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“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality.”

– Florida Scott Maxwell

Many moons ago, I cried in my undergraduate mentor professor’s office at Montana State University after she asked me curiously, facetiously, yet seriously, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” That question plagued me from grade school through college, and even after graduate school. I had so many loves and strengths that didn’t seem to fit into conventional 9-5 options at the time. My Meyers-Briggs assessment didn’t help much either. Being a student in religious studies, I curiously, facetiously, yet seriously, responded to her question a bit like Job: “What does God want me to do?”

Whether divine intervention descended on me or not, I really wanted someone to tell me what I was good at and where my place was at the intersection of work, purpose, and meaning.

I wanted that more than anything. If I had known there was a place for me to be me and be paid for it, I wouldn’t have to stick my dreams in a drawer and get a job that could pay for them on the side. The tension between what I really wanted to do, which felt like creativity and freedom, and the assumed pressure of what I felt I needed to do to pay bills and be a “responsible adult,” could make me feel like my heart was in a vice.  

My midwest work ethic didn’t seem the help. I could do a lot of things well and knew how to get shit done, and often took on jobs that weren’t leveraging the best of me. The passions that I wanted to pour my life into felt like the positions that only the luckiest among us get to have. National Geographic photographer. Adventure writer. Deep Ecologist. Horse whisperer. If I entertained those daydreams for too long, a voice in my head (which sounded a lot like my father, and perhaps the lineage of folks that came before me) said: “Get a real job.” Yet, the idea of a “real job” crushed my soul to tears. The Wisconsin-raised part of me felt like that was the only option for fiscal sustainability, but when I tried to fit into one of those real job gigs, even though I could do the job better than most folks in the running, a big part of me was dying.

Like many, my career path was a spaghetti line of opportunities and choices. Out of graduate school, I had to find a job with just enough steady income, but more flexibility than the 9-5’ers to soothe my rebel-heart, so I became a freelance consultant. There, I learned to live life without the benefits granted by a traditional workplace, not that I’d ever experienced them prior to that. Being A-OK with that level of fluctuating insecurity primed me for working at a startup where I learned that the benefits weren’t necessarily all they were cracked up to be. They certainly didn’t outweigh the feeling that my soul was going through a paper shredder on a daily basis.

For some of us, we follow somewhat straighter lines when it comes to work. Our studies match the field we end up in, and we follow jobs in that area. And then at midlife, we find ourselves looking around wondering, “What happened? How did I get here?”

Recently, a client came to me in the midst of sensing transitions in her life. ”I’m realizing that I followed this path from college to working in my field, and the job doesn’t really care about me,” she said. “I want to venture out on something new, and want the confidence to do it my way because I don’t think the prescriptive way works.”

if you have to fold
to fit in
it ain’t right.

– Yrsa-Daley-Ward

At 40–we begin to unpack ourselves from the boxes we’ve folded ourselves into, especially as it relates to who we are and our work. Many of us arrive here as fine pieces of origami. The existential questions that arise at this time in life are at the intersection of life and work and meaning and are close to the bone of purpose. They echo and reverberate around “Who am I?,” “Where am I?,” What have I given up?,” and “What do I really want?”

We ask ourselves many things at this point, among them: “How can I be me?” and “How can I be successful?” (as if we have to choose just one). We struggle with the burdens implicit in the questions we ask around being a good provider, being a good partner, providing stability, and having a career on top of everything else that we do. (Can you hear the external reference point of “who” determines if we’re measuring up in these questions, as if there’s an external standard we’re being held to, and the locus of the answers lies outside of us?) When did we learn that the only way to be in the world was to fit and form ourselves into a pre-cut notion of who we need to be?

Somewhere along the way, in the map of our body and psyche, we forget that we have the right to be here as we are and to be met by the world as we are. This gets buried by subverted notions of love and belonging that are tied to a world in which we are loved conditionally. No wonder we long for a strengths finder test to tell us what we are.

Perhaps the better set of questioning is what Jerry poses to Adeesh Argawal, founder of Design Creators, in our podcast conversation this week: “What am I made of? What are the aspects of me? And how do those aspects come together in ways that I am proud of and ways that hold me back?”

Those are the questions that honor our wholeness–who we are in totality in our very own life, not merely the results of a series of multiple choice questions and algorithms, for we are more complete, complex, and complicated than any assessment.

Thus begins our unfolding. Eventually, we may arrive as Florida Scott Maxwell notes above, “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality.” Then, we can allow ourselves to design our life according to our own creative agency.

Dr. Mary Catherine Bateson says, “I like to think of men and women as artists of their own lives, working with what comes to hand through accident or talent, to compose and recompose a pattern in time that expresses who they are and what they believe in, making meaning even as they are studying and working and raising children, creating and recreating themselves.”

How do you set out into life with all of who you are – and trust that? Who are you without the tensions and stressors and anxiety you carry? Who are you outside of the roles you play in life? What does your lineage and family history tell you about what you are experiencing now? What ties to these invisible things may be holding you back? What is the story you hold of the world that makes you file parts of yourself down so you fit more neatly? What would you lose if you lost the box you’ve fit and formed yourself into? What would happen if you became yourself in an unpackaged, unprocessed form? And, what would it be when that feels safe, unthreatening?

As we set out to create our lives, the best thing we can bring with us is all that we’re made of– this is part and parcel your resiliency. As Jerry notes to Adeesh in their conversation, “I don’t know that anybody knows the choices you should make. But I would call forth what is already evident in your life, which is your strength, your curiosity, your laughter, your smile, your self-awareness, your vulnerability, your heart, courage. I know that if you make choices from that place, regardless of how they turn out, you’re going to feel all right.”


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