What will you do when you grow up? A familiar question many of us were asked as kids. We grew up thinking that once we become adults, a magic click would happen and it will help us figure out what we want to do, what profession we want to embrace, who we want to be. We were told we had to choose one thing. Are you going to be a doctor? An accountant? A truck driver? A policeman? A writer? We had once choice. But what if the new game is to replace one choice with many? What if we have several answers to this question and all of them are valid?
When we change careers mid-life, we often get penalised. Society seems to think that once you have settled as someone in a certain profession, then this is who you are. Or this is who you should be. You are expected to stick with your choice, fully grow into your field, become respected and well known and eventually retire after a fulfilling career. At least this was the model I was presented with as I grew up in the ‘80s.
But then I discovered that things are not that linear and there’s no one single answer to this question: Who am I? I am more than one me. You are more than one you. We all are a lot more that we have been conditioned to believe.
Along our life path, other “I”s show up and demand attention. Maybe you are a computer programmer but you like playing the guitar. An acceptable way to live this other you, the guitar player, would be to settle on it as a hobby. You like playing the guitar and this is what you do in your spare time. You get by with delegating your other self to a hobby for a while but then, if the demands of that other “I” become stronger, a hobby might not be enough. Let’s say the you that’s the guitar player is not happy any longer with being allocated a couple of hours at the weekend and demands more. More time, more attention, more resources. All of a sudden, you’re thinking of quitting your regular computer programmer job and start playing guitar in a band. The people who know you as a computer programmer might label you as crazy or going through a mid-life crisis. Your spouse might be worried about your ability to provide the same income as a guitar player. You might wrestle with this decision for days, weeks, months or even longer. And the thing that makes it so difficult is the either/or paradigm. I need to stop being a computer programmer in order to be a full-time guitar player. I will likely never be a computer programmer again. Am I ready to leave all that behind? Am I ready to divorce my former self?
How about if you change paradigm and move to and? I can be a guitar player for a while but this does not mean that I’m not a computer programmer any longer. I can choose to split my time between these two activities or become a full-time guitar player for a while, for as long as that part of me demands my full immersion. Then I could be a computer programmer again if that part of me wants to take the driving seat again. And so on.
And, who knows, somewhere down the line I might find another part of me who would like to be a chef and then I might become a full time chef for a while.
What’s usually stopping us is a belief that we’re going to lose what we were before and never be able to return to that former self. My take on this is that it’s a false belief.
In my late 20’s I made a big decision. I left behind what felt like a promising career in marketing and decided to spend a year of my life crossing Africa from north to south in the company of two strangers I met over the internet. My work colleagues thought I was crazy. My friends told me that I’d be throwing away a great career and that I would never be able to return to the corporate world. Who would employ you again when you come back? This decision was irreversible, they said.
It turned out that it wasn’t. I came back and got a better job in a field I had more interest in (management consulting). And it paid almost double. My job interview revolved around my African trip instead of the usual interview questions. It turned out that my experience of crossing Africa was highly valued in the corporate world.
The lesson I learned then was invaluable. I leaned to give myself permission to live all the parts of me that showed up. And I have done so along the years following these parts wherever they took me: from the offices of Silicon Valley tech giants to the pampas of South America and from training with shamans in Thailand to writing in Mallorca. The management consultant, the polo player, the writer, the shaman, the healer, the reiki therapist, the entrepreneur, they all showed up and showed me the way.
And I learned to listen to their voices. The more I listened the more they decided to work together. Today they don’t shout for attention any longer as they used to in the early days. Instead, they talk to each other and they negotiate the amount of time and energy they each need. Some of them — like the polo player for instance — decided to retire. “I’m done” it told me one day in Argentina. Then the writer stepped up to acknowledge the polo player and three books were born. Other parts decided to form partnerships — like the consultant, the writer and the therapist who decided to join forces for a book. And “Personal Power — Mindfulness Techniques for the Corporate World” was born.
So, after spending some years reconciling my many parts, here is my one piece of advice: listen to them. Identify their voices and listen to that they have to say. How you mediate between them will come later. The first step — as with everything else in life — is to listen.
And when you do, they will show you the way.