“If you are not willing to risk the usual, you will have to settle for the ordinary” – Jim Rohn
I’m sitting here in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon with birds calling and insects chirping, thinking about what kind of life I want and what characteristics my perfect job would have; it finally clicks: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself.” This popular idiom has never resonated with me until now.
Before, I walked along a preset path: high school, college, LSATs, law school, corporate big law, and burn out. I allowed myself to be herded by others’ wishes, society’s opinions, and my own fears into a safe, somewhat stable, lucrative career. But I wasn’t happy. I felt trapped, like I had to water-down my personality to try to fit into this corporate mask. I realize now that the choices I made as a young 20-something, to take the LSATs “just in case,” to go to law school “because it’s a useful degree,” and to take the corporate law job “just for a few years” had slowly but surely made me into someone 31-year-old me couldn’t recognize and didn’t like. I had marched along the societal benchmarks as told, without ever considering what opportunity costs I was giving up or if the destination was even appealing to me. I didn’t think there was any other choice. I certainly did not think my life was my own to create and form and choose.
I realize now that such a passive approach towards one’s career and life often has unhappy consequences. It’s the “easy” way out, taking no responsibility for what you become because you’ve chosen the safe route. In truth, as a sheep, I never even thought I could “create”, blank slate, my own life – I thought I had to go to school, do well, take tests, go to the next step. Not once did I ever think of each of those individual choices as “creating a life”; in retrospect, they were the exact societal blueprint for a perfectly safe, corporate, unfulfilled life.
This year off, in Asia, Rio, and now the jungle, has taught me, above all else, that life is more a blank canvas than a series of preset paths. We have so much agency to choose to do extraordinary things and to live extraordinary lives, more than our parents or society could ever tell us about. But it is our responsibility to act, to choose, to discover new things, and to create our lives in a way that makes us happy and fulfilled. I see that now. If we don’t, what we risk is our lives as we would want them. And, as T.S. Elliot tells us, “only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
I think the most important lesson for me from this whole experience of quitting, taking a year off, and restarting is that not every opportunity (and path) presented should necessarily be taken. **Opportunities always look good at the outset. BUT, if they aren’t your right thing, even if well-paying and prestigious, taking these “opportunities” is ultimately taking a step away from your right thing. One of the easiest ways to wake up lost is to become someone you didn’t intend to be. And, that starts with the choices you make.** Whenever we invest time, energy, and money into something, we necessarily opt out of everything else we could have chosen instead. Moreover, we also therefore opt out of how those experiences would have shaped and changed us into different versions of ourselves. Young people today feel so much pressure — to succeed, to excel, to matter — and it’s tempting to subscribe to what others (parents, teachers, peers) tell us to do “in order to be happy/successful”. And when we don’t listen to our inner voice, the experiences that would genuinely make each of us individually happy cannot guide our decisions. Instead, if we follow the wrong opportunities, they lead us to places we never intended to go, and we become versions of ourselves we never chose to become. We end up killing ourselves to climb up someone else’s ladder of success, wondering when we even decided to start climbing in the first place.
I realize now that it’s much better to say “no” to these wrong choices parading as opportunities, and to instead mindfully choose what we want to do with our time and our lives. The opportunity cost of not following your own voice is not just your time and energy, but also a different (and more authentic) version of “you”. We risk who we are supposed to become by not listening to our own voices over those of society. We shouldn’t follow anyone else unless we’re ok becoming them. I eventually quit law cuz I never intended to partner. I hated the lifestyle, the stress, and the hours. I had never met a partner I would have wanted to become or marry. So really, I had no business being in corporate law. There was no life there for me that I would like. So then why did I climb that ladder for 5 years — 8, counting law school? When did I even start climbing? I have no idea still, but I am glad that I am finally off that one-way train to someone I didn’t want to become.
Taking a year off was my way of hitting “Restart.” I had to take a step back — from everything I knew — to buy myself more time, space, and perspective to think about what I want and don’t want in my future. It’s the first time I’ve actually thought about it in depth. Now, with each choice I make here, I am actively creating a new “me”. I often think out loud: “when I work and make money, I want to [X].” I want to maintain a daily yoga practice and to keep scuba diving. I want to walk along the beach each night with people I love to unwind. I want to have time to work out daily and eat healthy. I want to never stop adventuring to new places and to keep challenging myself. I want to present my best self to people I meet and friends in my life, not giving them a worn-out, after-work husk of myself. I want to live for each day, not each 7pm when work ends. I feel good about these new non-negotiable I am creating for myself, things I will keep in my life no matter how crazy things get once I re-enter the “real” world.
Here, in the middle of the jungle, I am making a vow to myself to not ever start climbing mindlessly again. I make that vow now with each mindful choice I make – to climb mountains, volunteer in the rainforest, to live a life of adventure. I am and will continue to choose my life, and therefore, who I become. If I don’t, I now know someone else will choose for me, and I cannot risk that for myself ever again.
**Quitter, by Jon Acuff