Why today is the perfect day to try something new
The other day I took part in the second session of David Whyte’s Courage in Poetry workshop and he talked about some of his work in the corporate sector. He said it is not uncommon to find people there, and just as easily in other sectors, "living their life on contingency". He gave the example of a woman in her early twenties saying to him, “I plan to work at this tech company until I’m 30, at which point I want to pursue what I’ve always wanted to do, to be an archaeologist”. Whyte said to her that while there is no “right path” to be on, to keep in mind that if she delayed pursuing something she held dear to accept the possibility that it would never end up happening.
One way in which this was possible he referred to as the gradual “covering up” of and losing in yourself the interest and willingness to do it. The micro components of who we are on a daily and weekly basis shape the person we are and it is difficult to maintain the desire for something left largely unattended. This is especially the case if the job now occupying our time grinds on us and wears us down. Whyte is quick to acknowledge there are hard and unpleasant things in any pursuit but we must be mindful of when that discomfort has transformed into pain.
In his book How Will You Measure Your Life?, Clayton Christensen talks about another issue with delaying pursuits we may find valuable. He reminds us that often our hopes and dreams may pay less than high-flying professional jobs that can feel appealing. While one should never work in a job that leaves them scraping by his cautionary tale reminds us that if the job we have “for now" pays us generously and our lifestyle naturally adjusts to that level of income, it can then be financially difficult or even treacherous to transfer to our aspirational calling down the road.
How do we end up in certain jobs we don’t really like anyways? There are a handful of reasons for certain, including those that are falsely advertised but I have come to see one path I was less aware of til reading Winners Take All. Anand Giridharadas talks about certain jobs that are marketed to "successful professionals” who have worked hard to get where they are and if they want to work among the best and brightest, “this is the job for you.” In particular he talks about the brilliant (and somewhat deceptive) job consulting firms and investment banks have done in positioning the way they teach their people. “Come work for us for a couple years and learn principles that will be useful everywhere”, their recruitment language might read. The rigor one learns at a firm can be useful but the author points out many people come for prestige and rigor, because it’s what successful, capable people should do and yet they often end up never leaving; leaving their aspirations to languish.
There’s also another hard part about contingency living, which Whyte says can be wrapped up in the statement, “I’ll get to my life once I….”. The unfortunate reality is that “tomorrow is promised to no one”. The other day I saw a friend post about the day she learned her husband-to-be had been diagnosed with cancer. Thankfully he survived and is living well these days but these are things that can happen. It’s part of the reason why when something traumatic happens to someone we know or we narrowly escape disaster, people can suddenly shift course because life’s fragility is placed front and center.
Speaking of life’s fragility, is there any better example of that than right now? Whether that is a risk to one’s physical safety or seeing how a way of life can shift so quickly. It might leave one asking, “what am I waiting for?”
If you are craving a change or have an inkling that you might like to explore it the first part of the work is being open to it. The reality is, and I can attest to this first hand, is the way we speak to and listen to ourselves is often not kind. If a friend told us about a dream they had my guess is we’d encourage them to pursue rather than discourage them. But when it comes to ourselves avoidance, ignoring and doubt are often prevalent.
Seth Godin says when we begin to dream, what comes next is facing the reality that we have more power and influence over our destiny than we wish to believe. And if that is true, the unfortunate reality is we are “on the hook” for turning that wish or idea into a reality. The good news is whether you want to learn to skateboard, build a house or become a UX designer, there are first and second steps you can take to explore how that might work that are not likely all that risky. It’s not about wishing you had attempted something but rather about identifying the first step and taking it.
In children we often see fervent imaginations and impassioned beliefs. All-too-often adults can find themselves feeling beat down by the supposed tos and shoulds of society.
I love a story told by Moj Mahdara on the podcast “Meditative Story”. She talks about growing up with one of her Iranian grandmothers living with her family. This grandmother married early, had six children and was widowed in her early 40’s. Both illiterate and without an education, it left her largely dependent on Moj’s family for support. Now living in the US, she longed to become a citizen and to learn how to read the Qur’an. As her granddaughter Moj learned to read, grandma took it upon herself at the age of 57, to begin her own literary journey. It wasn’t easy but when she died 25 years later, Moj reports her grandmother had read close to 10,000 books. She did not allow herself to hold on tightly to the persona of “I can’t read” but rather “how do I take the first step in fixing this problem?” And why not let that small story of transformation be one that guides you to take your first step?
“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives”,