Friday, January 11, 2008

The Speech Not Given

This is a post I started before the holidays and finally finished.

Last Friday I got to dress up in my cap and gown (and fancy polyester hood this time!) and walk across the stage to accept my Master's degree. After all of the pomp and circumstance and speeches were done, the 2 + hours of reading the names of the graduates began so I had a lot of time to think.

It was one of my goals last year to speak at my graduation. However, as the deadline for speaker applications loomed this October, I let myself get wrapped up in creating midterms and lesson plans, grading essays and preparing to teach a new class that began at mid semester. Along with all of those excuses, maybe I let a little fear creep in too. As I let the deadline slip past I was disappointed that I hadn't pushed myself to submit something. I eventually made peace with myself about it, but if I had spoken, here is what I would have said:

Beginning a new chapter of your life is at the same time exhilarating and terrifying. We reflect on the choices we have made and the choices that will shape the rest of our lives. We ask ourselves again - What am I supposed to do with my life? Is this really what I'm supposed to do with my life? Am I on the right track? What if I know what I want to do but I'm not the best at it yet?

Questions like these can be the cause of many sleepless nights. Cues in society have taught us to believe that every person is born with a dream and singleness of purpose that is the key to our fulfillment. Think about the movies we watch - Indiana Jones is always searching for ancient relics, Bridget Jones wants to get her guy. But we don't think about the fact that movies need this single purpose to drive the plot and that the extraneous real life details get edited out. If we don't know, if we have our doubts or uncertainties or setbacks, we feel like we've got some kind of manufacturer's defect. Its hard to look at someone like Oprah Winfrey and picture her having to warm up to the idea of hosting a talk show because she was considering a career as a lumberjack or professional figure skater. But people who feel that they have a "calling" to do something in life may be the exceptions rather than the rule. The path to achieving your personal ideal of success and fulfillment is often paved with difficulties, mistakes and rarely has a linear or neatly marked path.

Earlier this year I went to a book group convention to hear one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Gilbert, speak. At the end of the panel discussion the moderator turned the mic over to the audience for questions. One attendee asked, "Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?" Though seemingly simple, I thought that this was an important and telling question. I believe this person was really asking for confirmation of a more important question about herself - "Am I supposed to know what I want to do? Am I supposed to have some calling or epiphany? What if I've missed it? What if I don't know?"

Elizabeth and author Sara Davidson answered that they had been creating worlds with their pen and paper from a young age but Po Bronson , author of five books including What Should I Do With My Life? (which I got 2 copies of for Christmas) and a regular contributor to prominent newspapers, magazines, television and radio gave a surprising and somewhat relieving answer. As a kid, Po was in his words, a "math guy." His high school teachers told him that his writing was messy and unintelligible it wasn't something that came easily to him. It wasn't until late in his college education that Po wrote a letter that was published in his college newspaper. With graduation looming, many seniors were terrified at the thought of having to know for sure what they'd be doing the next year after college. Many students were comforted by his essay titled "Being Po," which is what he quipped that he'd be doing in the next year.

There's Po in the middle at the Book Group Expo

Po was buoyed by his classmates' comments on the essay and felt a faint whisper of possibility that he was actually a good writer. It wasn't a big epiphany or booming voice from above bestowing his purpose on him like some of us expect. Just a whisper. A hint.

After that experience, Po went on with his life. He finished his course of study in economics and over several years spent crunching numbers and doing, in his words, "mind-numbing" jobs, he decided to trust that whisper and gradually honed his skills as a journalist and storyteller. He has since written five books translated into eight different languages, articles for the New York Times, Time, New York Magazine, NPR Morning Edition and has appeared on Oprah and many major morning shows. Although it wasn't a career he instinctively knew he was supposed pursue when he was 5 years old, he eventually learned to listen to the whispers and wasn't afraid to fail on the way to being good. Or maybe he was and just did it anyway. As it turned out for Po, those subtle whispers of possibility paid off and took him some place wonderful but totally unexpected.

So if you haven't had your whole life planned out since you ditched the Spiderman undies or training bra, learn to listen for the subtle clues in the world around you. Don't discount a calling just because its not obvious, loud and clear. Be open to the unexpected opportunities life has in store. As Norman Vaughan says, "Dream big and dare to fail," and listen to the whispers.

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