The Difference between Living and Surviving

There’s more to living than only surviving. Maybe I’m not there, but I’m still trying.

— The Offspring, Staring at the Sun

I recently read a self-help book about challenging yourself in the face of adversity, that argued the importance of reacting positively to unexpected life changes.  This was the second time I read Jon Gordon’s The Shark and the Goldfish, and it really got me thinking.

The book uses a short story to draw a parallel to life’s unexpected changes.  It’s about a goldfish that leads a happy life in his bowl until he’s accidentally swept into the ocean during a trip to the beach.  In the open water where no one feeds him, he’s convinced that he’s done for until a friendly shark teaches him to fend for himself.

The story is incredibly corny, and the first time I read it I dismissed it immediately.  It wasn’t until I needed to read it again for a book review I was asked to write that I began to appreciate its message.

The author states that he’s received considerable criticism about just how short and simple The Shark and the Goldfish is.  According to Gordon, critics believe books “must be long and complicated to be significant.”  Typically, I would agree with that mindset — but the fact that this tiny book has inspired me to write more than one article about it makes me recognize how its success is a result of its succinctness.

The most profound dialogue in the story comes from the shark, in a conversation where he challenges the goldfish’s thinking:

“You know what your problem is?”

“I’m starving and no one will feed me.”

“No, you are waiting to be fed.”

Waiting to be fed.  When the words hit me, I likened myself to the goldfish in the bowl — content with his life as long as he was being fed.  I wondered how many of us simply go through the motions of life without actually living.

Refusing to venture outside of our fishbowl-routine isn’t living, it’s just … surviving.  The fact that we often need something drastic to force us out of the bowl and to quit sleepwalking through our lives is disappointing.

Unexpected things that forever change our lives happen to all of us.  A few years ago my girlfriend and I were comfortably living our lives, with two paychecks feeding us, when she was diagnosed with cancer.  She stopped working to focus on her health, and shortly thereafter I learned that I might lose my job.  The feeling was like being swept out to sea.

I reacted out of necessity.  I found another job quickly, and we somehow managed to stay afloat.  It was the toughest year of my life, and I remember a cycle of emotions where I bounced from being angry, to sad, to worried and back again all the time.  I remember writing my How to Be Happy when Everything Sucks article in a haze of depression, where I was writing for the sole purpose of trying to convince myself that everything was going to be okay.

The positive things that came out of that experience is that my girlfriend recovered, our relationship was strengthened, and I learned the importance of attitude.  It’s difficult to maintain a positive attitude when the world is shitting on you, but in the face of adversity you manage to find a way.  During these challenging times you recognize how you can’t control the events in your life.  You can, however, choose how you react to them.

The same is true for when you’re living comfortably.  When nothing’s going on outside of your routine, you can choose to stagnate and feel content with the way things are.   You’ll end up waiting until something unexpected forces you to take action.

On the other hand, you can choose to challenge yourself and be progressive by working towards your personal development goals.  Although you may suffer some embarrassment or the occasional blow to your pride when things don’t work out the way you want them to, you’re still trying.  This is the difference between living and surviving, and it’s your choice.

Once you recognize that, you’ll understand that you have more control over your life than ever.  Which camp are you in?

(If you want to read more about Gordon’s The Shark and the Goldfish, see the Book Review I wrote for The Daily Leap)

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11 Responses to “The Difference between Living and Surviving”

#1 Kate on 06, Feb, 2011 at 1:27 am

Not to be nitpicky but goldfish are freshwater fish and sharks are saltwater. Being in the ocean will instantly kill a goldfish. Not to be a downer but trying to make a living through selling novels or blogging are as likely to occur as a goldfish surviving in the ocean. Maybe you’ll take a few frantic gasps of breath and briefly pat yourself on the back that you are finally free but in the end, it won’t sustain you. A goldfish was simply never meant to swim with sharks.

If a “shark” is someone whose occupation makes a real meaningful contribution to the world and who is free to work with creativity and passion then there is a high chance that this shark was born with the means to do so whether in a rare talent, great money, or vast connections. In which case, those gifts probably can’t be departed to the goldfish.

Although I know some would beg to differ, I think writing for money as the main goal is a lot like dating with the sole interest of marriage or sex. The only people who do it the right way understand that it’s not the goal that matters but the journey. Reading the product of a writer who is only doing it for a living in a lot like having sex with a prostitute. She’s just putting on an act for a paycheck.

On the other hand, in the hospital where I work at there are a lot of doctors who started out because they dreamed of going to work in Africa or South America or Asia and helping the poor. But after 10 years of school, not many of them decide to give up a six figure salary to go help people for free.

So, don’t be like them, be idealistic, always hold onto your ideals. If you want to write/play the piano/web design as your passion, great, but do something lucrative first that will give you the freedom to do so without being a slave to the dollar. Just remember, these things take sacrifice. In the period during college and medical school I wrote a total of seven novels in whatever spare time I could find. I was working 120 hours a week but I found time. Do you know how many got published? Zero. I’m not discouraged. I want to be published but now that I’m a doctor making seven figures I’m not doing it for a dollar.

When one path doesn’t work out, try another one. Lame I know but that’s about the smartest thing I can think of saying at one in the morning.

