Solo Thoughts 5: A New Narrative for Singles


What is the story of your life? Peter McGraw presents an alternative narrative for singles that features his new 3R model: Recognize – Rebel – Reinvent.

Listen to Episode #56 here


Solo Thoughts 5: A New Narrative for Singles

This is the fifth installment of Solo Thoughts, where I forgo a guest and talk directly to you, the reader, about ideas that I’ve been developing. I welcome feedback on any of these thoughts and you can do so on our new Solo Community Slack channel, which is invite-only. You can apply on the Solo Page at PeterMcGraw.org. Here we go or as I like to say, let’s get started. In the 50th episode of Solo, the one that looks backwards and forwards at the project, I present an idea that singles who don’t want to settle down, whether it be for now or forever, need more than a how-to guide. They need a way to structure their thoughts and actions. They need a story, a narrative.

When I first started this project, I thought that Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey would be a good narrative. In Episode 23, I talk about this, Are You the Hero of the Story of Your Life? I immediately, because of my guest, began to have second thoughts. The hero’s journey tends to be external first, I need to leave the safe confines of the hero’s world. It’s often accompanied by an internal change, but most of the action is in the physical, slaying dragons, conquering villains and the like. This comes up for example in Star Wars, where Luke Skywalker has to leave his home planet to begin his hero’s journey and destroyed the Death Star, spoiler alert.

The evolution of the unattached person, however, is one of internal change first and then action later. That will make more sense as I go on. Nowadays, I’m leaning on an alternative structure and that is The Virgin’s Promise, which is detailed in Episode 25, which I call The Solo’s Promise. It’s the application, not of the mythological narrative, but the fairytale narrative. Kim Hudson documents this in her book, The Virgin’s Promise. She uses her structure to explain a wide array of stories that don’t fit the hero’s journey very well, including movies like Legally Blonde, Sister Act, Pretty Woman, About a Boy and even the comedy, Wedding Crashers.

The Virgin’s Promise

What I’m doing is applying the beats of The Virgin’s Promise to a three-step narrative that I’ve been working on for you, the single. It’s a guide of sorts. It’s a new way to think about the change you might embrace when you embrace single living. Here’s the story structure from The Virgin’s Promise. I’m going to read these right out loud and there are thirteen steps so it’s going to go on for a little bit of time, so bear with me.

In the first step, the protagonist lives in the dependent world. Two, the protagonist recognizes the price of conformity. That is, he or she can’t be their true self. Three, the protagonist is given an opportunity to shine, perhaps fate intervenes. Four, the protagonist dresses the part. This is most obvious in Cinderella when she first puts on the dress. Five, the protagonist enters a secret world. She or he finds a place to express their real self. For some, it might be this show or even our new Slack channel.

Six, the protagonist no longer fits the world and prefers this secret world where he or she can be their true self. Seven, clock shining in the dependent world, the protagonist starts to become their true self. As you might imagine, it causes problems in the ordinary world. People don’t like it. They punish. They shame. Eight, the protagonist gives up what’s keeping her stuck. That is some belief or behavior that needs to go and it goes.

Nine, the dependent world is not ready for this change, so it causes problems. In Kim Hudson’s words, “The kingdom is in chaos.” Ten, the protagonist needs to contemplate whether to stay on of course with their journey and with their promise. They often try to figure this out alone on a walk where they wander in the wilderness. Eleven, choose her light, that is there is some action that solidifies the change. There is no going back.

Twelve is reordering. This is a reconnection with the dependent world, but the protagonist has changed. As a result, so has that world. Thirteen and finally, the kingdom is brighter. Everyone is better off for this reason. Here’s a passage from Kim Hudson’s book where she recaps the plot of the movie, Billy Elliot, which reflects these steps. If you’ve seen the movie, you know how compelling the movie is and you can get a hunch for how it plays out. Even if you don’t know the movie, this will give you an idea of what that structure looks like.

