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Posts Tagged ‘“What should I do with my life?”’

One time, long long ago, in a kingdom far, far away, my mom said to me, “Shannon, I feel as though I haven’t given you enough advice.” To which I replied: “Shut the f*** up, mom.”

(Trust me; she’s given me plenty.)

And yet, get a group of women gathered together in the presence of a feminist icon like Gloria Steinem, and all we want is advice. But the thing about advice is: no matter who it’s coming from, no matter how sound and wise, it weighs on us, becomes a heavy, restrictive Should. Unless, of course, the advice is to ditch the shoulds altogether, as was Steinem’s, at a recent event at Yale:

During the question-and-answer session, Claire Gordon (’10) asked the members of the panel if they thought women should feel obligated to continue in the workforce.

“Dispense with the word ‘should,’” Steinem answered. “Don’t think about making women fit the world–think about making the world fit women.”

She said women should pursue the life choices they would most enjoy, regardless of social expectations.

I love this idea about making the world fit women–I love it on the macro level, obviously, but I love it in the individual sense as well. And I think maybe, just maybe, such a subtle sounding shift in perspective might in fact play out to be huge: rather than looking at ourselves as the X factor that, well, should do the bending required to fit within the conventions, the rules, the, you know, shoulds, imagine looking at our work, our relationships, the way we prioritize, the way we spend our time as the things that can be molded, tweaked, adjusted instead. Imagine if we took whatever unfair truths might exist, said To Hell With It, and did whatever we wanted–the way we wanted–anyway. Imagine, just for a second, that the only thing we should be doing is being who we are–and that the rest of the world should bend to suit us. All advice should be so freeing. And speaking of, that advice my mom wanted to give me? I shoulda listened.

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Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz is the guru of too many choices. His book “The Paradox of Choice” puts forth the argument that, the more choices there are, the more unhappy we’ll be with whichever one we choose. Check the video above (long, but worth watching–especially for his hilarious cartoons) to hear him talking about option excess in the salad dressing aisle, the cell phone store, and his inspiration for the book, something to which we can all relate: shopping for jeans. More specifically, how he found the experience of standing before a wall of options so overwhelming as to leave him longing for the days when jeans came in only one style, only one wash–and not an especially flattering one, at that. He talks about how having so many choices makes picking any one a million times harder than it should be (hello, analysis paralysis), and about how in the face of so many options, there’s no way NOT to come out of the store worrying that the perfect pair was actually one of the ones he’d left discarded on the dressing room floor, or one of the ones he never even got around to trying on. He calls that phenomenon “opportunity cost.” We call it those nagging daydreams about the road not traveled.

The thing is, he’s talking about buying jeans. And yeah, buying jeans is stressful (who wants to wind up with a black bar over her face as a Glamour “Don’t”? More to the point: these days, most of us can only afford one new pair of jeans, if we’re lucky–so if we pick wrong, we’re stuck with the “Don’t”)… but that’s buying jeans. Now extrapolate that stress, that overwhelm, that angst to the ultimate question: What Should I Do With My Life?

Is it any wonder that we’re all in such a state?

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The ultimate choice, right? Passion or paycheck. But are the two always mutually exclusive? Can one, eventually, enable the other?

Is sub-par sometimes a means to an end?

I came across this interesting post by a twentysomething web designer from Portland, Ore., who laments her life in a corporate cubicle, doing a job she kinda hates. Sound familiar? But she lets herself off the hook for doing something she doesn’t love…while she paves the way for something she does.

She writes:

There are things about my job that I do care about. I care about performing well enough that I maintain the respect of my coworkers. I certainly care about performing well enough to keep my job. I care about the fact that this is the entry level experience I need to progress in my field. Do I care about the work that I do? Um…

But I do care about some parts of my work. I love coding. But I want more. I want to do more design, be more involved in the creative process, have greater control over the product I turn out. And there are other things I’m interested in, too. I’m interested in marketing and branding and social media. I’m interested in making things, doing things that help people on a very personal level, that helps to build community (local, global, whatever), that does something to add meaning or value to someone’s life. My job doesn’t and will never provide that, and that’s not to say there’s something wrong with my job, but rather, that because my job doesn’t really do what I’m interested in, it’s probably not the best fit for me.

Knowing this, I think it’s okay for me to stop beating myself up over the fact that I’m not feeling fulfilled by my job or satisfied by the kind of work I’m doing. It’s okay not to care. That doesn’t mean I get a license to blow off my work or be a slacker. What it does mean is that I can stop investing so much in my work emotionally, that I can stop being upset because I’m not a “perfect” employee. I’m not meant to be perfect in this position. It’s not what I’m cut out to do, and I can’t make myself better suited for the work any more than I can make my job what I want it to be.

Intriguing perspective. Whether or not it makes dealing with life decisions any easier — no clue. But realizing that you can learn from not-quite-perfect may give us the patience to make peace the buffet of choices out there. As Po Bronson writes in What Should I Do With My Life?:

Finding what we believe in and what we can do about it is one of life’s great dramas… Don’t cling to a single scenario, allow yourself many paths to the same destination. Give it a lifetime to pay off. Things you work hardest for are the things you will most treasure.”

Another way of looking at it, in the words of somebody’s mother: “Sometimes you have to kiss a bunch of frogs.”

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