For years I was envious of my mom because from an early age she had a strong calling to be an artist. She tells the story of how one day, as a teenager, she waited until her parents left the house before painting gigantic larger-than-life flowers and bumblebees with thick black and yellow paint on her bedroom walls. I remember seeing those bold brush strokes in my grandparent's house and was in awe of my mom's rebellion and dedication to her craft. To this day she's still an artist.
When the time came in high school when it seemed I should be choosing my own path, the realization set in that I didn't possess the fire in my belly like she did. It frustrated and disappointed me that I couldn't identify a calling. I took a career assessment and it revealed that I should become a bowling alley attendant. Strange choice for someone who averaged 120 on a good day. Instead, I wanted to try a little bit of everything. I struggled in college to dive headlong into one discipline. And the message I internalized during those years was that my indecisiveness was wrong. A waste of time. You must pick one career path and stick with it until you retire.
There is often a great deal of pressure, be it from our families, colleagues, education system, or our culture, to choose one perfect career path. To find a job that does it all: engages our talents, makes us plenty of money, and reflects well on our family. We are led to believe that if we fall short of this perfection we are depriving ourselves of happiness and not living up to our true potential. That if we only earn a high school diploma, we'll never know the esteem of a college degree. If we only make assistant manager, we'll never know the perks of reaching the top rung on the ladder.
We become burdened by a sense that by not locking into a desirable career trajectory, we'll develop deep regret as we get older. And for a plethora of reasons: because we won't be able to save up enough for retirement, we won't become famous, we won't leave a legacy for our children, our parents won't be proud, we may appear to others as wasted potential.
The fear of the future that's injected into our culture is another story altogether. The constant undercurrent of 'the sky is falling', the Mayan calendar is fast-approaching, our IRA isn't fully vested, do more now or you'll suffer dire consequences later.
Is it true that we should be constantly clamoring to reach some unknown pinnacle of potential? That we better race up the hill now, while we still can, in order to avoid the rising tides of doom? That if we work hard now we will someday look back with a sigh of relief and say, "Pheew, there, I made it"?
On the other hand, is it okay to do anything "less"? To be happy making minimum wage at a coffee shop and going home at the end of the shift without a laptop bulging with unanswered emails. After all, there's a lot of talk about living in the now, staying present, seizing the moment, carpe diem, we could die tomorrow...
I, for one, enjoy hearing wise words from those who've walked ahead of us. Those who can look back on the years of hard choices and offer a perspective we younger generations could not yet know for simple lack of time. I don't recall ever hearing an interview in which a retiree or grandparent says, "I wish I worked harder and stepped on more peoples' backs to get further ahead." Or, "I wish I'd gotten a 4.0 in college instead of a 3.0 because that has made all the difference in my life." Nope, they always seem to say something to the effect of, "Enjoy life because it goes by quickly."
In a recent interview, Oprah asked Gloria Steinem one of those life reflection questions and Steinem responded, "The whole idea is not to figure out what you should do that will matter, but to make each thing you do reflect the values you want. Because we don't know what is going to matter in the future."
Do you agree with Steinem? That perhaps it matters less what you're doing than how you're going about it?
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
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