I have been terrible at planning my life. Or perhaps I was brilliant, demonstrating a stroke of genius that others will emulate in the future. More realistically, perhaps I don’t know. But I do know one thing for certain. At that moment, I was very confused.
I had been looking forward to going off to university for a long time and for several reasons. The graduation from high school marked my entry into the world as a full-fledged adult. It was a ticket out of my small town which seemed to grow more and more constraining as the years passed. Attending a university several hundred miles away meant living on my own away from my family, which in my mind translated into freedom. In short, it was the beginning of the rest of my life. I was destined to be a great marine biologist, the next Jacques Cousteau.
And one more reason. In my family, going to university is just what you did. There were no alternatives that I had even considered. Not going to a reputable postsecondary institution hadn’t even crossed my mind. Pursuing anything else was so ridiculous, it would be akin to flapping your arms and flying to the moon. It was that simple. It was how life worked.
Yet I found myself standing on the campus on a sunny day in early September, feeling sad. Blue. And not sure why. Being upset or disappointed or bummed out when you have a reason is a natural part of life. Feeling that same way without knowing why is a very different thing. I can’t fix a problem if I don’t know what the problem is. And so it went for the next two years. I couldn’t shake that feeling, like I was showing up to a soccer game wearing a baseball uniform. Out of place. From the outside looking in, I was a normal college student. Going to class, biking to campus, playing basketball and partying a bit too much (okay, full transparency, way too much). But I still felt the same way I did on the first day, and still didn’t know why.
After two years, I took a break. I figured I just needed some rest, so I worked, travelled and was lucky enough to meet my wife to be that year. It felt good to be away from homework and lectures, although from career standpoint I was no closer to my inevitable degree and scientific future. Now I had a different problem. I felt good about life and thought I shouldn’t, since I had yet to walk across the university graduation stage, gown and mortarboard in place, grasping the hand of the chancellor as she presented me with that hard-earned diploma. So, knowing my path to happiness must lay in another couple of years of academic pursuit, I returned to college.
A discussion in the middle of the next semester confused me even further and set my world spinning in an alternate orbit. During a conversation with my mom, she said that she and my dad were contemplating getting a divorce. I was stunned. Now, I realize that many couples decide to part ways every day, and while emotions can run high, it still happens. But not in my family! We were a predictable, salt of the earth, church on Sundays, centuries of teachers and government workers kind of people. Always. It was never not that way. I went on a long bike ride that day to sort out my thoughts, but reconciliation didn’t come. I still couldn’t figure things out, like why I was continually sad and confused for no apparent reason.
As part of one of my courses, we were required complete a personal assessment, something called the Myers Briggs test, which I had never heard of. The instructor indicated that the test would help point out the kinds of jobs for which we would be best suited, based on a series of questions. “Well, this’ll be easy,” I confidently told myself. “I already know the answer.” I dutifully executed the paperwork, which was subsequently sent off to some mysterious lab where a team of analysts would dissect my responses and arrive at the conclusion that I would make a great scientist. Bit of a no-brainer, I thought, but the least I can do is entertain the professor.
A few weeks later I received an envelope in the mail (no email at that time, so it was transported by either carrier pigeon or pony express) with an official looking logo on it. I opened it up and recognized that the packet contained the results of my “personality test,” as I had taken to calling it. Flipping quickly through the pages, I scanned the bottom of the last page, searching for the term “scientist”, “marine biologist” or “scientific research vessel leader”. Not finding any of these, I looked deeper and read the assessment section in more detail. And once I read the results, I turned the envelope over to see who it had been addressed to, since it was obviously sent to the wrong person.
Somewhere, there must be another student who had received notification that they would be an ideal scientist. Accidentally, I had been sent a copy of their outcome, suggesting they pursue a career as either a funeral home director, recreation facility manager or salesman. I wondered who in my class had submitted replies that drove those conclusions, then realized it could be anyone from any school as the company that had mixed up the envelopes did these tests across the country. But seriously. How hard was it to send an envelope to the right person? I committed to get this straightened out so at least the other student could get their results.
The following week I contacted the professor and told him about the mistake. “Strange”, he said, “that doesn’t normally happen,” but he agreed to contact the agency. A couple of weeks later, he called and informed me that the testing company had checked and confirmed that they had sent me the correct results. Hanging up the phone, I mumbled to myself, “Idiots. They’re obviously wrong.”
