Insights: How this Reluctant Solopreneur Managed to Escape the “Bucket of Crabs”

Languages and colloquialisms evolve with time. There are phrases and words from my childhood that are absolutely alien to most young people today. And then there are the new phrases that are added to a language every few years, becoming part of everyday conversations.

Nowadays, you might have come across the use of the term “crab mentality”. The “bucket of crabs” or “crabs in a bucket” phenomenon is, however, not a very recent one. I remember hearing about it during my youth.

It is based on the fact that, when placed inside a bucket destined for the “boiler” (viz. a pot of boiling water into which the crabs will be placed, in order to kill them for consumption), no one has to worry about any one of the crabs climbing out of the bucket and escaping.

This is because whenever a crab tries to climb out, all the other crabs pull it back inside. This behavior is actually based on the intrinsic animal survival instinct. Crabs that pull a wandering crab back towards themselves do so out of a sense of perceived welfare for the escaping crab. The crabs that lie inside a bucket, however, do not realize that, not only are they restricting the escapist crab’s future life and independence (a limitless horizon vs. a cramped bucket), they are actually ensuring that the crab eventually dies along with them, in the waiting pot of boiling water.

For more information on this topic, just look up “crab mentality“, and you might find the concept enlightening, to the say the least (the link is to an article on the web that I found to be the most nuanced).

This is because, human beings exhibit the same behavior as the crabs in a bucket, with others in their immediate social circle i.e. family members, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and community members.

However, more often than not, their ‘crab’ behavior is not motivated by positive feelings or intentions. Instead, when they see one of their own circle, viz. someone whom they knew and witnessed living in the same circumstances as them, starting to aim for higher vistas and successfully beginning to escape “the bucket” i.e. the same, limited lifestyle that they all share, they try to pull that person back into “the bucket”, in order to make sure that the latter stays as, and where, they are in life.

That is, along with the rest of them; at the same level.

“The bucket” positives

Let’s begin by saying that the bucket is not always that bad. In the short term, that is.

For one thing, it ensures and provides each member crab with a high sense of security, togetherness, community belonging, camaraderie, stability, and predictability.

There are no risks, no dangers, and no what-if-I-fail feelings that instill doubts and insecurities.

It is, by and large, smooth sailing.

All the crabs are inside the same small, restricted space, sharing it together, always close to each other. “The bucket” makes the members believe that they are safe, whereas in fact, (remember that) they are all heading straight to the ‘killer’ boiler pot — to die the same, sure death.

But for these crabs in a bucket heading towards sure annihilation, ignorance is surely bliss.

The bucket commonalities

Now for some key identifiers of behaviors unique to crabs in buckets. I want to list these out specifically for those youngsters who are anywhere under the age of 35, and who, unlike me at their age, aspire to achieve something extraordinary in life, but are just not aware of this ‘crab bucket’ phenomenon, and consequently, do not even realize yet that they do have the option to escape it before it is too late.

If they want to, that is.

How a crab views the bucket after its escape.
Image courtesy:

I think I have made it very clear in recent years that, while escaping the ‘bucket of crabs’, at any stage of life, is very liberating and empowering, it does, in fact, also make you very lonely.

This is because, sadly, most people in life willingly choose to live inside a bucket that is headed for the pot-of-boiling-water, because they are either too afraid of the unknown/unseen realm that lies outside the bucket, or because they do not have the courage, motivation, and strong will required to not just resist, fight off and overpower the stubborn pull of the other crabs when they, time and again, yank them back inside as they begin to venture out, but also to survive and thrive on their own, once outside the bucket (more on that later).

Also, most people in life simply move from one ‘bucket of crabs’ to another, so that, at any stage in life, they are still inside a particular bucket, albeit a different one than its predecessor, enjoying the comfort and security the bucket provides.

