It can be hard for young men to step outside the “Man Box,” which pressures them to act a certain way. Here are questions to help step beyond.
The above video was produced by Jesuit Social Services, which is based in Melbourne, Australia and operates under the auspices of the Jesuit religious order. It defines the “Man Box” as “a set of beliefs within and across society that place pressure on men to be a certain way — to be tough; not to show any emotions; to be the breadwinner, to always be in control, use violence to solve problems; and to have many sexual partners.”
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” (Henry David Thoreau)
“Travelling teaches men their way.” (Kikuya proverb)
“So, where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?”
“I dunno. Maybe a well-paying job with increasing responsibility at a growing company? Married with a kid or two? Living in a nice suburban house, with two cars? Weekends at the house on the lake? Summers at the beach?”
“What do you mean by ‘why’?”
“Why do you see this future for yourself? Did you choose it?”
“It’s what people have always done. It’s what people expect. My parents. My grandparents. My pastor. My teachers. My girlfriend.”
“Is it what you want?”
“I dunno. Maybe …”
Rejecting the “Man Box” can be scary.
Experts, researchers and analysts have written a lot about the “Man Box” and how societal norms and family expectations have confined modern men to a strict code of thinking, (not) feeling and behaving, particularly concerning women and girls.
Not much has been written about those men who have already rejected or stepped away from this rigid view of masculinity but may be feeling rather nervous, vulnerable, directionless and even frozen in place. Or, in other words, they may be thinking: “Oh shit! What in the hell do I do now?”
This writer has been grappling with this very issue of life, work, travel and love outside the “Man Box” his whole life.
I first jumped out of my “Boy Box” when I was just over three years old. On my very first day of pre-school, I decided this wasn’t for me, and I began walking the six miles back to my house without the slightest clue of where I was actually going or how long it would take to get there.
As a teenager, I defied all expectations and got a scholarship to study at the University of Oxford. I then toyed with the idea of giving it all up to stay on a religious kibbutz in Israel.
But I didn’t, and at Oxford I abandoned both Judaism and all hope of being a politician due to a dirty tricks campaign against me when standing for elected office in my college. And I had to discover if I was really gay, straight or bi.
‘I feel very satisfied and happy … for now.’
In my 20s and 30s, I resigned from a prestigious, well-paying job in banking — not once but three times: first to explore China as a roving news reporter and then to start new business ventures in Italy and the USA. I also moved to the mountains of New Mexico to fulfill a clairvoyant’s prophecy of fathering a very special child.
In my 40s and 50s, I willingly jumped back into the box and attempted to be a conventional parent, husband, son and provider in Austin, Texas, with mixed success.
And as I approached my 60s two years ago, I decided to give up a very comfortable existence in Austin to relocate with three bags and my Texan cat to the Cradle of Civilisation here in East Africa.
Rwanda is the ninth country that I have lived in for an extended period. I am now focusing on meaningful work that can hopefully make a positive impact in the world. I truly love my life and work here, and I feel very satisfied and happy … for now.
Questions for conscious young men
Is there a blueprint for other conscious young men to create an identity and a life of their own that they can truly love and bring them real satisfaction and happiness too?
For some, this may well mean pursuing a more “conventional” path described in the dialogue above, as long as this is a deliberate choice and not out of any sense of duty, compulsion, fear or lack of imagination.
For some, this may require a completely different interpretation of who they are and a whole new direction towards an exciting, if unclear, future.
For many, it will probably be somewhere in between.
So here are 10 compelling questions for conscious young men to explore for themselves beyond “what do I want to do with my life?”:
1. Who am I now?
2. How do I define myself?
3. For what and for whom do I exist?
4. Where do I belong?
5. Who do I want to be?
6. Who do I want to be with?
7. Where do I want to go?
8. What is my purpose in life and work?
9. How can I have the most positive impact in the world?
10. What will be my legacy?
After answering these questions on their own and with others, they can begin to make the appropriate plans and take the necessary steps to achieve their dreams in the longer term.
Stepping into the unknown with no regrets
Where will this writer be in 10 years’ time? Maybe still here in Rwanda? Maybe not. Maybe still a writer, coach and trainer? Maybe not. Maybe married again? Maybe not. Maybe dead? Hopefully not.
The only thing I do know is that I will be 10 years older and there will have been many more change points in my life. Some will have been externally driven by such things as a pandemic or socio-political unrest. Or a new love or a new grandchild. Some will have been motivated by internal changes, such as professional re-focusing or personal health.
The key challenges for me (and for any other man) will be to never settle for forced or self-imposed mediocrity; recognize new openings and change points when they come along; confront them with openness, curiosity and equanimity; trust the head, heart and guts; and confidently take the most deliberate decision and the clearest — and hopefully the wisest — course of action at that time, knowing that nothing is forever.
In that way, we can all move confidently into the unknown without any regret, and maybe, just maybe, we can all make the world a better place too.
“What you are, the world is. And without your transformation, there can be no transformation of the world.” (J. Krishnamurti)
Questions to consider:
- What is a “Man Box,” and why is it important to get out of it?
- What is the link between finding your way as a man and trying to make the world a better place?
- Whatever gender you self-identify as, what will your life be like in 10 years’ time? How will you be contributing to society then?
Jeremy Solomons is a global leadership coach and facilitator, based in Kigali, Rwanda, where he writes regular “Leading Rwanda” and "Letter from Kigali" columns for the New Times newspaper. In the past, he was a Reuters financial reporter in Hong Kong and New York City and then a foreign correspondent in Frankfurt. He was also a farmer in Israel, factory worker and teacher in France, banker in England and Switzerland, and entrepreneur in Italy.