Stop Being the Person You Think You Are

How's your life going? Do dark nights of the soul outweigh the good days? Have you spent more time than you care to acknowledge wishing for something — anything — other than what you have?

Get over it.

It's not that simple, obviously. But in order to move in the direction you desire, you need to stop being stuck in the place where you are right now. Specifically, you need to stop being the person you think you are.

That may be the person you were told to be, or the person you were told you should be but could never quite achieve. We fixate on being what our parents want, what our partners want, what society wants. Never mind whether it's what we want.

A particularly disturbing example is each year's crop of new grads. I'm betting a whole bunch of them took out tens of thousands in student loans because they were told — directly or indirectly — that college is What One Does.

As soon as they hit high school the adults in their lives — parents, teachers, guidance counselors — told them to view all choices (classes, clubs, volunteer work) in terms of how those decisions would affect their college portfolios.

They didn't go to college because they knew what they wanted to study, or because they had specific plans on the kinds of work they wanted to do. They went because they were expected to go.

Understand: I'm not anti-college. I'm anti-blind-behavior.

Afraid to speak up

How many of those students would have been better served by a “gap year,” or a stint in trade school or the military? Or a year of full-time work with an eye toward banking every dime for that eventual college or trade school, or a shot at entrepreneurship?

How many new moms secretly want to go back to work but are afraid to say so? There's a lot of pressure to stay home, especially if you're considered to be someone who doesn't “have” to work. Conversely, how many working women wish they could be home but worry about giving up their positions even for a little while, lest they derail the careers they love (and potentially jeopardize their retirements)?

How many people realize they're in the wrong careers but are too scared to change? A high-school classmate who was great at math (but who loved writing more) became an engineer because her father and teachers thought she should.

After a few years she quit and went back to study journalism. Great: Two sets of student loans! If she'd been encouraged to have a say in her own education, she might have opted for j-school at the beginning.

Yes, I know that's a dying industry. But it wasn't always. She could have had a great couple of decades (just as I did) and then reinvented herself (ditto).

What's expected of us

Having spent more years than I'd like to admit on autopilot, I'm frustrated when I see people stuck in what they think is expected of them. Or, worse, stuck in what they think are their only options. For far too long I felt stymied by what I felt I had to do vs. what I wanted to do.

A lot of what I thought I had to do was for other people. It's what I call the Curse of the Mom. We spend so much time taking care of everyone else's needs that we think we're not allowed to have any of our own.

There's probably a corresponding Curse of the Dad, or more specifically the Curse of the Man. You guys face conflicting messages, too: Be strong, but be sensitive. Be there for your kids, but earn a lot of money in case your wife wants to stay home. (And if you want to stay home, prepare damned well for that particular uphill battle.) While I still believe that the world is a male-dominated playground, plenty of guys would love to jump off the “real man” merry-go-round.

How to get started?

How can any of us stop circling on someone else's idea of what we should be? Preparing for change will look different to everyone, but could include one or more of the following:

  • Career counseling
  • Life coach
  • Vision mapping
  • Continuing education
  • Hiring a Certified Financial Planner (to see if what you want is even remotely possible)

It sounds a bit glib to say, “If your life isn't working, change it.” I know from personal experience that it's not that simple, and that it may take several tries — and several years — to see much progress.

But to paraphrase J.D., nobody cares about your life more than you do. In fact, some of the people in your life have a vested interest in your not changing:

  • The supervisor who's relied on (and maybe even exploited) you will not be thrilled if you ask for a different career path within the company.
  • The spouse who's accustomed to you being at home to take care of everything might drag his or her heels when you suggest a return to the workplace.
  • The parents who pushed you to go to college might react fairly viscerally if you bring up the possibility of HVAC training.

It's tough to go against all that conditioning. Ultimately, you have to decide how much of your life will be defined by other people's expectations.

Change is growth

Note: I am not suggesting drastic, self-centered measures. Other people may have skin in the game, especially if your actions directly affect them. But saying, “This isn't what I want, and I would like your help in exploring possibilities” is not the same as announcing, “Guess what, honey, I quit my job and bought a boat so we can sail around the world and home-school the kids!”

You might very well decide to postpone major changes. For example, if one more year at home would mean all your kids are in full-time school you might stick it out another 12 months. If another two years in a dull job would set you up financially, you might decide to put your head down and soldier on.

But while you fulfill these obligations you can also take steps to realize your eventual dreams. Take classes. Apply for small-business loans. Price equipment. Network within your chosen profession. Research the best ways to set your plans in motion.

Change is hard. Change can hurt. But change is growth, and change is necessary.

Prepare as best as you can for the inevitable resistance. But keep this thought in the forefront: Other people's ideas of who you are have kept you where you don't want to be. Only you can decide how much of your life will be given up to someone else's expectations.

More about...Career, Planning, Side Hustles

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