Monthly Archives: May 2012

When Common Sense Gives You the Wrong Directions

I want more from my life.

I want more than just a steady job with steady pay and a steady lifestyle.

Don’t get me wrong—steady is good. With the kind of life I’ve lived to date, steady does hold a certain appeal.

But I want more. I want vitality and purpose, I want satisfaction, I want to thrive. I want to get to the end of my life and feel that bone-deep but utterly satisfying exhaustion that comes after you put in a hard day’s work, when you’ve eagerly used every physical, mental and emotional resource given to you to keep the world turning and progressing. And then you get to heave the sigh of the deeply contented.

Common sense dictates that I should go along with the standard operating procedure for achieving this good life: Hard work. Practical, reasonable thinking. Doing the right thing. Being responsible. And if something is broken, fix it. If you have a question, find an answer. If you’re struggling in a job, try harder. If uncertainty strikes anywhere in your life, follow these five steps to total clarity. If there’s a problem, just do something about it.

Common sense would be partially right. But common sense accounts for only half of the picture. It can only get me so far before I start losing my way.

The fact is, the kind of life I want demands a great deal more of me, and not just in terms of hard work and professional striving. It also requires a higher level of trust and faith than I’ve ever known. The kind of faith that makes me quake in my boots because it demands that I go against the tide, that I measure my reality, my progress, even my state of mind by a different set of standards than the norm.

This faith compels me to look beneath the surface of my life, to see with the eyes of my heart and spirit, and not just with the eyes of my mind. Like an ocean current, it nudges me in the right direction, and challenges me—dares me—to push past my fears and reach for what I want. And it urges me to trust, to simply know that I’m in good hands, no matter how choppy things look on the surface.

No easy task, this.

But by faith I will get there.

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The Paradox of Progress: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The year was 2003, and after nearly two years of unemployment, I had just gratefully accepted a full-time position with a non-profit organization in Los Angeles. After two years of doubt, confusion and the gripping fear that I would never see the light of a new job again, two years of wondering where I would possibly fit with my newly acquired Master’s degree in Theology, salvation had finally arrived.

Not only did it arrive in the form of a good job with a decent salary, but it was a position I was excited about, with an organization whose mission I heartily embraced. My heart expanded with a depth of gratitude rarely experienced before.

If you’ve been unemployed for any significant stretch of time, you know what I’m talking about.

I dove into the job enthusiastically and earnestly, knowing that I had been given a chance to break out of the cycle of fits-and-starts that had defined so much of my career to that point. During those dark days of joblessness, I had learned a lot about myself. I came to terms with who I was and acknowledged that I had some work to do if I wanted to grow.

The issue standing front and center: responsibility. Yuniya, you have to take responsibility for yourself—your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. You can’t always just pick up and leave when the going gets tough. You can’t just act impulsively without giving any serious thought to the consequences. It’s time for you to grow up and take responsibility for your life. For YOU.

This message lodged itself in my mind and heart even as I set foot into my new office on my first day. No more playing around, I determined. This was real. I would learn to stay put and grow. My life depended on it.

But six months into the new job, that message began to lose its zing. I had crested the learning curve and was starting to feel the threat of boredom. Not a good sign. For me, boredom often became a portent of doom, gradually unleashing the demons of restlessness, distraction, decreased productivity on the job, and ultimately, the impulse to leave the old behind and find something new. To my dismay and frustration, six months after my enthusiastic start, I found myself poring over job advertisements for hours on end, looking for yet another new beginning.

But the new grown-up voice spoke up: Yuniya, it’s not time for you to move on yet. If you quit now and take another job, you’ll only stifle your growth; you’ll just drag the same issues with you. You’ll never get past Go if you don’t stay. I felt the truth of this admonition; I had to stay on.

