The 1980 song “Once in a Lifetime” was one of the Talking Heads’ most iconic songs, still puzzling listeners over 35 years later.
But damn if that tune ain’t catchy! The mesmerizing music video used to run on repeat on MTV eons ago when the M actually stood for music, and the song become so popular even Kermit the Frog sang a rendition on The Muppet Show.
First released on their album Remain in Light, there have been many varying interpretations of the song’s lyrics over the years — with verses written by David Byrne, and a chorus written and sung in part by the hugely influential pop producer of the time, Brian Eno, who also produced the entire album.
Lead man David Byrne, in a tight-fitted suit and wire-frame glasses, seems to tumble over and over, “letting the days go by”, perhaps playing equal parts middle-class everyman struggling to catch his breath running the hamster wheel of “success”, and soapbox preacher inviting the listener to reflect on his own life critically.
“And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack…”
Alongside a handful of similarly introspective soundtrips of the affluent 80s, the song’s lyrics revolve primarily around themes of impermanence and the fleeting nature of happiness, as time keeps marching on uncaringly. We’re raised to believe our lives will turn out a certain way — to have certain expectations. We’re shown certain symbols of achievement and prestige on the television, and the promise of wealth, happiness, and success are constantly dangled in front of us by our consumer culture. But many people work hard for decades, they chase the carrots they see in popular culture, only to find they wake up one day, like Byrne’s character in this song, questioning how the hell they ended up where they are, not happy with the things they have.
“And you may find yourself in another part of the world…”
It turns into an existential crisis, as Byrne questions his entire reality, and whether it is futile to even try to “remove the water at the bottom of the ocean”. Trying to push against the forces of nature, like the passing of time, and the underlying truth of life, may be impossible, but I believe the song points to a once in a lifetime chance to truly “wake up” to reality — to realize how you’ve allowed yourself to be carried along by life, to snap out of the mindless routine, take stock of your life, how you got here, and to commit to being more conscious of your journey.
“And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile…”
I think it’s an artful expression of just how easy it is to get caught up in the monotony of life, to live your days on autopilot, and to forget just how precious our time here is.
Even as someone who’s built a location-independent business, traveled and lived across four continents, and had my fair share of wild fun, living by my own rules, I still got caught up in unconscious patterns that robbed me of my health and wealth, that undermined my true purpose and fulfillment, and that left me wanting so much more. It’s as if I had been asleep at the wheel, and suddenly woke up. Sometimes I wonder if our whole species is slowly undergoing a gradual awakening right now…
“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife / And you may ask yourself – Well… How did I get here?”
After spending the summer in California finally introducing my 2½ old son to my family, and spending time supporting my mom through her breast cancer treatment and surgery, we’ve finally returned to Asia, and I find myself seemingly living inside this Talking Heads song.
Somehow I find myself in a beautiful home beyond my wildest dreams, and I am fortunate to have an incredible, beautiful partner Jam Milcah, who’s an amazing mother to our son Christopher.
“And you may tell yourself – This is not my beautiful house! / And you may tell yourself – This is not my beautiful wife!”
How in the world did I end up with a 2½ old!? My friends are always asking why I’m not in the bar! When did I become such a grownup?
Is this even the life I wanted?
I used to think I was chasing something different, and I spent far too long desperately running away from the responsibilities of fatherhood and adulthood, until I finally realized that I had the most perfect life I couldever imagine, already in my hands.
It took me two or three years to really dig deep inside, examine my fears, expectations, values, and desires, and really understand who I am and what I’m here to do.
Now I can look back with clarity and see how in my pursuit of certain goals, in getting caught up in what other people wanted from me, and in trying to portray myself in a certain way, I forgot who I really was.
I found myself hopelessly lost for so long, feeling purposeless, overwhelmed with the expectations of others, and confused by the deluge of distraction around me.
I felt imprisoned by my own business, by technology, by the constant firehose of email and social media, by the negative news, and all the things violently trying to hijack our attention these days. And I caught myself participating in and even perpetuating this system of enslavement.
I didn’t even feel human anymore. I felt buried alive, letting the water hold me down.
So I finally had the epiphany: I desperately needed to change everything — my whole business, my behaviors, and myself, from the ground up.
I’d been accepting a certain level of mediocrity from myself, and I didn’t even realize it. I was letting outside influences tell me what was important, rather than following my inner compass.
I blamed all my problems on outside sources, and on other people. But it was me who unconsciously created a life that felt so draining. I had irresponsibly built a disorganized business that became unmanageable and I neglected to do the things necessary to keep the mission aligned with my own purpose.
I had gotten so negative, and thought that everything and everyone was such a mess, when really the mess was inside me. Turmoil is the appropriate word here.
It took me three years to really understand that I had built my own invisible prison cell. But the bars and the door took so long to even see.
I had become so out of touch with who I really am deep inside. I was letting the days go by, and ignoring the deep river of life inside me, that “water flowing underground” in the Talking Heads’ song.
