Every college-age Asian kid gets grilled about their future. By the time I was 22, it started to annoy me when older people asked me about my life. “Have you picked a career?” “Will you go into medicine like your parents?” What are your life plans?”
Hmmm… life plans. Can one plan an entire life by 22, or any age? “Working on it,” I’d say with a smile, but really I wanted to sock them in the face.
Conventional wisdom is so dumb, but it did my head in when I was young. I was in awe of cousins and friends who had it “together” – structure in their careers, wives at 23, down payments on houses. “Shit,” I thought, “How do they make decisions like that? Meanwhile, I was still deciding on lunch.
Fast-forward a few years to when I started Fear.less Magazine and my coaching business. Those same people (even older, still annoying) said, “You work too much. Don’t you need a balance?” “You know you’ve got to sacrifice to make your relationship work, right?” When friends got married and started having babies, I had difficult conversations about why I didn’t have or want those things at that time. To their questions, I had no answers. In fact, the only honest answer I had is that I couldn’t neatly answer these questions. Not at 22, not years later, and probably not now. Maybe never.
It wasn’t because I didn’t know what I wanted that I had such a tough time with this. I spent a good chunk of my days noodling out what I wanted: A partnership that could mean marriage. My own business helping others that could make me uber-wealthy. To travel – which meant babies later on, not in the next five minutes. Connecting deeply with people, most likely through coaching. Impact and scale, which meant a magazine that reached 15,000 people at once. I‘ve always known on some level what I want; but they were not Answers with a capital A that would satisfy people expecting to confirm their worldviews. They didn’t feel like they were talking to a Proper Person, because I’m not Proper, and neither are my answers.
I’ll show you. Here are some nonsensical things I’ve done in the last five years:
- Declined to attend medical school after taking the dang entrance exam and applying twice.
- Declined to pursue photography, even though I graduated with honors and worked with my idol.
- Launched World War III in my family because my relatives didn’t step up to help my parents when they should have.
- Ended an engagement with my soul mate because I wasn’t happy anymore (you just don’t call off the promise of marriage in Indian families.)
- Made career choices where I struggled, questioned myself, and felt embarrassed almost daily.
Do people have Answers as messy and awkward as that? Do they talk about it at cocktail parties or weddings where they might look like commitment-phobes, scaredy-cats or fools?
Conversations where I gave my answers and received wide-eyed looks of confusion reminded me to keep my honesty on my person.
Last year, I learned to keep my definition of “Answers” much more flexible, whether asking or receiving. During a particularly confusing career transition I asked my mentors – some of the smartest, brightest people I know – “What’s the best career move for me?” Desperation looks good on no one, but I was desperate for answers and reassurance that I’d make it. I sifted through their emails and found little tangible advice. Sift sift sift. Moral support, encouragement, but no answers. I was incredulous and even angry. Of course I was grateful for their support, but I thought, “Really? Some of the most successful people in the world don’t have answers?” Not even a promise of answers to come?! This WTF moment lasted for the next three weeks as I processed the chasm between my expectations for answers and what I received.
It was a tough three weeks, but what I learned changed forever how I came to my answers. See how I wrote, “came to” instead of “searched for” or “banged head against wall for” or “cried and panicked about?” As I muddled about my house, went for walks, and re-read emails from my mentors, realization slowly set in. These amazing, wise people knew that answers couldn’t be forced out of someone else; they have to be shaped on one’s own. So they did the smart thing and helped me on that path by trusting and having faith in me, pushing me to continue, but not imposing a rigid Answer. It was that moment that I stopped demanding answers from everyone, including the universe and myself.
This state- of wanting answers but not having them – of not knowing if your partner is right for you or if you should stay at your job – is where we need to become more comfortable. We need to hang out in these zones of incredible uncertainty without escaping, though every part of us wants to. There were no more mysteries to be solved, just a journey to continue. And continuing is most necessary when it’s hard. A lack of clarity cannot stop us from living, driving to work, cooking noodles, checking email, calling our mothers.
I remember feeling calm after first understanding this, as if someone handed me a soothing cup of tea. I felt confident that the choices I had made were good for me, if not awesome for me. Uncertainty no longer freaked me out. I stopped avoiding awkward conversations at weddings. I stopped searching for answers, because I had faith they would come, and they did. As will yours.
When we want answers, what we’re really looking for is the strength to live with questions. It’s a feeling of security we’re after, reassurance that we’ve made good choices and we’ll be okay. That’s much easier to take care of than demanding hard answers from life.
The old people should’ve told me that, don’t you think?