The Path Is Rarely Straight

I'm the kind of person that likes things to be done perfectly and then tied up neatly at the end. The trouble is, few things in life can be so neatly wrapped up, and striving for perfection is always an exercise in disappointment.

As much as I try to tame my perfectionism, it reared its overly-critical head last week when I looked at my LinkedIn profile for the first time in a long time. I went there to revamp it and write a description that sums up what I'm working on here. I didn't get very far. Instead, I scrolled down to view my previous experience and felt myself falling into a sea of shame.

You see, I've been writing professionally for many years now, but I didn't get into it straight after college. Instead, I took a series of jobs (whatever I could get with a salary and health insurance) that had nothing to do with writing. I told myself for years that I would move to New York and break into the publishing industry, but I wasn't taking concrete steps to make it happen. Talking and thinking were easier than doing, after all, and these actions fooled me into thinking they'd lead to doing when the time was right.

Therefore, I was 25 by the time I got to New York and 28 when I moved again (to San Francisco) and finally got paid to write. Looking back, my early 20s feel like a blur of dreams and lack of focus, and the years after I moved to New York felt more like an upward trajectory. Wouldn't it be nice if I could pretend like the years before 25 never happened? Couldn't I just remove them from my LinkedIn profile? Would anyone notice anyway?

What’s Really Happening When We’re Editing Our Own (Life) Story

The second I started to think about curating my past experience, I knew I needed to walk away from my computer and think hard about my emotions. Why was my twisty-turny path suddenly causing me to feel so much shame?

Here are a few potential answers:

  1. I care too much about what people think of me and I place too much value on external validators, such as job titles

  2. I'm afraid that the knowledge and experience I've gained in my field are somehow diminished by the unfocused and varied years before

  3. I tend to let my work become synonymous with my identity

I know there's nothing inherently wrong with the path I've taken. I also know that I've learned a lot from every step, and that variety of life experience is a must for writers anyway. But the problem is, this variety in professional experience didn’t fit nicely into the narrative I must have been playing in my head. And therefore, I wanted to get rid of it.

The truth is, life is messy — just the way the creative process is messy. We rarely move in a straight line towards our goals. What's more, we often need to endure the wonky paths to learn, to understand ourselves, and to continue to reshape our goals. There's no shortcutting the creative process, and there's no shortcutting the process of building a life, either.

What Happens When We Focus on the Details Instead

I'm not going to delete my pre-writing experience on LinkedIn. Sure, it might make me cringe from time to time, and it certainly makes me feel sad that I wasn't more focused when I was in my early 20s. But that process was real and, for better or worse, it got me where I'm going. In fact, my very first job out of college as a bank teller was the key to getting me into writing in the first place. Here's what happened:

My then boyfriend (now husband) met a CTO of a FinTech startup who wanted to hire him. Ultimately, my husband didn't want to write code in the language they were using, so he spent the last part of the meeting talking about me instead when the CTO mentioned that they were starting a blog. The CTO wanted to know if I knew anything about personal finance and my husband said I used to work at a bank. We were introduced over email, and I was given my first writing gig. Then, when we moved to San Francisco, I was hired as an intern and eventually a full-time employee of that startup, and that CTO became one of the best bosses I ever had.

The Power of Perspective

Crazy story, right? What's even crazier, it's a reminder to myself about why perspective matters — because on a bad day, here's what my critical brain can pick out:

  • I needed a man to help me get my first writing job

  • I only got my first writing job because I was lucky enough to get a personal introduction

How's that for finding the negative? Now, on a better day, here's what I can say about the exact same story:

  • I was lucky enough to have a partner who believed in me that much

  • We all need a foot in the door somewhere, and what matters is what we do with it after

  • That bank job I hated so much (the one across the street from the newspaper's office that I used to stare at longingly) gave me the knowledge I’d eventually need to get the best job I ever had ... it just took a few years to get there

As you can see, my twisty-turny path was, in many ways, exactly the path I had to go on to get the opportunity that changed my entire life. It's what had to happen. There's no shortcutting the process.

Curating my path might have played more nicely into the narrative in my head, but it would also diminish everything that happened when my path became more focused.

Bonus: The Reason for the Curve

After finishing writing this, I decided to take a reading break and picked up Oprah’s book, The Wisdom of Super Soul Sundays. Then, I stumbled on a passage that gave me instant clarity.

The passage was written by Sue Monk Kidd, and she talks about how she exclaimed at 30 that she was going to become a writer. Apparently, she wrote a lot as a child but drifted away from it as she grew older. It was over a random breakfast one morning that she set her intention to become a writer yet again.

I identify with this on such a deep level. As a child, if I wasn’t outside climbing trees, I was inside reading, painting, drawing, and making books of poetry. I lived and breathed creativity. I announced my intention to become a writer as a child, but then adolescence happened.

Once I started to care what people think of me, I changed. I focused on getting all As in school and on what I could do to stop getting picked on. I even quit dancing (my greatest passion next to writing) to play soccer in the hopes that it would make people like me more. It didn’t work.

As the years went on, everything I did was to achieve some concrete form of “success.” Every decision I made took me further away from my writing, even though I still said I wanted to be a writer. Finally, at 26, my mom dropped this gem on me:

“When are you going to realize you’re a fucking writer? Just. Write.”

Now, you should know that my mom does not say fuck on a regular basis — or ever. If I say it in front of her, I usually get a smack on the back of the head. So, I was pretty taken aback both by what she had to say and the force with which she said it.

But she was right. And once I acknowledged that, I moved full speed ahead and haven’t stopped writing since. It turns out, all I needed all those years before was focus. But to get focus, I needed to care more about achieving my goal than worrying about external factors of success.

If you find yourself on a twisty path, I’d challenge you to stop and ask yourself the following: Are you pursuing goals because they matter to you, or because you think they should matter to you? Are you answering your own calling, or someone else’s calling for you? Are you chasing down a path that you’ve arbitrarily decided to expect of yourself?

Though the path is rarely straight, it’s a lot easier to move forward when we know what we want and when we want it for the right reasons.

Photo by Georg Nietsch on Unsplash