Over the past few weeks many of my college students (especially the ones coming closer to graduation) have been coming to me panicked that they don’t know what they want to do with their lives, and haven’t figured out a plan for what comes next. One is freaking out because her grades are not good enough for grad school in a field that she no longer feels passionate about. I have some asking how to make their capstone projects good enough that it will get them the perfect jobs as soon as they walk out the door. I have some melting down because their hearts and passions are leading them one way, but the realities of living in a world with loans, rent, bills, and family pressures say they should be doing something else.
“You can’t plan for everything,” I say. “You have to be open to the journey.”
They look at me like I’ve grown two heads.
It really isn’t possible to explain to these 20-somethings that life is very rarely a straight journey from point A to success (however you define it). It’s more like a crazy roller coaster that twists, turns, adds obstacles, opens new paths, and sometimes threatens to dump you out without any warning.
I know I was like them though, when I first faced the daunting reality that school was over and I was expected to become an adult. In some ways, I think, my continual pursuit of degrees was less of a reflection of my passion for learning, and more of the reality that I felt safe in school. Academia was my security blanket, where I knew I could succeed as long as I worked hard. It is possible that I stayed in that world–as a student, as an instructor, as faculty–because stepping outside of it and forging my own path was simply too terrifying or unpredictable.
That changed, though, when the academic world began to reveal it’s darker side. It is a vicious world in many ways: where politics rules over logic; where egos overwhelm fairness; where backstabbing destroys lives; and more and more these days, where money overpowers the love of learning and the needs of the students. I could go on and on about this, but this is not the time or place. I still make most of my living in this world–out of necessity more than anything else. But, as the complexities of life in academia threw more and more obstacles in my path, I discovered a new reality.
My mantra: life on my own terms.
The challenge then became how to live that mantra. I only began to embrace it a few years ago, when life again sent me spiraling in unexpected directions. I more fully embraced it the day I joined author Andra Watkins for a short while on her amazing and inspirational walk along the Natchez Trace. (For more about her journey–including a tiny glimpse of me–buy Not Without My Father). As I took clumsy and hesitant steps on those amazing days, supported by the friendship of two amazing women, I found myself on a new part of my journey–one that is still confusing, unexpected, uncontrollable, and sometimes downright terrifying but is becoming more fulfilling than anything I’ve done before.
I took the first true steps into learning, creating, and becoming the me I want to be.
In the short 14 months since that trip I have: lost 40+ pounds; published my debut novel; taught and created workshops for heArtful Theatre Company; presented workshops as an author; published articles in journals and on other websites; been invited to direct (which I will do in the fall); been invited to create a special program (working on it); started collaborating on a non-fiction book; mentored other inspirational women; and opened myself to other opportunities that may or may not come to fruition.
Do I know what comes next? No. Do I have all the answers? No. But, I’ve learned to value the journey and not worry so much about the route.
I have days, weeks, and even months when I struggle. I feel hopeless and defeated, and lose sight of what I hope to happen. Like my students, I begin to wonder if there is one path and one shot at success; and if, perhaps, I strayed to far and now am heading to my doom.
But then I remember, I am the only one who can define what success means to me.
Too bad that’s not a lesson that I can really teach–but it is one I hope my students someday learn.
What lessons of life do you wish you could help people learn? How do you live your life as your authentic self?