Billy doesn’t do the hero’s journey, he engages in this other promise. Billy lives with his father, brother and grandmother in a mining town, in a small company house. He cares for his grandmother having lost his mother. His father, a miner from a long line of miners, signs Billy up for boxing lessons, where Billy gets pummeled. When asked to give the keys to the ballet instructor after boxing, Billy is fascinated by dancing. He tries on his first pair of ballet slippers and attends the class. Bill uses his boxing money to take ballet lessons, practicing in the bathroom, avoiding his family’s suspicions. People start to question Billy’s sexuality. Billy’s ballet instructor thinks Billy should apply to the Royal Ballet Academy.

When Billy’s father catches Billy dancing with his homosexual friend, Billy defiantly gives his dad a demonstration of his talent. Billy’s dad runs from Billy. Billy in turn lashes out against his instructor, who’s pushing him to follow his dreams. Meanwhile, the brother is arrested and Billy misses his tryout for the Royal Ballet Academy. Billy’s dad inspired by the memory of his wife, recognizes Billy deserves a chance to follow his passion and crosses the picket line to support him. Unable to go through with crossing the picket line, they sell Billy’s mother’s jewelry to get money for Billy to try out in London. Billy almost blows his chance by hitting a fellow dancer, who tries to be “friendly” in the change room.

Billy finally stands up and describes how he feels when he dances and is accepted into the Academy. The son of a miner has become a famous dancer. The father and brother are exposed to a more tolerant and artistic world. Billy follows in this story, 13 out of 13 of those steps. Here’s my attempt to simplify this narrative for the solo. I do it in three stages. As you know these, you’ll recognize some of those beats from The Solo’s Promise.

Here are the three stages: recognize, rebel and re-invent. I call them the three Rs. To recognize our domestication and the prominence of marriage as an important goal to pursue nearly everyone and to understand the mythology of marriage. This is a judgment. The next R is rebel. Rebel against this domestication by asserting your wants, needs and desire to live a remarkable life of your choosing. Get married if you want, don’t get married if you want, but make it your choice. Don’t let the world decide for you. This is a decision.

Recognize: Dependent World In The Price Of Conformity

Three is reinvent. Reinvent yourself as someone who lives remarkably as single by choice, whether that be for now or forever. This is a series of behaviors. I’ll go through each of these Rs in turn and talk about them. First, there’s this recognition of the world for what it is and its cost to you in your pursuit of a good life. Kate Hudson would call this the dependent world in the price of conformity. The dependent world and its price are related to the notion of human domestication in Don Miguel Ruiz’ book, The Four Agreements.

I like the term human domestication, although you could call it a variety of things. You call it socialization and so on, the pressure to conform and that would be, but I like human domestication because it’s provocative. No one likes the idea that they’re being domesticated. Yet, the world works to shape how we think and how we behave sometimes in positive ways and sometimes in ways that keep us from thriving. Think of the thoroughbred, not a bad life in some ways. You get to run fast, but a thoroughbred doesn’t run free. Domesticated or not, Homo sapiens are different than other animals. Those animals may be domesticated or not. What separates the Homo sapiens, humans, from other animals?

Most people think it’s a language, but it’s not. Many other animals have language and they can communicate with others. Other people think is intelligence. Nope, many other animals are smart themselves though intelligence does help. Rather what separates humans from other animals is our unique ability to cooperate. Animals can cooperate in some limited capacity, often through reciprocity. For example, an ape will groom another ape and vice versa. I groom you, you groom me. I give you a ride to the airport, the next time you give me a ride to the airport.

Homo sapiens’ cooperation is not limited to reciprocity. You can have another structure and it goes something like this, “You groom me and I give you a ride to the airport.” What’s fascinating is this cooperation isn’t just one-on-one. It can happen at scale in small groups and thousands of people and even within states, nations and globally. Getting chimpanzees to cooperate on the individual level might happen here and there, but it can’t happen at the tens of thousands of levels.

