When I was 16 years old, with a newly minted driver’s license in hand, I drove 40 minutes in the wrong direction in my hometown of Jacksonville, FL, arriving in Georgia just after midnight.
During my first solo trip abroad, I took the wrong bus in Valencia, Spain, and claimed my title as the last remaining passenger at the end of the bus route, on the opposite side of town. My subpar Spanish speaking skills were useless.
For my 26th birthday, I embarked on a two-month trip to Southeast Asia with only the first week planned, leaving seven weeks of unstructured traveling. And now, I’m a month into my 30s and in the midst of an extended sabbatical from my 9-5 job.
One thing is clear: I’ve been getting lost my entire life. Sometimes accidentally and other times intentionally. I’ve come to view the process of “getting lost” as nothing more than exploration. The problem is that we are trained in Western society to view detours as setbacks rather than opportunities for growth. As a culture, we avoid mistakes and, for the most part, discourage individuals from taking time off to travel, invest in themselves, or reassess their professional decision-making.
We are frantically running… and half the time we don’t know where we are going. Or if it is someplace we even want to be.
You may have heard of William Deresiewicz’s controversial article from July called Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League, drawn from his book ‘Excellent Sheep.’ In the piece, he argues that America’s elite universities create young adults who are smart and driven but with no purpose, “heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” What he is really talking about here is soul, and his view that America’s leading education system – and everything that builds up to it – does not encourage building souls, but building excellence.
I did not attend an elite private university, but I have worked among those who Deresiewicz describes. The phenomenon of breeding excellent sheep is not confined to just the Ivy’s—you find it in any academic environment where excellence is pushed with reckless abandon. And you find it in the cities and institutions that employ these graduates; because, once they graduate, they flock largely to the same places.
Similar to the universities in Deresiewicz’s article, most companies do not feel it is their responsibility to teach employees how to “build a self” outside of traditional career development discussions and leadership trainings, with which I agree. It is fairly assumed that by the time we reach adulthood we already exhibit a certain degree of self-awareness and mastery over our emotional development. But, from what I’ve observed, I would disagree that most highly educated over-achievers are adept at managing their own growth, excluding the type of intellectual and performance-driven growth that can be measured in metrics and degrees. America’s power cities are full of brilliant adults who are not as brilliant when it comes to knowing themselves.
But, from what I’ve observed, I would disagree that most highly educated over-achievers are adept at managing their own growth, excluding the type of intellectual and performance-driven growth that can be measured in metrics and degrees. America’s power cities are full of brilliant adults who are not as brilliant when it comes to knowing themselves.
No one in particular is to blame for this. American society encourages us to excel, not to explore. Emotionally, we know exploration is useful, but, intellectually, we can’t justify the potential costs it poses to our careers. Although many of my peers are unhappy at work, taking some time away to explore personal projects or pursue a new industry is a non-starter; it would mean compromising their next promotion or putting professional successes on hold. Or, even worse, getting “off-track”— a bitter pill to swallow for those who have always excelled, or those who have substantial college debt.
The thing is, we learn something of value each time we get a little turned around in life. Lessons are everywhere—however tiny—if we remain open to them.
For example, accidentally crossing state lines as a teenager taught me to pay more attention to my surroundings. Being the last passenger on the bus in a city where I did not speak the language taught me the value of nonverbal communication. Two months in Southeast Asia taught me the beauty of being flexible. And now, four months into my sabbatical, I’m taught that, actually, clear plans can be more important than we think.
The size of the lesson is usually contingent on the size of the risk, but people fear taking big risks because they do not want to get lost, so they miss out on powerful lessons.
Of course, sometimes Life intervenes and throws us off-track outside of our will. Unfortunately, these lessons are rarely a comfortable experience, usually taking the form of a tragedy, such as the loss of a parent or a serious car accident. We learn that we do not have as much control as we think we do. We are forced to reassess priorities, to focus inward. And through these experiences we are let into one of Life’s secrets: we are versatile beings; we were designed to overcome. And once we have found our way back, we rarely get lost again. Our internal compass is fine-tuned and Life’s future curveballs become far more manageable.
The most well-adjusted adults I know are not the ones who have done everything right; they are the ones who have stories… who have allowed themselves to get a little bit lost in order to find their way back, equipped with a clearer sense of self and purpose. They have traveled, made mistakes, and experienced and conquered fear and failure, over and over again. They are leaders, and they have learned their leadership from Life, not from textbooks. This is the stuff that builds a soul and teaches us how to think critically. By being tested, we learn what drives us, and we learn to place as much priority on our emotional well-being as we do our careers. So many times, I’ve observed over-stressed colleagues who were so focused on achieving that they failed to see they were on the edge of a breakdown.
Growth can be scary because it often involves uncertainty. One way to make uncertainty less intimidating is by reframing how we view risk. Venturing away from our established path is often considered risky. But risk is subjective. Isn’t it risky to run full-speed without knowing where you are going? Or to neglect the type of self-discovery that leads to truly knowing yourself?
The onset of the New Year is a time for reflection and encouragement. I hope that 2015 supplies all of us with the clarity to know which opportunities bring us closer to our goals and the strength to pursue them. Below are some tips for success:
— Remember that growth is lateral as well as vertical. Think less about climbing upward and more about growing outward. Make yourself more well-rounded by taking a sabbatical, traveling, or simply exploring a new hobby or venture.
— Don’t forget that mistakes are a necessary component to success. As we get older, we judge ourselves even harder when we make mistakes. But mistakes are a good thing, as long as you learn from them. They remind us that we are doing something, and growing in the process.
— Most importantly, have enough faith in yourself to know that if and when you do go astray, you’ll find your way back. And you will be more balanced, more interesting, and more capable of accomplishing your goals in the future.
Best of luck to everyone in the New Year.