A couple weeks ago I was staring at a pair of shoes in a store window, thinking about how appealing they are in the beginning when you pick them off the shelf, and how wonderful it is when they come in your size. But it also occurred to me that if you wear them out on the New York streets long enough, you get to see their flaws—when they’re not right for the occasion, or when they can no longer give you the arch support you really need.
I had gone out for a walk and stopped because a pair of shoes caught my eye in a window display that framed them well. With everything that was on my mind already, this display was a good metaphor for my sense of identity lately: it takes the right circumstances to make you pause and pick something that works well until something else comes along that fits better. We switch in and out of these things without questioning how that works for most of our lives.
I could be accused of having a midlife crisis—that is how someone else referred to it. But I avoid the term because “crisis” implies emergency, something that must be attended urgently and with a little force. It also implies that things were moving along smoothly prior to it and, all of a sudden, I reached an impasse with myself and now suddenly find myself in crisis.
But things haven't been “smooth” for a long time, mostly by design, and I decided that learning to appreciate uncertainty is the price you pay as a creative person or entrepreneur.
A few years ago I started to feel like something was not quite right. Here I was, in New York, working at an advertising job, in a career and life with no obligations (no children, no student loans or immodest debt), when I started wonder if I was somehow blowing it. It was a question that barely showed up on my radar at first, and I wondered why I was even thinking about this. Wasn't I exempt from this phase, given that I had never followed the conventional pattern that leads up to this kind of dilemma?
But maybe from being tossed around a little in my life I was conditioned to expect that something would come along and take everything away? A low-frequency anxiety began to reverberate around this line of self-inquiry. Where was I headed and was I screwing it up? Questions like these come after watching a pattern that reveals something that shouldn't be there, that isn't normal. As an adult it's easy to not notice how things remain fairly uniform from year to year unless you make them change.
But here I was, unsure of what value I offered to people in my life, or to my life in general.
When you start to ask if your presence has value within a lifestyle that seems to be doing fine on autopilot, things start to get interesting. By “value” I'm was not thinking about my career path or things related to it. I was not thinking about what I was doing. Instead, I became focused on how I was being, and those questions have deeper resonance.
I decided to address the anxiety by eliminating different possible causes. If I wanted to know what I needed to feel “correct ” about myself, would need to get a clear birds-eye view of my life and make some decisions about what kind of person I was trying to become 5, 10, or 30 years downrange. I had to be clear about what was acceptable and what needed to go. These are the steps.
Make a plan
A plan to outline the person you'd like to become. It is inevitable that by the time we make it to adulthood, we'll have brought with us some excess baggage—things we didn't even realize we'd been carrying from unreasonable friendships, faulty relationships, incongruous career decisions, and bad decision. It takes a little initiative to recognize that even if you're completely fine with how you present yourself publicly, that there are things that need change and that you can be improved. It takes effort because nothing really has to change (“if it ain't broke, why fix it?”) and you can continue exactly as you have. You can decide that nobody is the wiser, and you'll very likely get away with it.
But you'll know.
You might get better at layering your persona with every progressive year but you'll know, that is, until time smoothes things over so well that you forget the difference between what you are and the persona you created decades ago as a kind of coping mechanism. And then you might find that the road ahead of you is a lot shorter than the one behind you, and that changing—reverting—to your better, more authentic self is the one thing you desperately want, and harder than you expected.
Find your fellow celebrants
At every stage of our lives, we meet new groups people with whom we share common purpose. Often it's by default (family, neighbors), or for school, or for college, or for church, or to be co-workers, or fellow players on a sports team. Each group presents a variety of personalities roped together by a common sense of direction. It's easy to believe, as I did, that common purpose equals common perspective. It took me a while to realize that not everyone in a “group” celebrates what you do, understands you, or believes as you do. I know it's obvious for a lot of people, it wasn't for me. But figuring that out me realize that it was up to me to stay curious and seek out the few rare individuals who agree with what you're putting out, why you are, and how you're going about it. They are the few who will believe in you, encourage you to produce more of that thing you do. Conversely, this also requires you make space for them by letting go of the many who don't “get” you, the people with whom you have activities in common but nothing else, who are stuck in places you escaped from, or people who aren't capable of dialogue—not because of a language barrier, but a listening barrier.
“Don't do anything you don't want to do. ”
Henry Rollins is the author of that succinct piece of advice. It is something I picked up from him about 25 years ago and I've gotten good mileage from it. It is an open invitation to say “NO” exactly when it's time to say it. The trick is to understand—in an alternate universe—the consequence of saying “Yes” to something that is just not in your nature. Maybe you feel obligated not to hurt someone's feelings, or to take a deal that is fundamentally unfair, or a gig that moves you further away from the kind of person you're working toward becoming. An old mentor once put it well, “Don't focus on what they're giving you, think about what they take from you.”
These questions—and their corresponding unease—will come up at some point, no matter your profession, skin color, class or geographic location. It's what every person living in modernity has to contend with. It divides people into two broad groups: those who will feel that it is perfectly natural to be pulled in to resolve the questions, and those who will believe it's perfectly fine to ignore the questions by switching to something else instead—or kicking the can down the road. I'm not sure there's a correct group, or a correct way to deal with these things. But I do know that if we remain honest, curious and open, we always know which way north is, and how to get home. It becomes clear who we are, and with whom we can spend our best selves with.