You put 10,000 chimps into a stadium and you have bedlam. You put 10,000 humans into a stadium and they can behave. Why does this happen? Why is it that we can cooperate at scale as humans? The short answer, and this serves as the foundation for understanding our domestication, is that we can believe in fiction, in made-up things. These made-up things help us get along. They help us cooperate. They’re the rules and ideas by which we play the game of life.

What’s fiction? Fiction is anything that will disappear if there’s a zombie apocalypse. Laws are fiction. They go out of the window. Your college degree is fiction. No one is going to care where you went to school during a zombie apocalypse. Your number of Instagram followers, i.e., your influence is gone. The things that remain, the things that are biologically and physically based, those aren’t fictions. People will still need air, water and sustenance. Bullets will still work and viruses will still exist, but thankfully, sex will still feel good.

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It’s our ability to share fictions that lead to cooperation in general and has led to the creation of capitalism. I know capitalism gets a very bad rap but in some ways, it’s quite good for the world and for singles. It certainly helps with cooperation because it allows for strangers to interact and do business. The invention of money, which when you think about it is a made-up thing. Money has no value during a zombie apocalypse. We all agree on its value.

Now, if you want to dive more deeply into these ideas, you can check out the book, The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley and Sapiens by Yuval Harari. In any case, capitalism has helped facilitate the steep rise in single as an option. This is something that we cover in the Best Innovations episode with Shane Mauss. Why is it that it helps single so much? Capitalism can help strangers have our needs met then we are less reliant on the tribe. We’re less reliant on family and we can break free of those things as single people if we want.

The rise of capitalism helps industrialization and industrialization has helped singles so we can escape the farm, in short. Moreover, capitalism, as I’ve alluded to, has supercharged innovation and invention, which has benefited singles in a variety of ways. Things like birth control, apartment buildings and mobile phones, are things that help everyone, but can differentially benefit single people and help them live solo.

On one hand, these norms, rules and fictions are helpful. They keep the peace. They fuel innovation. In some cases, they benefit you and me as we pursue our solo life. On the other hand, however, some of these norms rule fiction. They govern our interactions in ways that are arbitrary at best and hurtful at worse. They can’t be right or even right for everyone. We know this because norms and rules change all the time. What we once thought was okay is now not okay.

For example, at one point, people were gay by choice and it was the wrong choice. That is clearly changing. At one point, people believe that women should stay home, cook and have babies. That’s changing. They can be doctors, engineers, CEOs with or without babies. Certain types of women at one point in time were considered to be witches because of their peculiar behavior. As this domestication process happens, we’re being socialized to accept these rules and follow them.

It helps with cooperation. You’re socialized to act and believe certain things. For example, you’re socialized to believe the relationship escalator and its dominance as the form of acceptable romantic relationships in the world. Idealized dominant, this is a relationship that you ought to be pursuing. Relationship escalator, relationships receive high status and those benefits. They’re the focus of media in the marketplace. They have rituals, engagement rings and weddings.

Being single is a tolerated place in the world, but it’s viewed as less than ideal and less than living on the relationship escalator. It’s the discomfort that you and others feel with your singlehood that’s evidence that you’re bumping up against this domestication and norms. As a case study of fictions, cooperation and changing norms, let’s take a little look at marriage. First of all, marriage is a relatively new invention in human history. The rise of marriage occurred with the rise of land ownership and agriculture.

In short, marriage became a way to keep land in a family by passing it on through lineage. We’re not involved to marry. It’s culturally determined and thus has taken on different forms. Early on matches, marriages were made by the family or by rulers. The pursuit of love within a marriage is a new thing sped along by the enlightenment and the rise of individualism that is as we became less focused on duty and more on our individual pursuits.

I don’t know if you’re noticing this, but there’s a fascinating idea here. That is that the rise of individualism has placed love at the forefront of marriage. The rise of individualism has also fueled the fact that people aren’t getting married because they have other pursuits that they want to engage in. The pursuit of love has made marriage less stable. Love can fade in ways that duty does not. Other things have been in play that has made the institution of marriage less stable.

