Life in an Ant Colony

Life in an Ant Colony

When 5 o’clock comes in D.C., it truly is an amazing sight: all the people in business suits and neon sneakers, avoiding eye contact and confidently power walking to their next important destination. It’s a coordinated dance that you learn quickly or risk destroying the carefully constructed synergy, to be punished with piercing side eyes and carefully volumed scoffs and snorts.


One of my friends told me recently that when they come home from work, they feel like an ant in a colony, one of thousands of tiny organisms all toiling away towards some vague larger goal. This was not said with a smile, but with tired eyes and slouched shoulders. The feeling my friend expressed has been well-documented in our culture.


Some people call it the “rat race," “survival of the fittest," or something akin to a “hamster on a wheel." Lots of animal metaphors for some reason. In the end, they all express a similar concern: the worry that you are only one of many, not special or different, but simply (to use another common metaphor) a cog in a machine. This is an issue a lot of people confront, especially when living in a big city.


To some, the thought of working and living in a place like D.C. where it all “happens” and where an ungodly amount of people are squished together is invigorating and life-giving. To be in the middle of it all does not seem diminutive to them, but rather it affirms their self image of someone who belongs in such a place.


However, to others, being part of something so big and complex is overwhelming. Some see great risk of losing their sense of individuality when they are surrounded by so many who share the same dreams and qualities they do. Both of these experiences are valid and neither is the “right way” to feel. So, if you don’t have this problem, great! For all of those people out there who want to defy this beehive mentality (see, more animal metaphors!), here is my unsolicited, potentially incorrect, but wholly sincere advice.


1. People Watch

Courtesy of Giphy


It’s exactly what it sounds like and a little creepy, but put on some dark sunglasses and no one will ever know! I recommend people watching because it reminds me of something very important: people are fascinating.


We’ve all been told at one point that “EVERYONE is special," but as anyone who has seen the movie "The Incredibles" knows: “Saying everyone is special is just another way of saying no one is." Surprisingly dark for a kids movie I know, but I feel like a lot of us have internalized this. The mutinous parts of our brains like to remind us of this whenever we are feeling down or insignificant. Our brain says “Why are you so special? What makes you different than anyone else? What right do you have to feel special?” I think people watching combats this thinking perfectly by providing contradictory evidence.


People watching provides the opportunity to see people unfiltered, with all their uniqueness and individuality front and center. What makes people special is not that they are better than anyone else, but that they have had a completely original life experience that can never be replicated. It may sound counterproductive to look for the specialness in others when you’re feeling so un-special yourself, but the point is not to feel superior, just to feel different.


If you can identify what makes others different, you can more easily recognize the factors that make you unique. Luckily, in D.C., you have an opportunity for people watching every morning and afternoon on your daily commute. This is one of the reasons I love the Metro (and D.C.): I see an incredibly diverse swath of humanity that reminds me each day that I am not a cog in anything, but a original person.


2. Keep Moving

Courtesy of Giphy

Unfortunately, feeling like an individual requires consistent and intentional work. When I say work, I don’t mean your internship (but please continue to go to your internship): I mean doing the things that make you happy. It's incredibly simple advice, but so incredibly hard to follow. It takes creativity, initiative, discipline, and more often than not, teamwork.


Hobbies and activities may seem like just distractions from the larger problem of feeling useless, but they’re quite the opposite. As a wise person once explained to me, there is a hierarchy of factors you can control in your life. First is your emotions, which we often have little control over. Second is our thoughts, which we have some control over (but not total). Last is our actions, which we have almost complete control over.


So, we must focus on what we can do, which sometimes means you might have to go out to a club, or make time to read your book, or watch a movie, or play your guitar, or go to brunch. These are jobs just as much as your 9-5, and may potentially be even more important.

3. Reflect

Write it, yell it, sing it, whatever. No matter what you do, take those nasty thoughts that tell you that you’re an insignificant face in the crowd and take away their power. Taking saboteur thoughts out of your head, out of their element, and bringing them front and center is really awkward but it highlights the irrationality of self-deprecating thought. Maybe you write a weird introspective semi-nihilistic blog. Perhaps your pillow or your understanding roommate (not to equate the two) has had to endure your high-volumed ranting. No matter how you choose to reflect, it is worth it.


Courtesy of Giphy

One of the best parts of D.C. is that it belongs to everyone. I have only been here a month, but I find myself invested in this city, upset with its problems, caring for its people. I thought I was one of the people who would be overwhelmed, who would lose touch, who would come last in the rat race. But living in this city, or anywhere, is not a competition. It comes down to what works for you and what makes you happy. That's what makes you special.


Courtesy of Giphy


Read Noah's previous blogs

Experience a Day in the Life of an Intern at The Washington Center

Learn More