When I finished graduate school 24 years ago, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do with my career and very specific goals – but I haven’t actually done anything that I’d initially planned.
If I’d wanted to, I could have gone right into the kind of job I was envisioning when my college years were ending, but I decided on an alternate path. I pursued work that would give me experiences and knowledge that education alone couldn’t, figuring that that way, when I got back on my career track, I’d bring something different to the table.
I took these detours without any anxiety because I kept reminding myself that I was getting ready for something else, and also because I was happy with that I was learning. Time went on and I settled into my career, and then a day came when I realized that I would never do what I had set out to do, that in fact, I had no real desire to go back to what I’d planned.
I didn’t feel like I’d failed, although such a dramatic change in direction did leave me with a vague doubt that I might have let myself down or missed the mark in some way. That’s not really surprising, though, considering how much I’d invested in that goal and how long it had been the guiding logic of my career.
But reflecting on it more made me see that I hadn’t erred with the course I’d taken. It was the initial goal that had been misguided. It really didn’t square with my temperament, the way I wanted to work, or my lifestyle goals. It’d taken up a better possibility without grasping that that’s what I was doing.
This realization came back to me recently when I met a man who had done things a bit differently. Like me, he had an initial plan for his career that he didn’t follow, but he was wracked with self-recrimination for his choices.
His choices were actually good ones, and he knew that he’d been successful and made a difference in people’s lives (this was an important value to him). He wasn’t so much regretting what he’d done as he was haunted by questions about what might have been, and if he hadn’t gotten it wrong. This was a big reason why he couldn’t be satisfied with much of his life.
One conversation left me wondering if he wasn’t actually like me, in that he might also have wanted something that didn’t really suit him. Were the impulses that guided him away from his goal more true to his heart than what he had believed would satisfy him? If so, wouldn’t he be freed by recognizing that this was the case? Hopefully, we can talk about this more when we meet again.
My goal was relatively easy to let go of. I had the benefit of a deeper, wiser part of me than that which was making the conscious decisions. In the end, this intuition proved to be more effective and realistic and it made it easy to eventually see my mistaken ideas for what they were without a sense of despair or regret.
It’s like the classic dichotomy between the head and the heart. Sometimes they are in sync, but at others they seem to be working at cross-purposes, and you have to wonder which is really the better guide. To me, the answer is that it is situational. Sometimes you’re better to think with your head but at others with your heart. I doubt that any of us would do well to think exclusively with either our heads or our hearts.
Rigidity is the real pitfall, and I largely avoided it. Had I not been more flexible, I might have forced myself to follow a pre-determined but wrong career path and ended up miserable (which really would have happened because I could see only later that I would have hated what I thought I wanted). It’s still an open question to me if my friend isn’t being rigid himself.