So it took me more than a year of dedicated soul-searching and WORKING on myself to reconnect with that deep purpose inside, to re-learn how to really go with the flow of life (“how do I work this?”), rather than trying to pushagainst and attempt to do the futile.
Sadly, I’ve put a lot of important things on the back burner in the meantime — neglecting important friends, lagging months behind on my email inbox, failing to provide the kind of customer support my community really deserves, missing out on lots of opportunities, and upsetting many people along the way. I’m certainly not perfect, and I’ve been unable to sustainably juggle the many responsibilities I got myself wrapped up in. But it has been a truly enlightening journey, examining my own inner demons, uncovering many important truths for myself, and reawakening the real, authentic me.
As David Byrne told NPR when asked about the meaning behind Once in a Lifetime:
“We’re largely unconscious. You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here?'”
This is an invitation to look more critically at your life, to take responsibility for your decisions and your habits, to remember who you really are, accept what you can’t change, and have the courage to work on what you can, and realize that only you can take charge and build the life you really want.
If you don’t pay close attention, life will carry you down the river of time so fast and you’ll find yourself lost before you even know it.
We’re all frequently going through some crisis or another, and that’s okay. You’ll never reach some plateau of success, and there is no final happy ending in life, just the journey. In all our treadmill-running, many of us often forget who we really are. But it’s certainly a lot more fun when you climb out of your rut, open your eyes and live consciously, and make decisions for yourself, living in connection with your true purpose and values.
The song concludes with the more optimistic proclamation that “Time isn’t holding us / Time isn’t after us” (in one version, Byrne even throws in “Time is a pony ride” for a laugh) reminding listeners that while life doesn’t stop for anyone, the continual passage of time does not have to be the trap we make it out to be in our minds, and urging you to strive to free yourself from conventional societal ideas about success, from the story you tell yourself about the life you think you’re entitled to, and to escape from the invisible prison you may have built for yourself.
Many people attribute a nihilistic, negative overtone to this classic song, but the message is not that it’s futile to seek freedom. It’s simply about being conscious of your surroundings, and more importantly about showing gratitude for the good things. Once you reframe things in your mind and take responsibility for everything in your life, you just might find as I did, that you already have EVERYTHING you ever wanted, right in the palms of your hands.
As Brian Eno later said about Remain in the Light, “that record is terribly optimistic, looking out to the world and saying ‘what a fantastic place we live in, lets celebrate it.'”
Whether it’s a quarter-life crisis you’re going through, whether it’s the looming responsibilities of parenthood that you face, as I did, or even if you’re going through a midlife crisis or entering your later years right now, you’re never too old to make a change. Just because you’ve followed one path to where you are now, it does not mean you can’t change direction.
Sometimes you need to cut your losses and pursue a new path entirely, even if it feels like you’ve invested a huge amount of your time and energy into something. Even (especially) if it feels like your entire identity is invested in who you’ve been for so long, and you fear how others might respond to your change. Even if you’re 93 years old and you’ve spent your entire life living one way — if the path you’re on isn’t serving you, and it’s important enough to you to get different results, then it’s never too late to change. Screw what anybody else thinks.
Sometimes it’s okay to scrap EVERYTHING and start over from scratch.
Sometimes you need to take some time to analyze your surroundings, synthesize what works best, remove what doesn’t, and orchestrate a transformational personal rebirth.
It’s okay to become a new, different person. If the old you just doesn’t feel right anymore, then chances are you’re probably meant to become someone new. Listen to your inner voice.
Since I found out I was going to be a father, it drastically transformed my priorities, my responsibilities, and pushed me to install new values and habits. It’s been incredibly challenging, I’ve messed up a lot along the way, but it has motivated me to slowly change everything — for the better!
This major life change terrified me for a very long time. But when I finally accepted responsibility (and reality) it also gave me the real passion to finally fulfill the promise I made when I started this blog in 2006:
I called this site Thrilling Heroics for a reason.
This was supposed to be about continual learning and personal growth. About building a better future, and living life passionately.
I got distracted, confused, played the victim, and let fear slow me down many times along the way. But now I embark upon the real inner work of continually becoming the best version of myself, committing to be the role model my son deserves, and doing whatever is necessary to consciously sculpt my life and my business into something that is aligned with my real values, and that gives me and my family genuine freedom and fulfillment.
This is not a static, one-time change either. This will be a lifelong commitment.
No more settling for mediocre. No more letting the days go by.
Over the coming weeks and months, you will see significant changes here at Thrilling Heroics as I work to unveil my authentic self to you more openly, to share my own transformations with you, and try to help shed what light I can on the process of self-improvement for those of you on a similar mission.
Thank you guys for reading, for your patience with me, your understanding when I’ve fucked up, and for your support. This community means the world to me, and I’m committed to delivering the best damn insights and advice you deserve.
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