I was out with my brother and his six-year-old son one evening when we walked past a small arcade in one of those music, pizza, entertainment type of restaurants. My nephew had a surprisingly more subdued reaction than I would have expected from a child that age, as he climbed on the various video game chairs and simulators.
At some point I realized he had no idea how any of this arcade stuff worked. He was actually being entertained by simply watching the preview at the beginning of the game that attempts to get you to play it, and climbing on the equipment (at 6 he’s a semi-proficient rock climber). He had no idea how a video game even worked.
I looked at my brother as he watched. We had both thought video games were pretty awesome as kids but time changes perspectives, and he was about to outline his new perspective for me. He explained to me that his kid didn’t know what this stuff is because he doesn’t bring him around video games. Instead he encouraged activities such as biking, learning games, rock climbing, etc.).
Initially, this seemed like an overly-strict policy (which isn’t really my brother’s style), until he explained it to me. He said when he looks back on his childhood, the best memories he had were ones he didn’t spend on the couch playing video games. Rather they were the memories of when he was out exploring the cause and effect of the truest form of 3D ever made. No, not virtual reality; actual reality. ‘Time playing video games was time robbed from my childhood’ he said.
Living Vicariously Keeps You from Learning from Others
I reviewed my childhood experiences and had to agree. The considerable time spent playing video games, although enjoyable, was among none of my ‘ah-ha!’ moments in adolescent or even adult development. Time playing with BB guns, running in the woods, forming strategies with groups of other kids, and learning from their emotions and ideas were much more real “Call-of-Duty experiences” for me than sitting, semi-motionless with a plastic controller in my hand. I wasn’t spending time taking real action. I realized I was only mimicking it.
I’m not proposing that kids should never play video games, nor am I trying to dismiss the benefits of problem-solving that gaming presents. I’m not a monster! But surely there is a happy medium. Fast-forward 20 years and this lesson still bears the same relevance. So I wondered what the greater benefits of avoiding so called “tune-out” activities might have on a person’s life, if explored to their full potential.
Living Vicariously Fails to Give Rich, Happy Experiences
Science shows that experiences are what bring happiness. The depth of those experiences can vary widely. I submit that sitting down to watch TV, play video games, or just to veg out, low quality experiences that masquerade as entertainment. They take over the time that you would otherwise be experiencing your own personal, emotional, and physical arc, overlaid onto your own struggles, strengths, weaknesses, successes, and failures. Therefore, and rightfully so, enhancing you in ways specifically tailored to you, in ways the standard three-act-movie-formula template cannot. In ways that are telling and healing to your personal short-comings.
It’s in doing that we either win or fail, grow or shrink, learn or adapt. The sooner we begin experiencing this, the greater and more exaggerated the advantages we will have. Talking and theorizing are all judged against the litmus test of action. The earlier we start to explore this option, surely the better we’ll be at converting talking into doing. In short, words are a poor substitute for action.
Living Vicariously Keeps You from Having Anything Worthwhile to Contribute
Don’t blame, just act. Don’t complain, just train. Don’t dwell on your failures, learn from them. Fail some more, until you start to develop insights and competence. Then fail less, and gradually build an arsenal of emotional, trade, discipline, and life-insight skills. This isn’t a new concept. Apparently, dudes and dudettes have been getting caught in this trap for quite a long time. In fact, this has been going on since long before video games were even a thing. It’s just that in this modern world we have so many more actionless distractions to pitfall our development. Check out this quote from Seneca from a couple thousand years ago:
“He should be delivering himself of such sayings, not memorizing them. It is disgraceful that a man who is old or in sight of old age should have wisdom deriving solely from his notebook…
He goes on to say:
…’Zeno said this.’ And what have you said? ‘Cleanthes said that.’ What have you said? How much longer are you going to serve under others? Assume authority over yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity. Produce something from your own resources.”.
He’s basically saying ‘Stop arm chair quarterbacking and go accomplish your own contributions to this world, in this brief and ever shortening life that you get to live’ – or something like that.
This type of action-absent experience has at least four setbacks in adulthood, as well. This is the trap of only gathering knowledge at the expense of experience. At some point we all must graduate to doing instead of knowing. Why? Because frequently the doing portion of the activity will reveal that there are gaps in the practical application of your knowledge. That’s why my philosophy has morphed to resemble something like “Unless you can do, you don’t really know”. Here are four common repercussions of this type of voyeuristic imbalance:
1- Living vicariously through the experiences of others is not the same as having actual life experiences.
Why isn’t it? Because, by nature, the emotional reality is stripped out away from the situation for you. For example, watching an athlete perform calmly under pressure is not the same as knowing how to keep yourself calm while you’re heart is racing, and you have adrenaline or anxiety telling you to rush. Or maybe you’re just angry, or frustrated. The same is true for people who think watching movie characters navigate adversity in a 1 hour episode, or find true love in 90 minutes, or understand any of the meanings of life, or overcome extreme challenges through a 5 minute montage, is in any way similar to actually doing said tasks. In doing so, you’ll never be able to experience the level of perseverance and focus it takes to handle a real goal, and this is what defeats most people in the end.
