You spend the better part of a decade learning the skills you need to climb the career ladder. You put in the long hours and hard work, navigate the office politics and dig deep into a well of perseverance you don’t know exists until you need it time and time again. Slowly you climb each rung of the ladder, never looking back in case you stumble. You staunchly climb because that’s what you’re supposed to do; you never go back, never question it. You keep climbing the ladder even though you’ve started to realise that it’s propped up against the wrong wall.
The whole point of this journey is to get more and more of whatever you have. That’s success, isn’t it? It’s synonymous with more of everything. More responsibility, more money, more stuff, a bigger house to contain the stuff, a better car. You watch Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix and wonder if there isn’t some life-changing magic in just not buying the shit in the first place. You keep trying to correct your course because you feel like something isn’t right. Life’s journey can sometimes feel like a sat nav programmed to arrive at a destination you were told about as a child, but instead of following the best route, you keep taking a wrong turn and having to recalculate to get to where you were going. That constant recalculation can be caused by almost anything these days; an unexpected bill, a death in the family, an argument with a friend, the loss of a job, the retention of a job you hate, anxiety, depression… the destination you were told about all those years ago no longer seems important, but you’ve never stopped to choose somewhere else to go, so you just keep recalculating to stay on track.
It’s true that all we are is the sum of the stories we tell ourselves - the only complete version of you that will ever exist exists in your own consciousness. The past has already happened and whether we dwell on it or celebrate it, it’s the story we tell ourselves about it that gives it power in the present. The future is no more real than the past - we take the stories we’ve become accustomed to and project them forward, often with more cynicism than is truly called for. I’m not convinced that we can dramatically change the stories we tell ourselves because our narratives seem so fixedly a part of who we are, but I’m equally sure that we can change how we relate to them and dramatically reduce the power they have over us. The voice in my head might be an asshole, but I don’t need to indulge it.
There’s so much advice online these days about achieving your purpose, but I’ve found so little of it helpful for one specific reason: it assumes that you know where you want to go. Sure, I could quit my office job and become the leading artisanal basket-weaver in the East Midlands, but I’m not really all that keen on baskets, I’ve never made one, wouldn’t know where to start, and don’t people go to Ikea now anyway? Besides, these inspirational stories about becoming the number one basket-weaver often neglect to mention the safety net that allowed the transition to happen. I guess it’s not such an inspiring story if you take away the devastating consequence of failure.
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling confused about what all this means. In fact, it’s a conversation I’ve had time and time again with friends and colleagues and the theme is often the same - while few of us know how we’d like our lives to look in 5 or 10 years, we could tell you with clarity what we don’t want. The problem is, it’s harder to navigate when you don’t know where you’re going. It’s harder, but I’ve come to realise that it’s not impossible.
I spent too many years being carried along by the tide and the significant changes in my life over the last decade have largely been a consequence of me failing to make decisions when I should have done. In the absence of a plan, I’ve aimlessly taken the path of least resistance whenever a decision was necessary, thinking that if neither route was appealing then the least difficult one was the most sensible. Believe me, my internal sat nav has been screaming at me.
While I was off work recently, it occurred to me that I don’t need to know where I’m heading in order to get there, I just need to trust my internal compass. My internal compass isn’t the same as a sat nav. It doesn’t know or care where I am, it’s not recalculating to get me back on track via a well-trodden route, and it’s as analogue a tool as you could hope for in an ever-encroaching digital world. It tells me one thing about my position in the world: where my North is.
From now on, I don’t need to know where I’m going because I can walk on a bearing. Whenever I have to make a big decision, I’ve decided that it needs to either excite me, inspire me, or nourish my soul. If an option does one of those things, it doesn’t matter that I don’t know the destination because I’ll forever be getting closer to it. It might even be better this way because I don’t need to have a fixed idea of who I am. Who I will become can morph and grow as I do.
Ultimately, I don’t know where I’m going anymore, but I do know that I can get there. So, grab a compass. Find north. Start walking with me.