June 2nd marks the thirteenth anniversary of my arrival in the United States. On June 1st 1997 I rented a van, drove to a field in Yorkshire, northern England, with a bunch of my belongings, set fire to everything but the van, and sat there for an hour watching my past wither to flakes and ashes. Next day, I threw some clothes and various odds and ends into a couple of bags and set off for California in search of a new adventure and a different life, thinking, “Let’s give this American Dream thing a try. If it doesn’t work out, I can always come back.”
Well, I never went back.
That’s not to say I don’t get homesick from time to time, because I do. The one word of advice I received ahead of this life-changing journey was from a friend who’d migrated to New York a couple of years earlier. He said, “Remember this: Americans may look like us and speak English like us, but they’re not like us.” Which at the time I thought was the lamest scrap of wisdom I’d ever heard. Now I realize he was right.
Last week there was a general election in Britain. The canpaign was a model of restraint and civilized point-making that collapsed on Thursday in a shambles of wretched compromise and half-hearted go-nowhereness that is so typical of my home country and which I recall with great fondness. An election that sparks lots of debate yet has no clear winner is just so British somehow. “Getting nothing done, but having a fun time doing it” sums up everything I remember about the culture I left behind.
Americans aren’t like that at all. They get things done. They’re obsessed with getting things done, as a matter of fact, and they’re proud of it. It’s important to them to achieve things, to make things happen. They each want to be a success, a winner, Number 1 at whatever they do, not realizing that, in any race, there can only be one winner, one Number 1; everyone else is an also-ran. That fact alone leads to a lot of resentment.
The reason they’re in a race in the first place is because of a big cultural carrot that was dangled in front of them as kids, called the American Dream. It’s a fun idea, but a hoax. Only, you don’t find that out until it’s too late. Like every other dream, and also like leprechauns and Santa Claus, it’s a fiction. It can never be real. Shame actually, because they honestly, truly believe in it.
In theory it promises that if you work hard and commit yourself to a particular course of endeavor, you will be dubbed “successful” by your peers and rewarded with riches, an expensive car, a stable family, and a level of recognition that will stand the test of time. The one thing it doesn’t promise, after you’ve given over your life to achieving all these things, is happiness. And there’s the problem.
It didn’t take me long after I got to Hollywood to realize that a vital piece of information had been left out of the story. Nobody, it seems, had told the Americans that being materially successful and being happy often do not coincide. They’re not even in the same ballpark a lot of the time.
That’s why many of them today are so angry and frustrated.
According to the American Dream playbook, they did everything right: they got their education, worked hard, had a family, bought two cars, a house, filled that house with widescreen TVs and computers and Playstations and all manner of other junk – only to find that it led nowhere. All they had to show for their efforts in the end was a bunch of useless stuff and a series of time-consuming distractions that left them worse off financially and certainly no happier than before they were “successful.”
That’s because “success” based on owning and having stuff is a false god. It weighs on you like an overstuffed backpack, dragging you to your knees, leaving you exhausted from trying, stressed out, sleep-deprived, and shouldering massive amounts of debt, with a life that feels hollow, pointless, and chaotically out of control.
Next thing you know, these so-called winners are looking for the exit: they’re cheating on their spouse, gambling, drinking, doing drugs, anything they can find to run away from the reality they’ve created, and offload some of the pressure. “Where did it all go wrong? How did I manage to make so many bad decisions? What the hell happened to me?” they ask themselves.
What happened? You mean you don’t know?
You bought into the myth of the American Dream, my friend, that’s what happened. You ignored your individual needs. Instead of focusing on doing what was right for you and only you, and keeping it simple, you got sucked into the machine that makes things very, very complicated.
You filled your life with stuff. You responded meekly to a barrage of marketing hype, paying to watch movies that were mindless junk, eating food that was hideously fattening and caused cancer, buying first generation technology that was quickly superceded by something better, leaving you with cupboards full of garbage you’d never use again – generally stocking your world with inconsequential nonsense that filled the hours but not your heart. Things and pastimes that met the spurious standard of “being someone” in a broken, struggling society, but not the urgent requirements of your spirit. That’s what happened, and it’s why you’re on medication and paying child support and hating your job and drinking too much, and why you feel so unfulfilled.
For god’s sake, I want to yell at them, stop trying so hard. Quit struggling to be first and to win the whole time. In short, give up! I promise you, you’ll feel so much better.
Here are the bullet points about success:
- Success is whatever you consider is right for you. It is not a competitive sport. It is not a comparative exercise. You, and you alone, decide what success means in your own life. Nobody else’s view is important.
- If you require cars and houses and a fancy address and fashionable clothes in order to earn people’s approval and feel like you made it, then you’re not a success, you’re just needy.
