All throughout school growing up, I remember teachers and advisors repeatedly telling me and my classmates that we should follow our dreams and pursue our passions, that life is too short to waste and we could do anything we wanted to with our future. Of course, as a typical kid, I didn’t really put much stock in these sentiments. Looking back, I find that there are perhaps several reasons why I rejected these motivational statements.
- I had a skewed notion of what my ‘dreams’ should consist of. Americans of all ages are bombarded with celebrities and notions of fame, pop culture and dreams of riches. Even though we are told over and over that money can’t buy happiness, our reality and the underlying motivations of society tell a different tale. If you are to ask a young person what they could have if they could have anything, I would venture to guess that money or fame would be near the top of most of their lists. Overwhelmed by a future of possible lifestyles, they may have a hard time pinpointing exactly what they want; and by that, I don’t mean rich or famous. Those are things you have, not things you are. I think my problem was that I was thinking about what I wanted to own and acquire, not the type of person I hoped to be perceived as or what my legacy in life was to become.
- It wasn’t cool to try. In America and especially to the youth, it is much ‘cooler’ to be rich or athletic or the life of the party than it is to be intelligent or quietly accomplished. Kids who are studious are ‘overachievers’ or ‘nerds’ and often ridiculed for caring about their future rather than what other people think of them. This was, at least, what I observed in school. This attitude is indicative of a much larger problem in our society that stems from a general disregard for the value of intelligence in favor of machismo, charisma, or physical beauty.
- I didn’t believe it. Kids are told that they can have anything they want if they put their mind to it, that the future is theirs. But they are also restricted by rules and expectations in school and, amid a difficult time of defining the type of person they are while also learning social skills and how to navigate cliques and communicate, perhaps find it difficult to wrap their heads around the immensity of possibilities that await them. It’s true that you can be whatever you want, but it’s not true that you can have whatever you want and those two are often confused. Further, not every kid comes from a situation where they feel they have opportunity or feel that they simply drew the short straw in life and hold low expectations for themselves. This can be influenced by so many things including their home life, how they are treated by their peers, how they perform in sports or academics, etc. And unfortunately, these shortcomings and the associated attitude can follow into adulthood.
A common conversation starter is to ask people what they do for a living. We are defined by our accomplishments and I would guess that this is an extension of what we learned as children: that what you have defines who you are. You have a good job? You must be a worthwhile person. It’s a huge rat race and we all know it but we can’t stop engaging in it. If it makes people happy then who am I to tell them otherwise? But I think we can do better.
If you take away the need to support oneself financially and then ask someone what they want to do with their time, you will likely find what they are passionate about. No doubt that some people will say that they don’t want to do anything and perhaps this is true, although it may be an overcompensation from a tired existence of being overworked or a passion-less life. I think, deep down, most people want to do something unique. They want to create or connect but a lot of people don’t know how. We look to others who seem to have it figured out or who have chosen to pursue their passions and idolize them. This is telling. I think it suggests that people envy purpose. After all, none of us really know what we are doing in life, we just all fake it until we make it or don’t make it, then fall into something else and start faking it again.
I distinctly remember thinking at a young age that there were adults who knew things and had life figured out and I couldn’t wait until life magically made sense one day. Then you grow up and realize that we are all just a bunch of kids in adult bodies pretending that we know what’s going on while secretly we are all just scrambling through life trying to make sense of it and find meaning and joy. So what is stopping people from pursuing things that would make them happy? Maybe it’s fear, maybe an inability to recognize that their life could be more than it is, maybe they are content and simply don’t need anything else, maybe they have already found their passion. But if you haven’t, now is the time.
This isn’t an attempt at a stereotypical self-help parroting exercise. I’m not saying that all you have to do is visualize your success and it will magically come to you or that 5 minutes a day of some exercise will turn your life around. It’s not about prescribed processes or fad diets or vision boards. It’s about passion. What do you love doing? It doesn’t have to be big. You don’t have to want to be an Olympic athlete or a movie star. All you need to do is decide what truly makes you happy and then find ways to fit it into your life. Here’s a few ways to get started, because that is indeed the hardest part:
- Maybe you don’t know what you are passionate about. That’s ok. Try things! The internet has opened up the world in so many ways and it’s such a shame to see it wasted endlessly scrolling through social media, seeing snippets of all but absorbing none. Do you need a new hobby? There’s absolutely no harm in trying something, even if you are unsure. Take a class, read a book, watch a YouTube video, read a wiki-how. Picture yourself trying it and see if it makes sense.
- Make time for it. Everyone has different schedules and maybe you are in a situation that you truly don’t have 5 extra minutes in your entire week. But I would guess that most people can carve out a few minutes. Cut the TV time down, sleep an extra 15 minutes one day, stop scrolling on social media. Actions are reflections of values and if you value your hobbies or passions, you will make time for them.
- Find other people who have done or are doing what you want to try and talk to them. You won’t be bothering someone by asking for help, I promise. People love talking about themselves so just ask questions! If you want to start kayaking, find a website or use craigslist and connect with someone. Ask how they got started and what advice they have. I can almost guarantee that within 3 conversations, you will have a good handle on how to engage in whatever you have in mind. Also, the connections you make only increase your network and your potential relationships. If you can find someone to jump with you into whatever activity or project you have planned, even better. Having someone to hold you accountable and share the experiences with makes it easier to stay engaged.
- So you tried it and maybe it wasn’t for you. No problem! Think about what you learned from the experience, what you gained, why you liked or didn’t like it. Think about the future of possibility for yourself and make a plan for the next thing. We so often find people who are well-traveled or well-rounded to be desirable to be around because they have a wealth of experience and stories. But beyond that, I think that trying new things also helps one cultivate a certain attitude, a realization that nothing is beyond you; when you go far enough and put yourself out there, you realize that what your teachers in school told you all those years is true and that you really can do whatever you want.
It’s up to you, you define your life and at the end of it, the only person responsible for its quality is you. Don’t look back and wish you had done more, look back with content and maybe a few scars knowing that you put forth everything you had and lived a life well worth it. Decide who you want to be and let that guide your actions. Money and possessions will come and go but experiences and the mentality you cultivate by pushing yourself and trying new things, things you really care about, that stays with you forever.
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