Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Think you chose your career? Better Make Sure

This post also appears on LinkedIn

My husband worked for a leader who started an all-staff by saying that he only wanted people on his team who were, "there by choice." I've always loved that idea - it gave me power. Whenever I had a rough day at the office, I would remind myself, "I am here by choice, when that isn't true anymore, I will leave." But, I was afraid of this power, so I stayed.

So many of us follow paths carved out for us by the expectations of our families, our superiors and ourselves. This path is dangerous because it masquerades as a "a choice." I chose a certain college, a certain career, a certain brand of shoes, a spouse. Life is the sum total of the choices you make, or so I was often told.

In reality, for many of us, life is the result of the choices we didn't make. We took the easy, socially acceptable (not to mention lucrative) path that was offered, but we never took the extra step. The extra step would be to look at what choices aren't explicitly on the table - and conceive of and consider them. Know the whole decision set.

We ask ourselves questions like, "Does this get me to the next step? What will this job/path teach me?" These are valid an important questions but they leave out, "Is this going to make me happy? Will my life, right now, be better for having taken this road?" Too often, the answer is "No." Our collective Puritan work ethic tells us, "pain now, gain later." It is a powerful force.

That is how I found myself, sitting in a beautiful office, at an amazing company, surrounded by crazy-smart people, doing exciting and meaningful work, looking at a picture of my beautiful family, asking myself, "Why does this still feel like it's fake, like I'm waiting for something? I have everything I ever wanted. I chose this." Scratch that. I had everything I thought I should want and it chose me.

So, I sat down and imagined my dream day. It was so clear, yet I was afraid. From the time I was in second grade, I wanted to be a writer. I had to be a writer. Even in my years as an industry consultant, I wrote late at night in hotel rooms. I wrote short stories, bad poetry, short plays, anonymous blogs and memoir. It came so easily.  I needed it.

My dream day was to get up in the morning, take my daughter school and not rush the entire morning. Then, I would exercise. After that, I would write and write. I would eat lunch and go for walks. I would visit museums and remember why Edward Hopper paintings can make me cry in public. I would pick up my daughter from school. We would have unstructured time. I would make real dinners. I would sing my daughter to sleep. When the day was over, I would sip single malt scotch while talking and laughing on the couch with my husband.

I took a deep breath. I said, "I choose to be somewhere else. This is not my choice anymore. I want to use my time in another way. My life is now and my time is more valuable to me than to anyone else." When I resigned from my job a few weeks later, I was actually choosing for the first time in my life. Now my life looks exactly like my dream life, minus the cooking.

When my father died at 44, he had undergone an operation with a very low success rate, but he chose life. One of my father's partners told me that he chose his family. He didn't linger at the office in the evenings to shoot the breeze. He didn't invent work for himself to make himself seem important. He rushed back from business trips on late night flights. He rose to spend Saturdays with my sister and me exploring New York City. It makes so sad to think that I didn't realize the lesson he'd taught me. Happiness doesn't come out of nowhere, you have to help it along and make space for it with the choices you make about your time.

If you were to truly chose your life (not a future life, but right now, this very second) what changes would you make? It takes courage to look freedom in the eye and use it. Only when we use our courage to truly choose for ourselves can we know what it means to be free.

Special Thanks to @MikeGamson of LinkedIn for making me really think about what it means to choose.

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