- Authenticity is everything. If you have it all, but you feel like you faked it or compromised your integrity to get there, you’re not a success, you’re a phony and you’re slowly dying inside.
- You can have no money, live in a dumpster, and not know where your next meal is coming from, but if you’re happy being that way, you’re successful, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
Los Angeles in particular has been hard for me. I love the place, love the people, I’m very settled here. But as an outsider – in particular as an outsider from a country whose hidden creed is to get nothing done, but have fun doing it – I still look on the life here with some dismay.
In Hollywood, nothing is ever straightforward. It’s always about selling more, earning more, having more than the next guy, coming out on top. Lunches are all business. Parties are not fun events; they’re opportunities to hand out your card and take names and numbers. By 9pm the movers and shakers are gone and in bed, ready to be up at 4.30am, in the gym by 5.15, in the nearest Starbucks by 6.00, and at their desks by 6.30, ready for a thirteen-hour day. Everyone seems to work around the clock here, in their struggle to score points or gain some mythical advantage.
Rules are flexible, cut to suit the situation. Nobody you engage with can be relied upon to do what they say they’ll do, or even to tell you the outright truth. Everywhere you turn there are secret negotiations going on, ulterior motives, measured responses, concealed agendas. It’s beyond sad. As a result, their lives are hideously complex and highly pressured. Nothing is ever clear for them, nothing is ever easy, and nothing is ever enough.
When I go to parties, I’m surprised to find myself the focus of attention. People want to hang out with me. Why? I only figured it out recently. It’s because I’m different. I’m authentic. I have no agenda, I seek nothing from you; I don’t even have a business card. If I want you to know my phone number, I’ll tell you. I go to parties simply to eat your free food, get drunk, misbehave, and laugh a lot. In Hollywood society, that makes me unique. And it’s so not the American way.
Americans are opportunists. Their lives are underscored by a quiet greed. They focus on personal short-term gain while remaining blind to longer-term consequences, whether it’s invading foreign countries or refusing to vote for healthcare bills or running a red light and almost killing pedestrians in their haste to be one step ahead of the rest. I mean – jeez, no wonder they’re so unhappy. And you can tell they’re unhappy because they smile so damned much, hiding their inner pain beneath a thin veneer of bubbly engagement.
So much conflict and suffering could be avoided if they’d only take a leaf out of the British book and play a straight game, sit back, and do as little as possible. Be happy to be alive, wherever you come in the ranking. Accept second place with grace. Alas, they can’t. They need to win. They must succeed at all costs. It’s the American Dream. Have have have, get get get, go go go.
A while back, I made these same observations to a seasoned film producer at a party, thinking he would understand. Instead, he replied, “This is America. Nobody invited you. Nobody’s making you stay. If you don’t like it, leave.” And he walked off.
Watching the UK election play out this week, I admit I became wistful. There are definitely things I miss about my homeland that I can’t get in California. Warm beer, four seasons per year, crowded streets, the rebellious attitude to authority, the sense of belonging to a culture and not a system. But most of all I miss the quality of life. I miss sitting around pointlessly for hours in bars and restaurants, chatting and laughing ’til you cry, and ridiculing and groping your friends. I miss genuine wit and funny interactions. I miss jovial banter. And I miss that feeling of going nowhere and doing nothing that typifies most evenings in England. Believe me, there’s no British Dream. Nobody would stand for it.
Few people in the UK place great value on winning or being Number 1 for its own sake. In fact, it’s frowned upon. Nobody wants you to become more successful than they are, and they’ll shun you if you do. All most regular folks want is a good social life, a job that pays for that social life, friends who like a laugh and who you can rely on and do stuff with, and a pillow to rest your spinning head at night after you come home drunk. Everything else is a bonus. I miss that.
Oddly, on June 1st 2010 – 13 years to the day since I burned my belongings in a field in North Yorkshire and said goodbye to my old life, a book about my new life is being published in the UK.
Naked in Dangerous Places (Or Stranded in Dangerous Places, as the UK publishers have called it) relates what happened when I got my own travel series on American TV. Two seasons, thirty-two shows. It was a crazy ride, but one that ended in disaster and cancellation. Some might say inevitably, given how I feel about the American attitude to winning.
When the book came out here last year, it baffled many Americans. “Why would you write about something that failed?” they asked me time and again.
And I realized – of course, they wouldn’t understand that, would they? They’ve been programmed with the American Dream software. It’s a winners-only club here. They have to succeed. If they don’t, or they fall short, they keep quiet about it, whereas we British, we believe that failure builds character, and tells a more interesting story. So we write books in which we appear as happy losers, and we feel no shame in that.
At least, that’s my take on things in Britain. Then again, I’ve been gone a long time. Maybe they’ve become more like the Americans. I do hope not, for their sake.
TV Swami – he say YES to Stranded in Dangerous Places. But of course he would, he wrote it.