So, without further ado, here are some blatant and not-so-obvious identifiers of behaviors that are exhibited by human beings who dwell inside a bucket-of-crabs:

  1. They all have similar goals, be this at any stage in life. E.g. to pass every class with good grades. Go to such-and-such school/university after graduation. Apply for such-and-such career/job. Relocate to such-and-such country, or acquire its nationality. Buy a certain car. Marry a certain kind of crab specimen, usually a similar crab from the same bucket, and reproduce a few replicas. Get a loan to invest in a house to spend the rest of their lives in. Retire and spend newfound time with grand-crabs-children. Die. Never be remembered for achieving anything worthwhile (okay, this last one was just sarcasm! *chortle*).
    If everyone in your social circles has the same-sounding goals, with no diversity, nothing that sounds strange, or ‘weird’, or ‘different’, know that you are living inside a bucket of crabs.
  2. They all talk the same. Their jargon, language, phrases, and conversations are very similar. The topics they talk about are also the same. Nothing new, the same old regurgitated stuff. Wallahi, some buckets are just so sad, that you can meet their members even after 15 years, and they will still be talking about the same things. Anyone who sounds different, or attempts to talk about something new, is either told to shut up, marginalized, or henceforth completely excluded; not remaining for too long inside their bucket.
    You should note the things that a certain group (any group) says. You will notice how they all talk in a very similar manner. There will not be a single member who sounds different, or talks in a way that, once again, surprises or causes raised eyebrows among the others.
  3. They all dress the same, right down to their accessories. Yawn. Enough said. Think: office executives exiting a conference room. Aunties leaving a dars gathering. Uniformed children exiting a school. Herd of sheep exiting a barn. You get the point. One cookie-cutter and a rolled-out sheet of dough. That’s what it is.
  4. They openly hate on the crabs in other buckets. This ‘hate’ is expressed as disdain, mockery, or outright hateful, phobic propaganda.
  5. They submissively obey and ape their ‘alpha’. Yup, most buckets-of-crabs have a prominent, appointed ‘alpha crab’: the leader of the pack, who calls all the shots. The rest are just groupies who pile on the butter upon their leader, and mostly just do as they are told. I am not saying that they all like or even respect their alpha. But even those crabs who secretly dislike the leader ‘crab’, grudgingly go along with submissive acquiescence to him or her, in order to remain accepted inside the bucket.
    Basically, they choose comfort, predictability, security and a sense of community acceptance over independence, autonomy, privacy, riskiness and a limitless horizon of endless opportunity/possibility.
    It is, in fact, easier to just do as you are told and be praised for it by your fellow groupies, achieving a false ‘high’ of positive self-worth, than to put in dedicated, long-term hard work into a self-directed project based on your natural talents, which does not guarantee any worldly results, let alone garner quick but short-term recognition and praise from the other groupie ‘crabs’ around.
    So, the easier option, it is.
  6. They feign complete ignorance of the crabs who have escaped their bucket, and gone on to achieve more than they ever did, put together. Like I said above, they talk about the same things, and most of the time, just obey & ape their alpha.
    Of course, this alpha feels very inadequate when thinking of or discussing the higher-achieving dissident crabs who have left their bucket. So, mostly, there is a silent, unwritten ‘bucket’ rule that these ‘dissident’ crabs (and their hard-to-ignore achievements) are never brought up for discussion by those left inside ‘the bucket’; or, if their mention ever does come up, all of the crabs, encouraged by the alpha, engage in point number 4 above.
What happens as you begin to climb out

When you are on your way out of the bucket, you might be too young and inexperienced to realize that, because you are meant for bigger, better things, you will meet hardships and challenges along the way.

Through these, Allah actually plans to make you stronger. You might misinterpret these unexpected, apparently ‘negative’ things that begin to happen in your life as setbacks or failures, whereas they are actually stepping-stones on a ladder that’ll take you towards brighter future horizons.

