They gathered all of us into the school auditorium, the entire senior class. We were there to listen to university reps do their best to sell their respective schools. We were told, by our own high school teachers, without too much mincing of words, that the smart kids would go to university. College was meant for the trades.
I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My friends and I spent hours agonizing over cups of coffee we were probably still too young to be drinking, afraid that a wrong decision made at seventeen could ruin our lives as adults before they even got started. I didn’t know what I wanted, I only knew that I was a smart kid – one of the “so much potential” kids – so off to university I went, propelled by a teenage desire for independence and freedom, and pure blind faith that school would teach me the answers to the questions of my life.
I learned a lot over five years and two fancy pieces of paper. I learned how to live independently. How far to stretch a buck. The side effects of too much coffee from the free refill bar. I learned a lot of facts that I can no longer remember, how to write an essay on the fly and with no sleep, and that I had little interest in critically thinking about much of the stuff I was being asked to critically think about. I was a fish floundering in a stream of many, all going the same way, but some with more confidence than others. I was wounded by stories of high school classmates who had already made life-enforcing decisions with their lives: one going to college to become a chef and now working professionally, one who did a one year certificate program and moved immediately to full-time employment and home ownership from there, one who got in his car one evening and ended up in Mexico with an entirely new existence. And there I was, still struggling with this one essential question: What in all hell did I want to do with my life?
By my mid-twenties I had decided that adventure would provide me the answers I needed. I craved new experiences. Sure, I would travel if an opportunity presented itself. Sure, I would move to a new city just because. Sure, I would try out many different jobs, each time telling myself, I can do that…
And how many times did I take the elevator up to a job, and then feel physically unable to move until the doors closed, bringing me back down to ground zero and the exit.
Just keep moving, I said. Just keep adventuring, keep experiencing. The answer will come.
But that’s not how life works, is it? The answers don’t come just because you want them too. They’re not like the family dog that responds to treats when you command them to come. I think I was in my mid-thirties by the time I came to this understanding that the answer wouldn’t come just because. That I couldn’t chase it. That I couldn’t hunt it.
I’d like to say that this understanding came to me suddenly. It didn’t, gawd no. It came to me after years of trying gig after gig. It came to me after being buried in motherhood and the judgment of mothers. It came to me after my health flared into big red flashing lights saying Stop, Stop, Stop.
It came to me that I needed to sit still. That I needed to get down and comfortable with silence. That I needed to be the honey that attracts the fly, play hard to get a little, pretend I didn’t really care. I needed to allow the answers to come, in their own time.
So I got comfortable with waiting. I got comfortable with my journal and my self-help books and my TED talks. I got comfortable with self-analyzing, with my barriers, with my boundaries. I got comfortable with having clear definitions around what I liked and what I never would like. I got comfortable with the sound of my own thoughts.
And I learned some interesting things.
I learned that waiting doesn’t mean inaction. I learned that you still need to do things with your life, still need a forward motion, even when you’re not sure of the direction. I learned that I could be inspired by things that were not even in the realm of what I thought I wanted to do with my life, and I learned to just appreciate these bits of inspiration for what they were. I learned to listen to the sound of silence.
But I didn’t learn The Answer, still. It didn’t present itself to me, still.
So I went on working, being inspired, thinking, listening. I obsessed over personal projects that brought me personal joy and a sense of accomplishment. I found things to be proud of. And I realized that I was no longer a floundering fish in a stream of other more competent fish. Rather, I was in my own stream. And I hoped this stream would lead me to the holy grail, to the answer of all answers.
And it did. In a way.
Now in my forties, I have learned something that I never expected to learn. It’s not so much an a-ha! as it is a Whoa, Nelly. Because who could have guessed, really. Who could have known?
That the answer is really no answer at all.
There is no answer to what I want to do with my life. There is only an answer to what I want to be.
And what I want to be is alive. And present. And comfortable in my own skin. And myself.
And I think I’m a slow learner – which is, perhaps, surprising for a smart girl with “so much potential.” But maybe you can be both smart and stupid. Maybe it just takes some of us longer to figure things out.
Nevertheless, it’s very obvious to me now, the many paradoxes of life. That you have to not care to care. That you have to let go to get. That you have to work hard and do nothing, keep active and be still. That you have to do things you love but that the doing is not being. That something is not everything.
And that there is one answer which is the only answer, which is really no answer at all.
This girl, who never understood what she wanted to do with her life, finally learned how to let go and be.