Monday, August 02, 2010

Soulful ...

For a good part of my life, I have felt like a failure.

Not an abject failure, but a failure to varying degrees.

Now, some may think "failure" is an absolute, like "perfect" or "unique," but failure can fit into a compartment or it can take up the whole train.

I have never felt like the whole train.

Although, lately, I've gotten close. (I've also realized recently that there really is no such thing as failure. But it took me a long time to grasp that.)

The thing of it is, I'm smart. I'm not saying that to boast. I'm saying that because as a smart person, I have beat myself up for a long time over my inability to figure out what I should be doing with my life.

There must be some missing piece, I figured, the lone switch that would complete the circuit in my brain, and ta-da!, I'd know. Finally, after years of looking outward and in, I'd know.

But no.

I've taken every test you can think of, some more than once. I've bought a slew of books, though I haven't read all of them all the way through. I've spoken with experts.

I can tell you my Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, my Strong Interest Inventory code, the results of my aptitude testing with the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation.

I can tick off a litany of titles from my bookshelf, an array of tomes from Barbara Sher to Barbara Sher to Barbara Sher (I have three of her books) to Gregg Levoy to others whose names escape me at the moment and I don't want to stop typing to head into the other room to look.

I can tell you the names of a couple of life coaches I've worked with, both lovely women, one of whom is a dear friend, but neither of whom had the answers I was hoping they'd reveal. Because no one has the answers but me.

I have tried. I have tried mightily. I have thought and written and reasoned and surrendered and meditated and researched but nothing would come. Nothing definitive, nothing concrete.

I would get glimmers, moments, fleeting thoughts.

I once had a dream in which my friend Dave sat across from me and gently laid a small figurine of Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz" in my palm, and I looked at it, and I looked at him, and I asked, "Is this to remind me that I always have everything I need, right inside me?" And he smiled at me and I woke up.

I have amassed a ridiculous amount of data, including having my astrological charts created and read by an intuitive astrological consultant. That's what he liked to be called. Still does, perhaps. I wouldn't know.

Internal, external, somewhere the answer must reside, right?

Everyone else seemed able to do it. Pick a career, pursue said career, live ever after, happily or not.

Never mind that I think we do children a great disservice, asking them from the youngest of ages what they want to be when they grow up.

An astronaut, that'd be cool. There's not much call for cowboys these days, I reckon, but I can see the appeal of a home on the range. Doctor, lawyer, teacher, those are pretty well known.

These days, the answers may veer more toward "basketball star" or "the next Google/Facebook/Twitter guy."

My point is, how can they know?

And even when they get to high school and they're asked again, under the auspices of selecting a school. And then, again, in college when majors must be declared.

These young people, who've just begun to live: Does it make sense to expect them to know?

And yet, there are those who do.

I have a friend who always wanted to be a sports journalist, and she's climbed that proverbial ladder, and pardon the pun, today she's at the top of her game. She gripes sometimes, but that's to be expected. Still, she knew. Oh, how I used to envy her.

And Dave, he of the little Dorothy, knew from a young age that he wanted to be a musician. He went down the "rock-star" path earlier in his life and today, he's a composer and the front man of a band.

I marvel at them. To have known, to have seen those ideas in their minds, to have seen those points on the horizon and start walking toward them? Sure, obstacles may have arisen. Sure, paths may have veered. But ultimately, they knew where they were headed.

I don't know what that feels like. I never have. And I never will.

Because I finally understand something about myself: I am not like those who know. The missing piece is this:

I have never found the job because, for me, there is no such thing as the job.

Or, put a better way, the career.

Do you know why?

Because I, Beth Kujawski, am a renaissance soul.

I didn't come up with that title. That's the brainchild of Margaret Lobenstine, who penned The Renaissance Soul. (She has a web site, too.)

A very long time ago, all the way back in 1995 – which, somehow, is 15 years ago, and how can that be? – my pal Judy, who was an art director for a section of the Tribune and who I knew from my internship at Chicago magazine, referred to me as a Renaissance woman, a term that others have applied to me since, over time, too.

Randy, one of my bosses at the Tribune, once said to me, "You don't want to work for Martha Stewart. You want to be Martha Stewart."

Martha. Hell. Martha is the queen of Renaissance women. Her kingdom is vast.

And yes, actually, I would like to be like Martha Stewart. Only more beloved. At least I don't have a daughter who would go on TV and mock me.

A year or so ago, I came up with an idea for a business that would provide an umbrella for all the things I like to do, which is precisely one of the concepts that Margaret employs, the umbrella the embraces a number of interests.

So, the notion isn't new.

And I've suffered through a couple of jobs that absolutely did not suit me in the name of income to prove it to myself, though I didn't fully understand it at those times. Interestingly, those were the jobs from which I was laid off. The others, I left of my own accord.

But the messages persist.

At a party a few years back, a friend of the family asked what I was up to. At the time, I was trying to make a go of freelance writing, which is what I said.

"Oh," she replied, half-heartedly. "Well, I guess that's fine until you get a real job."

Never mind that the are legions of people who make their living as freelance writers. I don't happen to be one of them, but still, they're out there. One freelance writer has made such a go of freelance writing, she wrote a book about freelance writing. As a freelancer, of course.

