I have been thinking a lot about a conversation I had with a friend recently – moreover, though, how I can’t help but feel that I have had this same conversation with dozens of people, and that I often wonder how many times a day this same conversation takes place.
It takes many forms, but, at its core, the message is always the same.
‘I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.’
And though this dilemma carries with it a connotation of youth, I find that many of the people trapped within it are, ironically, not young at all – they are simply facing the reality a bit farther down the road.
The truth is, though, you should feel relieved – at any age – to have this thought consuming you – and, if it doesn’t, perhaps you should try to conjure up some fear of it. Crises of this sort mean that you want more out of life – that your personal composition today is not sufficient, that you hunger for change that gives birth to self-betterment.
But we distract ourselves from this realization too often. It bubbles to the surface, and we panic – that is, until a well-meaning confidant assuages the fear by assuring us that it is natural, normal, and healthy.
In fact, that advice is sound, but it is missing a key followup.
Imagine that you awake to find yourself in an unfamiliar place. As you come to consciousness and calibrate to your surroundings, it begins to dawn on you that you are directly in the path of an oncoming train.
The train is barreling down upon you, the fear building, terror setting in as you realize that you will die if you do not get out of its path.
The fear – the realization that you are in imminent danger – will not move you out of harm’s way. Rather, it is merely a leading indicator, an impetus for change – and unless this awareness springs you forth into action, your days on this earth are numbered.
And so, you awake today to find yourself lost in life – you feel that you have no direction, that your career is not satisfying, or your relationship unfulfilling, or your friendships lack depth. While these types of existential crises are certainly normal, I think it is a mistake to brush them aside simply because they are commonly suffered.
Perhaps you feel lost not because the human mind has a tendency to ruminate and create false crises, but for a far simpler reason altogether: you are, in fact, lost.
Growth begins when we harness that creeping sense of emptiness, and use it to propel ourselves forward. It happens when we stop justifying the feeling as part of a natural course of age or arrival at a milestone – quarter-life crisis, mid-life crisis, post-breakup crisis – and admit to ourselves that we truly are dissatisfied. Admit that, above all, we want more.
And there is so much more to have.
I believe that people like you and I have a relatively easy time identifying what we need to do – our problem, instead, lies in acting upon that knowledge. And the more I learn about myself, the more I understand that my challenge in life – and, within it, the key to my success – lies in shortening the gap between knowing what I have to do, and doing it.
We all have tendencies – patterns of sorts, or themes, perhaps, that recur throughout our lives. They are forces of gravity towards which we are drawn, familiar and comfortable pathways that nonetheless lead us in circles. Identifying and conquering them will make you a happier person – you will feel that you have greater control over your destiny, rather than helplessly being tossed about by life’s whim.
Or, should you choose to allow these proclivities to continue to get the best of you, you’ll find that history repeats itself – and, each time it does, the cost goes up.
Do you want to wake up five years from now to find yourself in the same predicament that you are in today?
I think what often paralyzes us is the overwhelming, crushing, mind-boggling number of possibilities that lay before us: presented with a 20-foot blank canvas and a limitless palette, many of us would not know what to paint.
And so, I don’t find the question of “what do I want to be when I grow up” to be particularly useful. It is too broad in scope to be actionable – it cannot give you a roadmap to follow.
I find that it is not productive to plan further than six months ahead. For me, a period of this length holds so many variables that I cannot possibly predict what my desired course will be when that time has passed. An intense connection to a new person, a new business idea, a new passion – any one of these variables could alter the course of my life completely.
I try not to plan for many contingencies. I feel that doing so would temper my openness to the infinite number of possibilites that lay before me. I like waking up each day and knowing that discovering someone or something new could transplant me into a new world.
I focus, instead, on developing a set of guiding principles that help me decide what I will do tomorrow, next week, and next month – and, when presented with an opportunity, whether to indulge or abstain.
It is the difference between being decisive and being deliberate: to be decisive is to take action on a whimsical fancy without a clear framework – this arbitrary type of decision making will breed a feeling of aimlessness. To be deliberate is to choose with true confidence – to select a course not simply because it keeps you moving, but because it moves you closer to the person you want to become.
I will tell you my secret: I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, either.
But when I wake up tomorrow, I will start my day at the gym because I know that – no matter what I am when I’m older – I want to be healthy. I will work to grow my companies because money will likely come in handy when I discover my true passion. I will reach out to my friends because I want them with me when I move into the next stage of my life.
I will read because it is food for my brain, I will sit in the sun because it makes me happy, and I will talk to someone new, because many of the most important people in my life today were just strangers on the day I met them.
And, should tomorrow bring a fork in the road – the opportunity to chart a new course, the life-changing decision that we should hope that each day brings – I will choose deliberately based on the values I hope to have retained when I finally arrive at my destination.
“To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”