04/30/2015 06:14 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2015

Looking for a Zebra in a Barnyard

I was in my office a few weeks ago, when my boss knocked at the door.

"Mike!" I said, guiltily. I propped the door open with a sneakered foot, an embarrassing self-help paperback in my hand. Behind me: a yoga mat, partially unfurled.

"Tell me something," Mike said. He didn't seem to notice the mat. "You ever hear the saying: don't go looking for a zebra in a barnyard?"

"What?" I said.

"Think about it."

Then I watched as he turned around, and walked down the hall.

"Wait!" I called out. "A zebra?" As if that was the point. "What does that mean, Mike?"

But Mike didn't stop walking. He held his hand up in a jaunty partial-wave, his back turned to me.

"You'll figure it out," he said.

When I interviewed with Mike, nearly two years ago, for a teaching job, he asked me a lot of questions, but not many about my qualifications. We talked instead about life, and what was supposed to be an hour at a coffee shop turned into two, and then three, until Mike pulled out his cellphone, and squinted at the time on the screen.

"Shit," he said. "Get out of here, kid. It's done."

He had barely looked at my résumé.

Mike was Yoda... if Yoda was a 75-year-old Jewish man from Brooklyn. This was the strangest interview I'd ever had. And I'd had my fair share of interviews.

There was, for instance, the interview where I'd done my best Village People-dance, for a chance to wait tables at Joe's Crab Shack. There were tutoring jobs, front-desk jobs, babysitting jobs, and jobs that required me to search for pot in dorm rooms. I had interned with an investment banker once (hated it). Managed a restaurant (meh). Worked at a start-up (it tanked). I earned a couple of random degrees along the way until, after several years of bobbing around, I found myself at that coffee shop with Mike.

The night before the interview, I wondered what I might say, if Mike questioned my bobbing. Could I weave a coherent narrative about my experiences? Did it make sense that I had taken an LSAT prep course while simultaneously filling out applications to dental school? Could I, in good faith, explain the years of income earned as a bartender, given the fact that I grew up in a ferociously orthodox Muslim place? How could I reconcile my degrees in genetics with what I wanted to do now: teach college students about youth and popular cultures?

None of it made any sense. In fact, my life made no sense. It had no grand plan to it, no structure, no driving purpose. It was messy and arbitrary and often contradicted itself. I was a drifter. A bobber. A jack of some trades, master of zero.

I couldn't sleep that night.

There comes a time in a woman's life, and it's happening to me right now, when she starts to take stock. She looks around, and says: "Alright, what do we have here? Where am I headed, and what for?" In some cases, she has arrived where she thinks she's meant to be. In others, she is map-less and disheveled, frantically knocking on barnyard doors, searching for signs of wildlife.

Sunday night, I went to a BBQ at my best friend's house. I asked her what she thought about the zebra.

"What's your guess?" she said.

I shrugged. "Google doesn't give me anything. I've asked a dozen people at this point."

"No clue?"


So she took the question to the group. One guy suggested it was a kōan, a Buddhist puzzle. Another told me I should be looking for zebras where zebras live. Not in a barnyard.

"Yes, but what IS the zebra?" I said.

"Why do you care?" said one man. "Why do you need to figure it out?"

I looked at him, surprised. The group quickly moved on to something else. But for the rest of the BBQ, I kept thinking about what he had said.

Was he right? Maybe the more interesting question here was: why did this thing matter to me? Why was I beating myself up so much, trying to find an answer?

I don't know what prompted Mike to knock on my door that afternoon, but that's probably beside the point. Maybe answers in general, at least the ones that truly matter, can't be found by thinking a lot, or by sprinting urgently from one job, one relationship, one barnyard to the next. Maybe the key is to just sit with the questions themselves; to forgive the wrong turns and stumbles; to let go of needing to know what the purpose is, what the end should look like, what ought to be next. Maybe it's only then that, ironically, magically, the zebra has any chance of being found at all.