A startup friend and I were commiserating about how, after leaving the management consulting fast-track (or corporate fast-track which consulting gets you a head start in) that many of our friends are still on, in comparison we sometimes feel very unaccomplished, the only people who don’t know what we’re doing with our lives.
Whenever that thought strikes, I have to remind myself that the feeling contains 2 fallacies, both of which represent the incredible power of cultural norms.
- The first fallacy: that we’re not successful unless we’re moving to the up and right (i.e., up the corporate staircase). I should feel accomplished and proud in the fact that I’ve taught myself to code, at the very least. There are many different definitions of success. More importantly, in a more social and connected world, there are many ways we can compare ourselves to others and find ourselves not measuring up. There will always be someone “doing better” than you. Don’t define success by others’ rulers! Ok I feel enough has been written about this, so I’ll move on to…
- The second fallacy: that we should know what we’re doing with our lives. In contemporary discourse, knowing what we’re doing with the rest of our lives is inextricably tied with a career. Even if that career doesn’t have a natural up and to the right progression, a career is itself the culmination of an up and to the right progression from elementary school through college and beyond. In this sentiment, it’s similar to the first fallacy.
Knowing what we’re doing with the rest of our lives is also related to stability. When we’re floating between jobs or doing the entrepreneurial grind, it’s often easy to miss having a “real” job (even if that real job isn’t yet a career). How else will we provide for ourselves or our families?
But when we over-emphasize stability, we forget its opposite, a kind of freedom that a real job can never really provide. Even as I’m beholden to my customers and can’t suddenly disappear, within those constraints, I can structure my time how I want. I can take a siesta in the middle of the day. I can stay up until 3am doing night hikes before a weekday.
Of course, stability might actually be more important, not everyone can drift forever. But the point is that we often so over-emphasize stability that we completely forget about the trade-offs that we make to have it.
So if you’re an entrepreneur or a freelancer or an artist or whatever, and you sometimes think, “why don’t I know what I’m doing with my life?” (or if your friends flat out ask), after the “oh crap” immediate reaction, try to force yourself to think about the situation with a different lens: “I’m glad I have the courage and privilege* to not have to know what I’m doing with my life!” At the very least, allow yourself to think about both the pros and cons of your situation!
*And frankly, it is a privilege. If you can trade-off stability, that means you have financial resources, either by background or by your own hard work. Either way, you still have something that few others can claim. Imagine you were a first-generation immigrant and college graduate, taking a break (in the constrains of modern society) is often unthinkable, because it will put you so behind your peers it will be extremely difficult to catch up. Thinking of it in these terms, that this state of being is a gift, also helps you to remember to not squander it =)
Originally published on the Medium.
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