Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I think I know what we're after. And I think we are misguided. After reading and rereading some of our posts, and more importantly the comments left (thank you all!), I think Alex and I are after something specific, something that needs reconsideration. I shouldn't speak for Alex. But based on conversations with him and with many of my other friends, all in the same position as I find myself (with that daunting question of "what do you want to do with your life" hanging over our heads), I think we are all desperately seeking an answer to that question. I mean, how great would it be, if someone asked you, a relative, a coworker, a classmate or friend, what you wanted to do with your life, and you actually had an answer! How incredible! And what if you not only had an answer, but you had a plan. Well then you are going places in life. Right?

Wrong. I am generally in favor of listening to our elders, and usually do it with great respect. After all, they've been through some things, and have a better grasp on how life works than I do (even if I build myself up from time to time thinking otherwise). On top of that, they have no reason to mislead me, and instead have a strong desire to advise me. I know I enjoy advising my younger brother on college and how it all works. We all want to help. However, there is a huge piece of advice that I have neglected. It came in many forms over the past couple of months, from many sources. From my commencement speaker, from my parents, from books I've read and stories I've heard. The nugget I've avoided, with faulty reasoning, is the virtue of going with the flow of life, that you never know where it will take you and no matter how much you plan, life will carry you where you never expected it would. As my Dad said in a comment, and Alex alluded to in his post on our generation, the decisions we make today will not affect our lives as profoundly as we think. To put it another way, if we can't answer that question tomorrow or even in a year, we are not destined for unhappiness.

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, to choose correctly, and more importantly to have it all figured out. I have this misconception about careers that once you choose one you are stuck with it. That if I want to work in environmental policy then I am stuck on that track for the rest of my life and I can never deviate, that I have to pick an organization and work my way up. That if I want to be successful, I have to lay out my goals for my career now. I think its easy for us to look at someone who is very successful and think, "Oh, that must have been their goal. They must have planned on writing that book at this point in their career, and they must have planned on that speech at that point." We think this because it is very easy to look at the past events of their career and see how it lead them to where they are today (success, prestige, influence). But how hard would it have been for them, 20 years ago, to pinpoint where they'd be today, and more importantly how they'd get there? Impossible, for most. There are the exceptions, long-term careers that people can be quite content with; doctors, teachers, etc, where they may very well be in one hospital or school the rest of their lives. But for the rest of us, we will move, change companies or even fields. How boring would it be if we didn't? I think it's questions like "what do you want to do with your life" or "where do you see yourself in 10 years" that imply an answer is necessary. What is wrong with a simple "I don't know?"

I am reading "Dreams From My Father," by Barack Obama right now. This book has really been the final kick to get me to come to the other side, to jump in the river, or at least not view the river with such disdain. In the introduction to his book, Obama speaks about how it was some friends in Chicago who convinced him to run for State Senator. About a hundred pages in, he talks about how he slacked off his last few years in high school and even experimented with drugs. To hear his voice as a young man (written when he was 33) talking about himself as an even younger man, it sounds like a very different person. I think the ultimate delusion that is so easy to fall into, at least for me, is the notion that if nothing else, the Presidents of the United States simply must have had that as their goal. They must have been working their whole careers toward that. And even if not all of them did, Barack Obama, possibly the most driven and hard working person on the face of the earth (sorry for the hyperbole) simply must have been working hard since he was born to get to this point in his life, right? Wrong! A friend convinced him to get into politics. And look where he is now! When he was 22, do you think he knew where he'd be at age 48? No. Life took him to where he is. Instead of working toward the presidency as a goal, he did something better. He prepared himself for opportunity. When his friend urged him to run for State Senate, he was prepared, through his education and past experience, to seize that opportunity. Same for his US Senate run, and finally his latest achievement. And he said "yes" when presented with that opportunity.

So instead of grasping for something we can't have, something we ultimately don't want, let us prepare ourselves for opportunity, and be ready to say "yes!" when it comes. Let us embrace the uncertainty of life, and honor it for the joy that it brings. How boring would life be, if we knew where we were going to be when we were 40, or even in 10 years! Would it really be worth living, if we saw it coming so clearly? I'd rather not know. Instead, I'd rather be prepared for the next stage of my life and take opportunity when I see it. I can't answer what I want to do with my life, but I can answer what I want to do in the next year. Let's start there. The fear is that it will lead to unhappiness, to go with the flow without control. But happiness is ultimately much more about your perspective on life and much less about the things you actually do. And the most beautiful thing of all is the ability to change your circumstances. If the flow of life leaves you unsatisfied, you can change it! So maybe, insead of attempting to re-route the course of the river by diverting its flow to fit your plan (nature always wins, anyway), AND, instead of jumping in with nothing, lets bring a paddle, just in case. But in the meantime, enjoy the ride.

The next time someone asks me "what do you want to do with your life?" or any variation on that question, I think I will smile, and say "I don't know; and isn't that great?!"


  1. I like that idea that decisions we make today won't profoundly impact the rest of our lives... that's the best part about being here together-- life is for living.

    Plans can and sometimes should be made, but it's easy to forget how to enjoy it. It's easy to forget how to not only hear, but listen. The hard part is listening to yourself and letting YOU be YOU.

  2. You're going to jump in the river? The question is, if you jump, will you make the river?