Recently, I was asked to be on a panel of professionals for Career Day at a local therapeutic prep school in the Montana woods. I had no idea what to expect. I went to a prep school, but not a “therapeutic” one. I went to one that was all about having big answers to the “what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you- grow-up” question. As a dreamy, driven teen, it was a challenge that both daunted and inspired me throughout my high school career. My dreams were always out-of-the-box — an artist of some sort — an actress, maybe a film-maker … but luckily I was someone who figured out how to be comfortably in-the-box, keeping my out-of-the-box thoughts mostly to myself. So I wrote a lot. That practice turned into an obsession which turned into a craft which turned into a career. That was the goal for this Career Day: panelists were supposed to tell our stories — talk about the arc of our careers, then and now. But we weren’t talking to in-the-box kids. It turned out, we were talking, quite frankly, to our interior adolescent selves.
Given the nature of the students at this school, I knew that my story had to be as transparent and true as possible. These weren’t kids who dance to any level of BS. They’ve been through hard stuff and they don’t want the Kool-Aid. They want the raw, the real, the impossible possible.
I practiced my 15-minute presentation in the car as I drove further and further into the woods. I speak and lead retreats about the power of using my profession (writing) as a therapeutic tool, so I figured I had this one in the bag. All I needed to add to my well-developed story was the part about how I discovered that creative self-expression on the page is an excellent way to process life, and how I’ve learned to practice this every day, against the odds. How it sustains me personally, and now financially. Lesson: find out what you love and do it with all your heart, no matter what, and eventually you will succeed, whatever that means to you. I’m living proof. Easy.
The first panelist to present was a prosecuting attorney. I prepared for a serious talk from a serious person. Instead, he talked about wandering. Living in Hawaii. Surfing. Snow-boarding. Bartending. Being misunderstood. Feeling like a loser. Worrying his parents. Wanting something different. And finding his way eventually to a profession that meets his needs. The second panelist was a successful web-developer with prominent clients all over the world. In his presentation, he talked about wandering. Living in New Zealand. Surfing. Skiing. Bartending. Turning down corporate America for mountain living. Worrying his parents. Wanting something different. Inventing things. When it was my turn, I found myself telling a very similar story, mostly the wanting-something-different component. Oh, and I bartended too. And wandered. And worried my parents.
We had three rotations of students who listened to our presentations, all with interesting questions, and a modicum of blank stares. These kids were listening. And we on the panel were listening to each other … three times. It’s one thing to wow a crowd with your best one-liners, cutting honesty, and slightly irreverent stories. But looking into the eyes of these kids who’ve travelled miles of hard road, there was zero room for schtick. I pride myself on heart language. Turning heart language into schtick is a depressing trajectory, but truth-be-told, it’s happened to me along the way, likely out of a self-preservation that grows from being constantly on the road, sharing your message. Given this Career Day format, there was no way it was happening here. Quite probably because of this fact, what I saw in myself and my co-panelists (we supposed “experts”) was a fountain of truth.
The first time around, we gave blow-by-blow plays on the journey of our careers. Fascinating details. Twists and turns. Yellow brick road of success with pitfalls you only admit when you’ve found your way to Oz. The second time, we three offered more — personal stuff, odd vignettes that ended up inspiring major life choices right down to a conversation on a plane and a pair of flip-flops. But before the third group of students came into the classroom, one panelist admitted, “I’ve been telling it wrong.” His eyes lit up and he offered to go first. He spoke about inventing things — got deep into what made him want to invent things and why. Which begat a confessional from the other panelist about how he didn’t always love his profession, but how he has learned to live by his principles, moment by moment. And when it was my turn, I got ready to tell my usual story — about wanting to follow my passion with all my might, even if it left me poor and unpopular … but instead, this voice escaped like it was pulling free from very old shackles:
“I wanted to be famous. Really famous. Meryl Streep famous. I was jealous of Julia Roberts. I wanted that career. I was jealous of the literary brat pack from the 80s. I wanted those careers. Desperately. But the voices inside my head were so loud: you’re not good enough, your dreams will never come true, who do you think you are to have those lofty dreams, you’re a show off, you’re self-centered, you’re not talented, you’re an embarrassment to your family, you’re a failure.” My heart pounded and my face heated, but I continued. “I’ve let my inner critic run me. Until very recently. Even though I give speeches and lead writing retreats about how to become aware of that voice and shed it, I’ve still allowed my inner critic to hold court. I don’t want that for you all.” And then privately, a very new thought brought me to my proverbial knees. And I added, “I never realized until this moment … that I’ve allowed her to be much freer than I am. She lives out-of-the-box. I’m the one still somehow in-the-box because she tells me the story, and I dance. I don’t want a story. I want to be rid of stories and just be.”
I looked at those kids and I realized: that’s what they wanted — to be free of their story. Of their pain, their pressure, their past. To free themselves of boxes altogether. And yes, to have permission to wander. And worry their parents.
I ended up staying for lunch. I sat with the students and answered more questions but mostly I listened to them. I commended them for being different and admitting it and wanting to understand themselves, truthfully. I commended them for being honest and outed for exactly where they are in their evolution. “Most of the stories we tell ourselves are myths,” I told them. “If there’s one thing to live by, it’s that. Find your truth, no matter how inconvenient, and live into it. And for what it’s worth, the “experts” are really grown-up high school kids, scared, just like you.”