Months later, however, I found myself putting as much effort into daydreaming about new experiences as I put into the daily tasks of my job. When my boss noticed my performance had diminished and subsequently put me on a performance improvement plan, the impulse to run consumed me. The pain of failing tore me apart, and proved that a) I didn’t belong there, b) I was doomed to a life of mediocrity and underperformance, because c) I was a deeply flawed human being. How could I be expected to stay with this job when faced with these self-evident truths? I just didn’t fit. I had to escape!

But the voice spoke again: Yuniya, it’s not time for you to move on yet. This pain is a good pain. You have to stay with it. The worst thing you could do at this point is run from it. You must stay with it. Work through it. Then when you get to the other side of it, you will truly know satisfaction. What you’re looking for isn’t out there in another job. It’s right here, on the other side of this pain and discomfort.

In my mind’s eye I saw an image of a small plant, barely a shoot, struggling to push itself up through the soil. That shoot was me. If I chose to obey my impulse to run, I would effectively rip that shoot out of the ground before it even had a chance to grow some roots. I had to stay on.

I buckled down and tried as much as possible to set aside the impulse to run. I focused on embracing my here-and-now, uncomfortable as it sometimes felt. Months later, I looked up and looked around and was taken aback by what I saw. That little shoot had grown and sprouted some leaves without me even realizing.

To begin with, I acquired my first car ever, and overcame a multitude of fears about driving in Los Angeles. I bought my first laptop computer and started writing again. I finally, finally, realized a dream I had held since high school: I traveled to Mexico to immerse myself in Spanish for 16 days. I visited London, another dream destination I had ceased to believe was possible, and vacationed in Mazatlan. I drove through the streets of Manhattan for the first time, in the middle of a drenching downpour, in a mini-van packed with high school students (not a task for the faint of heart!).  I met my father for the first time.

And guess what else?

I stayed at the same job for well over two years—a record for me—despite my occasional tantrums.

All experiences I would have missed out on, had I turned tail and run.

And when it was time to move on, I felt it. I knew it to the tips of my toes. Everything in me and around me seemed to jangle in a chorus of victory. When I turned in my letter of resignation, my boss looked at me with such pride that it brought tears to my eyes. She knew how I had struggled to push through all that pain and discomfort. “Doesn’t it feel good,” she asked me, “to know that you worked hard to overcome so much, and that you succeeded? To know that you’re leaving on a victorious note?”

Indeed. Talk about satisfaction.

What I couldn’t see clearly then, I see clearly now: this season redefined and redirected my life more than any others that had come before it. It set me on a different track and gave me back my sense of hope and purpose. It helped me believe in myself again.

Good thing I stayed.

Living the Imperatives

“There is a force in me that is determined to honor the imperatives of my life.”

Ladies and gentlemen, there it is: the twists and turns of my life summed up in a few short words.

I read this statement in Gregg Levoy’s book, Callings (which, by the way, is a fantastic read), and felt its impact like a clanging bell.

Even as I stumbled through life searching for my place, I always felt–or perhaps hoped–that somewhere, on some mysterious and invisible plane, all of my experiences made sense. God knows that to the average onlooker, and even myself, the shape and pattern of my experiences induced perplexed head-scratching at best, and stern reprimanding at worst. But this statement offered another perspective, one that rang true for me and brought substance to a hopeful hunch.

Let me show you what I mean.

I am female, Black, 41 years old, a first-generation immigrant from a developing country. When we moved to the US, my first friends were Hispanic, Chinese and Indian. In fact, I didn’t have any close Black friends until college. I taught myself Spanish when I was about 13 years old and birthed a lifelong love of foreign languages in the process. I even attempted to teach myself Chinese, Greek and Korean, though with far less success. I learned to play the electric bass while in my church’s youth group band, and bought my own second-hand Ibanez bass, which I still have. I fell in love with baseball at age 15 and became a diehard New York Mets fan. To this day it remains my favorite sport to watch and discuss, and I love to trash talk about the Yankees. I had my first real kiss at 18, and first real boyfriend at 22. But I only “knew” a man in the full sense of the word at 33. Yes, 33. I got my driver’s license at 24, and my very first car at 32. I have lived in Guyana, New York City, Madison (yes, land of the Cheese-heads), Los Angeles, Monterey, and now Washington, DC. I have a BA in Television and Radio and two Master’s degrees: Theology, and Public Administration.

