“Oh look, another G-Wagon parked right up to the curb.” I noted to myself on a day when I was walking along some nondescript street in the city.
For context, the G 63 AMG version of the Mercedes Benz G Class (colloquially known as ‘G-Wagon’) can be expected to have a monster 5.5L V8 engine with an equally monstrous price tag of > $250K.
“What do people even do in this city to own a car like that?” was the next question that came to mind. It was a question aimed at the how — one that sought to reach beyond just the surface level what. To me, it was the how question that was most interesting and mysterious because, on the surface, it is not exactly made explicit what the means of production might be in this city.
This is not a question that would have appeared during the day-to-day flow of life in a town like Gladstone — the bustling, industrial regional town I used to live in prior to moving to Melbourne. There, it was far more explicit what people did to construct their lives. Many people, like me, were employed in the various streams of heavy industry operations around town — visible artefacts like tall exhaust stacks and the everyday work attire of fluorescent personal protective equipment made this obvious. Gladstone was a town built around industry — housing was affordable, the weather tropical and income was predictable, what was there to complain about?
Many people were able to build comfortable lives in the town, to the point where the typical leisurely activity to do on the weekends would involve being on a boat and fishing out at the surrounding reefs or exploring trails off the beaten track on a four wheel drive vehicle.
Most people spent their free time doing much of the same stuff as one another, and fair enough, really. Being out on the water with the warm sunshine or discovering a secluded camping spot can be incredibly gratifying, but was that all there could ever be?
In Gladstone, nobody in their right mind would ever think about owning a G-Wagon. I remember seeing a Lamborghini rolling around town once, and there I was standing on the street shaking my head in disbelief, knowing that the nearest dealership was at least 600 kilometres away and that the roads around town were not exactly the best for an exotic car.
“Why would someone own such a car here?”
I do not think the lack of G-Wagons on the streets was a result of restricted financial means within the population. Compared to many other surrounding towns, Gladstone has been a bustling hub of production for a long time and there would have been plenty of people working within manufacturing that were financially successful. Knowing this, I suspect the absence has more more to do with a lack of desire for such a luxury vehicle.
One of the aspects of luxury goods that continues to intrigue me is the element of aspiration that is deeply embedded within the entire category, regardless if we were talking about wristwatches, jewellery, boutique accommodation or sports cars. The gut-punching price tags, the handsome and beautiful role models, the intricate overengineering, the concierge service and the implicit you-might-not-even-be-able-to-have-it-even-if-you-had-the-means pressure that comes from restricting supply; all of these parts work together to create that element of aspiration, the feeling of having to ‘reach’ or ‘work towards’ obtaining such material goods.
I am of the belief that the standards of aspiration that we set ourselves, what we deem as possible to achieve within our own lives, is extremely dependent on what we see in the people we immediately surround ourselves with and the far-and-away role models that we choose to respect — with the former category of influences having a much stronger pull than the latter.
To me, the tricky thing about living in small towns, within environments that inherently have small sample sizes, is within the idea of the majority of people wanting and doing the same stuff. Smaller sample sizes would mean fewer outliers, so the range of potential possibilities that could be witnessed with one’s own eyes is limited also.
During my time in Gladstone, I was able to make friends through meeting other young people who shared similar hobbies, and there was a common theme that emerged from these conversations. There were many who spoke of their lives in the town as a curse of “golden handcuffs” — where income was so dependable and so sweet that people felt that there were no alternative paths for them to embark on if they were to leave the town that they had come to know so well.
A part of me felt extremely sad to learn about this perspective, because such stories were being spoken and articulated by people who were clearly still in their 20s. Their 20s! Imagine feeling stuck in life while being a twenty-something year old, when the 20s are just the beginning chapters of a full life. There is probably another 50 years ahead of a 25 year old living today, which is twice the amount of time they have just experienced to date. Twice!
I met a lot of these friends through growing a Japanese car enthusiast group — it feels odd to reflect on this because the people who chose to opt-in and participate within the group can be considered to be risk takers in many ways. They were the odd ones who put money where their mouths were and got their hands dirty when it came to being true owners of their vehicles. Japanese cars from the legendary era of the 1990s to early 2000s are labours of love and, in most cases, it makes little rational sense as to why one should choose to own such ageing artefacts, but these enthusiasts step into the fire anyway. Yet these were the very same people who felt afraid to leave the town that they grew up in, fearing that they could never make it work anywhere else.
But how does one really know what is not possible without even trying? Within the fear that we grant ourselves, how much of it actually stems from constraints of physical reality? And what proportion is built upon existing assumptions, which could perhaps be completely uncalibrated?
Let us take the popular attraction of ‘visiting Europe’ as an example. No matter how many photos, reviews, brochures, forums, anecdotes, draft itineraries, dreams and YouTube videos you look it, it will never be as engaging as actually walking the cobblestones of Paris or guiding a pair of skis on the Swiss Alps with your own two feet. Sure, there are risks in embarking on such an adventure, like not knowing the local language, getting lost in a foreign land or not having your plans execute perfectly, but knowing these things sure as hell would not stop you if someone gave you a free pass to travel Europe for a whole month with zero expenses. How could you possibly say no in such a circumstance where all of the signs are pointing towards a ‘hell yes’? The strength of the desire completely overwhelms and quells the ever-expanding laundry list of fears.
My hypothesis is that it is less about fear, of what could go wrong, and far more about how compelling our desire is to welcome changes to life as we know it. The mentality of, ‘I could never make it anywhere else,’ might just be a divertive way of saying, ‘I don’t want to know how else my life might be, so I’ll just stick to what I already know.’
The picture that this paints in my mind is of someone standing inside a moving train and declaring, ‘I’m not going to leave where I stand because I am more comfortable exactly where I am!’ while the other passengers come and go, the scenery beyond the window flies past and the entire carriage on which the person stands on shifts unpredictably from the inevitable motion of the train continuing down its path.
‘Genchi gembutsu’ as the saying by Taiichi Ohno goes. Go and see for yourself in order to get as close as possible to truth. There are few other effective ways.
“Don’t work for my happiness, my brothers — show me yours — show me that it is possible — show me your achievement — and the knowledge will give me courage for mine.”
— Ayn Rand