My pre-school teacher once told my mom that I would never succeed in school. I spent too much time chasing girls on the playground and too little coloring in the lines. In the lines, I thought, was for other people.
I was too young for this storyline to stick. I didn't yet have a history of academic abdication, so when my mom told me I could be whatever I wanted if I tried my best in school, I believed her. Sorry ladies, but by third grade I had different priorities. My mom didn't just preach it, she showed me through art. Her hands and imagination turned mining equipment, scraps, pipes, and newspaper into something beautiful. Seeing this as a kid liberates. It motivates. It only reaffirmed that possible is a function of the mind and time.
The idea that I could do anything ran rampant, restricted by the ends of my imagination, which seemed to test its own boundaries day by day. Dreams danced in the corners of my mind. And I danced with them. I wanted to be a professional golfer-psychologist-poet-TV show writer-lawyer. My third grade teacher said I would be president one day. I added it to the list. Grade 3, long division. Grade 4, run for president.
For many, this won't resonate. Perhaps your imagination was robbed by cold truths too early. Your chance to dream big stolen by the streets or upended by gross inequities. Or perhaps your path felt linear, the end predetermined from the start. You were encouraged to do what your parents did, what your older sibling did, and you never veered. The rest of us sit restless in the middle, imagination running wild, pen in hand, not sure what story to tell.
This feeling, as privileged a place as it is to occupy, cuts both ways as the years pass by. You reach an age when it's no longer cute to want to be a professional golfer-psychologist-lawyer-poet-TV writer. You're just a guy who lacks focus and direction. Society expects clarity of goals if not definition of character. The question "What do you want to do with your life?" begs for an answer. It screams for one. This begins sometime in high school or college, with "What do you want to major in?" If you were anything like me, you listed a few reasonable options, articulated the relative pros and cons, settling ultimately on "pre-law" because that seemed the most reasonable, even if your interest in the law stems only from a mild obsession with The Practice and Law and Order.
This continues through college. We settle on a major, add a few or eight extracurriculars that revolve like spokes to a wheel around our chosen field. All of a sudden, we have a path -- our story has a start. As you leave the coddling of college for the working world, the pressure to focus, to know what you want to do, hangs overhead. Maybe you find a job that relates to your purported academic interests. Maybe you don't. Either way, your next step fits the 30-second spiel of where you've been and where you're headed, even if in truth, it doesn't fit at all.
Here's the thing about our story: We tell it with such clarity that no one could doubt what our future holds except maybe -- if we're honest with ourselves -- for us. We stop imagining all the possibilities and settle on a story told enough times it appears true even if it doesn't feel that way. We construct resumes that tell a neat story even if ours is messy. We frame who we are through a particular and purposeful lens, even if "who we are" stems from a series of things that just sort of happened. We force the colors to fit within the confines of the lines even if, in truth, they want out. And at some point, we believe it.
Amongst my friends, being happy isn't enough. Being successful doesn't cut it. Being in a loving relationship is but part of the plan. They want to leave a mark on the world. It is one of the reasons I love them. It's one of the reasons I love living in Washington, D.C. And I no doubt consider myself part of this do-gooder, high-expectations cabal. But this blessing, this bug, this can't-stop, won't-stop attitude that agitates for meaningful work is also a curse -- tying your story, your sense of self to a cause, means hitching happy and successful to something that's measurable but not completely in your control. In a world where "impact" is a fixture of identity, it is unsettling to admit let alone live the questions -- to tell your story one sentence at a time -- because you want to know that the journey was worth it in the end and that you left a mark.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel this urgency too. But living the questions gives me solace. To me, it means living in the moment, believing that if you live today, tomorrow and the next with passion and purpose, that the story you tell when you're old and wrinkled is just and justified along the way. Even if when you look back on your life you see a bunch of disconnected dots, know that you still left a mark, and the mark was you.
For more by Charley Johnson, click here.
For more on wisdom, click here.