I say this because that is what happened to me. When I was on my way out of the bucket (this happened in the years 2010-2011 — the 2 “turning-point” years that basically heralded the beginning of a massive change in my life), I encountered two simultaneous phenomena that I did not immediately understand, at first:

  1. I met hardship (or failure) after hardship. Problem after problem. Challenges that were totally new for me to handle; which made me struggle, strive to learn, and scramble to search for answers and solutions. I was in totally unfamiliar territory, wondering with much anguish why my life was getting more & more difficult. I thought I was barely coming up for breath in an increasingly turbulent sea, whereas, in reality, looking back now, I realize that I was learning, conquering, growing, and becoming stronger with each surpassed obstacle.
  2. I slowly began to receive hate, from close quarters. This was totally new to me. I was perplexed at the change in the attitude of some people towards me. I did not understand just what I had done that was causing the change in their behavior.
    Most of it was camouflaged and barely perceptible at first, because, remember, I had not achieved much then. I was just beginning to claw my way out of the bucket. So the hate was also just beginning to bubble at the surface, possibly because the ‘crabs’ around me did not expect me to make it to the edge of the bucket. They probably assumed that I’d just fail and drop back inside, with a big splat, right back in their midst, so that they could condescendingly say, “We told you so” and have a nice laugh about it.

When these 2 phenomena begin to happen to you simultaneously, take it as a sign of the beginning of change.

Positive change.

Think of Prophet Yusuf (عَلَيْهِ السَّلَام) alone in the dark well, abandoned by his blood brothers. Then, some years later, the vindictive traps laid for him by the society women. No doubt, these challenges posed to him by the people he was around, were never things that he expected to happen, or planned to face, when he was young.

But they did. And when he surpassed these challenging circumstances with patience, grit, and steadfastness upon his faith, neither giving in to people’s shenanigans, nor swerving from the path of righteousness, he eventually emerged more successful than all of them put together.

The cherry on the pie? He ascended to a social position of absolute authority over all of them, and they sincerely apologized to him for their past transgressions.

But getting to that point of victory, for the young Yusuf, took time.

Pulling-back-in ‘crab’ behaviors

Now this part is extremely important. It is the main reason I decided to write up this whole blog post in the first place.

Fact: the many tactics that human beings use to ensure that one of them does not escape ‘the bucket of crabs’ that they’re all inside, are almost all just psychological power play, or ‘mind games’.

Basically, they are just words, spoken or written, which, if you allow into your brain and let them influence your mindset, you will never be able to escape ‘the bucket’.

Yes; the ‘crab mentality’ is all about mindset. When your mindset begins to change, the bucket that you once found so comfortable and familiar, begins to suffocate, stifle, and smother you. You want out, and fast. You begin to change the way you think, act, and behave. You begin to take risks and do things that no other crab around you ever does.

That is when the rest of these ‘crabs’, who have begun to notice you climbing the wall of the bucket towards its edge, unite to yank you back inside.

Here are some of their tactics:

