When I grow up

It’s interesting—and fun—how the universe conspires to inspire. Over the past two weeks, I’ve been given signals to write a bit more about my lifelong inability to settle down and choose what I want to be when I grow up.

I admire people who seem to have their purpose and destiny carved in their DNA. You know, the person who knows deep in their soul at the age of 15 that they are meant to become a scientist—or whatever (and not only because it’s a parental expectation). They follow their bliss, delve deep into their fields over a lifetime, and provide us with the expertise we need.

A true passion that burns within your soul is one that can never be put out.

Zach Toelke

Well, I claim a passion for life itself. For living it with creativity and an open heart. And one aspect of that is my enduring love of learning.

But at no time did I know what my one true calling was.

When adults asked me as a child, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I gave silly answers. At about 8, I said I wanted to become a nun (that should give a chuckle to my friends reading this).

Years later, I entered university with no clear future plan. My undergrad degree is with a major in psychology, but even after three years of fascinating study, I only knew what I did not want: working with white lab rats (behavioral psychology) or with mentally ill patients (clinical psychology). Or to go on studying to become an academic. Those seemed the options open to me then, in the late-70s, and the many specialties of applied-psychology, like organizational change management, which today could attract me, were then not offered.

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.

Albert Einstein

After a humdrum year of working in a restaurant, I found myself sleeping on a mattress on a cold floor in a friend’s old stone mansion in Edinburgh, Scotland. Staring at the high ceiling, I despaired what to do next. I knew I had the innate smarts and talent to be more than a hospitality worker, yet I lacked the imagination or knowledge to see the possibilities. I had never been given career counseling.

So, I decided. I acted on a seed my mother had planted in my brain many years earlier and went to law school. Yeah, ugh. I had no passion to propel myself. It was entirely a default decision.

Once more, I had an interesting and enjoyable time earning my degree. Learning turns my crank. But then followed an agonizing year of articles (a law internship) that once again told me, no, no, no, not this.

Nonetheless, I passed all the grueling law exams and was called to the Bar. Yet in my heart I knew I’d not practice law, at least not immediately.

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Howard Thurman

Again my lack of imagination had me stumped.

Again I was back in square one.

Again I could not point to that one thing makes me come alive.

Off I went to Europe, first to explore a romantic interest in Germany that fizzled fast, then to join my parents living in southern France. I spent nearly half a year with them, in a most charming town, struggling to discover what I wanted to do next.

Once again, I experienced that liminal space between one closed door and a door yet to open.

I have to say, though, that even during these lulls, I don’t stop learning, laughing, and exploring. While in France, I read novels in French to improve my language skill. I traveled with my mother to Amsterdam to visit my grandfather, her father, whom I hadn’t seen since childhood. And I attended my parents’ wedding and accompanied them on a road trip through Italy for their honeymoon. (Yes, I was about to turn 30 when they got married. Another long story.)

One idea I earnestly considered was to write a book to be titled How to Cope with the What-do-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up Blues. Yes, really. I got wind that I was not alone in wishing to find meaningful work. Being pre-internet, I had not yet heard of the bible for job-seekers, What Color Is Your Parachute? by Dick Bolles.

My 30th birthday marked the beginning of a new phase in my life, the international business phase. But even within that three-decade phase, there were many doors that opened and closed.

Until then, I had certainly enjoyed life greatly. Yet it was marred by the sporadic, uneasy niggle of feeling lost without a sense of purpose. Mostly that had to do with my grappling to figure out how to support myself financially in a way that wasn’t soul-crushing. The cliché I can at least partly hold with, “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” did not offer me any guidance in finding what I loved to do.

Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it.

Gautama Buddha

Today, you can find countless authors, coaches, and motivational speakers talking about paths to finding one’s life’s purpose.

What I learned about myself over the next 35 years is that for me, there is no one life’s purpose. At least not in the sense of one overarching mission that I want to accomplish. And that this is okay.

Rather, my life is infused with passion. A passion for life is not the same as a passion for one purpose.

Looking back and connecting the dots, I can see that I’ve pursued many purposes. Many missions I could sink my passions into. Many passions that make up the totality of my life.

I was passionate about each business I started and built. In my own way, I’ve passionately supported causes that matter to me—gender equality, human rights, social justice, anti-poverty, climate activism, and more. I’m passionate about travel, culture, literature, music, philosophy, psychology… the list is endless, really.

And with my penchant for learning, I go down many a rabbit hole! Every single day!

One prompt for today’s journaling came from my friend Judi. She reminded me of an illuminating TEDx Talk I had seen before. In her 12-minute talk, writer Emilie Wapnick describes people like Judi and me, people with a more broad range of interests rather than one deep one that lasts a lifetime. She calls us multipotentialites.

So, can being a multipotentialite square with “finding my life’s one purpose”? I’d say no, it cannot.

Unless I say my life’s purpose is to live creatively. To me, this means to find an exquisite balance between going with the flow, being open to all the possibilities, and being the author of my own life through deciding judiciously and taking intentional action.

Bottom line? When I grow up, I want to continue to be uniquely me!

To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.

Joseph Chilton Pearce

Do you have a life’s purpose? If so, what is that purpose? Or do you see yourself as a multipotentialite?

PS. Tomorrow, September 8, marks one year since my surgery to remove the cancer tumor from my right breast. While not all the after-effects of that and all that followed have ended, I am feeling strong and healthy.

PPS. If you haven’t already, I invite you to sign up to be notified when I post (top right on the menu).

10 comments

  • Hoo, boy! What a journey you have been on! It is so familiar yet so different from my own.

    It’s like you and I live in the Marvel Multiverse, with a slightly different version of the Superheroes in each world. There are more out there like us (I know there are) but since we can’t be categorized by ‘what we do’, Emilie Wapnick has created a word based on ‘who we are’.

    And therein lies the difference. In a world where defining oneself by a career label makes networking simple, we struggle to explain ourselves or just avoid the situations where we will face the question: “And what do YOU do?”

    Luckily, I have figured out how to live this way, hiding in plain sight in a way, and have been able to help my creative clients navigate the ‘career path jungle’. As the post-pandemic/ground-shifting/definition-disrupting landscape emerges, more folks are now learning the value of being a bit of a Renaissance person – now a good thing to let people know how resilient you are, and show your intrapreneurial spirit as an asset to an employer.

    Thanks for sharing your story with me, chapters still to be told, of course. I’m inspired to get back to telling my own, too!

  • What a great post! I believe I was always meant to be a teacher. I tried being a teacher of children and that really didn’t do it for me. I didn’t like all the other things you had to do. I then became a Respiratory Therapist and loved my career. I was still teaching but now it teaching people about there diseases. When my hospital closed in 2019. I retired and decided to help seniors with their iPhones and iPads. Still teaching!

  • I’ve felt the same and, as you know, still struggle with a singular interest-choice kind of life. I like to wander and be surrounded by options!!

  • Beautiful piece. Multipotentialite…I love the word.. and yes there are many paths to choose from and none are wrong. I wanted to work with marine life when I was younger and my Mother said there was no money in it. So I looked for another career. I still have a deep desire to help people to heal themselves but to how that is manifesting now I am not entirely sure. Life weaves a path of many bends and curves in this path of discovery.
    Would I rather opt for a straight one? I sense it could be rather boring.

    • Seems to me, whenever the word “boredom” enters the picture, we’re looking at a multipotentiate, Alison. It’s the liminal lulls–neither back there nor yet up there”–that can be the most trying to navigate, right? Good luck! Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.🌸💜🌸

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