I didn’t imagine when I started writing on this topic that it would take me ten posts to wade through it, but here we are. I began by introducing the Question itself and some of its implications, and then spent the next eight posts reflecting on my own journey (thus far) engaging it. Maybe you long ago answered this Question for yourself and are humming right along, but (especially seeing as how you’re reading this) maybe your journey – like mine – hasn’t been quite so simple. In this post I’ll offer some concluding thoughts from my vantage point right now, and invite you to do the same.
How To View Your Own Story?
A lot of life is in the framing of it.
From one perspective, for example, I could deem myself a commitment-phobic flake (at least in terms of my work life). If I chose to, I could chastise myself endlessly for not seeing through my music career (or at least continuing to develop a body of work, regardless of whether or not it earned me any kind of living). Or…I could slam myself for not choosing something else and sticking to it, so that I’d have some kind of actual career to show for myself by now, rather than just a trail of ho-hum office jobs. In actuality, I’ve admonished myself in both of these respects before. Repeatedly. And, yet, what I’ve discovered is that no matter how severely or diligently I ride myself for these “failures”, it doesn’t seem to ever actually help matters any. (I can be a slow learner, too!)
From another perspective, though, I could look back with a certain degree of pride and argue that I’ve been consistently true to my heart – following paths only when inspired to, and letting go of them once they stopped feeling right for me (after all, what’s the point of continuing with a “calling” that no longer calls?). I could also credit myself for having the tenacity to not give up my search for a satisfying Answer, even after years and years of setbacks, letdowns, frustrations, and disappointments.
The questions of whether, when, and for how long it is worth engaging in a given pursuit (career-related, or otherwise) seem important, and there don’t appear to be any one-size-fits-all answers. I’ve done my best to assess these things for myself throughout my life, whether it was in regard to pursuing a music career, having a go at acting, writing a memoir, building a full-time guitar teaching practice, hiking the Appalachian Trail, or getting a teaching credential. Am I a “quitter” for not sticking with any of these things to the bitter end? Or have I been discerning in letting go of them when they were no longer working for me? I can condemn myself for giving up on these enterprises, or salute myself for having had enough of a spirit of inquiry and adventure to explore them in such a hands-on manner in the first place. Either way, it’s a choice. Have I been wise or foolish in my various undertakings? Ultimately, it’s up to me to decide.
One way to look at our journeys that I find helpful is to do what Eric Maisel, in his book Deep Writing, calls “Honoring the Process”. Referring to the process of writing (but equally applicable to the process of authoring your life), he writes:
The writing process can’t be pinned down. It might take you sixteen years to write a certain poem, because of an elusive word. A word eluding you for that long is part of the process. You might write something excellent and then, unaccountably, follow that up with something stupid. Ups and downs are part of the process. You might drag your characters to Iceland, because you visited there and want to describe its lava landscape, when the plot calls for them to go to Denmark. Mistakes are part of the process. You might write for six hours straight one day, but take the next day off to walk by the shore. Effort and relaxation are both part of the process.
A year ago you may have loved poetry that rhymes, and today you may hate it. Changing your mind is part of the process. Sometimes you may write calmly, like a Zen master sitting zazen, and sometimes you may write in a frenzy, driven by an idea that must be captured or lost. No one particular energy defines the process. You may be able to slough off a hundred criticisms, then take one deeply to heart and not write for years. Getting badly hurt is part of the process. You may avoid approaching a big publishing house because you feel too small or a small house because you feel too big; you may avoid the editor across the room because you feel self-conscious; you may avoid writing about what you love because that feels like cheating. Both not doing and doing are part of the process.
What honoring the process means is that you accept these ups and downs and natural difficulties without too much complaint. You work to influence the process in a positive way. You write. You keep an open heart. You keep an open mind. You reread and revise. You accept that certain pieces will not work, and you rejoice when pieces turn out well. You chastise and berate yourself only rarely, and you keep your eye on the writing at hand. You go deep and try to tell the truth. You dig in: you pull on your writing clothes, grab your favorite pen, and immerse yourself in the process.
