on defining your dream: the couch vs. the cubicle…or something other?

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo
Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

There are two paths in life: Should and Must. We arrive at this crossroads over and over again. And each time, we get to choose.Should is how others want us to show up in the world — how we’re supposed to think, what we ought to say, what we should or shouldn’t do. When we choose Should the journey is smooth, the risk is small. Must is different. Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s our instincts, our cravings and longings, the things and places and ideas we burn for, the intuition that swells up from somewhere deep inside of us. Must is what happens when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own. –Elle Luna’s “When You’re at the Crossroads of Should and Must”

Rarely will you hear me talk about the usefulness of Facebook. I have a presence on the platform simply as a means to keep in touch with friends who don’t understand social media or have an inclination to use it. These are friends with whom I went to college or people in my world who don’t “get” blogs, and they rarely have the time to read mine. Strangely, I like this sort of disconnected connection; I enjoy being a voyeur in lives demonstrably different than my own. On any given day, I’ll scroll through engagement photos, pet pictures (brief parenthetical: my friends have excellent taste in furry, and not so furry, creatures), literary, social and political diatribes, where a battle of wits and words are common–but it’s a passive connection, and I walk away from the platform much as I entered it, undisturbed.

However, something recently put my heart on pause. I was reminded by Facebook’s fancy algorithm of a post I shared a year ago, and it put me to thinking about the way in which the meaning of words have the capacity to change based on when you encounter them. The word is the word, really, but its meaning changes form at varying points in our lives.

Well, let’s see. After you decide that I’m depressed, or whatever, you’ll put me on meds, right? Well I know hundreds of people on them and they’re all doing just fine. Really. I’ll go back to work on my new anti-depressants, have dinner with my parents and persuade them I’m back to being the normal one who never gives them any trouble. And one day some guy will ask me to marry him. He’ll be nice enough. That’ll make my parents very happy. The first year we’ll make love all the time, and in the second and third less and less. But just as we’re getting sick of each other, I’ll get pregnant. Taking care of kids, holding onto jobs, paying mortgages, It’ll keep us on an even keel for a while. Then about ten years into it he’ll have an affair because I’m too busy and I’m too tired. And I’ll find out. I’ll threaten to kill him, his mistress… myself. We’ll get past it. A few years later he’ll have another one. This time I’m just going to pretend that I don’t know because somehow kicking up a fuss just doesn’t seem worth the trouble this time. And I’ll live out the rest of my days sometimes wishing my kids could have the life that I never had. Other times secretly pleased they’re turning into repeats of me. I’m fine. Really.–Veronika Decides to Die (film adaptation of Paulo Coehlo’s novel)

Ours was a generation taught to draw an outline and spend the rest of our lives coloring in the lines. Our dream was a photocopy of a bland original with little variation, and we lived under the illusion that we had choice. Choice was really a series of selections within the confined space of how we would define our lives. College. Career. Marriage. House. Children. After a time, we realize we’ve boxed ourselves in, and the dreams we once fastidiously pursued have become internal prisons. Because what happens when you’re 40 and you haven’t found the great love? What happens when your womb doesn’t ache to be filled? What happens when you’ve been sitting in this one chair in front of another chair for the whole of your life, and you wake up one morning and decide instead that you want a view. You think maybe you want to hurl the chair out the window. What then?

Have you failed because you didn’t follow the plan and achieve your dream? Or maybe you had the wrong dream all along and you didn’t know it. Or perhaps you wanted something different but felt pressure to conform to what you should do, what is logical, what makes sense.

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo
Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

I’ll tell you the dream I had when I was 19. I was going to graduate college with honors (I did); work in an investment bank (I did); marry by the time I was 30 (oops); buy a house, but not in Long Island (still renting); have a child, possibly two, please not a girl (oops, again); press play, repeat and watch my children do the same (not likely). Never once in the narrative did I ask myself what kind of person I wanted to be. Never once had I considered there was nobility in living a life of your own design and making. Never once did I allow for a deviation, a margin of error. What I’d written down were facts and my job was to architect a roadmap to get me to varying points on a map, to the facts.

And then something happened. I hated banking. Like, really hated it. Like brawling with my manager during a performance review, hated it. I was good at it, found it easy, but I’d come home from work and feel…empty. At 24, I did the equivalent of pulling off the road and nearly crashed into a guardrail. I told myself, I’ll make a tiny adjustment to the plan. Different career but the rest will stay the same. This is okay, I thought. I’m fine.

And then I met a man before I was thirty (so close). We fell in love, looked at rings and spoke of our life together. For a time we were awash in sepia, we were our best photographs. And I think we fell in love with the idea of love, and as quickly as we’d come together, we unraveled at the seams. I loved him but I never let him in, all the way. Not the way he wanted me to. Our break was a photograph worth shredding and I haven’t loved anyone in that way since. I’ve met people but no one who challenges me, takes the breath right out of my mouth and holds it in his hands. My once great love is married now, has two beautiful children, and I’m happy for him. That he found the love he was looking for. I’m still searching, and that’s as far as I’ll go with it here.

So I returned to the career narrative with a ferocity which, in retrospect, was frightening. I published a successful literary magazine, a well-received memoir, and, within four years helped build an agency from the ground up. I was made a managing partner in this company, given a fancy title, a credit card, and equity. I made a lot of money and bought fancy things, but how was it that I felt, at 37, the same way I’d felt at 24? Empty.