  1. Worry: “for your own good, please just stay here, safe with us”: They stop you because they are worried about you, they say. Sometimes, this attitude is based on genuine worry and concern, but this applies only to the rare, sincere relationship.
    Most crabs make you believe that they do not want you to escape the bucket because they fear that you will fail, suffer, be torn away from them for good, or never return. It is true, the limitless possibilities out there in the sea do reduce your chances of ever returning, but see, that is the thing. A crab that is on its way out has already changed completely from inside, else it would not even begin to climb.
    In reality, most crabs do not want you to become too out-of-reach, because this will remind them that you were able to do that which they were not.
  2. Emotional/spiritual blackmail: You have totally forgotten about us. Are you turning your back on us? What about us, do you have no time at all for us anymore? You were not like this. You used to be so different. You think you are so high-and-mighty now? Allah will not forgive you unless the person who is rightfully angry at you forgives you.
    And so on. You get the drift.
  3. Gaslighting: This is a term in psychology that refers to intentional behavior on the part of one person that makes another person who is completely innocent of something believe that they are guilty of it.
    Basically, when you are not doing anything wrong, someone makes you believe that you are. This is a very creepy form of mind game that people play on naive, trusting people, in order to prevent them from achieving something bigger and better; or in order to incriminate them for a sin or crime that they did not commit.
    In the worst case, it results in a perfectly normal person beginning to think that they have gone crazy, when the problem is actually that someone who is envious of them is intentionally “gaslighting” them in order to make them doubt their sanity.
    So when and if a crab begins to escape the bucket, the other crabs will ‘gaslight’ him or her into believing that something is wrong with his or her beliefs, mindset, choices, lifestyle, or thinking. When, in fact, there is nothing wrong at all.
    The ‘crab’ is just moving on to better things.
  4. Warnings of imminent danger and risks: This is closely related to point number 1 above. In so-called concern and worry, the other crabs unite to warn the escapist crab about the very real dangers and risks that exist outside the bucket.
    Again, in the rare case of a sincere relationship that is based on true love, some of these warnings might be genuine and valid. But in most cases, they are based on a desire to not see someone who was hitherto at your level, do something, and succeed at it, which you were not able to do.
    Example: if ‘A’ is visiting a place that ‘B’ has never been to (but wants to visit), ‘B’ fills A’s inbox with news reports/articles/videos about all the bad things that have happened (or could happen) there. Essentially, envy makes ‘B’ want to spoil the whole visit for A’, but ‘B’ lies to themselves that they are doing this out of concern and care for A’s safety and well-being, not out of envy.
  5. United in a final boycott: This is a last-ditch, extreme attempt bordering on outright harassment, in which all of the other crabs unite in giving the absolutely freezing-cold shoulder to the crab who is about to exit the bucket. Usually this happens when the escapist crab has reached the edge, and is about to jump out. They all socially boycott the crab, and unite in doing so.
    Fact: since the escapist crab has already seen the true colors of all of the crabs in the bucket, long before he or she even began climbing out, they were expecting this to happen.
    Consequently, the unanimous boycott has no effect on the escaping crab.

They are able to finally jump out of the bucket, free at last.

Once out: it is not smooth sailing

Many youngsters nowadays tend to glorify the whole concept of a self-actualizing trek up the rocky, high mountain of ‘Zen’. You know, the idea of the solo entrepreneurial journey of self-discovery fueled by guru advice and self-help wisdom.

In reality, the life of the crab who escapes the suffocating bucket is anything but easy, at first. This is not a joyride, folks. It is not for the cowardly or the faint-hearted. Which probably explains why so few people in the history of mankind have been able to walk this path.

Here are a few morbid but true facts about the crab’s life outside the bucket:

  1. It is lonely: Like I said at the start of this post, it gets lonely out here. There are very few other ‘crabs’ swimming around. So you do sometimes miss being ‘just like the rest of the crowd’, blending in, and not being noticed. You miss the community. But you accept it when you realize the worth of what you are gaining by losing it.
  2. Surviving alone in unfamiliar new environs: The crab needs to learn the ropes pretty fast in the sea, in order to not get killed. Yes, this is about rock-bottom (pun not intended) survival: surviving out here alone. You have to learn as you go, and fast. But with Allah as one’s Helper, of course there is always a way to survive, and then thrive. You just have to keep working hard to find it, and Allah helps you in doing that.
  3. New dangers: When the crab goes out into the sea, it will of course come across new creatures, and face them alone. This does pose serious threats and risks to the crab’s well-being. However, the learning in the process is monumental. There are epiphanies and delightful moments of “aha!” and “omg!” that leave the crab breathless with exhilaration.
    Totally worth the risks!
  4. Recurring memories: Fond old memories of merry bygone times spent with the other crabs in the bucket keep bothering you, tempting you to look back at the bucket from time to time.
    But you realize that this is no longer your childhood, and you no longer have older people watching out for you, or making major life decisions for you. This is your time now. And you need to do this alone, else it’ll be the same old restrictive bucket for your next generations as well.

