What It Is, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It
This episode is a little different. I’m going to throw out a theory I’ve been chewing on for a while to see how it lands for you.
If I’m at all on the mark with my theory, then you and I are in the midst of a global identity crisis with huge individual implications.
Go with me on this, and I’d love to know what you think.
Two Stories, One Point
John was born in 1952 in a small town in Michigan. His mom managed the homefront, his dad was an accountant, and he had two younger sisters. In keeping with the prevailing sentiment of the day, his mom and dad favored stability, predictability, and peace above all else since WWII was still painfully if not distantly visible in the rearview mirror. And John’s dad was a combat veteran. Gratitude for the simplicity of small-town American life was a staple of John’s family’s ethic, and dreams of bigger and better things weren’t exactly frowned upon, but they weren’t encouraged either.
John went to school with the same 60 or so kids from K-12, watched the same regular TV programming as everyone else, and was glad to get a job at a local print shop when he graduated from high school. He liked art and design, and this seemed like a reasonable way to get a bit of that in his work while at the same time taking his place among the ranks of the responsible and productive.
John eventually bought the print shop after 20 years at the company and the establishment of his own family, and though each decade brought with it its own set of challenges in the world at large, John had a sense of who he was and what he did in the world. He was John, the son of Tom and Sally, from a small town in Michigan. He was a husband, father, business owner, and engaged member of his community. He was aware of the wider world and interested in its affairs, but he didn’t spend much time concerning himself about things that didn’t affect his immediate day-to-day or threaten to do so.
On the whole, John was content to be a decent-sized fish in a small pond in the middle of Michigan.
Alex was born in 1995 in the same small Michigan town as John. The town was bigger when Alex was born, but not significantly so. It had simply grown the way that towns can when there aren’t specific causes for decline but neither are there particular reasons for a boom. His mom was an IT manager who worked from home and his dad was a VP with a national healthcare provider. Alex was an only child.
Alex changed schools 4 times and moved to different neighborhoods twice in his K-12 years--the result of his parents’ concerns about the quality of the education he was receiving and proximity to the airport for his dad’s business trips. So, Alex had several different groups of friends over the years but became increasingly less social as the years wore on--fatigue from the social turnover taking its toll. By the time he was a sophomore in high school, smart phones and the proliferation of social media made it easier to interact from a distance and meet people outside of his hometown that he found more interesting. He was aware of the vastness of the world and the almost infinite options awaiting him. There was so...much...more out there than this little town had to offer.
By the time his senior year rolled around, Alex was counting down the milliseconds until graduation--when he was free to leave the stifling smallness of his hometown and explore new horizons. Maybe he’d visit his buddy Alex in Oregon, whose dad grew marijuana for medical use, or his online crush Lisa in Miami. His gaming buddy, Yoshi, had invited him to visit him in Tokyo. That would be amazing. The possibilities were endless.
Fast forward to the present day, and Alex’s still a relatively young man at 26, but he’s beginning to feel some internal pressure to figure some things out. He’s lived in 4 different cities since high school graduation--all thankfully much different and in his opinion way more interesting than his hometown. But eventually, each city got a little old, or he had a hard time connecting with new people there, or the tech job he’d landed went away because of down-sizing or right-sizing or an acquisition. He’s feeling a bit adrift. He’s spending more and more time on social media--fantasizing about achieving the stardom and notoriety of a Gary V. or a Joe Rogan and peering into the lives of hundreds of people he doesn’t know but whose lives look more interesting than his. This isn’t helping. It creates a chronic sense of he’s here and “they” are way over there--living in a magical land of financial ease and personal certainty. The gap seems to be widening with every passing day.
Plus, it appears to him that the world is beginning to crumble around him. Racial unrest, global pandemics, dishonest politicians, and environmental armageddon are just a few of the big things that threaten to do the world in any day now. At least, that’s what he’s hearing in the media. And can the media be trusted? If not they, then how does he get reliable info about the state of things? He feels like he ought to do something about at least one of these things. But which one? And what can he possibly do as just one guy? He feels increasingly like he’s being swept along by a tidal wave of horrible inevitability that he’s powerless against.
Alex is a small fish in a global fish pond. It’s terrifying, and it’s paralyzing.
So What’s the Point, Petty?
Hopefully, the juxtaposition of the portraits of these men from the same town but with very different experiences of the world illustrates the theory I want to share with you. Here’s the theory, simply stated to make the implicit explicit:
I think that most if not all of us are suffering in some way at the hands of what I’m calling the Global Fish Pond Crisis. We’re all susceptible to some version of Alex’s experience in the world.
I actually think it’s a big reason that people like me have a job doing what we do. People feel adrift in a global fish pond and need help making sense of their place in it.
But What IS the Global Fish Pond Crisis?
Here’s what I think is happening: When the whole world is at our fingertips 24/7 and the old ways of forming an identity aren’t adequate anymore, then it’s completely up to us to catalyze our identity--a term I first heard from Jordan Peterson--and stabilize it in the midst of a global pond churning with other fish trying to do the same thing. In John’s case, geography and associated cultural norms provided reliable, local boundaries to his fish pond and formed a foundation for his identity. He was one fish among 20,000, not one among 7 Billion as we may feel ourselves to be today.
But perhaps the biggest problem with the Global Fish Pond Crisis is that we’re not aware that it exists.
We’re tempted instead to think that we’re just not cutting it. We may be aware of various degrees of psychological pain and suffering caused by it--like in Alex’s case--but we’re misattributing it to our own laziness or incompetency or lack of worth. This is a case in which I think many of us are truly being victimized. And that’s why I bring it up. Because if this Global Fish Pond Crisis is actually a thing, then exposing it and its insidious effects on us means we can stop being victimized by it and start doing something about it.
We can go from unwitting victim to victor and find our place in the vast global pond in which we now swim.
In an age where few of us are born into small local ponds anymore, we have the opportunity to appropriately claim a small part of the global pond for our own--a part of the pond small enough to actually make a difference.
How to Rescue Ourselves from the Global Fish Pond Crisis
I think the way forward lies in each of us doing our best to assume even more complete responsibility for ourselves. To concern ourselves with those things that we can influence, to get our own houses in order, so to speak, and operate as productively as we know how right now, right where we are, with what we have. Staying zoomed out to the global view too much of the time leads to overwhelm and, frankly, I think it’s a cop-out because we then blame the global situation for why we’ve failed to sort ourselves out. Because what can one person do when the world is burning down around us?
That’s victim stuff right there, and we’re all susceptible to it in one way or another.
Zoom out every once in a while, sure--but zoom right back to your own here and now, and determine to do what you can right where you are. And I don’t mean do what you can to fix the world. I mean do what you can to become the person you were made to be and live the life you were made to live. I think that when we do that, we actually fulfill the many desperate needs in the world better and more quickly, anyway.
If this idea is scratching an itch for you--if you resonate with the idea of feeling like a tiny fish in a global pond--then resolve to do something about it in your own life right now.
These four episodes of Andrew Petty is Dying will be especially useful as you take next steps to rescue yourself from the Global Fish Pond Crisis:
Remember, you are going to die. But you're not dead yet. So get after it!
I Can Help
One of my favorite things in the entire world is helping people solidify their identity in the world so they’re better able to become the person they were made to be and live the life they were made to live. I can help you do that. I can help you escape the grip of the Global Fish Pond Crisis.
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