In my 20 or so years in the workforce, I’ve changed jobs frequently enough to give my mother an ulcer. But despite my grinding efforts to mold myself into a “conventional” career person, with the help of countless well-meaning friends, colleagues and supervisors, it just never seemed to take. I often chose to follow the beat of my own drum, to let my instinct and impulse guide me, for better or for worse.

I have embraced the fact that I will never fit into the “conventional” category when it comes to career matters. My path has always veered off the beaten track, and probably always will. But my meanderings have pushed me and challenged me to honor the imperatives of my life, to avoid taking the easy way out or accepting the status quo as the only available option. They have created and honed certain gifts and strengths of value that could not have developed in any other way. What I have to offer the world, then, is no less valid or meaningful for having gained it in an unconventional fashion.

There is a force in me that is determined to honor the imperatives of my life, carving out my place and my unique contribution to the world all the while.

Kitchen Sink Wisdom

You ever had a moment where you felt the energy and passion of some unknown calling surging inside you, like waves crashing against rocks? Where you felt the need to do Something Meaningful, or else explode in a fiery ball of frustration? Only problem is, you have no idea what you’re supposed to do.

I experience moments like these from time to time and I usually find them maddening. I try to pin down that elusive but tantalizing energy, to define it and make it show me what I’m meant to do. In my mind I’ll see myself living and working in a beachside villa in Brazil; or being the next Oprah; or discovering the solution to some major social problem; or winning the Mega Millions lottery and using that money to effect social change in ways that make people shake their heads and ask, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

More often than not, though, this momentary surge of energy dissipates, and so do the images. Soon all that remains is a lingering frustration and a hint of despair: Will I ever capture and harness this energy, and actually use it in a meaningful way?

The short answer? Yes. But…

The last time I had one of those energy surges, instead of throwing a temper tantrum and demanding answers and direction, I chose to listen. I powered down the revving engine of my mind, sat in stillness and silence, and simply listened. And you know what I heard?

Your kitchen is dirty. Go clean it. It’ll be good for your soul.

That’s the Something Meaningful. Because it’s the little things that matter the most. Everything you do now matters. At the end of the day, life is about the here and now, and your calling is to live in the here and now.

If you want to get There, you have to start Here first.

The Life of a Career Misfit

My name is Yuniya, and I am, without a doubt, a career misfit.

Like many other career misfits, I have always felt compelled to make a difference in the world, to make a mark in some tangible and meaningful way through my career. And yet the means to do so has remained frustratingly elusive over the years.

For a while there I thought it was all me. I fought against the fear that my lack of success was due to a fatal flaw in me, that I would never be able to rise above my shortcomings and live a life according to my terms. I harbored a secret but pervasive fear that I would always be confined to the sidelines of life, watching other people succeed and accomplish in ways I would never, could never, experience.

But I learned a few things along the way that have challenged those fears. The most important is, I am who I am, flaws and all. In many ways, it’s those flaws, those weaknesses, that sharpen and define the shape of my life; I can fight against them, or embrace them as co-creators of life. Who I am is a sum of all the parts: the twists and turns, the victories and disappointments, right choices and wrong turns, good fits and bad fits. And who I am is GOOD.

This blog is an exploration and exposition of this and many other truths I’ve learned along the way via my own struggles with being a career misfit. I don’t profess to have all the answers, however. I still have a lot of questions and uncertainties, and I will share some of my thoughts on these as well. Ultimately, I hope to encourage, empower and enlighten those who choose to read these posts, and to speak up for career misfits all over the world.