I looked at my outline and thought, what the fuck happened?

I resigned from a job that had been slowly killing me and felt like a failure. After, I was offered more jobs like the one I had and I kept turning them down. The idea of sitting in a confined space for five days a week, the reality of being shackled to a desk and forced to endure an endless parade of meetings, conference calls and emails where no one believed in removing everyone from copy, was unbearable. I got sick just thinking about it.

What if who we are and what we do become one and the same? What if our work is so thoroughly autobiographical that we can’t parse the product from the person? What if our jobs are our careers and our callings? –Elle Luna

Last year, when I read Elle Luna’s piece it occurred to me just how much I was compartmentalizing my life and how it wasn’t working. I thought, well I’ll have this writing thing over here that doesn’t make money and I’ll have this food thing here because I enjoy it and it keeps me sane, and then I’ll have this marketing thing over there because that’s the ticket. That’s the stuff that’ll make me money and keep my cat in the lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed. Obligatory photo of said cat:

felix the cat

I realized I was pursuing the wrong dream. And not only that but the strategy I’d employed to pursue this new dream was also wrong.

I realized that all I wanted to do was WRITE. All I wanted to do was work with people who were insatiably curious and cool. All I wanted was to be itinerant. I started to realize that creativity can’t be found in the confines of an office or holed up on a couch. I had ideas while walking in the park or having brunch with my best girlfriends or alone at home or sometimes in an office surrounded by smart people. Good ideas percolate everywhere and I’m finding it’s my job to move where the good energy moves. And I’m still trying to sort out this writing business as it pertains to the pragmatic I have real bills that need to be paid but I want to create ALL. THE. TIME.

Do you know that I actually get EXCITED to write posts for this space even though I don’t get paid for it? Even though I don’t have sponsors or a donation bucket or anything that will bring me money even though I know it costs A LOT of money to publish stuff here. But I don’t care because I enjoy it and it allows me to exercise another kind of writing apart from my fiction, apart from my brand work.

Right now I’m trying to piece it together. Trying to draw a new map. From scratch.

I’m 39 and I don’t want to own a house. I don’t want (or need) a lot of money. I don’t want to have children but I want to fawn over my friends’ children. The great love? Working on it. Offline. The great life? I suppose I’m still working on that too.

After I torch the outline.

freelance life + careers

15 comments on “on defining your dream: the couch vs. the cubicle…or something other?

  1. This post is so timely and relevant for me. Since I can’t frame it, I’m bookmarking it. Thanks for being so honest and authentic in your expression. I have much to mull over.

  2. This brought me to tears a little as I sit here in my cubicle. I wish I knew what to change, I only know that change is what I want. I want to be able to just go outside instead of just looking out the window. I want to take my lunch and breaks when I feel I want them, rather than when a schedule says okay. I want to be able to get up and go to the bathroom without a timer on my phone alerting managers to how long or often I’m gone from my post.

    I need change.

  3. Yes! Yes! Yes! Your words jumped off the page and smacked me right in the face. Rightfully so, I have been living with an outdated useless outline for a very long time now. As a matter of fact when I stop to think about it I realize that the outline was never mines it was my mothers. Hmmmm….this post gives me so much to think about. Thank you for your courageous words!

  4. That quote from Elle Luna = powerful!!!
    I love that you said “And I think we fell in love with the idea of love” – today I see that more and more. The box people place themselves in. The timeline that is placed on everything. The outline. I’ll be X when I get married and X when I have kids. Break free from that ideal box and follow your intuition. It may be hard, but when it rains it pours and dance in the rain. It’s the ups and downs that make us stronger.
    Love, love your writing! Keep WRITING!!!!

  5. You are so true in each word, too many choices i have made years ago, seem useless now, maybe it is just about how we perceive things at each time. You can not imagine how much you inspire me.

  6. It is very normal and I’m sure there are a lot of people out there just like you! Women with aspirations and goals in life will have to comprise something! I guess its better than being married and doing nothing all day! I support you!

  7. I cried a little too. I think so many struggle between must and should. I have that conversation with myself at least once a week. I know eventually I will get there, but for now I live somewhere in between… and that’s okay, for now. ☺

  8. This is a first comment on any post on any blog for me. I love your writing Sylvia and have been a fan for a while now. I am a lawyer and too have come to realise my own creativity and restlessness for more, but what? A few years ago I quit my job, completed a diploma in food design, then created a blog where I am finally able to dive into my heady space- but still now again questioning the direction of it all , so many options pulling. And when is it enough to sit back and go ‘ah yes, contentment’? who knows I guess, but at least we are on our way to finding out x

  9. This was just amazing to read. Although I may be young, I always think about my future in terms of what people tell me as if they are mapping my life out for me. I have my dreams that I want to follow in which I very well am sticking to but also trying to have that safety plan in finishing with specific degrees. Times very well have changed and people are even having kids later on in life, I think its most important that you just do what makes you happy because after all, that’s YOUR purpose in life. I know mine and I’ll be continuing to work for it!

  10. Everyday does not have to be a roller coaster. Days of calm are needed to help us make it through storms and to recognise the exciting ones. And then in the end it’s all about love and being loved and how much better it is when we are able to share it with that someone special.

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