#2 Carissa Starr on 06, Feb, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I’ve read a lot of self-righteous, cynical espousing from people who have lost perspective and bought into the social stigmas that money=success and happiness…but I think there is a new winner in that contest.

For the record Shaun, as always, I enjoyed your post and have shared it with my friends. It is a shame to see individuals like “Kate” who seems to have really missed the point of your blog…and from what I can see are among those who really need to be the ones shifting their perspectives and priorities. As for “Kate”…

After the lengthy comment you left I had expected to find that your name linked to some amazingly well written and clever site filled with quality writing and wit. I would suggest, in the future, that if you want to be taken seriously as “a doctor making seven figures”, you may not want to link to a blog called “A Cute Fangirl” that includes incredibly banal comic strips based on ‘House’…or in said comics reference Twilight. Your credibility–had it not already been dismissed by your comment itself– is immediately destroyed.

Changing one’s perspective on life means more than lying on the floor. Your greatest contradiction in your comment was the advice that Shaun (and others) find a lucrative, well paying job to enable them to pursue their dreams “without being a slave to the dollar.” –I fail to see how devoting so much time to something that is not your passion for a paycheck is not being a slave to the dollar. What I do see– in your boast, “I want to be published but now that I’m a doctor making seven figures I’m not doing it for a dollar” –is a woman so enamored by her own slavery that she wouldn’t know how to survive without that collar.

Some of history’s greatest writers wrote for money– wrote anything they could for money as their sole means of supporting themselves. Charles Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemmingway all lived through periods of incredible poverty writing whatever people would pay them to write and working on their personal works in their spare hours. They may not have been writing what they wanted all the time to get paid, but they were still writing…and if you have a passion, it doesn’t matter. A musician will play back up for others or perform absolute drivel if it means getting paid to do it and they can devote their lives to that passion.

You claim to have not given up your dream of publication and yet your biggest boast is about a high paying job, and you spend more than a great deal of time spewing cynical ‘advice’ that others not get too attached to their dreams. You’ve already given up. Perhaps you adamantly refuse to see that you have…but you have.

We live in a society that already values money as success, but it is not the measure of success. You went to school to get a prestigious job that pays very well– that’s fantastic, but hundreds of people world-wide do the same thing every day and the number that are on anti-depressants or commit suicide is a large indicator that prestige and money don’t make a successful life. If that’s the yardstick for you…bully for you– but a more fulfilling life comes, as Shaun’s blog points out, not from counting your paychecks to live within or beyond your means. That is waiting to be fed. Friday? Paycheck…fish food. A fulfilling life comes in placing your dreams in your hands and making them goals.

“The only people who do it the right way understand that it’s not the goal that matters but the journey.” You say this, and you are completely right– in this. I think, however, that you need to take your seven figure salary and figure out how that figures into your journey– because that sounds like a destination on your map of life, a destination that does not inevitably lead to happiness.

#3 Josh on 07, Feb, 2011 at 11:08 pm

Thank you so much Shaun for this, It was just what I needed at this time.

#4 dlysen on 08, Feb, 2011 at 1:38 am

I come to think about living vs surviving. So what is the difference? I found good answer here. Surviving gives me lesson to live life well. Just make sure that you survive. About the goldfish and shark, they are design to live like that. A shark on aquarium can’t grow to its maximum size and at the same time goldfish die on salt water. If you are shark like person don’t try to live waiting to feed like a gold fish.

#5 Jay on 08, Feb, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Thank you for your post.
Also thanks to Carissa Starr for her input.

#6 Weekly Travel Blog Links — LandingStanding on 14, Feb, 2011 at 7:34 am

[…] Surviving vs Living: “Refusing to venture outside of our fishbowl-routine isn’t living, it’s just … surviving.” […]

#7 Cassie on 22, Feb, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Kate: I do not understand exactly what about this article made you write what you did. I hadn’t thought about the whole saltwater issue and was kind of tickled that you pointed that out, but then you went into an entire rant about writers who only want money. I can assure you that Shaun’s motivation to write is intrinsic –he loves it. He wishes that he could make money from writing so that he can devote more time to it and less time to mundane jobs for which he has no passion. Don’t we all wish that we could get paid for doing what we love? I don’t see anything wrong with trying. In fact, I admire his willingness to try –many of us don’t get past the wishing stage.

#8 Michaelpaul on 28, Apr, 2011 at 3:40 am

This is my first time on your site and I have to thankyou. This story entirely relates to my life at my present moment. I’ve taken for granted the life in the fishbowl and I am now in an ocean and until I read this and feel a sudden burst of confidence. You got a new reader today.

#9 Michaelpaul on 28, Apr, 2011 at 3:42 am

Correction to my above post: “and until I read this I was feeling very uncertain, but now I have a sudden burst of confidence”

#10 Nilsa on 28, Apr, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Shawn – You’re Great! I’m inspired to continue to write!
Kate – You’re an IDIOT!
Carissa Starr – Well Put!
Cassie – Way to stand by your man, I Love it!

#11 Pain is weakness leaving the body (Part 1) – In Vino Veritas on 09, Jun, 2015 at 2:50 pm

[…] and while this routine is usually called living I think there’s a better name for it, surviving. Like that story of the goldfish – you’re not hungry, you’re waiting to be fed. I am adrift, without a destination. Can’t say it’s not better than some other life stories, […]

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