In my younger days I thought becoming successful required standing on others to get ahead, taking clients to dinner every night instead of spending time your kids and being so materially driven you couldn't see the forest through the window of your Jaguar.
Success meant golf club memberships and pursed lips and listening to the whispered opinions of others. It also meant wearing boat shoes and those weird driving shoes with useless rubber nubs on the bottom and tiny leopard-print flats with gold buckles on the toes.
I knew I wasn’t built for success. I hated the shoes.
Fortunately, as I got older I figured out that it is absolutely possible to be successful and still be there for the people you love, enjoy a life of prosperity and be nice to people. But following the acceptable template most people use to become a successful adult in a competitive world is simply not for me!
Around the age of 15 I separated from the hive mind of my family and questioned everything. I raised my hand at school and at church and at home, demanding to know the why behind our ways. There were systems in place others accepted as “reality” that made no sense to me.
I wasn’t trying to be rebellious. I was just baffled most of the time.
In school I found it insulting to move like cattle every forty-five minutes at the sound of a bell, or to have to raise our hands and plead for a pass to use the restroom.
At church there were many things to question, but the breaking point for me was when one of the boys from my Sunday school class got into a fight after a school football game and smashed a guys face with a giant redneck belt buckle. The church members turned their backs on him. A real bad egg, they said. Personally, I didn’t like the guy much, but was pretty sure Jesus loves everybody and this kid clearly needed some extra love.
Senior year, my friends plotted their paths forward, entering a range of fields from military service to medical school. How could they blindly walk down the narrow paths their parents and society laid out for them? I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life but thinking that any other 18-year old had it all figured out seemed like bullshit to me.
In this country we balk at the absurdity of arranged marriage, but much of our lives are planned out similarly. We live arranged lives. Go to school and get a secure job and get married and have babies and go to church and buy stuff and retire at 65 to do nothing and if you’re feeling really zany, you go to a class where you drink wine and paint by numbers to bring out your creative side.
Is living a conventional life easier than mapping out your own? Probably, but it would kill me.
I made it exactly 11 months working in a mortgage company with low ceilings, fluorescent lights and indoor-outdoor carpet. The best part of that job was getting to see all the bank statements from people who were making enough money to buy beautiful homes. I felt like a voyeur, peeking inside piles of confidential paperwork. Ah-ha! So that’s how they do it!
That fascination was short-lived and I longed for my freelance lifestyle with the flexibility and autonomy to pick my kids up from school and be home with them when they’re sick. Outside our office window roamed a gigantic wild turkey and I was often jealous of his freedom as he wandered through our shrubbery. You know you’re in the wrong business when you’re envious of transient fowl.
Still, conventions are put in place for a reason…they work. And by work I mean they provide financial security and keep us safe. They bring order to chaos and for some people living according to a template brings peace of mind. The fewer decisions we have to make, the less stressful life is. Fewer choices equal less anxiety, unless, of course, you’re me.
Because I know that anything is possible, I also know that everything is possible. This notion is pretty freeing once you embrace it. We get to pick our reality so why not get creative?
To find your path when you don’t fit the mold, you can either find ways to blend in and “pass” as normal or carve a path that is your own. Doing this means you have to figure out who you are on a spiritual level, to know what your purpose is for being on the planet and then craft a life around that. This can take years, maybe lifetimes, constant trial and error, finding what aligns and what creates resistance within you and navigating from there.
But when you find it, that way to live a life that is yours and yours alone, the reward is so divine. It’s like putting glasses on for the first time and seeing that everything has vivid detail. Your purpose comes into focus and little by little you find your groove, because you were the one who clawed it into the earth.
Those of us who are born to question are sometimes called seekers. We challenge the status quo not because we’re trying to stand out or get attention, but because we were born to find our truth at any cost. Our spirits demand it and won’t accept anything less.
Maybe it would have been easier on my parents if I had come out as a seeker to them more formally rather than showing up drunk to Thanksgiving with a guy they’d never met. My road less traveled was not always attractive.
Okay, I didn’t really do that. I got drunk at Thanksgiving and then went out with a guy they’d never met. I’m respectful.
The truth? I did move from coast-to-coast working in restaurants, following my dream to be a professional dancer. When my son was not quite two-years old and after four years of marriage, I did get a divorce and had to completely rebuild my life from there. Even in my present, most precious family, we were broken for a time. I moved out and lit my whole life up in flames.
What most people don’t understand is you don’t have to get your whole life right from the get-go. It’s easier to rebuild and course correct than you might think. We are strong and built to survive. If you find yourself in the wrong job, find a new one. If you’re in the wrong relationship, leave. If you hate your body, start taking care of it. If you are sad, find a purpose. If you’re a jerk, learn compassion. Our success and our happiness does not need to look like anyone else’s, but we are absolutely responsible for creating it.
Much to my parents’ relief, I did not end up living in a gutter. My grown-up life actually looks pretty conventional from the outside. I have a house and some kids and some dogs. I drive a no-nonsense Honda and show up to the school with cupcakes on birthdays. My man-partner and I love our family and work hard to provide the same safety and security that all parents want for their children.
In many ways we fit the same template I ran from early on. I just got here on a different path, but perhaps it’s true that all roads lead to the same place. I just needed to find out who I really was along the way. Some rare people are born knowing themselves deeply and get to skip to the good part. Others never bother to dip below the surface to ask.
Here is what I’ve learned about what it takes to become successful. All success takes some kind of sacrifice, but you get to choose what that looks like and which shoes you get to wear.
My life may look conventional from the outside, but the pillars that hold this place up were crafted from found objects. It’s an artisanal life - perfectly imperfect and constantly evolving.
Until a few days ago, six chairs crowded around our square dining table. Our kitchen looked like an adolescent mouth with too many adult teeth in it. I removed two of the chairs, and put them in the garage and nobody even noticed because that is how often all five of us are home to eat a meal as a family…almost never!
Living in a blended family with three collective kids and multiple jobs between us, our lives are carefully orchestrated chaos. Michael opened a restaurant five months ago and still maintains a full time night job. I help him with the restaurant, care for our three kids and the house and the dogs, write things, host a monthly women’s gathering and still do massage for a handful of clients.
Some nights our kids have to sit in the coffee shop next door while we teach cooking classes. They help us cater parties. Our family time is measured in hours, sometimes minutes, but rarely in days together, and it’s still the thing we all cherish most.
I often wonder what assumptions our kids will make about what it takes to be successful. Perhaps they’ll rebel and get easily marketable skills. Whatever they take away, I hope they know that they’re free to craft their lives in any way that reflects their hearts and makes them feel excited to be alive, regardless of the road they take to get there.