What Exactly is The Real World?

by Marc on May 19, 2010

Your answer to that question says a lot about your chances for realizing your dreams or living the life you want. If you think of the stuff you hate about your life as reality, then you can’t really be expected to change it, right? Are you stacking the deck against yourself without even realizing it?


We heard those 3 words a lot during our travels. On the last day of every cruise, the smiles of most vacationers would start to fade as they prepared to head back to “The Real World”. Is it something you have to escape from?

Any time someone tries to think outside the box, someone’s bound to say, “that’ll never work in the Real World”. Is it the place where dreams go to die?

If kids complain about their schoolwork, adults are often quick to respond, “You don’t know the meaning of hard work yet – just wait until you get to The Real World…” Is it the world where everything is difficult?

Near the end of our world tour, people started asking us what we were going to do when we got “back to the real world”, but except for that day we spent at Tokyo Disney, the world felt pretty real to us the whole time (maybe we weren’t drinking enough).

MTV's version - where people 'stop being nice & start being real.' Real hot, anyway.

MTV's version - where people 'stop being nice and start being real.' Real hot, anyway.

What do people really mean when they talk about The Real World?

Help me out with an experiment: over the next few days, ask some friends or coworkers what “The Real World” means to them. (and try to do it in such a way that you won’t be subjected to random drug tests from now on.) I’ll bet that besides MTV shows and John Mayer songs, things like bills, taxes, struggle, hard work and failure will come up a lot. Sure, these things are all part of life. But why do so many people label only the boring or unpleasant things as “the Real World” instead of the good stuff?

I reject your reality and substitute my own.

Another fun experiment: Try turning that expression upside down and say things like, “I can’t wait for the weekend so I can get out of this cubicle and back to the Real World.” Or, “You’re on vacation next week? Lucky bastard, you’ll be out in the Real World while the rest of us are stuck filing TPS reports.” How about, “That’s a great idea, but it’ll never work in the fake world.”

OK, maybe you shouldn’t say those things out loud, but it’s worth reminding yourself that all that stuff you love is part of the real world, too – maybe even more so than the things you hate.

Here’s my working definition: The Real World is where I do the stuff that matters to me, the things that bring me joy and make me feel connected with my fellow human beings. I don’t get to spend all my time there yet, but I’m working on it.

Now it’s your turn: what do those 3 words mean to you?

Better yet, what’s the strangest thing anyone’s ever said to you about The Real World?

If you have kids, ask them – I bet they could come up with some really good answers. Let’s hear ’em!


May 19, 2010 Anil

The real world is where you go after college, haha. At least that’s what they tell graduating students.

May 26, 2010 Nomadic Matt

Three things:

1. I’m glad to see you posting again.
2. I like the new site layout
3. People always say this to me. “The real world.” What’s the real world? Do I live in a fake world? Is travel a fake world? I think the real world is where dreams go to die…it’s where people have mortgages, commutes, and 9 to 5. The fake world is where people actually can do what they want. But like the quote, i reject their reality. i say the real world is whatever you want it to be!

May 26, 2010 Marc

Thanks Matt! I totally agree w/ you – the real world is whatever you want it to be.

I hope more people will “substitute their own” reality, because it a lot easier to think of yourself as escaping to the real world than from it, dontcha think?

May 26, 2010 Kim

We’re preparing to leave for our big trip right now and have also had people comment about “the real world.” I’ll admit, I’m a teacher and have used the “In the real world…” line before. I don’t like to criticize people for their “real” lives. I’m sure someday I’ll have a mortgage, family, and kids and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it is too idealistic, or Utopian, to think that you’ll never want a little escape from work and kids. That’s just how life is; it’s hectic and sometimes overwhelming. I agree that a better idea is to consider your escapes, weekends, trips, even treks to the ice cream shop as “the real world.” Everything else is working toward a better real.

May 26, 2010 Marc

Thanks, Kim – and enjoy your upcoming adventure, where I’m sure you’ll sample many more versions of “the real world” – some of them pretty bizarre!

I don’t think I ever really gave this expression much thought until we started traveling and living unconventionally. Now I guess I’ve become hyper-sensitive to it. I hear it everywhere, most often in reference to some negative aspect of life, instead of the whole package, like you suggest.

Happy travels!

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