Life as “Process”…
I went through a lot before meeting, and eventually marrying, my wife. But all of my experiences, including the very painful ones (loneliness, break-ups, unrequited feelings, the frustration of endless first dates, etc.) might be viewed in retrospect as “part of the process”. Would I appreciate as deeply the marriage I have now had I not gone through all I did along the way to encountering Samantha? Probably not. Would I be as good of a partner had I not first had all of these other experiences? Ditto. As convoluted as my dating and relationship life may have been for so long, it could be seen as the (perhaps necessary) preparation for the more lasting and fulfilling committed relationship I now find myself in. Easy to say from this end of things, of course, and a real challenge to have this perspective – this trust in “process” – before attaining the sought-after result.
But MAYBE…similarly…my all-over-the-place, filled-with-dead-ends, circuitous, and seemingly nonsensical career path has actually been preparation for a fulfilling career to come, one for which I will be much better equipped having endured a “curriculum” of trials and tribulations. Maybe the unpleasant experiences will collectively prove to be much like Daniel’s training with Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid: agitating, exasperating, and seemingly pointless, but absolutely perfect, appropriate, and just what I needed in the end.
Or, maybe not. 😉
Either way, I can continue following my interests and passions, old and new, wherever they may lead, and I can continue to incorporate all of the lessons learned and self-knowledge I’ve acquired along the way to the best of my ability.
For me, the biggest struggle has not been in pursuing paths of interest to me, per se, but rather in reconciling them with the earning of income. It’s as if I inadvertently swallowed a pill years ago that slowly and insidiously released a belief into my nervous system that has set up long-term shop there ever since. A belief that, if it could speak, would say something like this:
Over here, we have all of the things you love, are good at, find stimulating, bring you joy, nourish you, and perhaps even nourish others when you engage in them. And then far, far away over there, separated by a chasm too huge to measure, we have something called Making a Living. AND NEVER THE TWAIN SHALL MEET!
Of course, intellectually, I know this notion to be absurd. Though they may (sadly) make up a minority of people overall, there are plenty of examples of folks who have managed to make these two realms of “work that you love” and “work that pays” overlapping, or even symbiotic.
But I also know that, despite my continued best efforts and for whatever reason(s), there is no guarantee I will ever be included among those fortunate individuals. There are so many unseen forces shaping our lives that (it seems obvious to me, anyway) how our lives turn out is not entirely up to us. Control seems, in the grand scheme of things, to be very much an illusion. That’s not to say that we should just throw our hands up in the air, cry “uncle”, and not try to accomplish anything. I firmly believe that the struggle is a noble one, and that we should do that which is within our control to attempt to influence the outcomes of our lives (or, as Eric Maisel puts it in the quote above: “You work to influence the process in a positive way”). It can, however, be very tricky business figuring out what is and isn’t within our control. If we take responsibility for too little, we sell ourselves short. If we take responsibility for too much, we actually operate against our own best interests. The Serenity Prayer comes to mind as a useful tool for calibrating this: “God [or Life, Universe, etc.] grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
My Reasons for Sharing
It is my hope that, in sharing my struggles with career frankly (and publicly), others may feel less alone in their own. There is a lot of social pressure to appear that we “have it together” – but I think honesty and authenticity is a lot more helpful, and valuable, than the keeping up of appearances.
It has also been helpful for me personally to thoroughly engage this Question in this format. Committing to seeing this series of posts through has forced me to reexamine each step of my own journey up to now as unflinchingly as possible. It has allowed me to look back at my efforts, both individually and collectively, within the context of the bigger picture of my life. It has been a challenge searching for the right words in which to encapsulate each chapter of my Quest (try it for yourself and see!), but the process has helped me bear compassionate witness to my numerous years of soul-searching, and perhaps make more sense of my journey and more peace with it. It seems that only in doing so can I hope to move forward in the most productive way.
