10/31/2012 08:33 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

Jane Goodall, Too Many Choices and the Art of Giving Yourself Permission

"We don't get to choose what is true. We only get to choose what we do about it."

― Kami Garcia

I love how feminism is often blamed for giving women too many choices.

Like this is a bad thing.

Men, it should be noted, have rather as many career options as women, and yet you don't see Kevin or Brandon or Ted throwing up his hands and saying, "Damn you, patriarchy! So many choices! Shoot me now!"

(Men, it should also be noted, still don't have to 'choose' between family and a high-powered career in the same way women do.)

I'm not denying the paradox of choice, wherein too many choices = overwhelm = paralysis (and no choice at all, which in itself is a kind of choice, but nevermind).

I'm just wondering if the problem isn't something else entirely: a failure to give ourselves permission (and men, it should be said, deal with this too).

I was struck by an example from the book Undecided, which theorizes that the young women of today can't commit to a single career path because they're too afraid of making the wrong choice (and forever dooming themselves). The book discusses the plight of Hannah, who bounced in and out of the fashion industry. But here's the thing: one of the first things we learn about Hannah is that"

Travel is all she's ever wanted to do -- especially after spending her entire junior year of college abroad. But back then, she says, 'I didn't think there was any possible way that it could be a career... My parents are conservative; me and my sister were raised, like, you find a good job -- you have one job after college, and that's all you do.'

After she quits her first career in fashion -- her heart and soul weren't in it -- she starts exploring job possibilities in ecotourism, voluntourism, cultural exchange programs. Which is probably what she should have been doing in the beginning -- if only she had given herself permission to do it.

I don't believe that we -- and this holds true for both genders -- have as many choices as we seem to like to think.

We are born into a particular place and time with a particular set of gifts and limitations.

The challenge isn't to pluck the best career out of the air, but to learn yourself from the inside out: to know your gifts and accept your limitations and shape your life accordingly.

The challenge is to ask yourself, "How can I best serve the world, create value?" And then, through time and experience, work out your answer -- while staring down all those voices you've internalized from childhood about who you are (and aren't) and what you should (and should not) be doing.

Chances are the answers to the questions you're asking yourself -- what am I good at, what are my interests -- manifested themselves in childhood. They just weren't recognized as such. You might have been swayed away from them -- you can't make a career out of a passion for travel! -- and trained to dismiss them as indulgences, childhood fancies, wastes of time.

Jane, what are you doing in the chicken coop again? What kind of girl spends hours hunkered down just to watch a hen lay an egg? You'll never find a real career that way -- or, more importantly, a husband! For crying out loud, learn to type!

Except this is not what her mother told Jane Goodall upon discovering Jane's fascination with nature and her ability to observe it. Jane's mother probably couldn't have known that Jane would make her name studying animals in the wild and revolutionizing the way we think about them. But she identified what it was that made Jane special. And as Stephen Cope points out in his excellent book The Great Work of Your Life, she also reflected it back to her so that Jane could see it for what it was, and explore how and where it intersected with the world. This enabled her to develop mastery and build a career.

More than a career: a calling.

As a result, I doubt that Jane Goodall ever had to ask permission to be uniquely who she was, doing uniquely what it is that she can do.

What is it that you're not doing -- in your work, in your life -- because you feel you need permission? If someone had given you that permission as a youngster, what do you think you'd be doing now?

Who do you think you would be?

Do you think it's too late?