Most people come to realize that there is a recurring challenge in their life when they leave the home of their parents and set off to build a life of their own. Earlier variations of this dilemma have been addressed within that safe context. Emerging awareness, the onset of puberty, the rebelliousness of the teen years and eventually the rising need to challenge for the right to self-determine all are confronted within the safety of an environment built by others.
Of course, the break is not a clean one. There is baggage taken along. Maybe your parents told you to dream big or shoot high. Perhaps they wanted you to become a professional – like a doctor, dentist, accountant or scientist. And then there is the living conditions. Your parents, being later in life, have built a nest for their comfort. You grew up in their context – not your own.
But leaving has a different feel to it. You are stepping out into the great unknown. The uncertainties which accompany such an action are often seen as so overwhelming that simplifying strategies are deployed in lieu of actually coming to terms with them.
One of the first, and most unsatisfying, realizations as you move away from that nest is that there are things that you want that now don’t seem to be in the cards. Maybe it started with the realization that you didn’t have what it takes to be something or somebody you idolized. Perhaps it was the realization that your network of friends and associates was not up to helping you achieve what you wanted. And so, you came to terms with the difference between your aspirations and your prospects.
If you are lucky, this conflict between the dreams of youth and the realities of adulthood brings you to the recurring question. Where is my life headed and what do I want to contribute?
The first time you confront his question beyond the boundaries of your parents’ nest, you may find your efforts somewhat ham-handed. Maybe the answer sounded good but, when you tried to put it into practice, the results were less than edifying. Perhaps you experienced your first personal failure – the first time you decided for your self without your parents whispering in your ear – did not turn out as expected.
So, you regrouped and re-thought. And set off in another direction. Over the years, you got a bit better at anticipating – predicting how the new suit would fit – how your life would be better. And, more and more, it turned out that way. So much so that it lead to a career.
Then for decades you made minor adjustments. Advanced. Re-focused. Forged ahead. And, before you knew it, you were approaching retirement. Or maybe there was a rising feeling that it was time for a change in direction – time to experience another something that life has to offer. In any case, that old feeling of vertigo – the kind that you felt when you first got out on your own – came creeping back. The relative certainty of knowing the next step along a path you have come to know was replaced by the possibility of stepping into the void yet again.
Robert Frost wrote a famous poem, The Road Not Taken, about exactly this kind of dilemma. Most people who read it – generally early on in life and then seldom or no more – think that Frost was talking about a single decision.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
But life is not that simple. It’s never one decision. I can hear Frost quoting TS Eliot in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
If one, settling a pillow by her head, should say: “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.”
Just when you seemed to get the hang of this “where is my life headed and what do I want to contribute” question, the whole nature of it seemed to change. It returned like some grinning shade – reminding you that life is not only impermanent but at sea in a universe of impermanence. You need to decide yet again. But, this time feels different. There is personal history, lessons learned, tracks in the sands of time. It doesn’t make the decision easier – particularly if you are considering a major change in course – but you have survived such things before and Robert Frost comes back with the punchline:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
And, if you have been paying attention, there is something different in play – a deeper self-knowledge. You know more about yourself. And there is more. You have a broader sense of your life – what some native American tribes call the long view. And Frost’s line – “I took the one less traveled by” - becomes - I took the one less traveled by me!
As you approach this latest version of the recurring dilemma, you are better equipped. You know more about who you are, what you want and what the world has to offer. So, why do you find yourself hesitating – returning to the familiar – avoiding the decision to strike out in a new direction?
I believe that hesitancy comes from the memory – all those years back – when you first stepped out of the shelter of your parents’ nest. Now you are thinking about stepping out of the nest that you have so carefully built. And that is more difficult. You could accept that what they built was not for you but for them. But what of this nest you have built? How can it not be for you?
I have been working as a mentor to people making transformational journeys for a couple of decades now and have discovered that this question is at the nexus of each life I encounter. The answer is in the very nature of life itself. Five hundred years BCE, a pre-Socratic philosopher named Heraclites echoed the core teachings of the Buddha. The very nature of life and the universe is impermanence. Nothing – including you – ever stays the same. You need to build a new nest.
As you stand before this dilemma, you find yourself asking the deeper question which is nestled in your own sense of mortality. The issue at hand changes from “what do I want to do with my life” into “what do I want to do with the rest of my life.” And that change is sobering and somewhat ominous. But, to get lost in that sense of apprehension is to miss the point altogether. You have never been better – more qualified – better prepared – more able to answer this question.
Now is the time to realize that confidence, rather than insecurity, is the justified response. It’s not just that you can do this. It’s that only you can do this. You have lived and experienced life. Now, with all that in your rucksack, you are well prepared to set out on a new journey. And with that you will realize that the recurring dilemma is not a dilemma at all but a door that opens to a whole new experience of life and all that it offers. To paraphrase Frost – and you will have made all the difference!
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD
PJ, Mentoring Client,
Mentoring Client, CEO and Serial Entrepreneur,
Mentoring Client, Deloitte,
CEO of Croix Connect and Host of ABC Radio’s ‘Taking Care of Business’,
Partner, IT & Telecom, Defense Solutions,