As more and more time passes outside the bucket, eventually, these negative aspects of the crab’s new life get exponentially reduced, and a state of equilibrium is attained.

Then it does become smooth sailing. All praises to Allah!

The buckets I ditched

There are many ‘buckets’ that I was once a part of, which I eventually left because I could not resonate with their activities, ideas, or mindsets anymore. I think real-life examples cast a much brighter light on a theory, so, listing things out very simply, here are the buckets that I have managed to escape as a ‘crab’:

  1. Secular school and college education. School was not my choice, and it lasted from age 6 to 18. Enough said. Yikes!
    Then there was college/university: I spent my time at these cramming hard, huddled for hours over huge textbooks, fueled by the conviction that undergraduate & graduate degrees would ensure my all-around success in life ahead.
    Suffice to say, it is a huge relief now to know that I never have to enroll at a school or university against my will again!
  2. Working at a traditional job viz. working in the software engineering career path as a profession. It is true: by qualification, I am a software engineer. I escaped this bucket when I decided to pursue Islamic education instead, right after graduation. Never looked back.
  3. Islamic organizational work/career: In this ‘bucket’, after studying the Qur’an and other Islamic subjects, I started working for religious groups under the leadership of the founder(s)/owner(s)/CEO’s. Meaning, in these roles, I mostly took orders and did as I was told/expected to. There was little room for creativity.
    I have to admit, though, that because I became very religious at age 21, these Islamic ‘organizational work buckets’ that I was a part of (physical or online) were way better than the corporate ones my other school/college alumni were gainfully employed for.
    Since my work was based on spirituality, it was very rewarding, because it was in the service of Allah’s Deen.
    Nevertheless, it was restricting me significantly in scope, effect, reach, and results. What’s more, every Islamic group or organization that I worked for, almost always wanted more. However much time, effort, money, or services of mine that I gave them…led to them requesting, demanding, or even outright begging me for more. This aspect was very frustrating, to say the least. Going solo relieved me from this stress, in addition to making my work literally skyrocket in scope. Alhamdulillah.
  4. Muslim-immigrant-life-in-the-West. I jumped out from this ‘bucket’ back in 2004, but even so many years later, and even after being asked not to, I am reminded that my children are Canadians-by-descent; that the ‘door is still open for them’ to acquire their blue passport, just by filling in some paperwork, paying some fees, and landing in Canada; that they can thenceforth live indefinitely in Canada, earn money there, and avail subsidized education at Canadian universities.
    Basically, I am reminded that my children can still go back into the ‘immigrant bucket’ that I escaped from all those years ago. Sigh.
    Can you please relax? I know all this. Please don’t think I am unaware of this, because I am. OK? And it doesn’t matter to me, or to my children. So just drop it.
    By the way, Canadian-, British- and American-passport holders are a dime-a-dozen in my biological family. Living the ‘Muslim immigrant life in the West’ just doesn’t entice me.
    So stop inviting us back into that bucket, or reminding us about its so-called ‘perks’!
  5. Joint family systems and their social activities. These I don’t miss at all, especially not those late night weddings….sigh. What a strain on my brain they were. No regrets there (not even for the wedding food).
  6. Tailor-made, unstitched clothing. Pret and ready-made clothing it has been for us, for years now, and can I say just how much I love how the Pakistani pret industry keeps growing and improving with time. Woot!
  7. Allopathic healthcare (for the most part). Don’t ask.
  8. Cooking traditional Pakistani food from scratch at home, every day, day in and day out. We don’t apologize about eating out and ordering in, though I do still cook and bake. No regrets here, either!
  9. Classroom-style, curriculum-based instruction as a form of learning/teaching, whether religious or worldly. Come covid-19, ditching this bucket became moot for everyone else too, at least for the time being.
  10. Television-viewing as a family activity, and individual screens for underage children. I can’t tell you how many times people warned me that I would become cut off from vital worldly information if I did not have a TV in my home. But that never happened. Thanks to the other tools in hand and some basic common sense, we as a family are at times better aware of current events than most hardcore TV viewers.
    16 years and counting — still no TV. Alhamdulillah.
  11. Structured homeschooling based on a curriculum, aimed to prepare children for giving exams and gaining admission into colleges/universities.
    We ditched this bucket when we became unschoolers, and it has thankfully worked out really well for our family.
Me too! Help me get out!