And then there was the very good, longtime friend – male, which is germane to this anecdote because men seem more inclined to focus on solving problems and getting results, while women are more willing to lend a sympathetic ear – who said, of my seeming lack of direction, "If you were my daughter, I'd be banging my head against the floor."

Very nice. Thank you for that. That was very helpful. Gosh, I feel so much better now.

Over time, the need to figure it out grew. I was approaching 40, the age at which I was meant to be firmly on my life's path, right?

And what a nurturing climate! I lost a job, I started to look for a new job – though I had no real idea what that job should be, so I fell back on what I'd done in the past, though a good chunk of that "career" had resulted in lay-offs – in the worst economy since the Great Depression, I experienced the shock of the sudden death of a dear friend, another longtime friendship vanished at precisely the time I needed it most, and I tried to navigate assorted family stresses.

I'm not looking for sympathy, just pointing out that it's not necessarily easy to figure out your life when you have some semblance of routine and security, but strip that away to a large degree and suddenly, finding an answer is more important than ever before, but stress saps creativity. And everything else.

But while reading this book, I thought a comforting thought, and it dovetails perfectly with my dream about Dave and the little Dorothy. I even took the time, while reading, to jot it down.

This is what I wrote:

The first 40 years have been about laying the foundation. The next 40 years will be about building – erecting, constructing, composing – the "masterpiece." Like being an editor, I've been doing the work you don't see. Now, moving forward, just watch! So many people tell me that I have such a cool life and I don't see it. But I do. I've done cool things, met cool people. I need to reflect on that and embrace it and appreciate it.

On page 68, Lobenstine writes, "People who aren't fully committed to the values that their activities represent sputter through life, pulled in one direction by their commitments and in another by their spirits."

That's me. I've been sputtering. I've been getting enough oxygen to function, but not enough to hum along at anything close to peak performance. I've edited IT documents when what I really wanted to do was sing. Or bake. Or write. Or paint a room. Or wrap presents. Or volunteer. (My bio, that one, over there, to the right, begins, "My dream is to get paid to sing." But it is not my only dream. It is one of my dreams. But I wrote that out of what I thought was the need to have a singular goal.)

Yes, I still need a job, of course, but I need a job that allows me to feed one of my passions, a job that provides income, sure, but also something that benefits both my employer and me, relevant training or networking opportunities and the like. I'm a really good public speaker, for instance. Lots of people detest that. So if there's a need for public speaking at an organization and others are loathe, that's somewhere where I can fill a corporate need as well as fuel a personal interest. You get the idea.

For a long time, I tried to explain my difficulty in making a decision to others. It's like I'm standing in the middle of a circle, I'd tell them. And all around me are 360 degrees of possibility. And all I have to do is take a step in one direction, but I can't choose. So I stay where I am.

The faulty logic there, of course, is the notion that once I chose a path, there was no going back. But in a world in which we're defined by what we do – it's the first question anyone asks at a party, right? – I believed that there had to be one answer.

Lobenstine understands. She uses the analogy of an ice-cream store. It can be really difficult to pick one flavor from 30. But what if you could pick four flavors, an ice-cream sampler? And then, the next time you visited, you could pick four new flavors, or select one or two favorites from the first visit and then try two or three more.

Focus, is her point. Focus, not choice. Focus on a few things about which we feel passion and see where they lead, knowing that at any time, we can swap out items and focus on something new.

I recognize that many people may think this is obvious, that I should have known this all along. And maybe, on some level, I did. Maybe I've had these thoughts, individually, over the course of my life, but to sit down and read them in one collection provides a measure of comfort for which I am so, so grateful. To see myself in these pages, to recognize that it's not just me, that lots of people feel this way, is just what I needed. We sometimes forget, as we live our particular lives, that our experience is not necessarily universal.

Those who aren't wired this way don't understand why we Renaissance Soulers behave the way we do. Lobenstine writes, "What we can't do is make those outreach calls effectively when we are in a solitary writing mood, and we can rarely force ourselves to sit and write anything useful when we are full of social energy." Of course, there will always be things that we're reluctant to do. All of us have those moments. But for us, what we feel is more than a twinge of resistance.

I've been clacking away and this has gotten almost comically long. As I was reading this book, I started to wonder if perhaps I'd uncovered the kernel of what my book should be. I have a lot more upon which I could expand. And Lobenstine encourages us to be role models, to share our stories. She writes, "As Renaissance Souls become more comfortable with their new identities, shame lifts and something more positive settles in its place."

Yes, shame. It's hard not to feel shame when everyone else seems to have figured it all out, when people who love you say things like, "If you were my daughter, I'd be banging my head against the floor."

She adds, "As the truth about Renaissance Souls spreads, more of us will begin to grasp that honest self-acceptance is crucial to our sanity, our sense of well being, and the contributions we can make to the world."

One of the exercises she suggests early in the book is to envision that we're at our 80th birthday party, and to write the toasts we'd hope to hear from key people in our lives, a family member, a friend, someone I've worked with, and a person from the community.

So I put pencil to paper, and discovered that writing those toasts was much more difficult than I expected it to be. But the theme that emerged wasn't one of fame or fortune. Basically, I want to be remembered fondly for being a good person, and that I know how to do.

Granted, it's not all there is. There is still income to be earned and accomplishments to be achieved and help to be offered and brownies to be baked.

But it is what lasts.

And in that way, I am far from a failure.

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