Access to divorce, the rise of women in the workplace and now men and women are less dependent on each other where the man doesn’t need to make the money and the woman doesn’t need to care for the family. These things also have fueled the rise of single living. There’s less need to marry though, for many, the want is still there. Where are we at? We’re talking about recognition. The recognition is to see that marriage was made for families and not for individuals. It’s critical to see past the mythology of marital bliss, something that we’ve discussed in previous episodes, but I’ll recap here.

The idea that marriage is the path to a good life simply does not hold up to scrutiny. In part, because we see that in the marriage and wellbeing literature, the early results were built on bad science and cherry-picked data. For example, much of the data on the benefits of marriage, looks so good because the researchers have thrown out from the sample, the people who get divorced, that’s a third of the sample. It shows a skewed perspective, but I don’t need to tell you this. If you’re reading, you likely already know from your own personal experience in your own relationships and your observations of your parents, friends and family, where are these blissful marriages? They exist, but they’re a small percentage where they only occur for a temporary period of time. Nevertheless, we’re living in a world that says marriage is the status quo and it’s built upon fiction, layered and layered.

The first step is to recognize your domestication. Recognize that the world you are dependent on and is not necessarily designed for you, the solo to thrive. It’s designed to get you to cooperate and while there are benefits of cooperation, being able to launch a business, the industrialization that allows you to escape making babies or doing backbreaking work on a farm. Nevertheless, if you’re aware of it, you can still feel incomplete. Now you’re aware, but you can do something about it.

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Once you have this idea, you can start to see this domestication everywhere. For example, I came across this tweet by Naval Ravikant. He’s @Naval on Twitter. He’s a pretty fun follow. He writes, “The more neatly you fit into society, the less free you are.” Before we move on to the next R, I’m going to pause here for a moment and ask you to help get the word out about the show. Tell your solo friends and family, please rate and review. I’m serious, it matters.

Rebel Against Human Domestication

After recognition, the next step in the creation of a new narrative for solos is to rebel against the forms of human domestication that don’t work for you. In rebellion, you get to be the hero like in Star Wars. You can start to stop caring what people think of you when you do something that honors your needs, wants and lifestyle. You don’t need to hire your desire for a relationship that deviates from the relationship escalator.

You don’t need to hide your decision to not want to date at all. You can go to a movie dinner or a wedding alone. You can take a solo vacation after a particularly difficult stretch of work. You can be finished being defensive about being single. Perhaps you put single in your social media handle. This is something that I did with some trepidation. I put bachelor in my social media handles and in some of my bios. What’s fascinating was I found myself reluctant to do it. Yet when you spend any time on social media, you regularly see people saying that they’re a husband, a father, a wife, a mother. They put on their relationships in that way on display. Yet, it’s unusual for people to announce their singlehood. That was an act of rebellion.

Finally, it’s important to learn to talk authentically and confidently about being single, without apologizing or being on the defensive. Rebels aren’t defensive about their rebellion. How might this sound? Someone may ask, “Are you dating anyone special?” Answer, “No, I’m not dating at all at the moment.” Question, “You’re not dating. How are you going to meet your soulmate?” Answer, I’m more interested in building my new business than in the rare chance of finding a soulmate. If you want him to push the rebellion, you could say something like this, “Since you’re not married to your soulmate, that’s obvious. When are you getting a divorce?” I’m kidding about that but you see what I mean. The active rebellion, besides allowing you to walk your own path, there’s another benefit against rebelling against the status quo and that is it’s cool. Getting Off The Relationship Escalator is one of my favorite episodes as evidenced by the stuff I’ve talked about previously.

Another episode that I enjoy quite a lot was with Caleb Warren, my close collaborator on my humor research. Besides studying humor, Caleb has also done groundbreaking work on coolness. He’s used science to figure out what makes things cool. Psychological research shows the cool people find a way to be seen as autonomous yet appropriate. That is cool people are deviant by choice, but not too deviant. Do you see where I’m going with this?