I know that many people continue to live in systems, groups, and circumstances that they direly wish to escape from. They dream of leaving every day. But fears and doubts hold them back. They give in to these fears and believe the voice that tells them that this will happen, that will happen if they take the leap.

So they stay.

What is worse is that they, in the process, train their next generation to stay inside their bucket as well. They not only become the victim of coercion and (often) oppression, but also, as a consequence, enable and perpetrate the vicious cycle of this subjugation and unnecessary conformance-to-systems for their offspring as well.

Might I emphasize that most of these enforced systems are quite unjust. The burdens they cast upon their members are rather unnecessary and heavy, weighing them down for trivial reasons and making it difficult for them to aspire to, and attain, loftier goals in life that will help them transcend to higher levels in the Hereafter as well.

So if you want to get out and achieve something bigger in life, but are not willing or brave enough to face the consequences (primarily, social consequences) then you might as well stay where you are, because pluck and grit are vital requirements of survival outside the bucket.

What happens today is that when people behold my children, and our life together (mashaAllah), they immediately go, “I also want that. Me too! Teach me how!”

But whenever I have made the mistake to actually sit down to answer their barrage of questions, I have met shock (even horror), heavy skepticism, and eventually, total disbelief. They just go creepily quiet and stare at me as if I have suddenly grown horns on my head!

They basically want shortcuts to greedily enjoy the same ‘results’ in their life that they see in mine (reaped after a decade or so of hard work), but are totally incredulous if not scandalized about the means and ways that I have acquired to achieve them.

Sister/brother, if you cannot believe my stories about the journey that I have been through in the past decade or so when I tell you about it, then you might as well not ask me!

You might as well not waste my time and yours.

Why the disbelief? Why the sudden incredulity viz., “But how could you have done this?! This is not possible in today’s society. We have to live among people, otherwise how will our children survive? I can’t do what you have done.”

If you cannot open up your cordoned-off brain in order to let new discoveries enter, then please hold on to your incredulous disbelief about the wonders that Allah can actually introduce into your life if you just make the requisite efforts and sacrifices first, and just as well remain in your bucket!

And while you’re at it, stop looking with amazement at my children, wishing that yours were like mine.

(On a lighter note, though, if you really are interested in finding out how Allah brought about the changes in my life that He did, then, well, my writings are all there in my 15 books. They might help you change your mindset. So, if you are serious about escaping the bucket, then scrimp back a bit on your next retail therapy binge, invest in some books, and get reading!)

Conclusion: the true secret

No more, no less: it is the Qur’an, its meanings, insights, and enlightening guidance, which caused me to escape all of the ‘buckets’ that were restricting me (and now, my children) from reaching loftier heights.

The more I pondered and reflected upon the Qur’an, the more I saw the realities of life as they are; the more the keys to success and salvation entered my reach. With each analytical journey through the Book of Allah, new insights illuminated my soul; new lessons were learnt and understood by my heart and brain, and new epiphanies dawned upon me.

All it takes is 15 to 25 minutes of reflective Qur’an recitation, along with pondering upon its meanings, per day, for the Qur’an to become the single life-changing force that could improve your destiny.

As for me, the question remains, will I ever return to the many ‘buckets’ that I have managed to leave?

I highly doubt it.

I will probably remain here, “swimming” alone, with Allah as my guide, in this seemingly endless ocean of possibilities and discoveries, until……. excuse the pun, but…..until I’ve “kicked the bucket”!

Heh. 😏 Can’t wait!


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