Living Vicariously Keeps You from Learning ABOUT Others
The calm, cool, collected guy or girl in real life is likely calm because he understands people, situations, and elements involved from a place of real-life experience, and more importantly, a steady stream of failure (it’s the best simulator available). Or, perhaps another explanation is that he/she has no reason to be less than composed. Perhaps they have no idea what is about to happen, and what is quietly brewing beneath the surface. This makes the latter type naive, ineffective, and less competent. Outcomes of social, emotional, physical, or project experiences clarify which is actually occurring, as well as, which type of individual your are dealing with.
Perhaps the latter type engaged in passive activities so long that they, ironically, arrived at a similar place of delivery with none of the understanding that would actually make them competent. Similar to people who watch a lot of UFC fights and believe that this translates into their own ability to engage in physical combat. Or that person who goes on American Idol convinced they can sing but, in reality, cannot.
2- Living Vicariously means you’re trading time in front of the TV, gaming counsel, Facebook, etc. for your health.
Nonsense’ you say. ‘I would never make such a foolish trade!’. However, bodies were not meant to sit stationary for long amounts of time. It’s a truth that bears out over and over in the effects it causes on our health. It’s also a truth that medical science continues to show has repercussions that rob you of your ability to live a healthy, rich, and active life. It becomes sort of a re-enforced loop – You don’t engage life in a way that makes you act, and because of that, you are increasingly unable to act, until finally the effort involved with executing goals outside of a chair becomes a barrier to entry.
3- Living Vicariously means you’re forfeiting the production output of your life’s energy.
“A man’s or woman’s greatest resource is his/her labor”.-Don’t know who said this. Sorry.
This doesn’t mean you have to be a brick-layer. It simply means you need to be participating in actionable experience. This just follows the cause and effect of losing your ability to take action when your health begins to decline. When you don’t feel good, it’s hard to harness the absolute best potential you are capable of, and sitting with your heart rate never elevated is not how humans have historically felt energized. That’s before considering that muscle and tendon weakness often leads to injury, and injury is going to ensure it’s more difficult to even just grocery shop, much less build your physical and mental dreams, or self-actualize with your life experiences.
4- Living vicariously means that other people end up directing your life, not you. They’re simply filling the space that inaction has left.
When you’re taking action toward a goal you’re often not sitting in front of media that guides and influences your perception of reality; you’re drawing your own conclusions from the reality of your experiences. Maybe you’re thinking of a person with a face and a name when I say that ‘a person is literally telling you what to do’? It’s not necessarily like that. It’s not some grand conspiracy against you. It can be much more subtle than this.
Living Vicariously Leaves You Open to Control by Others
Your mind is an open vessel for suggestion, persuasion, and marketing. Marketing made by groups of people all trying to persuade and influence behavior, often to have a designed outcome. Usually buying something they’ve convinced you that you need to be happy, to fit in, to maintain your status in society, or with the opposite sex. It’s everywhere, playing on your fears and insecurities.
They tell you
- what products you’ll buy
- what your lifestyle should look like
- what a relationship looks like
- what your life is lacking
- what’s trendy
- what you’ll need in order to be socially accepted by your peers
- that work happens in fun little montages over the course of several minutes, not days or months
As a result, your expectations for these things are often false. So much so that when you finally attempt activities you’ve only seen exemplified in movies and commercials, there’s no way you cannot feel like you’ve failed. It won’t meet the false model of synthetic reality that you have been shown over and over, in every place you actually formed an expectation of what it should look like.
Living Vicariously Causes Disappointment
The feeling of deflation and failure can leave you an easy target to be labeled a victim, and get sucked into the blame machine of outwardly focused reasons for your failure, instead of the much more uncomfortable, but ultimately empowering, inwardly-focused one. These are the things that help to usher in the next stronger version of you – a new you with ever-growing potential.
Fast-forward to our adult lives, and still we need reminding of the same lessons. Likely, it’s not video games guiding your time anymore. Maybe it’s binge watching a new series that adds nothing beyond hours of entertainment. This distracts us from what Seneca states is “Assuming authority over yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity”.
So what are you supposed to do with this knowledge?
How about this: Take two weeks without TV, video games, or social media. Use this time to do only activities that have the potential for rich experience: connect with a friend you haven’t seen for an hour or two, build a project with your kid, learn a new skill you’ve always wanted to know, study a new language, go for a run. Just do something that you’ve been putting off, that you’ve always wanted to do, that would enhance your life. It doesn’t have to be impractical, like quitting your job and going to Europe.
Then repeat it again as many times as you find value in it. At the end of two weeks, ask yourself if it felt more like living your life on purpose than before those two weeks. Ask yourself if this is a better version of you. Is it a version you are more proud of? If so, you don’t need to stop at two weeks; you can continue for a long as you feel like growing.