Every college-age Asian kid gets grilled about their future. By the time I was 22, it started to annoy me when older people asked me about my life. “Have you picked a career?” “Will you go into medicine like your parents?” What are your life plans?”
Life plans. Hmm…Can one plan an entire life by 22, or any age? “Working on it,” I’d say smiling, but really I wanted to sock them in the face.
Conventional wisdom is so dumb, but it did my head in when I was young. I was in awe of cousins and friends who had it “together” – structure in their careers, wives at 23, down payments on houses. “Shit,” I thought, “How do they make decisions like that? Meanwhile, I was still deciding on lunch.
Fast-forward a few years to when I started Fear.less Magazine and my coaching + consulting business. Those same people (even older, still annoying) said, “You work too much. Don’t you need a balance?” “You know you’ve got to sacrifice to make your relationship work, right?” When friends got married and started having babies, I had difficult conversations about why I didn’t have or want those things at that time. To their questions, I had no answers. In fact, the only honest answer I had is that I couldn’t neatly answer these questions. Not at 22, not years later, and probably not now. Maybe never. Neat isn’t my thing.
It wasn’t because I didn’t know what I wanted that I had such a tough time with this. I actually spent a good chunk of my days noodling out what I wanted: A partnership that could mean marriage. A business that helped others but also made me money. To travel – which meant babies later on, not in the next five minutes. Connecting deeply with people, through coaching. Impact and scale, which meant a magazine that reached 15,000 people at once. I’ve always known on some level what I want; but they were not Answers with a capital A that satisfied. My answers came from a different world-view than the people asking the questions. My answers weren’t Proper.
I’ll show you. Here are some nonsensical things I’ve done in the last five years:
- Didn’t attend medical school after taking the entrance exam, applying twice, and finally getting in.
- Declined to pursue photography, even though I graduated with honors and worked with my idol.
- Launched World War III in my family because my relatives didn’t step up to help my parents when they should have.
- Ended an engagement because I wasn’t happy anymore (you just don’t call off the promise of marriage in Indian families.)
- Made career choices where I struggled, questioned myself, and felt embarrassed almost daily.
Do people have Answers as messy and awkward as that? Do they talk about them at cocktail parties where they might look like commitment-phobes, scaredy-cats or fools? Conversations where I gave real answers and got wide-eyed looks of confusion in return reminded me to keep my honesty on my person.
Last year, I learned to keep my definition of “Answers” much more flexible. During a confusing career transition I asked my mentors – some of the smartest, brightest people I know – “What’s the best career move for me?” I was grasping for answers and reassurance that I’d make it. I sifted through their emails and found moral support, but no answers. I found myself angry. I was grateful for their support of course, but I thought, “Really? Even they don’t have answers?!” This WTF moment lasted for the next three weeks as I processed the chasm between my expectations for answers and what I received.
It was a tough, but what I learned changed forever how I came to my answers. I no longer searched and banged my head against the wall for clarity. As I went for walks and re-read emails from my mentors, I slowly realized that these wise people knew that answers couldn’t be forced out of someone else; that they have to be shaped on one’s own. So they did the smart thing and helped me on that path by trusting and having faith in me, pushing me to continue, but not imposing a rigid Answer with a capital A. It was that moment that I stopped demanding answers from everyone, including the universe and myself.
This state- of wanting answers but not having them – of not knowing – is where we need to get comfortable. We need to hang out in this zone of total uncertainty without escaping, though every part of us wants to. A lack of clarity cannot stop us from living, driving to work, cooking noodles, checking email, calling our mothers.
I remember feeling calm after first realizing this, as if I just took off a tight harness. I felt confident that the choices I had made were good for me, uncertainty no longer freaked me out. I stopped avoiding awkward conversations at weddings. I stopped searching for answers, because I had faith they would come. And they did.
Yours will too.
When we want answers, what we’re really looking for is the strength to live with hard questions. It’s a feeling of security we’re after, reassurance that we’ve made good choices and we’ll be okay. That’s much easier to take care of than demanding hard answers from life all the time.
The old people should’ve told me that, don’t you think?