We are encouraged to live our lives in a way that mirrors a five-paragraph essay.
This formulaic outline guided my decisions and behaviors until I unexpectedly reached a full stop. And discovered I could play in the margins.
Life Success in Five Paragraphs
Paragraph 1: Setting the Scene
The ideal introduction to life is a loving, supportive home environment. We attend school. We cultivate diverse hobbies: sports teams, art clubs, music groups. We build friendships. We may yearn for the unlimited freedom to explore, but find we are restricted by boundaries and beliefs which are established early and dictate the tone for the paragraphs that follow. This phase has a distinct purpose: to prepare us for our initiation into the main body of life.
Paragraph 2: Learning and Performing
In our late teens, we're ready to move on to the second paragraph: further education. We're steered away from the humanities, and toward science or business. Our North Star becomes the Grade Point Average: a number which defines us and our futures. We're told to study the work of the most successful students who preceded us. Be like them and excel. Make sure to color within the lines. Non-traditional thinking is risky; rote memorization and regurgitation lead to a safe pass. This section's concluding line: graduate with top honors.
Paragraph 3: Working to Earn
The third paragraph explores employment and how we support ourselves financially. Certain industries pave the way to the money path; consulting, banking, law or medicine are often highlighted. A good rule of thumb is to click on the drop-down menu on demographic surveys asking "What is your occupation or industry?" and keep to the professions listed. The most highly praised structures prioritize making ‘enough’ money as soon as possible. Careful, this section often goes on longer than intended.
Paragraph 4: Planting Roots
Sooner or later, we're ready to settle down into the fourth paragraph. It's time to choose a city, buy a house, meet a partner, get married, start a family. Our focus now shifts to our children and initiating them into the five-paragraph essay. This section can be overwhelming, especially if the preceding paragraph wasn't fully completed. Sometimes, spouses fail to adhere to the essay structure: this can lead to a divorce.
Paragraph 5: Relaxing
Finally, as we approach our 70s, we reach the conclusion. Here we enjoy the fruits of our labour. Retirement. Travel. Hobbies. Voluntary work. The best essays loop back nicely to the starting point in the introduction. We end with an impactful statement to ensure legacy, and the paper is complete.
We smile with pride. We did exactly what we were supposed to do. We receive a gold star.
A life that follows this outline receives a unanimous A from an anonymous jury of graders.
For nearly my entire existence, I’ve formatted my life according to the five-paragraph essay. I’ve been guided by the allure of achievement. I've judged myself harshly by the scorecard of societal expectation. I’ve compared myself to others, succumbed to the voices of my inner critics, and been paralyzed by my aspirations of perfectionism.
But this past year, following a near-death experience, I had a revelation.
I didn’t want to be a five-paragraph essay.
And I didn’t want to measure my self-worth against a generic, culturally-conditioned model for “success”. It was a recipe for feeling unhappy, unfulfilled and inadequate.
I needed to stop.
I quit my job and took a sabbatical which became a deep introspective journey exploring my identity. When I returned, I gave up my lease, put my belongings into storage, and left my former life behind.
I've never felt more free.
Drawing a new conclusion
Outside the confines of the five-paragraph essay lies a completely blank page. This void contains freedom. It invites experimentation. It seeds innovation. It offers an adventure into the unknown. While there may not be a prescribed layout, there is flow, depth and art. There is the possibility of magic.
It requires active choice and courage to cede the desire for a predictable future. We must let go of the need for external validation, praise, recognition, accolades and other metrics that reward 'top performance' according to the standard grading system. We must make the money path secondary to following our deepest dreams; prioritize a deep relationship with ourselves over the needs of others; and control our narrative by giving up the outline.
For those people who prefer structure or whose life choices align with the standard formula outlined above, the five paragraph essay serves beautifully.
But for the rest of us - let's leave the expectations of others behind, for good, and go off-script.