What I Want To Be As I Continue Growing Up
I promised to offer my up-to-the-minute Answer to the Question that has inspired these posts before it’s all over, and that is what I will do here in this final segment.
But first I must take issue with the phrasing of the Question itself. It’s not as if we cross some threshold and one day find ourselves Grown Up. Rather, “growing up” is a process, not a singular event. And since we are always growing/changing/evolving, then as long as we are alive it never actually ends. It’s never actually reached, only moved toward.
With that in mind, and now that I am waist-deep into my projected lifespan (if national averages are to be trusted), I find that I have a new answer to this age-old question. I still very much aspire to find work that I truly love, that simultaneously pays the bills. And I have every intention of continuing my valiant search in that regard. But my Answer to the Question is not an occupation.
Here is What I Want To Be As I Continue Growing Up. I want to be:
• More loving, and less withholding.
• More compassionate, and less judgmental (toward both myself and others).
• More creative, and less blocked/inhibited.
• More open-hearted, and less closed off from my feelings.
• More open-minded, and less closed off to new ideas/ways of thinking.
• More conscious, and less reactive.
• More grateful, and less quick to complain.
• More present, and less “lost in my head”.
• More generous, and less stingy (again, with both myself and others).
• More patient, and less impatient (this one alone might suffice if I made significant progress at it!).
• More trusting (in the Universe, that things will work out for the best, of myself and my intuition), and less of a worrier or “control freak”.
• More giving, and less selfish.
• More forgiving, and less self-righteous.
• More courageous, and less ruled by fear, comfort-seeking, or complacency.
• More joyful, and less distressed or numbed out.
• More hopeful, and less cynical.
• More accepting of what is, and less ruled by my resistance to that which is not as I would have it be.
• More curious, and less jaded or dismissive.
• More appreciative, and less inclined to take things for granted.
• More helpful, and less hurtful (to myself, others, and the environment).
• More aware, and less ignorant.
• More awake, and less asleep.
• More contributive, and less consumptive.
• More resourceful, and less self-limiting.
• More peaceful, and less tortured.
• More content, and less dissatisfied.
• More integrated, and less conflicted.
• More focused, and less distracted.
• More disciplined, and less lazy.
• More honest and forthcoming, and less guarded or avoidant.
• More aware of life’s preciousness, and less squandering of my time with trivialities.
(I use the words “more” and “less” deliberately here. “More” because these are qualities I want to continue developing, and “less” because I don’t want to eliminate these other things altogether [even if I could], just de-emphasize them. Life is complex, and there is a place and a time for all of them!)
But wait…there’s more:
• I want to embrace and enjoy life even more, and live as fully as I can.
• I want to be a better listener, and less wrapped up in myself (another big one!).
• I want to be better at both giving help, and also asking for and receiving it when I need it.
• I want to live with ever-increasing integrity, in accordance with my highest ideals, rather than settle for a mediocre version of myself.
• I want to create and share more, and take greater ownership of my strengths, talents, and power.
• I want to realize the most creative and positive aspects of my potential, and keep my baser motives and impulses in check.
• Mostly I just want to be more loving and kind.
There. I think that about covers it. 🙂
If this sounds like a ridiculously tall order, or like I am setting myself up to fail over and over again, maybe it is and perhaps I am. But, as far as we know, we only go ‘round once, and I can’t think of a better way I can strive to put my remaining time to use – however much more of it I am granted, and whatever it is I happen to be doing for a living along the way.
If you have any thoughts or comments on the subject matter of these posts, I invite you to please share them below. If you have your own story you would like to share about your personal process of figuring out WYWTBWYGU – be it in regard to career, or otherwise – and you would rather share it with me privately, you can contact me via the e-mail address on the About page of this blog. Many thanks!