At some point in our lifetimes — nah, scratch that — at several points in our lifetimes, most of us wind up pondering what the heck we are doing here, and what we want to do next.
I first started giving these questions serious consideration while I was in college, but it wasn’t until I turned 30 that they really started slapping me upside the head. Thirty will do that to you.
Somehow, I realized, my 20s had gone by. When I’d graduated from college with a degree in comparative literature, I had been pretty sure I wanted to be a professor. But a year of teaching in France on a scholarship had convinced me that neither the classroom nor the life of a scholar was for me. I was too interested in too many things, too passionate about being out in the world, and about wanting to change it for the better.
So, for nearly a decade after returning to the United States, I tried on various hats while I tried to eke out a living: I worked for a soccer-wear company, an intellectual-property law firm, a print shop and a political consulting firm. Nothing stuck. Nothing resonated.
Still, little by little, I began to notice which kinds of work I enjoyed, and which bored me to tears. I discovered what came naturally to me, and what came only with struggle. And after a decade of this fumbling exploration, I realized it was time for me to get serious about leading my life like it mattered.
First, I ended a five-year, on-again-off-again relationship that was draining my energy and going nowhere fast. Then, hungry for a change of scenery, I accepted the invitation of an East Coast friend who had kindly offered to let me come stay with her while I sorted out my next steps.
As I packed up my Toyota and drove across the country, I concluded that this was as good a time as any to reinvent myself, and to go in search of a better future.
A couple of days and a thousand miles later, I found myself parked on a beachside bench on the south shore of Boston, painfully aware that I was starting from zero. So I began asking questions and capturing the answers — stream-of-consciousness style — in my journal.
Here are the inquiries that proved most fruitful:
- If I could walk into the job of my dreams, and a work environment that suited me perfectly, what would it be like?
- What role would I play? What kind of team would I be part of, and what kinds of people would I work with on a daily basis?
- How would I spend my time, and what skills would I be using every day?
- What would the larger purpose of my work be? How would it be making the world a better place?
Suddenly, a surprisingly clear vision began forming in my mind: I was leading a group of talented, creative people who shared the same values I did. I was working in an urban office (I saw a publishing or agency environment with lots of activity and interaction) and also in a quiet home office some of the time.
I saw myself writing, reading, talking, listening, thinking, collaborating, leading meetings and doing public speaking. I was working on something important, creating something that I had great excitement for because it helped others enjoy better, happier lives, and develop their own best gifts.
All of this downloaded for me in the span of about 30 minutes of journaling. When I looked at what I had written, I had an epiphany of sorts: I already had all the basic skills and the right temperament for this fantasy job of mine. The only thing I lacked was the confidence that I could actually do the job I envisioned — assuming it even existed.
Then I remembered a piece of advice a good friend of mine had given me years before: “Just do what you’d do if you did have the confidence.”
It’s a long story — about 14 years long — but ultimately, that’s how I got here, doing what I love, today.
It didn’t all happen at once or without a huge amount of effort, of course. And in many ways, my parkbench vision is still evolving. But I think the commitment I made that day to investigating my own potential was an important, alchemical component in creating the conditions that allowed my dream to manifest itself.
So that’s what this issue of Experience Life magazine is all about — the question poet Mary Oliver puts so beautifully: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”