For as long as I can remember, I have always wondered how things worked. Mostly the world and all of the life that inhabits it. I have been fascinated by this endless ecosystem, though often frustrated that it repeated exposed my human limitations, faults and failures. It was like rubbing sandpaper against my dreams, roughing me up just to remind me of my place. Ideas are a nice way to smooth out the friction and ease the irritation of vulnerability. If anything, I at least became approachable, if only to myself, when writing them down.
I did this repeatedly for the last five years. Writing. Jotting. Scribbling. Noting exactly where I stood when life was still, and with a stonewall stubbornness, demanded me to change. But last month, Life took a different approach. Instead of offering me the predictable lemons that I could turn into the equally predictable inspiration I had developed a knack for discovering, it decided to flat out kick me straight between the eyes, shattering the rose-colored glasses I had unknowingly been wearing–as if to say, Enough! I’m not buying this sugar-loaded lemonade anymore.
There was no arguing. I had no change left in my cup. And nothing else to take in other than my sidewalk view.
Childhood <———– [Me] ———–> Adulthood
I took a swig of what I had been selling, and immediately spit it out. What had I been making all this time?
Nothing. Not a thing. A lot of great ideas and very little actionable items. It became clear fairly quickly that I didn’t have a plan. That I was building the boat as I was sailing it–adapting in the moment, pivoting at crucial points–but mostly, just hustling to stay afloat. Don’t get me wrong, this kind of agility and endurance is incredibly valuable to have. But if it’s all you have, you’ll never know what direction to go. To know this, means you have to face yourself again, for the second time–out of your head and off of the paper. It means you have to make decisions, and live with them.
To avoid this self-responsibility, I began to emotionally schedule my summer. Weekends away, day trips there, nighttime adventures to anywhere. I was keeping myself busy so I didn’t have time to think about what I would normally think about had I returned to my apartment only to realize I was still living how I did when I had a studio at college–clothes in piles, dirty dishes in the sink, cereal for dinner. I preferred to live out of a suitcase just to avoid sorting through the mess. Until one day I finally did. In reality, this took many days, and it happened right before I went home to New Jersey for 10 days. I left my apartment spotless and organized and adult-like. And when I returned, the space itself was different. It smelled of familiarity and comfort and the freshness of starting over, only I had nothing to move in–no furniture, no artwork, no miscellany. It was just me and my baggage, and I had finally decided to stay a while.
As part of my first weekend of grad school a few weeks later, I was writing KRISTEN on a name tag you peel off and stick to your chest. But there was a caveat. Underneath the name, we were to write “something you can help us with.” Help who with? What kind of help? We were given no direction but forced to provide an answer. For lack of a better answer, I wrote “writing.” Then I saw that other people had wrote fun things like “surfing” or “cooking” or “speaking Spanish.” I crumpled up my name tag and started anew, this time writing “basketball.” But this didn’t sit well with me either. I was tired of identifying myself by these two things, pastimes of a problems and solving, and was surprised to realize that I didn’t want to place them anywhere close to my heart anymore. By the time it came for us to offer the class our “helpings”, I reverted back to “writing” even though I had written “basketball” on my name tag. Worse, was not being able to look a single person in the eye as I said this.
“My name is Kristen and I can help you with writing,” I said, eyes looking at my feet, wondering how far I could possibly run from this embarrassing self-actualization. This is what shame feels like, I thought, only I knew that wasn’t true either. This was just a poor excuse for not knowing how to identify myself, let alone what I could help you with. It wasn’t until the next day of class, that I finally gained some clarity. During a whiteboarding session, we mind-mapped the working relationships of characters from a case study. The goal was to come up with a strategy for a particular employee who was put in a leadership position but not acting like one, and instead, did everything to avoid it–for fear of failure or inexperience. And while that may be true, it was his lack of strategy that prevented him from making decisions to move forward. Life also hands out metaphors if you are giving attention.
This became clear to me when my group struggled to come up with a sound game plan for this character to get it together, and control the chaos. My group, I realized, did not have any background, whatsoever, in strategy and organization. Professionally, I do. Yet, I had deferred my expertise to others, placing their ideas and suggestions above my own. This created great logical tension within my mind and intuitively pulled at my insides–one that caused me to take over the damn exercise and lead. Taking the pen in my hand, I visually mapped out a process that made the most sense to everyone, adding their input at each step while guiding and facilitating in a way that was equally educational as it was authoritative. This is what I am making. How does it taste?
My very first steps in the right direction.