As I begin writing this, I am on a majestic island off the coast of Cambodia. When I finish this piece, the beauty of Thailand surrounds me. Paradise, right? Well, yes and no. Bear with me a moment, I’ll get to that.
Would you like to spend a few weeks writing on a deserted island too? You want to tell your job/destructive relationship/fear of failure to piss off and build a legacy that will serve as a testament to your character?
Ok. Let’s suppose you’ve decided to take the plunge and you’ve methodically actioned your exit from your hellish situation. Let's suppose that you have a clear, articulated roadmap detailing where you long to head over the next few years.
And then...BOOM! You’ve done it. After months of carefully cultivated planning, you sanitize that cubicle and exit the building forever. The journey’s begun! It’s time to build an empire.
Now, what you’ve probably heard ad infinitum is that it takes at least a year or two to get your business/blog/nonprofit together, and that’s true.
What you don’t hear about is that the period after a dramatic life change is itself an idiosyncratic clusterfuck of an adjustment. And although it’s beautiful, it’s also maddening and forlorn and devastating. In fact, it often sucks!
I know, I know, I’m not supposed to tell you that. I’m supposed to tell you that the world is your oyster and you can follow your dreams to the ends of the earth and save the poor and create a billion dollar business and all you have to do is work your ass off and cultivate a theoretically correct mindset. Right?
Not so fast. It doesn’t work like that. It’s more like this:
You quit. Yay! You did it! Now you can see the world and roll with all the contrarian cats and pursue life on your own terms. Of course you don’t really know what pursuing life on your own terms really means, it’s just a phrase you've heard 10 billion times by all the self-help gurus. And hey, if you've heard it 10 billion times, there must be some truth to it, right?
Well, who knows, but for now you're gonna do whatever you damn well please. It's time to rock this!
You then spend your initial months of freedom doing just that: you have some badass “I quit my job” parties, you start to execute on the first piece of your bucket list agenda, and you connect with some cool peeps. Maybe you even read some of those novels you’ve been putting off for the past five years because every night when you get home from work all you’ve wanted to do is binge on Netflix or down a six pack or perhaps if you’re more disciplined you’ve gone to the gym or made smoothies, thereby participating in what you might call benevolent procrastination.
Best of all, you start to connect with some of those other accomplished, unconventional cats. And why the hell not? You’re a cool kid now!
After a few months, you might find yourself writing on a beach in Thailand, or teaching a workshop on the intricacies of meditation (because mindfulness is so IN these days), or, if you’ve started to lose your marbles a bit, you find yourself puking your brains out at a club in Bali. And then it hits you: ummm...what the fuck am I actually doing? Is this really going to work? What if I run out of money and I have to go live with mom and work at 7/11 and all my friends stop rooting for me and secretly think I’m a pathetic loser and no one will want to have sex with me anymore and...dammit! Is this right?
Wait...the corporate drone thing wasn’t right, so this MUST be right, right? But what if it’s NOT right? Is there a half wrong/half right option? Can I buy it for $9.99?
So you read some of that self-help drivel again, even though 98% of it is total bullshit—and you know it’s bullshit, but no matter. It’s escape time! As everyone knows but seems to want to ignore, motivational material is a drug. Waaaay more addictive than heroin. You know it’s probably not the best idea, but you devour it. It’s time for a fix!
You read about how failure is all sexy these days, and you’re provided a temporary reprieve when that latest client bails on you because he “doesn’t have the money” even though you know (and he knows that you know) that he's a millionaire. Then another guru tells you to “surrender,” while someone else tells you that if you hustle 18 hours a day—even though doing so will suffocate you—that the heavens will open and rainbows and chocolate bunnies will begin their inexorable descent upon you and...as a bonus...Minnie Mouse will show up! Minnie Mouse is hot!
Then you get confused. You speak to someone who actually seems to have some wisdom, and they basically tell you that if you’re going to follow the road less traveled, you’re going to have to sort most of this out on your own.
As it turns out...Whitman was right: You must travel it for yourself. Dammit Whitman! Why do you have to bequeath such arcane, abstract, existentially multifaceted yet oh so simple knowledge to us...even though you must know that so many of us won’t even bother to take it heart? I mean, did YOU take it to heart? I want to know...now!
After all, we’re in the age of the behemoth known as instant gratification. We don’t have the patience to travel it for ourselves! We want the arbitrary to feel certain and the certain to feel splendid and the splendid to launch our asses into the stratosphere of success and achievement and renown!
I mean, where’s one of those easily digestible, saccharine-platitude-simplistic-prescription fests from Positively Positive when you need one?
So you go back to the drawing board. In a moment of objectivity, it dawns on you that you are, in fact, still alive, and that your circumstances are radically different than they were even six months ago. You’ve met some awesome people. Maybe you’ve visited a few countries and done some work you're truly proud of. Hell yeah!
Then you find that you’ve not adequately prepared yourself for what the entrepreneurial-writer-freelancer world is most famous for. And no, it’s not money or success or beach parties or even failure or rejection or difficulty.
