I have several friends grappling with “what comes next.” Most of them are women who have worked inside the home, caring for young children, for the past few years. One of them shared, vulnerably: “I’m getting into my 40s, and I’m worried. I feel like I still haven’t figured out my passion.”
I told her she was putting too much pressure on herself. I think we — especially the millennial generation and younger — have been raised to believe that our jobs must be fulfilling, defining, passion-fueled. There is a possibly apocryphal quote attributed to Pablo Picasso that invites uncomfortable introspection along these lines: “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
It is a fallacy that we have “one gift” to find in ourselves. The notion that I am reducible to one gesture is not only stress-inducing but patly untrue, in my experience. One narrow example from dozens I could cite: I am a huge admirer of my husband’s boss, a woman who once said, “My life began at 40.” This, from a woman who’d, prior to 40, enjoyed a successful career in high finance and earned an MBA from one of the most prestigious business schools in the country, among other accolades. In her 40s, sho co-founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which she has led to wildly impressive success — and it’s still on the upswing. A pretty damn impressive second (third?) act. And who knows where else her life will lead her? She is also a mother, an avid apiarist, and I’m certain active in multiple other intriguing extracurriculars. One gift, indeed. A woman contains multitudes.
The invocation that we have one calling in life, and so we’d better not miss it, places undue strain on those of us who are, in writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s useful formulation, “hummingbirds rather than jackhammers.” In an interview with Oprah, Gilbert explained that jackhammers are individuals consumed by a singular passion; “we don’t look up and we don’t veer, and we’re just focused on that until the end of time.” Hummingbirds, by contrast, “spend their lives doing it very differently. They move from tree to tree, from flower to flower, to field to field…Trying this, trying that. They create incredibly rich, complex lives for themselves and they also end up cross-pollinating.”
What I want to tell my friends, my Magpies, stricken with worry about whether they’ve found their calling yet, is that it is OK to be the hummingbird. As I have written elsewhere:
“It is OK to take the long road,
to earn the title “wool-gatherer,”
to be the handwritten cursive subscript under the 12-point Times New Roman font,
to move beneath, rather than with or against, the grain,
with meanderings so under-the-radar that they are dismissed as insignificant.
It is OK to feel that you have been searching for something you can’t quite put your arms around,
each phase a phantom hug.”
I think the key, though, to finding meaning in those meanderings, is to be serious about them. In this sense, the hummingbird feels like the wrong avatar. Its flitting, cutesy persona attenuates the discipline and earnestness we can and should apply to our pursuits. I am reminded here of an interview I read with actor Mads Mikkelsen that stirred me:
“My approach to what I do in my job — and it might even be the approach to my life — is that everything I do is the most important thing I do. Whether it’s a play or the next film. It is the most important thing. I know it’s not going to be the most important thing, and it might not be close to being the best, but I have to make it the most important thing. That means I will be ambitious with my job and not with my career. There’s a very big difference, because if I’m ambitious with my career, everything I do now is just stepping-stones leading to something — a goal I might never reach, and so everything will be disappointing. But if I make everything important, then eventually it will become a career. Big or small, we don’t know. But at least everything was important.”
I read these words and something clicked into focus. It gave shape, definition, to an ethos I have cultivated since high school. I have walked the squiggliest path (and I’m not done yet), but I am confident that if you spoke with anyone I have worked with along the way, “serious about work” would be among the descriptors. Be serious, be disciplined about your work, even when you aren’t sure where it is taking you, I have told myself. This, by the way, is a writerly mindset, a peculiarly satisfying mise en abime in which an artistic ethic has anticipated and echoed a professional one. Sometimes (often) I put pen to paper without any clear sense for an ending, and the narrative finds me. It is about showing up. It is about being the athlete at the start line. Whether the results are extrinsically valuable is not my concern. It is a process thing. Applying this approach to career decisions staves off the “everything feels so high-stakes” scaries, and serves as a recipe for being fiercely present wherever we find our feet.
So if you find yourself fretting over “what comes next,” or worrying about whether you’ve “found your gift,” know that you are capable of multiple acts, and in possession of many gifts. And if you aren’t sure whether what you’re doing now is the final stop, but you don’t know where to head next, channel Mads and make it the most important thing. (For now.)
+I feel I must qualify this post by noting that it is OK if we find our feet planted outside of the professional world. “Meaningful work” is not the summation of a life. Some of us have the privilege to choose to seek that out, and we may or may not be successful in that endeavor. But we can also lead fulfilling and happy and successful lives even if we consider a job to be something that pays the bills.
+In case you need to hear it: you are enough.
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+This whimsical sweater is in my cart…love!
+Have been hearing such good things about this stick pomade if you like to wear your hair slicked back in a bun. I actually have it in my cart for my son, whose cowlick is…aggressive.
+Speaking of novelty sweaters, also love this bold green fair isle!
+Ordering these cords! Love the silhouette and patch pockets, and you can’t beat the price. I have good luck with Gap pants. Very Veronica Beard.
+It’s been awhile since I mentioned this waffle bed blanket — I am still in a fiercely committed relationship with it, and I only love it more in the cooler weather. It is the perfect weight, ultra-soft, comes in tons of great colors, and adds some gorgeous texture to your bedding set-up.
+These rain boots are crazy chic.
+Love this scalloped rug — great price, too.
+Holy moly do I love this little Saloni ditty.
+I’ve been watching the brand Senreve for awhile now but never purchased anything from them — does anyone have experience with their bags? I noticed they are running 20% off sitewide. Love this Celine-esque bag and you know how much I love a belt bag.