When someone’s unapologetically unattached, that’s cool. Being single by choice is deviant by choice in an unconventional life that you own. Remember, the most uncool people tend to be married. Jay Z and Beyoncé are the exceptions. People see being single as unconventional, but not terribly so. It’s not a crime to be single. Deep down people know the opportunities present in solo living to travel, to do what you want when you want and to sleep in as I did so now. In other words, the second step in this narrative is an act of rebellion and that act of rebellion can be cool.

Reinvent Yourself

The third part of this new narrative is an act of re-invention, to reinvent yourself by shedding thoughts, attitudes and behavior that’s been holding you back and start to fulfill your promise as a solo. A new unapologetic celebratory perspective is going to lead to new behaviors. Behaviors that allow you the single person to realize your promise, to live the good life, the best life you can. Before I get into this, I want to acknowledge the role of privilege, which is why I say the best life you can live. Because of luck, timing, class, gender, orientation or ethnicity, some people have an easier or harder time living a good life. Not everybody’s good life is equal and that’s why it’s conditioned on the one that you’re able to achieve.

For example, an Ethiopian diamond miner is going to have an impossible time executing the good life that you or I can reach. That doesn’t mean that he can’t live a good life. It’s his good life. Moreover, this act of reinvention is a process. It’s not going to happen like that. It’s taken me many years to live the good life that I’m living and my good life at age 25 was quite different. Next, there’s no one good life. It depends on your values and lifestyles. What energizes you may not energize me and vice versa. Lastly, I don’t want, as we think about reinvention to overweight pleasure or what might people would call joy or happiness. It’s a good life. It’s not a euphoric life. Pleasure matters, but living a good life might lead you to forgo the pleasure.

By recognizing the constraints that singles live with and rebelling against some requires a change, perhaps even a makeover and who doesn’t like a good makeover. I think of it in this way. First, you set a foundation and then you flourish. Let me say that again. If you’re a regular reader, you may know my story that I like to tell about the movie, Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper. In this movie, Bradley plays a smart guy, a writer who’s a bit of a loser. He drinks and procrastinates too much. He’s unkempt and his girlfriend not surprisingly dumps him. Somehow, he gets access to this genius drug and he takes this genius drug and becomes super smart with access to everything he’s ever learned and gleaned from the world. This Bradley Cooper character takes this drug. What does he do first? He tidies up his apartment. He cleans up and organizes his environment. The next thing he does, and this comes up in a previous episode called Dude, Get A Haircut, is he goes to a salon and he gets a fabulous haircut. He walks out with amazing hair.

Next, he starts to work out. You see him running and doing sit-ups in the movie. He updates his wardrobe. He goes from this schlubby guy into this very good-looking put together guy wearing good clothes that fit him well. Why am I bringing this up? If a brand-new genius would immediately reinvent himself along these lines, why shouldn’t you? Let’s talk about this foundation, much of what Bradley Cooper in the Limitless character was doing was creating a foundation to live a good life, tidying up his environment, his body and so on.

Let me go through each of these things. This doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to happen all at once. It can be a process that you take some time that you go through it, but the four major areas. One is your environment and your look. Tidying up the way that you live and the way you look. We talked about this in the Clothing The Solo episode. I’ve got a future episode about tidying up. I think there’s something about cleaning that has not only a freeing feeling but also then creates this sort of more welcoming space and makes you more appealing to others and thus, you get treated better.

The next one, and this one is critical, is tidying up your health. I call this the tripod, three major areas for good health, improving your sleeping, eating and exercise, finding more ways to move. Next is wealth. Find some security in your income and spending. Start by reducing your burn rate, stop wasting money, at least until you have enough money that you can afford to waste it. Money is important. It’s valuable because they can help you buy your freedom, freedom to do what you want when you want and how you want to do it. Get your financial house in order.