It occurs to you after the fact that there really wasn’t any way you could possibly have prepared for this in the first place, but, alas, this is where you are now. So you plead with God or the ill-defined “Universe” or your coach or that professor of analytic philosophy you had in college who was brilliant but didn’t seem to have a philosophy of life at all but no matter because he was oozing with presence and dexterity and thus you thought he was genius to tell you what to do to destroy this loneliness.
You know you can't be given an instruction manual on this, but you're afraid. After all, your relationships have changed. Your sense of your place in the world has changed. In fact, you only begin to come to terms with your loneliness when you realize that you have changed.
In that acknowledgment, you find that there are indeed some treasures of insight still lurking inside of you. You realize that you’re in a never-ending battle against the Self. The self that is your default mode of existence—what with all its insecurities and circular rants and horrific worst-case scenarios circumventing your ability to get anything done. This is not acceptable! Your mind is constantly on fire...ruthless and scattershot and vociferous in its constant doubting of all that you’ve ever done and certainly of what you are attempting to forge into existence now.
So you feel like a petulant, whiny bastard subsumed by shame because you’re doing all this awesome shit...and it IS awesome shit...but the trials that come your way seem to derail all the progress you’ve made, until you realize that progress isn’t linear. It’s an asymmetrical paradox: in your weakness, your deprecating doubts, your attempt to reconcile your fidelity to your craft with the inhibitive nature of the human preoccupation with the Self, you find what can only tangentially be described as answers.
Because the greatest of life’s questions don’t lend themselves to answers so much as to tantalizing clues. Clues that lead to growth, that lead to humility, that lead to self-reliance, that lead—over the course of many, many years, to a life well lived.
Then you think: I’m actually doing what I want! But it might occur to you that doing what you want isn’t exactly congruent with what you thought you wanted, and you hum along trying to ascertain answers to the existential questions of life while you ride a wave of nostalgia for what once was even though you know that what once was is no more and can never be again and you wouldn’t want it to be again anyway.
And your proclivities are becoming oh so out of whack and you have lost whatever sense of being you had because you realize you’ve changed and there’s no going back but, like, you don’t want to go back because you know that adaptation is an imperative and you can’t believe how far you’ve come and yet the inner longing—the inner loneliness—persists despite your best efforts to fend it off.
Yet then you begin to find that the greatest victories and experiences are those most unexpected—without even a twinge of glamour—and not at all germane with where you thought you were headed.
You find that a conversation with a drunk atheist is just as enlightening as a discourse with a Buddhist monk.
Or a complete stranger cares for you in a way you’ve never seen and something awakens within you.
Or you have a conversation with a wounded pilgrim and just as you're about to leave, she says, "I haven't felt this understood in years."
Or, as happened with me, you meet one of the most beautiful, loving women you’ve ever met the same week you get invited to live in a monastery for a year. Ummm...contradiction in terms, anyone? Yet you say fuck it, this human being in front of me is a blessing beyond what I could possibly have imagined and thus I’m going to suspend my public writing and business for a few months because I’m in a beautiful, barren wilderness and I’ve met an angel of a woman who lifts me to the heavens. I have no idea why I’ve met her now—and I certainly don’t feel I deserve it—but I am NOT letting this go.
Is this what I planned to do? No. Is this what I was "supposed" to do? No. Did it take me away from my audience for a time? Yes. Did it possibly preclude me from grasping some extraordinary opportunities? Yes.
Yet was it one of the most moving experiences of my life? Oh yeah.
Try to place a value on THAT.
The thing is, when you have an empty job, you likely have a set of routines, patterns, that you follow consciously or not. You may hate much of your life, as I did. Money doesn’t make you much happier, if at all. The beast of routine reminds you of the Myth of Sisyphus—expect in this case, it’s not a myth, it’s your life.
So, when you actually leave that job you realize you've just come out of an environment where everyone always told you what to do, and although you were always encouraged to “take initiative,” what that often really meant was “please procure the following list of nonsensical bullshit that no one wants to do but that which needs to be done thus if you do it you will be rewarded...but wait...don’t even think about taking care of this list with any sense of ingenuity. We have an employee handbook, remember? No one’s ever bothered to read it, but whatever!”
So you realize it is no longer optional to think for yourself, it is now a requirement. Of course, everything thinks that they think for themselves, but few do; their subconscious, selfish insatiability dictating their every move and propulsion. Then in a moment of brutal self-honesty you realize that you don’t particularly think all that well for yourself either, and you’ve got work to do. Only this time there’s no preparatory stage, you’re in the thick of it and there’s no escape.
It’s time to train the mind. And this isn't some on the job training, it’s on the life training.
So you find yourself tempted to go back to the not-controlled-substance-but-should-be-controlled-substance known as motivational porn (whoops, I meant “material.”) You ignore the part of you that is completely aware there really isn’t any training for the path you’re on, but you seek it out anyway in your subconscious quest to pay homage to your fear.
You think this sort of training exists? No, it doesn’t. This doesn’t mean you can’t find help, but you must learn to live with the fact that only you can enact your life. This becomes alarmingly clear once you do digest some of The Drug again and you find that those who declare they know the answers are almost universally clouded by a facade of nonsense so thick you couldn’t fit it into U-Haul truck.
