Anyway — in a recent episode, this exchange with a female listener/caller caught my ear (and I do think it’s relevant to men as well).
“I felt like I somehow managed to fall into every trap that’s set for women.” (Anna Sale: And what do you mean by traps?) “I did everything that I think was expected. I gave away my name, we got married, we had two kids, we lived in the right places and did all the right things. To a certain extent, we have been very successful, I don’t want to discount that. When you make all of those very safe choices, you are rewarded for that.”
The caller then goes on to describe a major change in her life that took her away from safe choices. But one specific thing she said in the interview caught my ear:
I think this one of life’s hardest lessons to learn. Unless you’re one of those people who’s born with the ability to a. tune out the noise of expectation and b. not give a shit what anybody else thinks — it takes years, if not decades, to realize you don’t have to follow the narrative that everyone else is following. And that’s what makes “going a different way” so very difficult for most of us.
The podcast dovetailed with conversations I had last week with two people, both longtime friends, who are both in the midst of changing their narratives, or at least wanting to get on the road to doing so. One recently gave several weeks’ notice at work, will leave his job without having another lined up and has no real idea what’s going to happen next. (So he’s a friend, kindred spirit, and copycat!) He seems happy and satisfied with the decision, and I was thrilled to hear he’d made the leap. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for him. I warned him, in fact, that an emotional roller coaster is in the offing, if his experience is anything like mine and all the people I interviewed for the book. Maybe his identity isn’t as wrapped up in his work as mine was when I quit, but it’s still going to be difficult for him as he realizes that going career-plan-less messes with your head. Hell, it’s still messing with mine and I’m two and a half years into the process. And I’m sure he’ll get the funny looks from people when he says he’s quitting without a backup plan — or at least with a minimal one. Going a different way is anathema to most people who insist on having everything mapped out, and they just don’t understand how you’re possibly going to make it work.
My other friend is miserable in her job, burned out, and longing for a life that will let her spend at least a few hours a day not thinking about work. But she feels enormous pressure to stay in it. She has kids and other family obligations, she worries (of course!) about money and all the attendant issues that go along with leaving a job or career. But beyond that, she feels a pressure to stay on a career track and keep working up the ladder, even though she’s high up on it already. “Sometimes I just want to go teach pilates,” she said. But what would people think of THAT?! The right answer, we all know, is “Who cares what they’d think?” But that’s a very difficult place to get to. She also worried about leaving her employer in the lurch, even if she gave significant notice. My response was that there are times in our lives, and this is one for her, where you have to do what’s right for you, and for your family. I understand loyalty — though I think it’s a rare commodity from the employer side these days, so why give more than what you get? — but sometimes you have to be selfish, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Our lives are far too short NOT to be selfish on important and basic things like, oh, happiness, satisfaction, and quality of life with friends and family. I encouraged her to start thinking about what the next stage might look like, whether it’s as a pilates instructor, or going part-time at her current job, or some hybrid career like so many of us are doing these days. I think she’ll feel better just even allowing herself to think about it, to imagine what else might be available to her in this life that is SO SO SHORT. She can find a new narrative, I know she can.
And that’s something we should encourage in each other. Always. Doing so requires a healthy dose of compassion and empathy for the idea that maybe there is a different way to define career success, maybe there is a new way to think about what that balance is really supposed to be between work and life, maybe we can finally say there is no one right way to crack an egg. It also involves no small amount of self-compassion, allowing yourself to believe that not only are you worthy of a new narrative and a new path, but that you can succeed on it.
It’s so odd that I find myself speaking/writing in these terms… stuff about paths and narratives and happiness. It doesn’t come naturally to me as a formerly cynical-to-the-hilt journalist. I tend to push against anything with the mere whiff of self-help. But after what’s happened in my life since my own leap, it’s clear to me that these things matter, and that they’re worth talking about. They may not be as taboo as death, sex and money, but they’re not easy.