Lastly, the last part of the foundation is to have a team that is to pursue relationships, friendships and professional relationships that help you live a better life and remove relationships. Get rid of unsafe people. People who are physically or emotionally abusive. Find ways to firm up your friendships, repair relationships and to jettison the bad ones. That’s the foundation. If you do those things as an act of reinvention, that alone is going to get you ahead of the average person. You’re going to have more positivity, less anxiety, more energy, more confidence and greater appeal. You’re going to feel, look and move through the world in a better way.

Having set that foundation, you can then seek opportunities to flourish. First is foundation, then flourish. The act of beginning to flourish is to create an orientation towards compelling activities, ones that enhance your life. This is key. As a single person, you can do more of these compelling activities. You can do them more often and you can do them better because you’re not dividing your time with the obligations of family. What might some of these activities be? You could learn to DJ. You could do a Tough Mudder Race. Maybe you launch a new business. You host a series of dinner parties or game nights, volunteer in a Soup Kitchen, work on your memoir, take a cooking class or simply sleep.

These are growth-based activities. When they match your preferences and lifestyle, you can begin to flourish. As you know, I like the PERMA model by Martin Seligman. It’s a useful model of wellbeing. It’s documented in his book, not surprisingly called Flourish. It’s suggested these five paths to living a good life. P is Positive emotion, “I feel better today because I slept in, I got a little extra rest.” E is Engagement. This is the flow like activities, writing your memoir or working on cooking a delicious meal. R is Relationships, hosting that dinner party. M is Meaning, volunteering at a soup kitchen. A is Achievement, racing in your Tough Mudder or launching a business.

These aren’t completely mutually exclusive. The same activity can check multiple paths. For example, the Tough Mudder, while being focused on achievement, could also just be fun, getting out in fresh air and moving your body in a way that is challenging yet fun. Launching a business might be achievement-focused, but it’s also engaging. It’s a creative pursuit. One thing to know is that what’s a good life at age 25 might not be a good life at age 50. Back then, I was focused on achievement. Pursuing a career in academia and pursuing athletic achievement, competing on the lacrosse field, for example.

Nowadays, I’m much more focused on P, working out to feel good, not to win, win games. E, Engagement, I’m doing the writing. I’m working on this podcast. M, Meaning, I’m trying to give back to the world. This is a resource for single people. We’re starting a movement. I’m going to be revisiting how to live a good life with an upcoming episode with a humanistic psychologist. His name is Scott Barry Kaufman. He has a new book called Transcend that presents a model like this. It’s an alternative to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which as you probably know, is not a useful model for living a good life, at least in my opinion. He has a similar idea and he uses a sailboat analogy, which I like quite a lot.

I talk about foundation and flourishing. He talks about the base of the boat as security and the sail is growth. I liked the sailboat analogy because of its similarity to the aforementioned ideas, but in particular, it’s sort of compelling as you think about it. You want a good base. You don’t want a boat that’s going to tip over easily, especially when there are waves. You also want a big sail so that you can catch wind sometimes such as when you get into a groove with your work, your hobbies, your fitness, your relationships and also because a sailboat is a boat, rather than a train. Sailboats can go in any direction. There’s no one way to move through the ocean. Here we are, I’ve gone through and tried to set forth a three-part path by which to think about your single living and thinking about making some change in terms of R, Recognizing that the world may not want you to thrive in this way.

The second R is to Rebel against that, to do what you think is right, to make that choice. The third R is to begin an active Re-invention, to change not only your beliefs, but your behavior, your actions and the way you move through the world that allows you to live your best life and to make the opportunities as a single person work for you. I hope this new narrative is helpful. It’s still early in terms of these ideas. I welcome feedback and discussion as I develop them. You can join the Solo community. You can reach me directly on the Slack channel. I want to thank you for reading. I’m going to be back with a non-Solo Thoughts episode. As always, I appreciate you. Cheers.


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