Ah, yes, the great philosophical principles of life. Confucianism, Just War theory, Altruism, Human Rights, Feminism… and YOLO. People laugh when I rationalise my undertakings with a casual shrug and a simple, “YOLO”. They laugh because it’s amusing, and perhaps a bit unexpected, to use dubious internet terminology to guide important decisions in life like entering a half marathon, dying my hair radical new colours, and making plans for my future. Things weren’t always this way, though. What started out as someone’s semi-serious joke at my expense, challenging me to exit my mundane, cautious existence has become a doctrine so integrated into my life that I can’t imagine going back to whatever it was that I was doing before I ate YOLO for breakfast.
Before we dive in and I try to justify this last utterly outrageous claim, let’s backtrack for a moment so that everyone can catch up because, incredibly, I’ve discovered quite a number of people out there who have never heard of YOLO. Turns out I’m not the only one living under a rock.
‘YOLO’ stands for ‘You Only Live Once’. It’s a modern version of the now stuffy cliché Carpe Diem, a Latin term meaning ‘seize the day’. YOLO is similar to the expression ‘life’s too short,’ and it is usually interpreted as making the most of life while we still can, encouraging action rather than wasting time worrying or getting hung up in the minor details of life. Unfortunately for people who like seizing the day, Carpe Diem has fallen from relevance somewhat, ruined perhaps by jarring motivational posters, or perhaps by people who want to express their individuality with a generic tattoo, or perhaps it’s just old and worn out like a tatty dish sponge as many popular idioms are. Anyway, life’s too short for Latin; in the modern world what we need is a snappy 21st century acronym to convey virtually the same message. Enter: YOLO.
However, as you will know the modern world is a complex, multi-faceted and nuanced place, and the language we use certainly reflects this. The thing about YOLO is that, while it shares the same meaning at its core with its neighbours ‘seize the day’ and ‘life’s too short,’ much like the mullet, Kanye West’s fashion line, or those little shoes people put on their dogs, it is kind of a joke. YOLO is equipped to encourage participants to make the most of life by doing exciting things, but there is a definite invisible boundary around what is deemed socially acceptable under this pretext. SoundCloud rappers aside, it would not be socially permissible to cheerily proclaim “YOLO!” and stride into the nearest tattoo parlour to get permanent ink over your entire face, for example. There are societal norms that influence our behaviour, whether you think about them consciously or not, and if you want to function and be accepted in your given society you have to follow them, at least to a degree.
I was aware of all of this about YOLO before it cartwheeled unexpectedly through the front door into the living room of my life. Like many things in the sphere of popular culture, I used to use YOLO in a purely ironic fashion, thinking it another dumb acronym that I’m far too intelligent and sophisticated to use in my daily vocabulary, such as ‘OMG’ or ‘LOL’ (LOL). But, ironically, I was quickly swept up in the excitement of being up to date with modern language and feeling less out-of-touch with the youth for a change. I’d love to say that I staggered blindly by accident across the border from mockery into the territory of serious usage, but I didn’t. It was a conscious choice. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that I have surrendered my right to pretend that I’m too cool for 21st century internet language – a title I was hanging on to by a thread anyway. Yet, even more ironically, it’s all turned out very well for me. With YOLO as my guiding beacon of deliberation – my lighthouse in the storm, if you like dramatic metaphors – I’ve actually achieved and experienced so much. I’ll take you back to that fateful day, and we’ll examine this simultaneously meaningless and profoundly philosophical term.
At some point towards the end of 2018, let’s say at about four o’ clock on a Wednesday afternoon, a friend of mine was egging me on to do something. I forget what it was now, but it probably involved going out drinking when I had work the next day. When I was reluctant to participate he said something along the lines of “I want to see you embrace more of the YOLO!” which got me thinking. It made me realise that, while I still didn’t want to go out drinking when I had work the next day, I had indeed become wedged in a routine of mundane restraint, taking myself seriously and going to bed early and worrying about everything and I was suddenly sickened by my own dreariness. So I said to myself, “Fine. I’ll YOLO. Just jolly well watch me,” and because I’m weirdly stubborn, I did.
Like any sane person I applied the principle in small doses at first. But things quickly gathered momentum. My time in Australia came to an end and seeing as my original travel plans dissolved long ago I YOLO’d my flight back to the UK and decided to keep going with my overseas experiment to the literal greener pastures of New Zealand with no plan and not nearly enough savings. I went adventuring with people I had only just met. I walked the brutal 30-kilometre Cape Brett track on a suffocatingly hot day in 10.5 hours. I started singing in front of people for the first time ever, caring slightly less about what other people think. I went snorkelling, despite disliking swarms of seaweed to the point where swimming through it causes me to fear for my life. I listened to my heart, I followed my instinct, and I trusted that things would work out even when I was homeless, jobless, and didn’t know what the hell I was doing so far from home on my own. I went snowboarding even though it was a real stretch financially. I dyed my hair an exhilarating new shade that I fondly refer to as ‘unicorn’ colour. I’ve since dabbled in such exciting tones as candyfloss blue, something akin to periwinkle, and a colour I like to call ‘turbo blonde’. I’ve applied YOLO to numerous big decisions, but I’ve found it helpful for more seemingly trivial things too, like allowing myself to have a nap if I’m tired or going to the bakery on the way home because I want a pecan pie. Having a nap may not seem like such a YOLO decision, but for someone like me who is awful at resting or allowing myself to take it easy it’s helped me grasp this ‘self care’ thing that is completely new to me. The most surprising YOLO to me was long-distance running. Had you asked me as recently as December 2018 what my opinion of running is I would have insisted that it’s too hard, fantastically boring, and I’m really terrible at it. Yet, I ran my first half marathon last week. I’m completely hooked on running. I’m the fittest I’ve ever been. And I decided to stop using the word ‘never’.
What the YOLO doctrine can offer is emancipation from limiting mindsets like ‘I can’t’ or ‘it’s too difficult’. It’s an opportunity to experience life more fully, closer to its raw edge and away from the confines of your bubble-wrapped, familiar comfort zone, because for some reason we need an excuse or reason to change our habits, especially when it comes to comfort zones. For me YOLO has been a framework for choosing to say ‘yes’ to more things that previously I would have said ‘no’ to for the frustratingly trivial but very persuasive simple reason that it was scary. It has helped me to live more freely, more in the moment and less from a place of fear. It’s pretty radical stuff. From this and probably a combination of other experiences over the last couple of years, pushing my own boundaries has become the norm and I can’t accept the ‘safe’ option anymore. That’s not what I’m about these days. The safe option is not challenging, it’s not fulfilling, and neither is it memorable.
Yet, even after all these insights and personal philosophical significance, YOLO is still a joke. It isn’t serious. Unlike other doctrines in philosophy, you could hot-wire it, go for a joyride, then ditch it at the side of the road if you wanted to. There are no self-important academics defending this concept, so we are all at liberty to take what we want from it. But no pressure. It’s all good. YOLO!
That isn’t a YOLO tattoo on my knuckles, but it would be kind of dope though, wouldn’t it?
I haven’t written anything for quite a while. I didn’t feel like it. The words weren’t coming to me, so I left it alone rather than trying to hastily force it like the last little bit of toothpaste in the tube when you’re late for work. Sometimes things are best left alone, and I’m old enough and wise enough to trust that the inspiration will strike when the time is right. This is an approach to living I’ve been fine-tuning for some time. The art of allowing, you could call it; allowing things to be as they are rather than running around trying to do four thousand things at the same time. That’s very tiring. I’m tired of it. Besides… YOLO.