Attempting to think things through over the weekend, nothing made sense. My parents thinking about a divorce. A university that thinks I should be a salesman. Me going through the motions and still perpetually sad. So, at the end of that semester and with the finish line in sight, I quit school.
And I drifted. Over the next few years I revived my skills as a carpenter to build houses, worked in a factory assembling large trucks, provided first aid services to rock concerts, and had absolutely no direction at all. Then through a series of events that included me getting injured in the factory, I decided to go back to school for occupational health and safety, which I didn’t even know was a job description a short time before.
My wife and I had both decided to go back to school and upgrade ourselves, and despite living in a cockroach infested rundown apartment to save money and facing a staggering workload, I was happy. Legitimately happy. I felt like I had purpose, something to look forward to, and while it was immensely different from the profession I had been guided towards from the time I was a child, it seemed a much more natural fit. The melancholy view on life had melted away.
But true change comes hard, and while I had altered career paths, I hadn’t really reworked how I think. I now defined myself by a different occupation, but still locked myself into a narrow definition of who I was. Now I was a “safety guy” instead of a “scientist”, but it was still a label. And I continued to fight off opportunity as it came knocking. Over the next 25 years, I changed jobs several times, but not once as a result of my own decision. I was continually tapped on the shoulder by prospective bosses and employers, asking if I’d like to take on a different job. One asked if I’d become an operations manager, and I said “No, I’m a safety guy.” Then, with a bit of coercion, I said okay. What do you think about getting into project management? “No, I’m in operations.” But I finally took the job. I remember getting a call from a headhunter asking about working for a contractor, and I stated firmly, “No, that will never work. I’m a utility guy.” Had she not been so persuasive and pushy, I would have missed out on a huge break.
It took me until I was 54 years old to shed the personal labels. It wasn’t because of a “Moses comes down from the mountain” moment, or on a psychiatrist’s couch, or even in a moment of deep self-reflection. It came during the most common of circumstances, during a brief conversation with a neighbour who knows almost nothing about the job I do or even the industry I work in. Coming from a rather prescriptive organization where orders are issued and policies followed, he simply asked, “What does your boss want you to do next week?” I realized the answer was very simple, but not what he might expect. With the clarity of thought that had been missing from much of my life, I said “To be successful, whatever that takes.” No orders issued, no prescription offered. Just a request to use my brain and experience, do what needs to be done and define success as I see it. My neighbour didn’t really understand the answer, but for once I sure did.
No sadness, no missing lucidity, no more labels. Whatever boxes I had been put in over the years, whatever classification I had assigned myself, it was all my doing. I’d felt like a hostage, and unknowingly that brought on the unhappiness. On that fateful day in my fifties, I realized that I had been the kidnapper all along.
We regularly hear about the need to “find your passion”, and “fulfil your dreams”. If you can do that, well done. But I’ll also challenge the assumption that we all have a single passion to find. I think for many of us and perhaps most, we can be happy doing lots of different things. But we all too often never find out because we are too busy trying to live up to what we think we are supposed to be doing, and as a result miss the regular smorgasbord of opportunities that is right in front of us.
If I could change only one thing in my life, I would have adopted the motto, “Be the captain of your own journey” at a very early age. If you are an engineer, an accountant, an electrician, a recruiter, a waiter or however you spend your days, enjoy it and be the best version of that you can be. And when tomorrow comes, you might find you want to be a code writer, or a jazz trombonist, or an entrepreneur, or an author. Give yourself permission to go in that direction, and if the winds of change blow against you, raise your sail and see where it takes you.
The Myers Briggs test showed me that I should be in a profession where I interact with a lot of people. In retrospect, I would have made a terrible scientist. I like what I do now.
My parents didn’t divorce, but in all reality they probably should have. They were two wonderful people who were very different and got married because in their time and circumstances, that’s what you did. Who knows where their paths would have led?
I don’t know what’s next, what will happen between today and when I take my final breath. But I know I’ll do the very best I can doing what life offers. I’m no longer defining myself. I’m enjoying the ride, and I’m willing to take the ride. No regrets. I think I’m a better person for it.