As I transitioned out of high school and into the real world, XX years ago, my parents' encouragement went something like this: "Do whatever you want, just do something. ...and don't do it out of our basement." It was honest non-impinging support, but in a loose style that would make many parents cringe with visions of hippies dancing in their heads. We were lower middle-class, college was not assumed, so do something and make it stick.
From there I took a fabled path. I worked and quit a dozen part-time jobs. Majored in just about everything in which I could muster a passing grade. I graduated with a liberal arts degree (the 6 year plan) and took time to travel across country alone in a Ford station wagon, hoping to—you guessed it— find myself.
Pulling away from the driveway at 11 a.m. on 9/11, 2001 couldn't have felt more lonely in the quiet chaos of that day. If ever there was a sign to make someone question a decision, that day had to be it. But I leapt. And I landed in Phoenix, Arizona. And if there isn't some symbolism in having chosen a city by that name, then I don't know symbolism.
For three months I slept on the floor of a studio apartment, worked at a bookstore, and drove aimlessly through the desert searching for something that never appeared. Salinger and Kerouac would have developed cataracts reading through the banality of that story. Feeling pathetic and lonely, I grew weary of it myself.
So I packed up the station wagon with exactly nothing more than I started with and set off for home in a Bible-belt marathon of driving back to Michigan. I arrived home and unpacked the lesson that I could not find in the desert because I was too inside myself. I could not see beyond myself. So I enrolled in grad school and for the next year and a half studied social work and the holistic worldview. The study of others and our shared oneness. When I could finally step outside myself and truly be a part of something greater, I began to connect the dots.
In 2005 Steve Jobs gave his infamous commencement speech at Stanford University- six years before people would revisit it and hang on every word out of grief. Standing before the nation's next generation of innovators was the genius who never graduated from college. He told the story of how he came to connect the dots of his past and went on to revolutionize technology.
"None of this", he spoke of the randomness of his college classes, "had even a hope of any practical application in my life." "Of course, It was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very clear looking backwards ten years later. Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma whatever - because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path. And that will make all the difference."
When everything felt random and disconnected—when my greater purpose was not obvious—it was time to sit down and do the work. To stop looking to the future for my answers and instead be present. To peel away the layers to find the dots. They were there all along, as they are for each of us. If only we wouldn't pave over them with messages of "I'm a failure" or "That was a big mistake" or "What's next and where will I find it?"
We all encounter transitions in our lives when we must struggle to make sense of the dots of our past. We make decisions to either wallow in their disarray, sweep them into the dustbin and start over, or carefully arrange them into some semblance of order. And there is order if we sharpen our pencils and do the work. The work of crafting our story.
We connect the dots lest we wander and suffer. They consist of our core values, scattered with the breadcrumb trail of our decisions, a sprinkling of our hope and trust for what is possible, bound together by a thick black line of acceptance for what we cannot change. There comes a point when we choose to no longer suffer with the guilt or regret of our past and to brush away the dust to find the lessons. Then we move forward. That is the work.
Watch Steve Jobs' commencement speech:
Brad Waters MSW, LCSW provides career-life coaching and consultation to clients internationally via phone and Skype. He helps people explore career direction and take action on career transitions. Brad holds a Master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan and Master's certification in Holistic Health Care from Western Michigan University. Brad is also a personal development writer whose books are available on Amazon and BradWatersMSW.com
Copyright, 2013 Brad Waters. This article may not be reproduced or published without permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not remove embedded links.
Brad Waters, L.C.S.W. is a career and well-being expert based in Chicago. He is also a freelance writer with a background in social work and holistic health care.