A Storytelling Serial
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A few weeks ago, I was rushing through a Target superstore, on a self-imposed deadline to find some highly specific household necessity. (I’m a purpose-driven shopper. Don’t ever try to slow me down in my dash to the check-out line.)
My racing steps faltered as I ran by two young women standing next to the shampoo endcap. Staring at her phone, one wailed to her companion, “I just wish I knew what to do with the rest of my life.”
Multiple responses immediately bubbled to my lips, which I bit as I resumed my pace and sped past. She wasn’t seeking advice from a stranger. But I couldn’t help muttering to myself, “Get comfortable with that challenge. You may never figure out a once-and-for-all answer.”
Now long past this moment, I realize the woman’s apparent frustration lingers in the back of my mind. And I keep rehearsing the wisdom I would have liked to offer a fellow seeker.
The Simple Answer
If she and I had been sitting together over a warm beverage, I would have offered the most obvious solution: do anything. With qualifications. You need to choose something that interests you, that fits your values, and that meets your financial needs. But those criteria open up many possibilities, rather than limiting you to one “right choice,” and allow multiple careers and jobs over time.
In fact, what you do next doesn’t have to be what you do for the rest of your life, and it isn’t necessarily the end-all and be-all. It can be fun. It can be hard. It can be temporary. It can be a learning experience, an experiment, or a means to an end. Just follow your curiosity, don’t compromise your values, and make enough to pay your bills. Do it for as long as you need to, and then do something else.
The Sensible Answer
After the young woman and I had ordered scones to go with our hot drinks, I would have suggested something a bit more complex: choose what you’ll actually do. Not what you think about, explore, and discuss (perhaps endlessly), but the path you’ll commit to.
Ask yourself whether you sometimes imagine options that interest you, satisfy your values, and provide an adequate paycheck—but you still fail to launch. Why? Possibilities to consider include a lack of ability or a personality mismatch.
For instance, I’ve often fancied myself as a chef or a spy, occupations that fit my interests, values, and financial needs. But the reality is that I’m hopelessly incapable of cooking for a crowd, and I tend to take people at face value. My incompetence and my temperament would render me rubbish at either of those careers; and no matter how often I dream of being Jane Bond, I’m never going to take any concrete steps to try to become a bona fide spy. Ditto for turning myself into Julia Child. (Although you might easily guess the themes of my favorite books and films.)
Of course, you can develop new skills and stretch your personality—but only so much and only so far. And when you know you’ll need to turn yourself inside out to go in a direction that is profoundly different from your current strengths, experience, and comfort level, you may back away from a career decision demanding effort far beyond your immediate momentum.
That is, unless you have an extra spark of incentive to push past your current abilities and characteristics. But where would that momentum come from?
The Surprising Answer
The last part of this imaginary conversation would have required sandwiches—or at least more drinks and scones. Fully fortified, I would have provided my final guidance: do the thing someone else is doing that makes you ache with longing.
This points to a path beyond rational decision-making and relies on unfiltered emotion. It honors the feeling you get when you look at another’s work and experience a visceral reaction, maybe a stab in the gut or a quickening of the pulse, something within your body that grabs your attention and makes you pause, if only for a moment, while the unexpected thought bounces off the back of your brain: I want to do that too. Perhaps with my own twist, in my own way, but yes: that.
If you don’t recognize such a sensation, if you can remember no one whose work has sparked your unbidden yearning, then you may have yet to identify the career you really want for your own.
And that’s fine. Be patient; gracefully accept that it may take more time to live into the underlying truth of an unfulfilled dream, to glimpse a vision embodied in the work of another, to gaze unflinchingly (and without malice) at the envy that clearly points toward your deepest vocational need—and to embrace this hunger as your impetus to develop new skills, stretch your personality, push past your comfort level, and become the person you wish to be.
Meanwhile, if your desire isn’t strong enough to inspire the long-term energy for adopting new skills and mindsets, resist despair. Just go back to the simple, sensible answers. There’s nothing wrong with doing anything (to explore or out of necessity) or with choosing what you’ll actually do (because it’s comfortable). Remember that you can revisit this quest many times throughout the years, and you need never feel pressure to know, for now and always, what to do with the rest of your life.
After all, the point of living is to experience its messiness, not to wrap it up in a neat package.
Is there a type of work that clutches at your heart when you hear about others doing it? Has envy ever told you who you want to be? Please share in the “Comments” section below.
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