitable situation, career, partner and place to settle down at the end of the odyssey. Rather than merely accepting the old paradigm of finding a career either immediately after high school or university, many now prefer to try a variety of options until their tastes mature sufficiently to make a more satisfying choice of lifestyle. My problem, however, is that the paths I have chosen have so far proven to be dead-ends or have not been satisfying. I also suffer from a rather short attention span, or, conversely, an almost pathologically intense period of focus which, after some years, leaves me totally and utterly sick of whatever it was I was doing. Just like Zorba the Greek, who, as a child, loved cherries so much that he ate them until he was sick, I too tend to overdo things until they no longer give me pleasure. The law of diminishing returns is one of the few laws to which I subscribe without hesitation.
I have already experienced this sudden, plummeting loss of interest in the study of history and writing novels, though I’m still hitting the keys, as is here evident. Perhaps it is merely lack of success in these fields that has left a bitter taste in my mouth, but also a quite incurable restlessness finds me dreaming of further career possibilities at the age of 38 – architecture, photography, archaeology, biology, environmental management and planning… the list goes on.
The job for which I yearn most of all, however, is that of a holiday package tester. Yes, people do do this for a living – going on a package tour and rating the quality of the holiday experience. Many people I know do not like flying, become frustrated upon entering an airport, and are unhappy to have a schedule that is regularly disrupted by travel and jetlag. I, however, love these things dearly and feel most comfortable when constantly confronted by new stimuli – be it a crappy hotel room or second-rate buffet breakfast. Anything novel is, well, novel, for better or for worse, which is, I suppose, part of the reason for my clinging to the odyssean phase of my life for as long as possible.
One interesting upshot of the Odyssey is a loss of any coherent understanding of how or where I am supposed to be at any given stage of my life. There are clear signs all about; many of my friends are breeding, married and have successful careers, yet this process has had almost no impact on me whatsoever, other than to confirm my worst suspicions that it looks more complicated than desirable. Having always disregarded social convention, initially for the sake of rebellion and later through a philosophical rejection of materialism, careerism and acquisitiveness, I still believed that eventually I would, to some degree, fall into line.
This future point in my life, possibly involving marriage, the production of children and permanent, professional employment, combined with an attempt to latch onto the lower rungs of the property ladder, was always, from the age of around twenty-eight onwards, five years away. Nothing has changed, it is still five years away, and I believe I have at last begun to understand just why this is so. It is not so much a question of the necessary elements being in place, but rather one of the absence of any desire to set this process in motion. I quite simply don’t want to own anything or anyone, nor have to make life-decisions that depend on someone else’s say-so.
The unsettled, curiosity-driven, admittedly aimless, wandering lifestyle has become so integral for me as to be the only lifestyle I am capable of imagining. I have been through several mental exercises, imagining myself in the role of father and husband, or father and partner, or as permanently co-habiting childless, home-owner, or even, simply, home owner, but it all seems so farfetched. I have begun to wonder, does the old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, come into play so far as lifestyle is concerned? Is it possible that I have become so detached from and spent so long avoiding exposure to these more settled lifestyles, that I am not actually capable of living such a life? Am I too set in my ways to adapt to it without suffering from crippling wanderlust and eternal, dispiriting restlessness?
The unwillingness to commit is often derided as a flaw; yet, I feel this attitude is out of touch with modern reality. Certainly there can be advantages to commitment, but without a sufficient level of in-built flexibility, anyone already well-used to freedom of movement is inevitably going to feel significantly restricted. Ultimately it comes down to a question of what is more important and what compromises we are willing to make, yet an unwillingness to compromise and a failure to rate permanence as highly as impermanence, should by no means be derided.
Perhaps it was my father’s work as a foreign and war correspondent that made me so attached to the idea of travel. Of course I was never actually doing any of the travelling, but remained transfixed by his tales of adventure. This no doubt helped to fuel my early and ongoing obsession with fantasy role-playing games. I had an intrinsic idolisation of characters who went off adventuring by themselves or with others. I spent my childhood pretending to be an “adventurer” and of all the literature I encountered, it was more often than not quest narratives that held the greatest attraction.
These particular influences and preferences are personal rather than broadly social or generational. Yet, finding myself in a global society marked by the rise of flexibility and mobility in all things from work, education, relationships and gender and with rapidly rising narcissistic individualism, I have been perfectly primed to embark upon and sustain an Odyssean lifestyle. Quicker than I could decide what my own chosen norms were, the norms have changed.
There has only been a slight shift in self perception. A growing awareness that I am ageing – greying hair, lower back pain, longer warm up times when running – yet I still consider myself to be young. In fact, I rarely consider myself to be an adult, but a young man. My latest theory is that so long as I have hair, I am young. And, yes, I still have plenty of hair still on my head!
The original article link is below: