A couple of years ago, I got a last-minute invitation to a big and fancy charity ball. That probably doesn’t sound like a big deal, but living in New York City, “big fancy charity ball” is another name for an event where insanely rich and famous people get together to circle-jerk about how rich and famous they are.
At the time, my book was at the top of all the bestseller lists and it was that brief period in human history where I was considered a “hip” and “cool” person for obscenely rich people to invite to these sorts of things. There were a couple A-list Hollywood actors who were going to be there. A number of Congressmen and Senators too. I think Howard Stern was rumored to be going or something. It sounded like a big fucking deal… you know, if you’re into that sort of thing.
My invitation was last minute (clearly signaling that I was this person’s, like, fifth choice, but whatever). I found out maybe two days before the event. I’d have to buy/rent a tux. I’d have to spend an absolute embarrassing amount of money on dinner. I’d have to pretend to like a bunch of people who would probably terrify me if I ever actually spoke to them.
Yet, obviously, I wanted to go. I mean, who the fuck wouldn’t? I don’t care who you are, the lure of status and fame is a strong one and it’s hard to act rationally when in its proximity.
The problem was… I couldn’t go.
An old friend of mine and his girlfriend were visiting from out of town that night and my wife and I had been planning a big evening with them for months. We couldn’t just cancel and bail. Or, rather, we could cancel and bail… it just would have been a massive dick move.
At the time, the FOMO tore me apart. “Oh my God,” I thought, “Me and Howard could trade poop jokes.” The thoughts ran through my head and bothered me for weeks. “I should have found a way to go,” I told myself. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” I was resentful for weeks.
But today, I think back and laugh about it. Who fucking cares?
As ridiculous and embarrassing as this example is, I bring it up to actually make a fundamental point about the decisions we make in life, and how we can easily screw ourselves over.
Two Kinds of Experiences
In life, we are presented with opportunities to have experiences that we will likely never have again. Whether it’s a chance to travel/live somewhere exotic, an opportunity to skip a rung on the career ladder, to attend a special live event by one of our favorite artists, a date with that one person we’ve always been crazy about, or the opening to sit at a pretentious dinner with a bunch of famous people.
Let’s call these, “Once in a Lifetime” experiences. They are experiences that, by definition, do not come around often.
The tricky thing about “Once in a Lifetime” experiences is that their inherent scarcity causes them to appear more valuable than they actually are. It’s easy to convince yourself that this event or project or person is going to change your life for the simple sake that you’ve never encountered an experience like that before. But often, it’s simply in your imagination.
So, “Once in a Lifetime” Experiences don’t come around that often. So, what happens in between?
That’s right. Everyday experiences.
Wake up. Brush your teeth. Floss. Eat breakfast. Go to work. Small talk with your boring co-workers. Call your mom and tell her you’re still alive. Go home. See your roommate/partner/cat. Watch the same show you’ve already seen before. Eat the same shit you’ve eaten before. Go to bed. Do it again.
One philosophy for living a good life is to maximize your “Once in a Lifetime” experiences. This strategy has been particularly popular with the Millennial generation and easily proselytized via social media. Don’t spend your money on things; spend it on experiences. Don’t do the same old thing; be different. Live as though you may die at any moment.
I, myself, have preached this philosophy at times in the past.
And it is true. Life needs a certain amount of “Once in a Lifetime” experiences to feel worthwhile. The need to feel unique and different is inherent and the way to do that is to feel as though we have experienced things that few other people have ever experienced.
But, just as having too few “Once in a Lifetime” experiences can feel empty and meaningless, I’d like to argue that having too many “Once in a Lifetime” experiences can also feel empty and meaningless.
Because the more your “Once in a Lifetime” experiences dominate your life, the less room you have for those daily, quotidian, “in between” experiences—the children’s birthday parties, the dinners with friends, the phone calls with mom—and it’s those unsexy, boring experiences that actually add up to be something more meaningful in the long run.
For example, if I accepted invitations to fancy charity dinners instead of spending time with old friends, I would eventually find myself without any “old friends.”
“Once in a Lifetime” experiences have high amounts of value in the short term and little value in the long term, whereas Everyday experiences have little value in the short term and high value in the long term.
Therefore, there’s probably some optimal balance between Everyday experiences and “Once in a Lifetime” experiences that’s like 90/10 or 95/5 to stay mentally and emotionally healthy. If that ratio gets too close to 50/50, you become untethered from reality. Your commitments suffer. Your life becomes hedonistic and empty.
If your life is nothing but “Once in a Lifetime” events, then your everything feels pointless. If nothing lasts, then nothing is meaningful. “Once in a Lifetime” experiences only have value when experienced in contrast to Everyday experiences. Without Everyday experiences, “Once in a Lifetime” experiences become a series of empty highs.
When viewed this way, it makes sense why rock stars drink themselves to death and politicians snort crack in airport bathrooms and Instagram influencers talk of crippling depression.
Why This Matters
I bring this up because there are two things that seem to promote “Once in a Lifetime” experiences and it’s important to be aware of them.
The first, obviously, is social media. By definition, what gets attention online is stuff that is “Once in a Lifetime.” Weddings, births of children, incredible epiphanies, career changes, etc. Social media can easily give off the false impression that life is nothing but these experiences when it’s simply these experiences that get broadcast over and over again.
Second, success itself. The more successful you become (in any field), the more “Once in a Lifetime” opportunities open up to you—whether it’s a business trip to Europe or meeting a big CEO or getting invited to fancy charity balls. In the throes of success, you feel compelled to “strike while the iron’s hot” and take advantage of these opportunities that may never come around again.
As a result, it’s easy to keep loading up your life with opportunity after opportunity, meanwhile disconnecting yourself from what makes those opportunities worthwhile in the first place.
I think this is what often happens to the lawyer who works 80-hour weeks until she is fifty and then one day wakes up wondering what it was all for. Or the hustler who climbs his way up to become VP in a major company, only to realize that his kids are grown and he never really got to know them.
People without enough “Once in a Lifetime” experiences wish for more. And rightly so. “Once in a Lifetime” experiences are awesome.
But people with too many “Once in a Lifetime” experiences also wish for more. And that’s what’s really fucking dangerous.