Paralysis and Deciding What to Do with Your Life

The Fork in the Trail and Freedom

Imagine our childhood as a path we once walked.  There wasn’t much question where to go or what to do, things were pretty laid out for us; and if they weren’t, we likely weren’t being seriously pressed yet on what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives, in which direction we would split once the trail inevitably forked.  That question arose at a different time for everyone, but generally it comes up sometime in our 20’s.

Some live a long time, or perhaps their whole lives, as though the answer to this question will somehow fall into place for them, without their having tried too hard to find the answer.  And that can be the case, only very rarely.  

Most of us have to think and try and learn and fail over and again before we feel we’re even in the right forest, let alone on the path we want to walk.  The question held me up for years, and I see it holding up a number of my peers.  So many of us become completely paralyzed in the face of all our interests, even what can feel like multiple passions.  And this is the good problem to have!  Some people still don’t even feel they have specific or strong interests to guide them in the first place.  

Choosing one direction over another can be incredibly daunting.  It means commitment.  It often means the giving up or at least drastically reducing activities that have brought us joy.  Especially in cases with more extreme energetic buy-ins (like medical school, say) it can also mean a sort of marriage to our choice, financially, and energy and time-wise.  

Where you step and what you choose isn’t to be taken lightly, sure, but in my own experience and observation, the worst choice of all is never to make one.  Periods of getting to know yourself and practicing patience aside, we all know when we’ve simply been standing at a crossroads too long, anxiously weighing pros and cons that will never effectively tip the scale one way or another.  

Instead of asking what it is you’d like to dedicate the entire outward movement of your life to, here’s my revised question to those still seated there at the fork, furrowed brow and chin in hand:  when will you stop pretending you’re anything but free?

You can always change directions.  You can always stop without knowing where to go next.   As Bill Callahan, one of the greatest songwriters of our time, says, “no matter how far wrong you’ve gone, you can always turn around.”  I’d like clarify that no attempted move is “wrong” inherently, but you may find it’s wrong for you, and you can turn around at any time.

You are never stuck.  But you also never have to start over twice.

Never Back at Zero and Wasting Time

A good friend of mine spent many years working as a sound engineer.  After some exploration, meditation, and experimenting, he ended up making a full shift into landscaping, where he found more happiness.  On a job, he discovered his joy in the art of welding while working on a fence.  From his previous experience aiding in set-building for films (connections he made through his sound work), he already had some basic woodworking skills under his belt.  Working with wood and now metal, he’s discovered an even deeper passion which utilizes both his creative sensibilities and his desire to work with his hands, outside, rather than at a desk:  making furniture.  This, I imagine, he will follow until either he becomes a master or until it leads him to the next thing.

As for me, I decided years ago to begin a pursuit of illustration and art as a career, rather than just a hobby.  This is still my primary direction, but I also find myself becoming increasingly interested in and energized by writing.  As a supplement to my art path, this will serve me well.  One day, though, I could see it becoming more of a focus, with ebooks and maybe even physical books.  If that day comes, I’ll already know so much from my art career to help me along the way.  I’ll know how to network, how to manage a website, I’ll know  good work habits, and tons about marketing and e-commerce.  

I also allow my visual studies of natural elements such as birds, flowers, and mushrooms, take me into the scientific study of those things.  Who knows where this could lead.  Even more removed, I’ve held a strong interest in psychology for years, and could see myself becoming a counselor or life coach later in life.  Again, there are so many things I’m doing now that would benefit me in any other direction I may choose to head, if I ever choose to change paths at all.  Nothing would be lost from those endeavors from me having spent this time how I’ve spent it.  I’m never back at zero, ever again, because I made a decision to start something

Like me, you may “have this dance” with one love then bow goodbye to it, taking the hand of another.  Or like my friend, one thing may directly lead to another.  You may be agonizing over a choice between two things, only to learn that one of them just leads you straight to a third that you never thought of before, and is the clear choice.  You may not even really know what your options are yet! 

Our time on this earth is precious, so it is understandable that we want to be careful in how we divvy it out through the years.  But just try not to hold it so preciously that you spend too much of it at a total standstill of indecision.  This is an exploration in the splendor of life, not a multiple choice test that you may fail if you fill in the wrong circle.  You can’t be correct,  and you cannot be incorrect.

No following of an interest will ever be a waste of time (or other resources.)  I’ll say that again.

No following of an honest interest will ever be a waste of time.

Blind Determination and Following Your Bliss

All of this being said, it’s also important to touch on what can be viewed as the “shadow side” of simply choosing a direction over standing still, and that’s what I call blind determination.

Blind determination is like blind faith, and you may end up pursuing something for some shaky reasons such as: it’s conventional, it’s what others want, or you’re too stubborn to change your mind despite your unhappiness in  your choice.  This sort of stubbornness typically stems from our society’s general fear of becoming a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

I believe this to be a short-sighted fear.  If one were to follow their bliss (as Joseph Campbell advises) through many different occupations and interests, sure, it would take longer for them to be a master of any one thing, but long-term they would end up pretty dang masterful of several things.  It’s highly unlikely that following many pursuits would result in no over-lapping knowledge that would be reinforced and expanded upon over time.

Sometimes, too, we really do love doing something on a passion-level, but greatly dislike the lifestyle it requires of us.  Take music for example.  As my closest peers and I are pushing or passing 30, several of my musician friends are beginning to turn to their more secondary passions due to the late night, drinking, perpetually traveling lifestyle that a dedicated musician so often needs to take on.  Blind determination can keep us from really seeing what we’re getting ourselves into.

Here’s the take away:  make a move, stop waiting, and choose a path to take, if only for a while.  But remain ever moveable for the trailheads you might not see yet.