First Lesson to a Well-lived Life: Know What You Don’t Want.

Most of us spend a lifetime learning about ourselves. Self-discovery comes from our experiences, observations, reflection, and action (and sometimes a good therapist). 

Growing up, I was often asked “what do you want to do when you grow up?” It is a standard question, often meant to inquire as to which career I was planning to pursue. The answer was always easy for me. “I want to be an architect.” But despite my intentions, life had different plans for me, and I ended up not pursuing a career in architecture, but have always held it as a passion.

The question I was never asked as a child was, “What type of person do you think you are?” “What creates passion inside of you?” “What motivates you?” What drives happiness in your life?” “What is your character?” and, “How will you interpret a career?” 

These questions would have seemed ridiculous to ask a young man of my generation. They were questions whose answers would be discovered later—maybe. We were taught to climb corporate ladders, buy houses with white picket fences, and have 2.2 children, a station wagon, and a wife to grow old with. And, like my aspirations of being an architect, life turned out differently for me by all the aforementioned standards of happiness and success.

Still, I’ve found a good path (in fact many) to travel down in life, and have turned out to be pretty happy, pretty successful, and pretty self-aware (also with the help of the aforementioned therapist).

Self-Aware 20-somethings. Who'd a thought?

But that was me, and my generation. Those coming of age today have had a different upbringing, and it shows. I have been blown away at the number of 20-somethings I have met recently who have a keen sense of self-awareness even before the ink on their high school diploma has dried. They can answer all of those soft character questions with ease. We’ve profiled a few of them on the site already; Hunter Mulich who is “Taking aim at a life in the creative professions”, Rocky McGredy who's ability to tap into his emotional intelligence and pull out insights is uncanny. and Orion Grant who is “being creative and quite comfortable living on his own terms.” 

While each is approaching life differently, they all have a common sense of self-awareness that took me years to develop. None is plotting 50-year life goals –nor are they slackers without direction. Their North Star is looking at a life lived on their own terms, with a goal of happiness over conformity.

Everything Else is Just The Journey.

“I feel like you have to let things kind of happen and let certain things take you in the direction that you are supposed to go,” a self-aware and self-assured Orion Grant told me recently, “I like surprises. I think having a long-term plan is like skipping to the end of a book when you’re in the middle of chapter two. There is going to be something new within each of those pages, and it is fun to discover it. I don’t want to already know the end of the story.”

What Orion does know, is a thing or two about his character—how he defines himself as a man. He thinks about “interpreting a career” and knows he will have a creative one—but is not sure how it will be defined. Will he be a musician, a painter or a photographer?—who knows. In fact, he doesn’t want to know. Remember, he wants to be “surprised” by life—not in a scary way, but meaning that living a life open to new experiences, and being able to take advantage of what paths life offers him. Orion calls it taking a “panoramic” view of what’s in front of him. 

Rocky has a similar approach to his life’s journey. I can’t tell you how many times I have asked him what he wants to do with his life, expecting him to say “be a writer” or “run a business” or even “live in the suburbs”—instead, he talks about being open to opportunities, and experiencing life. Rocky saw his sister die recently at a far too early age. He used that experience to approach life broadly, openly, and with a willingness to try just about anything…once.

This morning I was at a café and overheard the father of a young man telling a co-worker about his son’s “crazy plans after graduation” to go to Europe to “clear his mind and think about the future.” But Dad thought his son was just being a slacker, “I squashed those plans immediately. He’s working in my friend’s accounting office this summer.” This man’s son will have to follow his passions once he can break free from his dad’s stangle-hold.

Orion, Hunter, and Rocky are far luckier. Their openness to experience, their understanding of their own character, and their belief in following their passions will serve them well.

And, each has a practical mind as well, mixed with an open, observing approach to life. “I make short term plans--like making money for rent,” says Orion, “but I don’t think much about long term plans like how to interpret a career. That doesn’t mean I’m stupid and just react to everything. There is a fine line between stupidity and free-form business.”

And as for Rocky, he’s working two jobs, sharing rent with two roommates and saving up before making big purchases. He also sees how much life changes, and how happiness grows as he opens himself up to to more experiences.

Know What You Don’t Want.     

“I know what I don’t want. I know I don’t want to sit behind a desk,” says Orion “I know I don’t want to be in a motorcycle gang and have a stripper girlfriend. I don’t want to be a heroin addict, and I don’t want to join the circus…really.”

It is nice to know what you don’t want.

I don’t know where life will take any of these guys, but I have a funny feeling it is going to have an excellent moral—to live a well-lived life.

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