Instead, you learn to seek out those who actually listen to you, who are on a journey with some semblance of similarity to yours, who offer you very little by way of advice, and far more by way of love. These folks are rarely known or vainglorious; they don’t proclaim their wisdom and resist the temptation to seek out fame and fortune.
These people embrace the hidden joys of subtlety, and don’t pay attention to the titans of the echo chamber. They are oh so rare, and there’s a rather crude irony to the fact that they seem to be even rarer in the personal development space than in what you might call the conventional world.
I know, I know, we live in an age of labels. And by virtue of this age it would only be appropriate to label me as a member of the personal development space. After all, I aid others in navigating their adversity, yes? Thus it might be easy to assume that I assume I’m one of those oh so rare paragons of humility.
Unfortunately, I’m really not. And if you suppose that I’m feigning meekness to make my story more accessible to you, all I can say is that I’m just another dude on an adventure, seeking to pierce holes in the clouds that wreak havoc upon our lives.
The path less traveled is so uncertain it will desecrate you if you let it. This is, above all, what I’ve learned: the ability to nurture the uncertainty that resides within. It isn’t going to go away, so I embrace it and keep going. After all, uncertainty is the primary catalyst by which our journeys almost never go according to plan. This, I see now, is not a burden. It’s an opportunity.
I’m now nearly two years post-corporate world, and I surmise I’ve learned less than 1% of what I need to know. I know I’m not supposed to tell you that either; I’m supposed to dazzle you with tales of my travels and brag about how I've trained at a famous gym and built a loyal audience and connected with amazing people and worked with high-profile clients and been read by millions and on and on.
All I can say is fuck that. Accomplishments are nice, but stabbing your love into the hearts of others is much more rewarding.
Life is messy, fractured, linear and fluid, with apertures of grace littered along the way. You merely have to train yourself to begin to see them. This, I now believe, takes a lifetime. But it’s eminently possible.
There’s darkness in every joy, futility in every attempt. Though if you choose to make decisions—to constantly embrace where you actually are, you enhance your perspective not only of yourself—or even especially of yourself. You enhance your perspective of the world, and all those who inhabit it.
After all, my journey began in the ashes of adversity, and adversity has travelled with me ever since. Just a few years before I began this journey, I literally thought I might lose my mind (at best) or die (seriously). It's not fun to have a doctor say to you—at 30 years old—"let's run some tests. You might have had a stroke."
While I thankfully had not had a stroke, my choice to honor my calling has not been without its wounds. I've grieved on the road. I've had seizures on the road. I've felt completely isolated in some of the most beautiful places on earth.
The haunting pains of life are ever present, including when—indeed, perhaps especially when—you're doing what you feel called to do.
Every time I sit down and write, I know I have the opportunity to gift myself to you, in my own broken, hopeful way. It doesn't always go according to plan. In fact, it rarely goes according to plan. But this is what I must do. It's what I can't not do. And I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world, because no matter how much I'm tested, I won't give up that final inch. I will not allow my gifts to be destroyed by the horrors of apathy or fear or adversity. Even when I desperately want to give up, I won't. Not because I'm special, but because I simply can't.
I need you to do the same, in whatever form that takes. The best place to start is to ask yourself, no matter the terrors you've endured:
How can I best serve others?
Extensive research now clearly demonstrates that we're not very good at predicting what will make us happy. I absolutely believe this to be true. A much more effective question is this: what are my values and how can I build a life such that I'm living in congruence with them?
I've found that the only times I've even come close to accurately predicting what would make me happy were when I focused on service to others before my own needs. This isn't easy to do and must be practiced, but it's the only reason I was able to survive my terrible losses and build a rewarding life in the process. It's also the only reason why I'm fortunate enough to be sharing these words with you right now.
If I were to offer one piece of direct advice, it would be this: if you've been broken, shattered, wounded, but your heart is desperately telling you to take the plunge, by all means do it, and do it now. Life is so fragile it hurts. You don't have the time you think you have. Act in your brokenness. As AJ Leon has said,
This Is Not Your Practice Life.
You might not want to quit your job, but perhaps you need to get out of that abusive relationship and confront the fact that you'll feel alone. Or maybe you need to finally honor the nagging voice that's been telling you to start that nonprofit the past 10 years. Or maybe you need to go to that person who needs you and be there with them, no matter how uncomfortable you feel.
Just remember that you're never going to feel completely ready. You become ready in your ability to admit that you’re not ready at all. Nor will you feel as if you've found perfect clarity, as clarity is found and lost all the time. It expands and contracts and evolves and dissipates and titillates and slowly—ever so slowly—opens up a place in your heart.
Ultimately, you find that life is one great paradox of involuntary thought patterns, followed by voluntary actions. You don’t even attempt to fully reconcile these; the beauty is in finding where the voluntary actions take you despite the fact that the involuntary thought patterns will always seek to control you. This is why perfectionism is such a curse: in attempting to subdue the subconscious resistance that plagues you, you set yourself up to do anything but something.
Something, I’ve found, is one amazing ride.