The stages of our lives, especially as women, are often marked with questions. The queries come from well-meaning family and friends, part of everyday conversation or a holiday gathering. Perhaps we broach those questions ourselves internally.
What are you majoring in? Where are you going to college? What are your plans after graduation? When are you getting married? Are you having kids?
We can’t seem to move through a particular point in life without society wanting to know that our next move is planned, and thought out, and directed on a particular path. We may have personally planned out that path, with detailed instructions or a haphazard idea. Or maybe we’re paralyzed with fear of an uncertain future and no direction of where to begin.
I was so sure I knew the answers to those questions, in the moment. The younger I was, the more confident in my knowledge. Some of those answers panned out, albeit differently than I expected. I majored in communications, but then discovered advertising. I played volleyball. I went to law school.
But when reality didn’t fall in line, I began to wonder if I was on the right path, if I was doing “the right thing”. I spent much of my volleyball career hurt, on the bench. I struggled in law school, a far cry from the stellar grades of high school and college. A legal writing professor informed me that, contrary to years of academic experience indicating otherwise, I couldn’t write. Twenty years ago - and maybe even now - the legal world required a particular, rigid structure. Law review and clerkships guaranteed a career. Summers abroad in Cape Town and club volleyball did not. I began to flounder, and by graduation, only knew I’d take the Bar exam in July. After that, I was lost.
Eighteen months later, I quit the first legal job I finally landed, because I hated practicing law. Three years after that, I began teaching, a career I specifically turned down when I chose law school over a graduate degree in journalism. Fifteen years later, I’m freelancing in social media management, a far cry from the technology of my first job (remember Quark, anyone?). I’m a teacher instead of a lawyer, which in turn allows me to be a mom. I might miss the unique challenges of a legal career, but I don’t miss basketball and baseball games.
Society often measures our successes by those particular milestones. We follow those questions as a rigid standard, or endure the concern when we don’t. Even with the confidence to forge our own path, the niggling doubt may remain. I admit, I often wonder if I’m successful, or if I should be doing more. I compare myself with the standards of the industry, and come up lacking. But I’m learning to embrace my particular role in life, cherishing the moments with my family. I also realize I have the unique ability to share these experiences with my students.
The truth is, success doesn’t have a right path. Success doesn’t have particular milestones we need to check off, like boxes on a chart. Success is unique to each one of us, based on our experiences, our needs, our desires, and yes, on elements out of our control. The answers to those questions are what we craft them to be, not what everyone else thinks we should do. We might answer a question two or three times, or not at all. So much of my life has come full circle, and all of my experiences influence who I uniquely am as a person today.
One of my students asked, in a very similar conversation: “why does it have to be when?” His comment resonated with me, especially as I was writing this post. He addressed the issue of timing, and the order of those events in our lives. Again, that formula is unique to our life experiences, not boilerplate from the rest of the world. “When” happens, well, when it does, not before or after.
As you grow, your expectations may change, and your definition of success with it. You may find a path you never expected, and yet another perspective of satisfaction. Your goals will always evolve; keep those goals attainable, but don’t be afraid to dream big. Be realistic of the goals you can control, and the ones you can’t. Keeping moving forward on that path, and focus on the personal, unique steps to get you to the finish line. Don’t just do a job for the sake of doing it, to check a box; find a solution and a purpose for that role, and expand on it to your benefit.
The bottom line: don’t be afraid to do your own thing. Don’t be afraid to be different, and choose your path as it works for you, not for anyone else. Don’t feel you have to justify your decision to anyone else but yourself. And above all, make sure you glean every moment, good or bad, from every experience, and remember those as you move through your own milestones.